March 24, 2019: The Third Sunday of Lent
A lot has changed since the time of Jesus. That really goes without saying, but it is something we must keep in mind as we think about the section of The Sermon on The Mount we’ve heard today.
Definitions of poverty, the boundaries and philosophies of wealth, and how one might judge that they are living ‘the good life’—all of this has changed since Jesus walked among us. An example of the dramatic change between the time of Jesus and our time is how we are constantly bombarded with images and messages from advertisers, the media, and sometimes even family and friends. This is simply a by-product of our digital world. These messages and images, more often than not, encourage us to consume because who doesn’t want to join an elite group or feel better or look a decade younger? When we see someone who has completely erased their wrinkles by using a cream made from the slim of some Brazilian slug—as gross as that might sound—there is a tiny part in all of us that is ready to whip out the credit card. That’s because our modern, consumer culture has gotten really good at taking advantage of something and it is not the effectiveness of Brazilian slug slim. Modern consumerism takes advantage of the fear of being unhappy.
None of us wants to be unhappy so we’ll buy the wrinkle cream, the sports car, the unnecessary pair of shoes, the extravagant vacation that might take years to pay off. That’s one sad side of being a consumer. The other sad side of the consumer culture in which we live is that while the fear of unhappiness drives sales at the cash register, we as Americans in 2019 are still dealing with economic failures from decades past. It is hard to find these days, but there is still word in the weekly news of homes being foreclosed upon and financial tragedy striking both individuals and businesses. The heart-rending effects of poverty and homelessness still effect our society in a big way, even though there is more wealth in the world today than ever before. On top of the concerns here at home, we have helped construct a world economy that is dependent on the American consumer to keep it afloat. The result of all of this is worry and anxiety. Will it survive? Can it survive? Can and will I survive?
The worry and anxiety start early, too. About two weeks into my freshman year in high school in 1999—and I just realized this morning that that was 20 years ago—we were put through a week-long seminar on how to find and get into the college of our dreams. It seemed a little early for that, but we all went along with it. The seminar made some big promises: if you work hard over the next four years, you’ll be snapped up by the best schools, you’ll learn and grow and mature, and when you’re done in college the world will be your oyster. That was the narrative for the next four years: work hard, go to college, get the dream job, have the white-picket fence and the happy family. What this narrative never took into consideration was how the cost of college was going to skyrocket like never before in the early 2000s or even how some kids just weren’t cut out for college. Good school, good career, good house, good family, good life—simple as that. That mantra continue into freshman orientation at the school where I landed, coupled with a calm assurance from the financial aid officer that students loans were the norm and that we’d have decades to pay them off with our post-graduation, high-paying jobs.
86% of my high school senior class went on to enroll in a four-year college, though I’m not sure how many of us actually graduated. What I do know is that the world we stepped into in 2007 and 2008, the world we inherited after graduation, was not quite the oyster we had been promised back in freshmen year. It is often said that millennials like me are ruining everything—business, culture, the American Dream. But you should try living the American Dream of owning a home, of a career, of having a family when you’re carrying around $100,000 of student loan debt and can’t get a job because your degree is in a field that pays so little, like public education, or because you followed the college curriculum as you were told and wound up without a single marketable skill in the modern world. I’m one of the lucky ones—I had help from my parents, from grants and scholarships, from this very congregation. But one of the most traumatic things I’ve done in the past ten years was buy a home, that pinnacle of having ‘made it.’ Something that was a relatively easy rite of passage twenty years ago is now something akin to trying to break into Fort Knox, all because in 2008 the bubble burst, a bubble created by the mighty dollar winning out over common sense and reason. Is it any wonder that in the top five most-prescribed drugs in America, three are for high blood pressure?
I’m not economist. I am a pastor and I was a music major, so I’m pretty familiar with worry and anxiety. I am also familiar, intimately, with how much the world has changed since Jesus sat on the mountainside outside of the Jerusalem and said, “Do not worry about your life.” But it would be to our disadvantage today if we heard Jesus’ words and brushed them off as something of a different time and place. The context and the setting may have been different, but there is much more here than just giving up worry and anxiety. The implication of Jesus’ message here is that so much of what matters to us today should not be taken so seriously and instead can be completely entrusted to a God who cares deeply for us. Jesus may not have known about the 2008 housing crisis or that 44 million Americans owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, but Jesus did not about the debilitating effects of constantly stewing over the problems we face individually and as a society. Jesus encourages us to live by faith, trusting God to provide for all of our material needs. Jesus invites us to simply relax knowing that God will and does make a way and will give to us all we need for our journey on that way.
So really, my friends, Jesus’ teaching for us today is not so much about worry and anxiety as it is about control. Jesus is not calling us to abandon our lives and to move to the desert and live alone in a cave. Jesus is not calling us to empty our bank accounts or give up taking care of ourselves or our families. Rather, Jesus is asking us to consider what life would be like if we gave up our need to control everything and handed that control over to God. Jesus says that this is the trouble with the Gentiles—they are so wrapped up in controlling everything, from what they eat and how they look and where they stand in the social order, that they are riddled with worry and anxiety. The Gentiles, Jesus says, are so worried about living the Gentile Dream—good school, good career, good house, good family, good life—that they micromanage themselves into these tightly-wound balls of emotion that will eventually explode.
This is simply not the sort of life Jesus wants us to lead. Will we have anxiety about our lives and about the world and about the future? Sure. Will we worry about all of those same things, too? Yes, that’s natural. But is there a better way? Absolutely. That better way is to remember that we worship and serve the Creator of the heavens and the earth, in whose eyes even our greatest trials are but a passing moment. Remembrance leads to action and the action is to give complete control of things back to God. In this, Jesus promises us a life where anxiety and worry and fear do not, cannot, dominate who we are. Consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. They don’t do anything to earn the food they eat, and they don’t do anything to earn their feathers or beautiful petals. But not even King Solomon in all of his temple finery was as splendid as these birds and lilies. This is a concrete example of just how trustworthy God is and will be in providing for all of our needs. God crowned us, the image-bearers of God, as the height of creation, as the ‘very good’ among the ‘good,’ and if God takes care of the sparrows and day lilies, we can be at peace.
But that peace does not come from nothing—it is not a peace that just falls in our laps if we are in the right place at the right time. If we want the peace that Jesus promises, he says we must seek after the things of our God, the God who is infinite and whose love for us and all creation is infinite as well. That’s because love, particularly God’s love, operates from a different economy than everything else. Love deals in the realm of abundance. My brother told me recently that he didn’t think he could love anyone more than he loved his son the day he was born, but then his daughter came along. Instead of having to split his love between the two children, he tells me his love for them grew exponentially. I’m sure you’ve noticed the same thing—the more love you give away, the more love you have. God’s love for us and all of creation cannot be counted, tracked, or stockpiled, but it has been given to each of us beyond anything we could hope for or imagine. When we enter into a relationship with God, and work each day to make it stronger and stronger, this love pushes us into the realm of abundance, the world of possibility, the world of contentment, a world where not worrying is actually an option.
Do you know why Jesus shouldered a cross and died on a hill outside of Jerusalem, a hill similar to the one where he sat down and preached The Sermon on The Mount? I mean, have you ever really thought about why Jesus, the Son of God, endured such pain and suffering? Jesus dies on the cross not to somehow pay for our sins in the general store of a God who keeps meticulous record of our spending. This is an image of God that is simply a reflection of how we like to keep track of the wrongdoings of others. Jesus’ death on the cross was a result of the Kingdom he came into the world to proclaim. Jesus proclaimed a Kingdom of abundance in direct challenge to the power structure of his day that was so heavily invested in scarcity and control. Scarcity creates fear and fear creates devotion to those who will protect you. Jesus spoke of abundance because abundance produces what matters most: freedom. This was so terrifying to the rulers of Jesus’ day that they put him to death.
But we know how the story ends, don’t we? We know that God doesn’t operate from scarcity—God operates out of abundance. And out of an abundance of love for us God responded to Christ’s crucifixion with the miracle of resurrection. God does not keep track or look for payment or hoard power with which to destroy the offenders. No, God resurrects, which is the ultimate act of abundance. Resurrection creates something, once again, out of nothing, drawing light from darkness, giving life to the dead. This is the world Jesus invites us into: a world of abundance, generosity, new life, a world where we willingly give up control so that God can take the reins and we can experience true peace and freedom. This is also a world of fragility, trust, and vulnerability, a world where there are serious consequences for everything we say and do. After all, lilies and birds cannot defend themselves, but must trust in God’s providence and love.
And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, the calling to us today is simple, the invitation has been issued: we must also trust in God’s providence and love, to guide and protect us, and to give us wisdom as we answer the call to properly care for and protect all of creation. We musn’t worry about tomorrow because there will be plenty of things to worry about tomorrow. Let’s be all about today, the present, this very moment. Let’s be about caring for ourselves and loving others and sharing God’s love with a world so hungry for it. Let’s be about worshipping God in here and out there, about praying to God as we sit in here and praying to God as we get to work out there. Let’s be about preserving the institutions and structures that bring glory to God and let’s be about shining God’s light on the institutions and structures that stifle God’s grace and love. Let’s be about peace and goodwill and mercy and forgiveness; let’s replace ‘We can’t’ with ‘We might.’ Let’s focus on what we have been given by God and not on what we’re told we need or don’t have. Let’s be about the work of resurrection, of bringing life where there once was death, light where there once was darkness.
In doing all of this we find out something profoundly true: we are enough, we have enough, God is with us, we possess everything needed for today and God will be ready for us when tomorrow comes. May we all find peace in this today. Amen.