Matt 6:24-34, Pentecost +26, November 17, 2013
6:24 “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.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
The pictures I have seen of the devastation caused by the typhoon that hit the Philippines last week made me think of war damage I saw in Croatia. We pray for those people who have suffered such great loss, and who are still suffering now.
I went through a really hard time in Croatia. Things had gone along pretty well for a while, given the difficult circumstances we found when we arrived. We went there in 1994, during the long ceasefire that eventually became the permanent peace, but there were yet no guarantees that war would not break out again.
When we arrived there were still sandbags covering basement windows and thick wooden planks leaning against buildings in a pathetic attempt to shield the doorways – though everybody already knew by then that wood does not stop flying shrapnel. The masonry buildings and even the paved roads everywhere were deeply pocked with shrapnel scars.
The seminary where we taught had been in exile during the fighting, but we arrived just as the teachers and students returned to the dorms and classrooms, praying that the ceasefire would hold.
We had the joy of teaching bright, eager students from countries around the region, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and many others. They lived, ate, studied and worshipped together in Christian unity, despite the demonic nationalisms that so many people, in some of their countries back home were caught up in, and in some places, even killing each other over.
Those were good years for us, at least in terms of rebuilding and hope. We even launched a Masters program which eventually grew into an internationally accredited degree.
During those early years many of the Reformed congregations were scattered. People were living as refugees in Hungary and other places abroad. People had lost their homes, many of the farm fields had been sown with land-mines. Animals and farm equipment had been plundered. People lived off of humanitarian aid. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was quite active along with many other organizations. As I said, it looked a lot like the Philippines in many ways.
In those days, I reflected about the way no one gets to choose the moment of history we are born into. We didn’t choose to be born into a world of Balkan wars any more than the Great Generation chose the Second World War years. But we are given a time on earth, like a shift of guard duty, to play whatever part we can. I wanted to try to make sure that on our watch, we could help keep the pastors working and assist the congregations as they returned.
We did not know it then, but a lot of the hope and good feelings about rebuilding was going to be scuttled. It is not inevitable that things will go well. What has been built, can be torn down. What has been achieved may be lost.
One of our early masters students was a promising young man, full of energy and drive. We had high hopes for him as he began. But, to make a long story short, he did great and lasting damage. Because of him, a church that had remained unified since the Reformation of the Sixteenth century was split apart. Unity was lost. Other divisions quickly followed. What had been built up by many generations was lost.
The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” The man who did such damage to the church in Croatia had a deeply divided heart, I believe. I think he wanted power, prestige, and prosperity. And he used the ugliest form of nationalism, us-against-them tactics to achieve it.
Jesus on a Heart Divided
The text we read from Matthew is about purity of heart. It is about the impossibility of willing more than one thing – serving two masters, seeking both mammon and the God of the kingdom. In the end, mammon wins a split decision. God is not God if a supplement is needed.
A heart of divided loyalties is an anxious one. Jesus characterized it as the lifestyle of the Gentiles who do not understand that there is a loving heavenly Father who cares for them. They have to run around in desperate worry about the cost of food and clothing because they feel vulnerable and unprotected. The description sounds like it fits our times, doesn’t it?
But Jesus teaches us to know God as our loving Father. Through Jesus we know that the God who created good eco-systems for birds of the air and grasses of the field will meet our needs. We can relax and trust without fear, without a divided heart.
As Jesus asks,
“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
We affirm, yes it is. It is about living on our watch in this world knowing that we are living in God’s kingdom, God’s realm, under God’s reign.
During this season of Thanksgiving when we are focusing on our reasons for gratitude, I have been letting my mind wander down the path of imagining what would be lost if I did not have the privilege of knowing God as Jesus shows us the Father.
Not everybody knows God this way today. The more I read about the perspectives of the millennial generation who are notoriously absent from churches, the more I am filled with a sense of urgent mission. I want to get the word out that the God that many of them have rejected is not the God we know through Jesus.
Many millennials have rejected an angry God of exclusion and judgmentalism – and to be fair to them, this is the picture of God painted by a lot of angry and judgmental Christians who they see in the media, speaking as if for all Christians. I am so thankful that I know that that ugly image is an inaccurate and untrue distortion. I long to help people to the joyful knowledge that the real God is the one Jesus showed us.
The Church Jesus Gave us
Of course this is not just a theoretical fact. We are part of the body of Christ, the church, not just mystically, but practically, part of this local church. Built up by the faith and faithfulness of the people who have worshipped and served here, this church stands as a testimony to the God who watches over us. We do not have a history nearly as long as the churches of Croatia, but we do have a past to be thankful for.
As we consider reasons for gratitude, it is worthwhile to consider what would we miss if we did not have this congregation. Think of all the people who have been a part of us who have gone on before us. Think of the love that has been shared – not only in happy times like suppers and fish fries, but also in hospital rooms and homes, through cards and calls, and countless prayers.
Through this congregation we have been led to worship God through beautiful music Sunday after Sunday. We have been encouraged in our faith through the study of scripture. We have been challenged to grow spiritually, and we have been given opportunities to serve.
Consider the women whose gifts have been celebrated and affirmed here in ways that few other churches in the area permit. Think of all of the labor that has flowed from this congregation to the Christian Service Center.
Think of the people in the Philippines who are receiving help right now because of our generous giving to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance which we support through the One Great Hour of Sharing offering every year.
Think of the number of children who have been tutored and therefore helped to succeed where otherwise they might have failed, leading to further damaging consequences. Had this particular congregation not been here these past fifty-seven years, the loss to us and our community would have been substantial. The loss to each of us individually would be substantial.
But there is nothing inevitable about this church’s future. Even a long history of fruitful ministry can be lost, as I watched happen in Croatia. If we are to vouchsafe the tremendous inheritance we have received, and make it available to millennials, then we all need to play a part. This is the time on earth we have been entrusted with.
This is our watch. Yes times are difficult, but we are here now because people who came before us were faithful on their watch in times that were equally if not more challenging.
This is the time to assert our single-minded, single hearted trust in the God who loves us. He has not let us down. We will not let him down by sharing loyalty to mammon or any other competitor. We will not be the ones who scuttled the hard-won achievements of the generations before us. We will be the generation that in the future they can look back on with pride because we trusted that God would provide.
We do not know the future. But we do know the God who gives us grace to live today, one day at a time, just as Jesus said. We know the God who is with us each single moment, moment by moment that we live.
We know that God loves us and cares for us, more than the birds of the air or the grass of the field. That is the source and subject of our gratitude. That is what, by the grace of God, we will never lose. We know the One in whom we trust.
Does this have implications for us as we approach the question of our financial stewardship? Of course, how could it not?
Please prayerfully consider your part that you can play on your watch. We are all in this together, and each one of us has a vital role.
We will honor God by our single-hearted willingness to hand on to the coming generation the faith we have been nurtured in through this congregation as we join the generous givers of the past. And, in the process, we will know the same blessing of the God who is able to supply all of our needs and lead us to grow in our faith in his loving care.