By The Rev. Judith A. Meier, Elder SMDPA
"This is the Good News." That's how I would conclude the reading of the Holy Gospel on a Sunday morning. I don't know how my Pilgrim ancestors, my Pilgrim clergy brothers, concluded their readings.
"This is the Good News." I have to speculate whether this afternoon's Gospel lesson comes to us, 21st century, upper middle class, white Americans living in one of the wealthiest areas of our wealthiest of all nations. How did that sit with you: Don't worry about anything—not what you eat or drink or wear. What's the good news about advice like that when every morning the financial pages of our newspaper show our stocks on a roller coaster ride, our quarterly mutual fund reports display graphs with falling lines, our salaries are frozen while our kids' tuition and our real estate taxes and the price of the drugs that keep us reasonably healthy keep going up and up, and our pension funds continue to shrink? It doesn't cut any ice with me that this summer the National Bureau of Economic Research announced cheerily that what we've been experiencing as a recession officially ended two years ago. Tell it to my creditors. Tell it to the hundreds of thousands who are out of work and out of options.
"Do not worry about your life," Jesus says. That's not good news: that's bad news. Why would Jesus be singing, "Don't worry; be happy," when we're scrambling to just keep up in a chaotic world?
Well, maybe Jesus isn't talking to us. That's what some Biblical scholars tell us, trying to soften the blow, I guess. They say he's really talking to his disciples, those twelve carefully selected men who have been listening to his Sermon on the Mount and are absolutely reeling from the demands he is making on them. Maybe we don't really want to sign on with this guy, some of them might be thinking. How will we ever be able to manage?
But I think that interpretation is taking the easy way out. I think Jesus meant for that whole crowd sitting and listening on the mountainside to take his words to heart - and to choose - choose life! If you want to be a disciple of Christ's, then you must make some hard choices. All through the Old Testament we hear the challenge of making the right choice that will bring us to God. We hear it most succinctly in Deuteronomy: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." And then we hear in the Gospel of John that Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly.
But that kind of abundant life has nothing to do with the greedy, grasping life of the person who devotes himself or herself to accumulating riches and power and fame. It doesn't come from worrying about how we can get even more tomorrow than we have today.
I think I'm safe in making this interpretation because of what Jesus said right before and right after this afternoon's scripture. Today's reading starts out: "Therefore I tell you." Aha! Therefore? He must have said something pretty heady to warrant that "therefore." And he did! "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." There it is: make a choice. Will you serve God or be a slave to money? It's that simple. And Jesus concludes this part of his sermon with these words: "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." If you've chosen life, if you've chosen to follow Jesus' way, if you've chosen to serve God, then you won't be anxious about your food, your drink, your clothes, or how you're going to manage tomorrow. Live in today. God knows there's enough for us to do today.
What we need to do, Jesus tells us, is to strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. If we do that, we don't have to be anxious about anything. God will provide. Scary, but true - that's Jesus' promise.
Let me see if I can give it to you in words easier to understand. Eugene Peterson does a beautiful job of it in his paraphrase of this part of Matthew's Gospel.
"You can't worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you'll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. You can't worship God and Money both. If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion - do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wild flowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the appearance of wild flowers - most of which are never even seen - don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes."1
What God is doing right now is calling us to righteousness, or as Jesus says, to strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Righteousness is an interesting word, and it doesn't have anything to do with self-righteousness - so don't be afraid of it. It's all about making things right in the world. Think of the word "justify" in printer's language. You try to make all the words in a printed line fit perfectly between the margins. You don't have words running off into the next line or broken up or missing. Or think of what accountants do when they reconcile the books. They make the credit column and the debit column come out even. This is justice; this is righteousness. It's when all of God's creation fits, is working together properly, with none falling out of sight at the expense of another. It's when, in a world where the richest 5% of the people have incomes 114 times that of the poorest 5%, the rich give up their over-abundance so that the poor may be brought up to their level. Those who serve only God have a strong desire to have everyone else join them in the freedom of living joyfully in God's providence without any anxiety for tomorrow.
I don't know what was going on in the minds of our Pilgrim ancestors as they boarded the Mayflower to sail into the unknown. Oh, sure, the Adventurers among them, the crew, the merchants, the entrepreneurs, hoped to enrich themselves in the New World. But I like to think that those folks from Pastor John Robinson's flock were seeking a place where they could follow Jesus in their own way. But that first hard winter in Plymouth was a great socioeconomic leveler.
If they worried about what they would eat or drink or wear, it wasn't about prime rib and caviar, Merlot and Jack Daniels, Armani and Gucci. It was about whether they or their children or their neighbors would die from the great sickness or from starvation. They learned quickly to serve each other. They learned a lot about good neighbors as the aboriginal people showed them new agricultural methods. During the Starving Time, when half their party had died and their leaders were laid low with illness, scarcely six or seven healthy persons cared for the rest. In the words of William Bradford, they "spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them. In a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered."2
I think of the great suffering and heartache as I recall the deaths of children and mothers that first year. Of the four little More children pressed into servitude by their step-father back home, only young Richard survived. In my own Mayflower families, 13-year old Elizabeth Tilley lost her mother and father, and Priscilla Mullins lost her mother, father, brother, and servant.
When we gather at our Thanksgiving banquet this evening, there will be rejoicing in how far we have come in this nation of ours, influenced as it was by the contribution of our Mayflower ancestors. But what great sadness there must have been when that little group of Pilgrims - Saints and Sinners and Adventurers alike - sat down in the fall of 1621. But still they were able to rejoice in the providence of God. And to covenant themselves together to strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
As we sit down tonight to eat more than our waistlines and our doctors think we should, I pray that we can converse with our neighbors about how we can bring about justice in this world, how we can alleviate hunger and thirst and homelessness. What does Jesus call us to do in a country where almost 40% of households seeking emergency food banks assistance had one or more family members currently employed; where, of the 4.1 million food stamp households that included an able-bodied, non-elderly adult, 77% also included children; where approximately 11% of food pantry recipients are 65 years or older? If we have chosen to serve God rather than our money, can we find ways to address the really frightening situation of our nation's children and seniors? The Hunger in America 2001 study revealed that "hunger increases the elderly's risk for stroke, exacerbates pre-existing ill health conditions, limits the efficacy of many prescription drugs, and may affect brain chemistry, increasing the incidence of depression and isolation." Even more disturbing is the finding by Tufts University that "even relatively 'mild' undernutrition produces cognitive impairments in children which can last a lifetime."
In breaking the chains of enslavement to Mammon, can we be free enough to spend more money on Fair Trade coffee so that the stranglehold of the drug trade can be broken and third world farmers can grow their own cash crops of coffee plants? Are we willing to spend a little more money on food and clothing so that pickers and packers and textile workers can make good wages. Can we put a stop to our love affair with huge, powerful automobiles. A Hummer may be appropriate in the Army, but soccer mom sure doesn't need one. Can we put the brakes on the proliferation of electronic gadgets that clog our airwaves, our telephone lines, and eventually our landfills? Can we say no to the corporations who want us to invest in their death-dealing products or to applaud their unfair employment practices?
It is not easy to be a disciple of Jesus, for we have fallen in love with our anxieties and developed increasingly innovative ways of quelling them. But, in the words of Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, "Worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit... Trust in God means that we place our lives in the hands of God's providential love and remain free to serve God and the poor."3 We will be living out the meaning of our Mayflower ancestors' sacrifices and dreams when we can lay aside our anxieties and serve God, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.
1. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002, Matthew 6:24-34.
2. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647, ed. By Samuel Eliot Morison, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, p. 77
3. Gustavo Gutierrez, The God of Life, tr. By Matthew J. O'Connell, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, p. 59-60.