Saturday, February 26, 2011

It depends on how you hear it...

Today’s gospel will mean very different things to people who have jobs, homes, cars and food in plenty, compared with those whose lives have been devastated: 800,000 people in Haiti who have been living in refugee camps for many months; people in Christ Church New Zealand whose lives and livelihoods are gone; people in Libya facing momentous life changes.

Today’s gospel might be heard by the well-off audience as an admonishment to keep focused on the things that matter, rather than material wants. But to displaced, damaged people, the message is not so clear or easy.

Jesus is not saying that the basic necessities of human life don’t matter, nor is he saying that theses necessities will magically appear if we believe in him correctly. He is talking to people who have enough, it seems; otherwise his encouragement not to worry would simply be cruel. But what about those who truly don’t have enough? How can they hear good news in today’s gospel?

Though the message is going to be perceived differently by those who have enough and those who do not, the message is really the same: do not spend your time, energy, and heart fretting about this stuff. If you have enough, be thankful, and beware of making an idol of having what you want, rather than merely what you need. If you don’t have enough, it’s not because God doesn’t love you. Jesus is working to disconnect the link that was commonly made in his day: those who please God have plenty; those who have displeased God will suffer.

If only it were that easy. Of course, there are those in our culture who spout off after every natural disaster or act of violence, claiming that they know what specific sin is being punished. Even in these last few days a website published a view that the earthquake in New Zealand was God’s punishment for the NZ Government’s liberal attitude to sexuality.

It certainly would simplify matters to be able to draw a straight line between a list of do’s and don’ts and the corresponding benefits or punishments. For example, if you steal, there will be a tornado; if you welcome gay people, there will be an earthquake.

It seems that Jesus is encouraging his followers to look beyond that kind of straight-line thinking that attaches virtue to success and vice to failure. He is making a claim that God’s desire for us is that we all have enough, rather than using some complex calculus to determine precisely how blessed or cursed we will be. “No one can serve two masters,” he says. We have to decide what our priorities and values are, and if we’re going to follow Jesus, then those priorities and values are probably not best focused on ourselves. Jesus is saying, “Look beyond the boundaries of yourself.”

In this light, the situation in Haiti, Christ Church, or Tripoli doesn’t get magically better, nor does the person in desperate circumstances automatically understand this as good news. But it does sound like encouragement not to let dire straits reduce us all to complete selfishness. If we are sitting at the top of the comfort scale, we should not be worrying about getting more, but about how to share what we have. If we sit at the bottom of that scale, we should not regard that as permission to lie, cheat, and steal our way to comfort.

But more than a moral admonishment, this message claims God’s care for everything God has made: people, lilies, the birds, you and me. While we have ample evidence that God doesn’t prevent disaster, Jesus assures us that God is deeply concerned with the lives God has created. In other words, we are not alone, no matter how bad things seem. And no matter how good things seem, we didn’t get there on our own. No matter how bad things seem, God’s heart bleeds with ours.

The Sermon on the Mount, of which today’s gospel is part, is not only subversive to the values of the Roman empire, it’s a mandate for those who want to follow Jesus. There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world; this was true in Jesus’ century, just as it’s true in ours. Jesus’ teaching in the face of all that is wrong with the world is consistent: have faith, and do something about the bad stuff by doing all the good stuff you can, for the values that underlie the Kingdom differ from those in life lived in the world as we know it.

Being good stewards of what we’re given is important work. But in light of Jesus’ message today, it seems that an additional criterion for good stewardship should be in place. The question must be asked, “How are we serving the kingdom of God?” Is the way we use our resources really revealing Kingdom values? Is there any connection between what we want and what God might be telling us to do and be?

What Jesus proclaims, to refugees in Haiti, those struggling in New Zealand, peaceful revolutionists across the world, and us comfortable people alike, is that the kingdom of God is at hand. Grace and mercy are available to all. For those of us who already have much, it may well be that God’s grace and mercy come through us on their way to those who are in the deepest need. What an awesome responsibility that is. And what an amazing joy – to be a conduit for the care and love of God for God’s people and God’s world. Even Solomon in all his glory didn’t shine as brightly as those who share and give and work for the kingdom of God. Will we shine or be lacklustre? Time to speak and act, putting worry to one side, and be co-workers with God, anchored in the values of the kingdom God is ushering in.

Lord God, we live in disturbing days:
across the world, prices rise, debts increase, banks collapse,
jobs are taken away, and fragile security is under threat.
Loving God, meet us in our fear and hear our prayer:
be a tower of strength amidst the shifting sands,
and a light in the darkness;
help us receive your gift of peace,
and fix our hearts where true joys are to be found,
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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