Thursday, November 29, 2012

What Shall We Serve?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 6:24-33:

At my last church, every Thanksgiving we took up a food collection to give meals to 200 families in inner-city Boston, but every year I found much amusement because when people brought the food in, they had a kneeling rail, which is actually the remnants of fences in churches, but they would stack up the food on the top rail of the kneeling rail.  And every year I would tell them that out here in the west we too stack up cans on the top railing of fencing, but we do this for a much different purpose.  (we shoot them off).

This reminded someone of a similar amusing experience they had.  One of the members of their congregation had brought her young granddaughter who was visiting with her to church, and they too were taking up food for the local food pantry.  So there were cans and boxes of food stacked up around the altar.  The little girl was interested in what was going on, and so asked her grandmother what all the food was for, and she was told that the church collects the food to give to the poor who otherwise would not have enough to eat.  Now, it also happened that this particular congregation’s choir processed up the center aisle every week as well (don’t get ahead of me).  So as the choir approached the little girl she cried out “Look grandma!  Here come the poor people now!”

Today in the church we sort of celebrate two events.  The first is Christ the King Sunday, which is the culmination of the Christian year.  Normally the passage for Christ the King is an apocalyptic passage, but since we have been talking about apocalyptic works for the past three weeks, we also sort of spent three weeks exploring the idea of Christ as King, that Christ will come again to rule.  Many of the hymns we sang over the past three weeks were also ones that are typically sung for Christ the King Sunday.  But we also are on the tail end of celebrating Thanksgiving, a day in which we give thanks by watching football and overindulging, and then spend the day after, or at least some of us do, an approximately 308 individual store visits and 11.5 billion dollars, in order to buy things they had just said the day before they didn’t need in order to be happy.  So perhaps today’s passage from Matthew is an appropriate one to be assigned for reading on Thanksgiving.

Matthew places this lesson as part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Although the teaching is also included in Luke, he places it much later in the story.  I have also expanded what the lectionary calls for by including the line prior to the main passage about not being able to worship both God and mammon because I believe we have to hear this in order to understand what Jesus says about not worrying about tomorrow.  We often throw out the line about not being able to love God and money as a claim about the problems of wealth, certainly you have heard me saying a lot over the past few months.  And that is important, but mammon is about more than just money as we see by the passage that immediately follows.

This line wasn’t meant to apply just to those who have wealth, but even to those who are poor because the desire to have wealth and things is just as damaging as actually having those things.  It is in thinking that only if we have one more thing then we will be truly happy.  Indeed, American Capitalism is based almost solely these days on the massive spending that we do on things that we are told that we “need.”  We are inundated by these ads all the time, and they will only get worse as we get to the culmination of excessive spending and overconsumption, which is Christmas.  How did that happen?  How did we flip the idea of Christmas on its head, and let it become what it has become?  How did we come to believe that in order to celebrate the greatest gift that the world has ever received, the person of Christ, that we need to go out and buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t even like?

One of the things that strike me about this statement of Jesus, is that it does not say, “if you worry,” as if some of us might worry about these things, while others might not.  Instead Jesus tells us not to worry, knowing that worrying is just part of who we are.  But part of the problem with this, is as someone said “telling someone not to worry is like telling them not to think of an elephant.  As soon as you say it, all you can think about is the elephant.”  As soon as we here, don’t worry about what you are going to eat, or drink or wear, we either start worrying about it, or we wonder how it’s even possible not to worry about it.

Now there are some people who don’t worry about these things.  One group are those who are so wealthy that they don’t need to worry, although while we might think that if we had several million dollars in the bank that we wouldn’t worry, but it’s not true.  I’ve known several people whose personal fortunes put them into the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans, and few of them didn’t worry about things.  In fact most of them were focused on making more money because they thought what they had wasn’t enough, and those that didn’t worry, except for one notable exception, did not think about the poor.

And it is the poor, who also can be those who don’t worry, but they didn’t worry because they have given up, not because they are not truly concerned about these issues.  They have given up, because there does not seem to be an hope available, and dollar amounts that would seem trivial to most of us can mean the different between life and death for their children, although they have little hope of coming up with those amounts.  These are people we see on the news whenever they decide to cover one of the tragedies taking place somewhere in the world.  But it is at times like this that we take Jesus statement from today, and combine it with his cry of anguish from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

This is part of the tension of living a Christian life in which we have lamentations as a part of our belief, and also these statements that tell us to simply have faith.  But we have to remember that the request in the Lord’s prayer to give us this day our daily bread, is not just some idle request, or some empty phrase.  For the people that Jesus originally spoke to, many of them would not have known where their next meal may come from, and the same really remains true for us as well, regardless of how well off financially we may or may not be.

Some have taken the last line of today’s reading, “strive first for the kingdom of God… and all these things will be given to you,” as a statement that God will give us everything we ask for, including wealth and possessions, if only we had enough faith, or the right type of faith.  This is known as the gospel of wealth, and it really says that if you are poor, if you are worried about these things, it’s because we don’t have enough faith in God, otherwise God would have given them to us.  But I think that is the farthest thing from what Jesus is actually saying here.  Nor is Jesus saying that all we need to do is simply sit back and let God do everything, which is known as quietism.  Strive for the kingdom of God.  This is not a statement that says that God will take care of everything.  It is a statement about faith and faithfulness because in order to strive for something we have to be active and engaged and energized and doing the right things in the world.

I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that in Matthew 25, in the story of the sorting of the sheep and the goats, that Jesus talks about the very same things he addresses in today’s passage.  When people come to meet Christ for the final judgment, what Jesus looks at, and what the people ask Jesus is “when was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty … or naked… and did not take care of you.”   And what does Jesus say?  “whatever you did to the least of these, you did it to me.”  One of the ways, and maybe the most important way that God is in service to the world is through us, in allowing our hands and using our hands to do God’s work in the world.  We are called to proclaim the gospel message to the world, we are to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God, and as St. Francis famously said, we should even use words when we have to.  God knows we need these things, just as we know we need them, but when we align ourselves with God, when we decide to fully serve God, it’s not that these things just magically appear, although sometimes it’s amazing how sometimes they do, but instead it’s as we have talked about for the past few weeks, when we have faith in God and put our trust in God then we can have joy and hope and peace and assurance regardless of what is going on in our lives.

In Ireland, there are circles of stones or mushrooms that seem to appear naturally, and are known as fairy circles.  Within Irish mythology these circles are believed to hold mythically creatures, like fairies, hence the name.  When he was visiting Ireland, the author Michael Lewis asked his driver if Irish people actually believed in fairies, and he was told says “I mean if you walked right up and asked [them] to [their] face, “Do you believe in fairies?” most will deny it.  But if you ask [them] to dig up the fairy ring on [their] property [they] won’t do it.  To my way of thinking, that’s believing.”

Ralph and Cheryl Broetje are owners of the largest privately owned orchard in the United States.  Consisting of nearly 1 million trees spread across 5500 acres in western Washington, they annually pack 5.5 million boxes of fruit in a 1.1 million square foot packing and storage facility, and employ 700 full-time workers.  What is striking about this business is not only the size, but how they run their operation.  Broetje Orchards gives away roughly 75% of their profits, including 100% of their profits from their cherry orchards, every single year.  One of the reasons I like Ben and Jerry’s is because they give out a portion of their profits too, but they only give away 10%.  Ralph and Cheryl give away nearly 75% which finances outreaching projects not just in Washington, but around the world. but that’s not all.

When they saw that many of their employees where pulling their older children out of school in order to have them watch their younger siblings, they made a commitment to provide quality education, housing and training to all of their employees.  Today they have a housing development which rents 126 single-family homes at below market values to their employees.  They also subsidize their on-site preschool so that no one ever pays more than $7 a day, no matter how many children they have attending.  But that’s not all.

When they decided to add machinery to their packing facility in 2004 they could have installed new highly efficient equipment which would have forced them to lay off some of their employees.  Instead, they added machinery which was not quite as efficient but did allow them to add 35 positions.  And if that was still not enough, and for me this speaks more about their faith than anything, in 2006 when 70% of the apple crop was wiped out by a hail storm their insurance company told them they would pay on the policy but only if no harvesting was done.  That meant they would have to lay-off several hundred of their year-round workers, and not hire any of the even more migrant workers who come to work their orchard each year.  Instead, Cheryl and Ralph said they decided to trust God, discarded the insurance money and went ahead and picked the fruit.  They were able to keep everyone employed and broke even that year.  Imagine what a very different place we might be in today if all our companies were being run more like Broetje orchard.  Imagine if we lived our lives like the Broetje’s do.

We are going to worry that’s just part of who we are.  The question is are we living our lives claiming allegiance to God, but living differently, living as Craig Groeschel has said as Christian atheists, or do we actually live our lives believing and acting as if god truly is in control?  You cannot have two masters Jesus says, because you can only be devoted to one, so are we devoted to God, or are we devoted to things and the pursuit of things, trying to put our reliance on ourselves?  At this time of year we are supposed to be taking time to stop and reflect as we give thanks for our blessings and as we prepare to again gather around the manager and welcome the Christ child, but instead our culture wants to push us faster and faster. Do we only believe that God is in control and that we are pledging our allegiance to God, or do we actually live it out in our lives as well?

In order to understand Matthew’s view of his Christology, that is who Christ is for us, we have to understand his eschatology, that is what the end of time will be like, and to understand his eschatology we have to understand his Christology.  The two are inherently linked.  How we live our lives, Matthew is saying, or Jesus is saying, is driven by our view of Christ and our view of what is to come.  “Strive first for the kingdom of God,” Jesus says.  Strive first for the kingdom of God and for God’s righteousness, give thanks to God and give your allegiance to God, and all these things will be given to you.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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