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Anxious: The Good Life (5)

. 8 min read

Thanks to Joel Shuman for sharing the message this Sunday!
Matthew 6:18-34;
7:7-11

(Psalm 39;
Isaiah 58:1-12)

Almost
from the beginning of the scriptural account of God’s saving work in history, God’s
exhortation for his people to “be holy” stands as a dominant thread running
through the entirety of the biblical story. From the giving of the ten
commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai to Jesus’s gospel proclamation that the
kingdom of God has come near to his reminding his followers that they are to be
salt and light to the world around them, the primary focus of God’s redemptive
work in the world has been to gather and form a distinctive community to bear
witness to his intentions for the creation; not a religious people, nor a pious
people, but a holy people, a people set apart, a people whose life together, devoted
first to each other’s flourishing and happiness and ultimately to the
flourishing and happiness of every one of God’s creatures, is declared by God
to be the beginning of his coming reign on earth.
The
twentieth century author Flannery O’Connor once quipped, in a somewhat skewed echoing
of the fourth Gospel, “The truth will set you free. But first, it will make you
strange.” And so it goes with holiness. To be holy is to be whole; it is to
flourish; it is to be blessed. But it is also to be different, to be set apart
– not taken out of, but distinguished from – a world that is largely alienated
from God, and thereby characterized by selfishness, greed, and blind ambition,
and so filled with violence, injustice, and suffering. God’s people are called
to be not like this, but instead to inhabit
a peculiar, countercultural way of life, what Saint Augustine called an altera civitas, a “different city,” a
community whose generous “politics of love” are often wildly opposed to the
self-seeking “politics of security” that pervade the fallen creation.
Today’s
gospel text is about wealth, and at no point is the opposition between the logic
and politics of the kingdom of God and that of the kingdoms of this world more
conspicuously evident than in their respective attitudes toward the acquisition
and use of wealth. Jesus spoke often of this opposition, reminding his
followers and those others who gathered to hear him of the profound dangers of
a life devoted to the pursuit of riches. “It is easier,” he said, “for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the
kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:23-25).  In
this part of the Sermon on the Mount he throws the contrast into sharp relief,
echoing both the first commandment and the oft-repeated truth that the real
object of our worship, our real god, is whatever we value most, the thing toward
which we most direct our time, our energy, our resources, and our attention. “For
where your treasure is,” he reminds us, “there will your heart be also” (6:21).
“No one,” he continues, “can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and
wealth” (6:24).

What
was true of life in the ancient near east of Jesus’s day is at least as true,
perhaps more so, of life in our own world today. The vision of the good life
promoted by the broader society we inhabit is based almost totally on the relentless,
single-minded pursuit of wealth and the things it can be used to acquire. An
entire industry is dedicated to forming us in this way, committed to shaping
and multiplying our desires, set on making us want more and more and more, making
us people of chronic, insatiable, and fundamentally disordered desire – people the
world refers to as “consumers.”  It is
consumption, we are frequently reminded, that drives our economy and enables
our prosperity, and we are for the most part happy to respond positively to
those who encourage us for the sake of the economy to work harder and buy more.
“We
live in a time,” says the essayist Wendell Berry, “when technologies and ideas…
are adopted in response not to need but to advertising, salesmanship, and
fashion. Salesmen and saleswomen now hover about us as persistently as angels,
intent on ‘doing us good’ according to instructions set forth by persons
educated at great public expense in the arts of greed and prevarication. These
salespeople are now with most of us, apparently, even in our dreams.” From
childhood through adolescence and into adulthood and beyond, we are assailed
almost constantly by a vast assortment of messages designed to persuade us that
our happiness and well-being depend absolutely on our having the newest product
or the next big thing, whether it be a beverage or an article of clothing or a
piece of technology or a car or a place to live or even a person other than the
one we currently happen to be with. The message is clear, and always the same;
contentment is tantamount to failure, and success depends on our consistently succumbing
to the restless desire for something more or something different.
We
– you and I – are called to be different. But in spite of our having been made
members of the people of God and offered a rich vision of a different way of
life, each of us has been and continues to be shaped, to a greater or lesser
extent, by the forces of this world. Each of us is affected by its basic
message, which has penetrated so deeply it is practically part of our DNA. And
because of this, we find ourselves perpetually anxious about wealth and its
pursuit, and about whether and how we should seek to acquire any of the multitudes
of symbols of status associated with it. We wonder whether we are wearing the
right clothes, driving the right car, listening to the right music, living in
the right neighborhood. Many of us worry almost constantly about money, and
some of our worries are legitimate, for we live in difficult and complex times
economically: In recent years a massive amount of wealth has moved out of the
possession of the middle and working classes and into the hands of the
wealthiest members of our society. Unemployment is high, especially among the
memberships of historically marginalized communities, and the prospects for job
growth are slight. Those of us who do have jobs work longer and harder, often
for wages and salaries that have for years remained stagnant. And yet in spite
of all this, we still find ourselves in the grasp of an inordinate desire for
more. We spend more and save and give less, and we are often shackled by significant
amounts of debt which, in combination with our misplaced ambition and
disordered desire, keeps us from imagining anything different from the status
quo. Where the pursuit and use of wealth is concerned, we increasingly face the
loss of our distinctiveness as Christians, as we become ever-less salty, and
our lights grow increasingly dim.
Brothers
and sisters, the vision proffered to us by the world is not one of success, but
of slavery. What we need, and what we ought desperately to want, is not
extraordinary wealth, but extraordinary freedom. And it is extraordinary freedom
Jesus offers when he tells us to strive first, not after riches, but “for the
kingdom of God and his righteousness.” In doing so we will discover that our
true happiness lies not in the self-interested pursuit of affluence, but in self-giving
friendship with God and the members of the community of his followers, through
whom we will find that “all these things” – all the things we need and perhaps
even some of those we want – will be given to us as well.
What
is this “kingdom of God,” and upon what logic, what tenets, is its “politics of
love” based? How can our striving for it free us from the world’s “politics of
security” and its associated competitive, self-interested, and often violent
pursuit of affluence?
The
kingdom of God is nothing other than God’s perfect, just, peaceable reign over
a creation made explicitly for what the Old Testament sometimes calls shalom; a state of perfect, loving
fellowship among the triune God, every woman and man, all the rest of God’s
creatures, and the earth upon which all life depends. It is anticipated first in
the covenant God made with Abraham, and again in God’s liberation, gathering and
formation of Israel as his beloved holy people. It is ushered into existence in
the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth: in his calling
followers; in his healing the sick and forgiving sin; in his feasting with
women and men from all walks of life, including the marginalized and the
unclean; in his teaching the way of God’s just, peaceable reign; and of course
in his resurrection, which is both the final word in the struggle against sin
and death and an authoritative affirmation of the righteousness of his life and
teaching. The kingdom is haltingly and oh-so imperfectly present to the world
now in the life of the church, the body of Christ, especially as we gather
around the Lord’s Table, and then as we go into the world to serve – the poor,
the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned, and all those without hope and without
God in the world. And it is someday coming in glory, made perfect at the end of
history in the descent from heaven of the New Jerusalem, the center of a new
creation in which there will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain, and
where God in all his glory will be once again be perfectly present to his
beloved creation.
Now,
in this time between the resurrection and the consummation, the kingdom of God
is a place of faithful dependence on the steadfast love of God, who has given
to us in the overflowing abundance of the creation all that we need, caring for
us as he cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Such dependence
is in part made possible, of course, by an active, living faith in God, which
is cultivated through worship, prayer, and the study of Scripture. And yet the promised
provision of our needs by God is far from a matter of personal piety and
solitary faith, for the kingdom of God for which we are called to strive is a
community – a membership – of which we all, through baptism, have been made a
part. The basis of that community is love; the perfect, superabundant love of
God; the love the persons of the Trinity share among themselves, and which
overflows toward the creation. We are given this same love through the Holy Spirit,
and called upon to extend it; toward each other, toward our neighbors, toward
the poor and needy, and even toward our enemies.
Such
love is not simply an affective state, nor merely an attitude. Rather, it is an
active verb that requires of us a just generosity toward God, toward one
another, and ultimately toward all those we encounter who are in need. It is a
generosity born of the recognition that every part of whom we are and all we
have is a gift from God’s superabundance, given for our use and our pleasure,
certainly, but also for freely sharing. We have been made part of the same body
and given responsibility for each other’s well-being, such that, in the words
of Saint Paul, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one
member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).
None
of this means that we should not continue to work, save, or plan for the
future. It does not mean that we should not continue to enjoy the fruits of the
creation God has so graciously given to us. It means, rather, that our working,
saving, planning, and our spending and using are to be governed by a temperance
born out of a realization that each of our lives and futures has been secured
by the gracious love of the God who has, in the cross and resurrection of Jesus,
already determined the outcome of history. That God, who is present to us in
the life we share with one another as members of his people, has promised to
care for us and to meet our every need. Most importantly, he has extended to us
the offer of his friendship, thereby liberating us from bondage to greed and
anxiety. The existence of such a free people is itself a manifestation of the
kingdom of God, and so a declaration to the world of the good news that there
is a better way to live, a way of just generosity. As we leave this place today
and go into the world, let us do so with a dependence on God’s grace and a
determination to embody that way. Thanks be to God.