a sermon on Matthew 6:19-34, the fifth in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on February 13, 2011
We’ve been up on the mountain with Jesus for the past four weeks listening again to the familiar Sermon on the Mount, so with three weeks left to go, it seems like a good time to stop and take a quick look back. As he offered the crowd his vision of what God is doing in bringing a new way from up on this mountain, Jesus started out with simple, seemingly harmless statements of blessing, but on closer examination they proved to be a dramatic challenge to the status quo. Then he reminded his listeners of the importance of being both salt and light in the world, the call to work in seen and unseen ways to be a part of what God is doing all around us. He then explored the importance and role of the law in God’s new way, insisting that the details of the law do not make things right but instead suggesting that the law should promote this new way of righteousness through relationship and reconciliation. And then last week, we heard Jesus talk about the practices of giving to those in need, prayer, and fasting, insisting that they be done not just to be seen but really to embody a full and new way of life. All along the way, Jesus has been offering us an alternative vision of life from up here on the mountain, suggesting that God is up to something that needs to be seen and lived, breaking into the world with a new way of life and inviting us to join in.
This alternative vision becomes even clearer in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount this morning. In this section, Jesus seems to be far more prescriptive than he has been up until this point – while he has certainly been direct in confronting problems with the system of his day and age throughout the sermon, something seems to have changed here. Jesus’ encouragement to live in this new way here seems to shift to things that hit closer to home, directly addressing our tendency to accumulate stuff, our difficulty in seeing a new way, our struggles to define where we place our emphasis, and our worry about how things will work out in the midst of uncertainty. Jesus is very straightforward here:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
“If your eye is healthy [and you can see what is going on around you], your whole body will be full of light.”
“No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…. Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
These are the kinds of things that seem easy for us to talk about doing, but we struggle to take the real steps toward them for ourselves, mostly because we usually don’t have to. We’re fine suggesting them for someone else or resorting to these claims when we would rather not deal honestly with telling someone “no,” but we struggle how to even imagine making them real for ourselves when we have everything we need already. When we get down to the tough work of making these things real, they are much, much more difficult if not even seemingly impossible and irresponsible to live out, especially when we are the ones who “have,” yet Jesus’ original audience was probably more a group of the “have nots” than most American churches will ever see. So in all these directions here, Jesus tries to instill in his listeners in every age, of whatever economic or social standing, that we need no longer look to ourselves to meet all our needs. We instead are called to trust that God will supply all that we need as a new way of life and living comes into being in our world, sharing our abundance and living in trustworthy relationship as we seek to be a part of God’s transformed and transforming world.
The specifics of this way of life that Jesus describes are exceedingly difficult in today’s world.
- Avoiding building up treasures on earth – these days known as savings accounts! – can bring disaster in catastrophic moments or even when there is a slightly larger bill to pay than usual.
- Keeping our eyes open to new things is difficult when we can so easily retreat into the way of life that we know.
- The concern of money looms so large over us that it is tough to imagine a time when we don’t have to make it our primary concern.
- And worry is so deeply ingrained in us as we are told to avoid so many things in order to make our life longer, live more healthily, or be better stewards of the world around us – not to mention the worry and concern and fear that seem to naturally develop just from living in New York City!
So just as Jesus suggested in our reading a couple weeks ago that Jewish law needed to be reinterpreted for his own time and to take into account a primary concern of righteousness through relationship and reconciliation, so we too have to think about how we make Jesus’ marks of kingdom living work in our very different world. Even if we can’t give up all our possessions right here and right now or stop worrying once and for all about how we will meet our basic needs for ourselves and those we love, we can and indeed must sort out how to live out the radical trust in God that stands at the center of this difficult new way.
- Perhaps Jesus’ admonition to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” is best understood in these days as an encouragement to make sure that we use all the resources we have at hand to be a part of God’s transformation in the world. As you heard earlier, we will be talking about some concrete ways to do this very thing after worship today.
- Maybe Jesus’ call to fill our eyes with light is a reminder to open our eyes more fully and completely to see what God is doing all around us and how we can join in. Beyond the conversation that will begin today, in the upcoming season of Lent we will be looking at how congregations in New York City are responding to significant issues in our world so that we might have a better vision for our own life together.
- In making it clear that we cannot serve both God and wealth, Jesus insists that even in our world where the “almighty dollar” may be in charge for many, we should operate in a different mindset that puts God’s intentions for wholeness and fullness of life first. It is this commitment that drives our actions as a church of paying our staff fairly and providing for their full welfare even when it brings strain on our finances.
- And perhaps Jesus’ call not to worry about the things of life is exactly the instruction we need in a world preoccupied with possessions and things and filled with concern about what might happen tomorrow. This call forces us to move beyond just trying to make ends meet and demands that we seek to be the people God is calling us to be together in these days, not just trying to survive as a congregation in this place and holding on to everything we have now but rather sorting out how we are to truly live as God’s people in the days ahead so that we can be a bigger part of the vision that Jesus offers us from up on the mountain. As our Book of Order reminds us, the church is called to do its mission at the risk of losing its own life, for living out our mission is far more important than institutional survival.
As difficult as it may seem at times, living out this new way of life proclaimed by Jesus up on the mountain that brings forth the kingdom is our greatest call and our greatest responsibility as Christians, not so that we can gain our salvation or have extra wealth and privilege in heaven but rather so that we can join in what God is already doing to make that kingdom of heaven real, not just in the world to come but right here and right now, not just for a few who accept it but for all creation. Jesus’ own words that we just sang sum up this way better than I could ever do myself: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”
May we have vision to see and wisdom to live this difficult new way, seeking and striving for all that God is doing now and forever to make all things new even now so that all the world might share in the new life we know in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.