Here’s What We Are to Do . . . and Are Doing
A sermon based on Matthew 6:24-33
Given at Mount Vernon Ohio on June 14, 2020*
by Rev Scott Elliott
Today’s scripture is most often heard as an instruction to just have faith God will take care of you, because, look, God takes care of the birds and the flowers and we are of even more value to God. So don’t sweat it stop with the worrying– be thankful instead. Those of us who read the text this way probably can claim that most of the time our clothing and food has been seen to. We usually aren’t without, and so we can hear this as a message to choose to lighten-up on our angst, be thankful for all that we have, and focus on the God who has so blessed us.
That does not seem like a bad way to understand the reading. But IS IT in experience true for us or others today, on in history . . . not to mention those Jesus first said it to? Does God without any human efforts provide in ways that no one needs to worry about fundamental necessities, like sufficient nourishment or clothing to protect us from the elements? Is that likely a truth that Jesus intended to convey to those gathered on the mount that day? It doesn’t seem like truth. Last year The Food Aid Foundation reported that: “In a world where we produce enough food to feed everyone, 821 million people – one in nine – still go to bed on an empty stomach each night. Even more – one in three – suffer from some form of malnutrition.” So right now at this very moment close to a billion humans have the right to be seriously worried about their daily bread, hunger. And over twice that have nutrition concerns. Do any of us believe that if those hungry and malnourished billions abandon worry about food or clothing that they will get fed and clothed?
What about those of us who are not in desperate need? Is it because we stopped worrying about food and clothing that we have them effortless provided by divine intervention? We still have worries right? We plan to make money to buy what we need and we worry and plan for how to feed and clothe ourselves when we retire, or God forbid, if we can’t work anymore. Because the lack of worry is not the cure-all for hunger or clothing, it seems pretty iffy that Jesus meant humans need not worry because God will somehow supernaturally feed and cloth us. When we think about it, that sounds pretty pie-in-the-sky. We cannot get around the reality that that’s not what happens. The way things are: people starve, people freeze to death, and we could too if we don’t have concern about tending to our food and clothing needs.
You may recall that Matthew 25 (31-6) tells us in no uncertain terms that Christ – Christ– is in the hungry and the naked, and . . . actually in all those the culture considers lesser than. So if God alone is supposed to take care of us why isn’t God without our efforts feeding Christ? Why isn’t God, without our efforts, clothing Christ? Why isn’t God, without our efforts, making Christ in the least among us matter? How does today’s scripture reading speak truth to those who are hungry and naked and oppressed? To us? How did Jesus’ words speak truth to those who first heard it?
Matthew tells us Jesus spoke the words in today’s lesson to the gathered masses during the Sermon On the Mount. Those masses were mostly poor peasants, farmers who reap and gather, servants who toil and spin and most, if not all of whom, very often went without food or clothing–and were among the least oppressed by Rome. In first century Palestine, Rome was not kind or caring. It did not provide for the well being of peasants like those gathered on the mount listening to Jesus. It was not just indifferent but brutal in forcing the work and compliance with Rome. Those who protested were like, Jesus, crucified. And those peasants did not have wealth stored up so they could take care of themselves, or one another.
The people gathered that day would have known what it was like to work hard and still go without food, without clothing. They would have known the need to worry about food, the need to want to try and store up enough for times of famine and drought and hard luck. While their neighbors might have something to eat or wear on a given day, they might not. And when they had the fortune to have food and clothing, their neighbors might not. See the masses Jesus spoke to had every reason to make worry primary in their survival – which Jesus urges them as a whole to choose not to do, not to make that their first focus.
The Greek word translated as “worry” in the text is “merimnaō ” (mer-im-nah-oh), which means “anxious.” And those folks had every reason to be anxious about food and clothing. And apparently they were. And actually so were most of their Gentiles neighbors. Virtually all of humanity in Rome back then was worrying about how they would feed and clothe themselves. Those of us participating in this service are probably not starving or in drastic need of food or clothing. But we know what it is to feel the need to choose to strive to have the means to have food and clothing. It is instinctive to strive for such things, to acquire, to even (I dare say) horde them, just in case of famine, drought or other hard luck, like the pandemic we are in.
If we are honest about it our culture– like most culture’s throughout time– is concerned and focused on the acquisition material things for ourselves and our immediate family. We choose to seek and worry about wealth so that we don’t have to worry about being without food or clothing. Who can blame us? We have to have enough wealth to survive a catastrophe, to survive in our old age. To secure our survival we need to chose to strive for enough wealth.
But Jesus tells us we cannot both serve God and wealth. Jesus tells us to stop focusing, to stop being anxious, to stop worrying about not just wealth, but even necessities. “[D]o not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’. . .” Jesus tells us instead to choose to “strive FIRST for the kingdom of God . . . and all these things will be given to [us] as well.” In other words, according to Jesus, if we choose to focus first on the kingdom of God then we will not have to worry or be anxious about food and clothing.
Prof. Stephen Patterson in a book I often quote from, The God of Jesus, writes that
[t]hroughout the tradition of Jesus’ sayings we find a common thread binding it all together: a social radicalism that calls into question common assumptions about how people ought to order their lives.
Prof. Patterson goes on to note that the final line in today’s scripture cannot be read as a
“pie-in-the-sky theology,” where we passively wait and God provides all of life’s necessities. Jesus’ final admonition instead requires us to collectively “strive first for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness.”
we must order life in such a way that the Empire of God becomes a reality. If one does this, or rather, if a community does this, the necessities of life will fall into place. . . Jesus’ words speak about ordering human relations in such a way that no one is expendable and all have unbrokered access to the means of life.
What Stephen Patterson means is Jesus taught us to tend to well being of everyone so that then everyone – including us– will have enough.
And to those of us who scoff at that being possible, we’d do well to remember that quote I gave from The Food Aid Foundation about hunger. It started off noting we live “In a world where we produce enough food to feed everyone.” In the Empire of God we find a way to spread that food out for the well being of all. If we strive for that no one has to worry about food. We are to do that with drink and clothing and rights too.
What would happened if we did this? What if we chose to focus on taking care of everyone, so no one remains on the margins, no one is expendable? What if whenever we pray “give us our daily bread” we mean “us,” as in “all of us,” all of humanity and then choose to strive to make that prayer happen?
Those are usually questions I deal with and answer around Advent because it is easy for me to point to the culture amping up care for everyone. Around Christmas people want to take care of others, people want to give money and gifts to help friends and family and neighbors and folks they do not even know. We go out of the way to provide food and clothing to those in need of it at Christmas. All of that is a glimpse of what love cranked up a few notches can accomplish. They are a hint of what the Empire of God looks like in reality. Because we finally take time to turn our focus to striving toward God’s Empire, what Jesus calls in the reading God’s kingdom.
And look what happens, we love more and we like it. It makes us feel good. And it is good. And guess what? those considered least in the culture are cared for, we act as the hands of God and provide food and clothing, making Jesus right. When we “strive first for the kingdom of God . . . all [such] things will be given to [us] . . .” I usually turn to all this at Christmas time because the examples abound in that uplifting season. Since March or so of this year, 2020, we have had one heck of a season that might seem anything but uplifting. We have now had months of the corona virus pandemic causing so many deaths and a brutal economic downturn. All that has now mixed in with the centuries old pandemic of racism causing horrific and brutal examples of more violence against our Black brothers and sisters.
As horrible as those two pandemics have been in 2020, in response to all of the death and disease, hatred and violence, millions and millions of people have chosen to strive for the Empire of God. The good news is health care workers, essential employees, leaders of nations and most people have tried to make the world safer, have given up much and worked hard toward the well being of friends and family and neighbors and folks they do not know. The good news is people from all walks of life around the world, and particularly in America, have taken to actively opposing the hatred and violence of friends and family and neighbors and folks they do not know.
In the midst of our being upset by the death and disease, hatred and violence, millions and millions of people have chosen to strive for the realm of God, and those acts provide a glimpse of what a difference love cranked up accomplishes. They are a hint of what the Reign of God look like played out in reality – the Shalom that we are supposed to strive toward all year. When we have turned our focus in these terrible crisis to strive toward God’s Empire, look what happens! God’s kingdom can be felt breaking-in all over the world. The virus is being quelled by the masses. Racism is being challenged by the masses. And most of the masses have behaved peaceful. Humanity is seeking justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.
So see Jesus’ truth in the reading is not pie-in-the-sky don’t worry God will make necessities magically appear. Jesus’ truth in the reading is that when we focus on God’s kingdom we take care of each other, we make the effort to be the hands and feet and voice of God that provides the necessities needed and worry about, the justice and kindness God asks us to seek and love on our humble walks with God. If we strive first for that: people get fed, people get clothed, people get less sick, people get justice, people get kindness. The pandemics of the virus and racism can finally end. The actions of good by people in this season of upset over the corona virus and systemic and cultural racism gives us tangible hope that the Reign of God on earth is actually really possible! Such hope and happenings are something to be very, very to be thankful for! Amen.
* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2006
1. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, Trinity Press International (1998) p 103.
2. Ibid, 106.