Sunday, February 03, 2019

It’s Just That Easy and It’s Just That Hard—a sermon on Matthew 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
It’s Just That Easy and It’s Just That Hard
Matthew 6.7-34 (CEB)
3 February 2019, NL1-22

“When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. Pray like this:
Our Father who is in heaven,
uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom
so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.
Give us the bread we need for today.
Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,
just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.
And don’t lead us into temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.
“If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.
“And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be! No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
“Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendour wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I have a friend who used to end every sermon with “it’s just that easy, and it’s just that hard.” That feels like an apt description of today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus makes it sound so easy—don’t worry about things, God takes care of them! And you can’t serve God and wealth. And where your treasure is, your heart will be also. But of course we all know it’s far more difficult than it sounds. Jesus is once again teaching that our actions should grow out of our identity, that our way of life, from our diaries to our bank accounts to our conversations to our work to our prayer, should demonstrate that we are his followers. He wants us to let go of all the things we think we are supposed to think about and do in this world, in favour of living as if the Kingdom of God is already here and now. Which is easier said than done! 

That doesn’t mean we ought not to try. The fact that we can’t possibly live up to this expectation perfectly is no reason not to make our best effort. After all, Jesus isn’t wrong—God does feed the sparrows and other animals, and God does clothe the fields in glorious flowers, and God does provide for us too, and worrying does not add time or joy to our lives. Though the idea that we are worth more than the other parts of creation may be at the root of some of our struggles with being good stewards of the earth, and the idea that we can avoid planning for the future on a global scale is really problematic, which is why it feels both just that easy and just that hard. 

“Desire first and foremost the Kingdom of God.” I think it’s so interesting that Jesus uses the word “desire” here. So often we think of the word “desire” as almost a bad word, like we want something we aren’t supposed to have. It feels selfish, or worldly, or maybe even a little illicit. And yet it is what Jesus says today: desire God’s kingdom first. 

I don’t know about you, but the word “desire” feels stronger than simply “want.” It speaks to me of something deeper, coming from a different place inside. 

Which leads me back to a thought I had this week about the first half of today’s text, where Jesus teaches us how to pray.

First he tells us we don’t need a lot of fancy words in order to talk with God. Then he tells us we don’t need to look miserable when we’re fasting. He speaks of both practices as if they are expected, saying “when you do this...” but he wants to be certain that these disciplines direct attention to God, not to ourselves or even to the acts we are doing. That all makes sense to us, I think, even though fasting is not as common a practice as it once was. We understand not making our own piety the centre of attention.

But then he goes on, and I think because we so rarely read whole chapters of the gospel at once we may miss the connection here. He says “stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth....where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 

This week as I was reading this passage, I suddenly wondered: what if Jesus is still talking about prayer and fasting? What if the idea of praying and fasting in ways that other people can see and reward us for is collecting treasures for our own benefit on earth? When we do things so that people will think of us as holy and good and spiritual, or even so that we get some personal sense of fulfilment, then that prayer practice is really about us, and our own benefit. But Jesus teaches that we should be doing these things for the benefit of the kingdom of God.

Which made me wonder: what would it mean to have a spiritual practice that was about God’s kingdom, not about me and my own spiritual life or relationship with God? How do our different ways of nurturing a spiritual life, a with-God life, a relationship between ourselves and God and God’s world, benefit the kingdom that Jesus brings? The kingdom we are supposed to desire above all else?

It feels like a completely different way of thinking about prayer and spirituality than we are used to. So often we think about what we get out of spiritual practices: inner peace, hope, joy, wonder, strength. But what if those are the side effects, not the purpose? Jesus says when we think about the side effects as the purpose, we are only collecting treasures for our own benefit on earth, rather than for the benefit of the kingdom of God. So then prayer is not about our own feelings or about getting what we ask for, but about opening our eyes to God’s vision. Fasting is not about our own sense of clarity or closeness, but about letting go of things that are holding us back from participating in God’s mission.

Jesus is trying to teach us to orient our hearts to the kingdom of God, which is here among us already. In the ancient world, the heart was considered the core of the self, the part of the body where your will, your decision-making ability, and your thoughts and feelings all lived. To have a change of heart was also to have a change of mind and action and orientation. So here Jesus is asking us to orient our hearts—the centre of our beings, of our lifestyle and choices and everything—to this new reality he is showing us, even when it seems at odds with the one we’re more familiar with. 

It’s a bit daunting to think that our own spiritual practices—prayer, different types of fasting, worship, music, silence, study, service, giving, whatever we do as a way to connect to God and to seek God’s will—could somehow benefit God’s kingdom. Surely the kingdom of God is already perfect, right? Yet it seems that is what Jesus is saying. That when we desire God’s kingdom first, when our heart and mind and will are all oriented toward the right relationship, then even our spirituality is for more than just ourselves. And that naturally leads to the rest of our lives also being for God’s glory, more than for our own comfort or power or prestige. When even our prayer lives are for God’s glory, not for our own good feelings or spiritual nourishment, then the kingdom becomes more and more visible on earth as it is in heaven. 

Because prayer changes us, until we become agents of God’s will more than our own. And then that naturally leads us to a particular way of being that not only reveals God’s goodness and love, but also works for the whole world to experience the justice and grace of God’s kingdom—so that people don’t have to worry about what to eat or what to wear or where to safely spend the night, so that the cycles of creation work in harmony with each other, so that there is enough for all because no one is caught up in the grip of wealth or poverty, so that no one has to be anxious about tomorrow and they can live in the beauty and wonder and joy of today. 

When we get a glimpse of this world, this kingdom of heaven on earth, I hope it makes us want to orient our lives in that direction, and to figure out how to pray toward the benefit of the kingdom. I confess I don’t entirely know what that looks like just yet, but seeing the vision ignites a desire, and that desire for God’s kingdom first and foremost will propel is forward in exploration together. Jesus promised that when we pursue God’s kingdom first, even in our private spiritual lives, even in our economic lives, even in our relationships, as well as in our public lives, then other things will also fall into place, that if we can all do this, there will be enough, that God has already made this more excellent way possible and brought it among us and lived it himself to show us the way...come and follow, for God’s glory.

It’s just that easy, and it’s just that hard.

May it be so. Amen.

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