PROPER 3 / 2 AFTER PENTECOST — 25 May 2008
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant — 9:00 am
Isaiah 49:8-16a Psalm 131 1Cor 4:1-5 Matt 6:24-34
“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
I assume that most of you noticed that Easter came very early this year. As a consequence, of course, Pentecost also came very early, as did Trinity Sunday. What you may not have noticed (and to be honest, why should you?) is that today, when we move on to the remaining Sundays of the year, the “Sundays after Pentecost,” the summer-and-fall “green season,” we begin in the Sunday Lectionary with “Proper 3.” This is the earliest numbered Proper that we can use on Sundays after Pentecost. We haven’t used Proper 3 in Year A since 1979. We won’t use it again in Year A until 2035. However, today’s scripture readings are not quite that rare, because, as you may know (and if you don’t know this, please do not feel guilty, because, to be honest, why should you?), the readings for Proper 3 are a duplication of the readings for the 8th Sunday after Epiphany. The reason that’s okay is that since the 8th Sunday after Epiphany comes only when Easter is very late, it cannot happen that Epiphany 8 and Proper 3 ever occur in the same year. In fact, in the average year, when Easter occurs somewhere in the middle of the range of possible dates, neither Epiphany 8 nor Proper 3 will occur. Specifically, Epiphany 8 in Year A last occurred in 1984, will occur again in three years in 2011, and then not again until 2038. The upshot of all this is that we do not hear this Sunday Gospel reading from the sixth chapter of St. Matthew very often. Certainly not once every three years, as is the case with most of the readings from Matthew. It’s more like once every ten years.
At this point you are undoubtedly saying to yourselves, “Of all the sermons that Fr. Moorhead has preached in this parish over the years when he has supplied here, so far this has to be by far the most boring.” And of course you’re probably right. My point, however, is that the Gospel today comes from that portion of St. Matthew that we call “The Sermon on the Mount,” which is well known, and the part about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field may be one of the most popular passages. It’s odd that we don’t read it on Sunday more often. After all, is not the Sermon on the Mount one of the great expressions of Christian ideals?
No, it is not. There is nothing idealistic about the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is never idealistic. Jesus is a blunt and hard realist. Jesus tells us how it really is. And if what Jesus says doesn’t always sound realistic to us, that’s because we are the ones who don’t know what’s real. Jesus does know what’s real, and he tells us. But we prefer to live in our own fantasies and call them reality. And then we wonder why our lives are empty.
“You cannot serve God and wealth.” I suspect for many of us our initial reaction is, “Well, no fear!” Of course, we overlook the fact that by the standards of most of the rest of the world, even the most economically modest of us is filthy rich. (But that’s another sermon for another day!) We probably remember the older translations of the Bible in which this saying was rendered “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Well, that was safe. Most of us weren’t quite sure what “mammon” was and so we didn’t think we had any, and so we must not have been tempted to serve it. Yes, “mammon” is the word here in the original Greek text, but it’s not really a Greek word but a transliteration of the Aramaic word mamôn, which can mean “wealth” or “riches,” but more generally just means “property,” without any specifically negative connotations. It means “possessions.” It means “our stuff.”
Well, none of us thinks that we have chosen to serve mammon instead of God. But when Jesus starts talking about my stuff, then he’s gone off preaching and started meddling! The real choice of what we serve is not disclosed by what we tell ourselves. Each one of us is a most persuasive con artist — to ourselves. Our real choice of what we serve is shown by what in fact we do. Where do we really put our time, our talent, our treasure? We can espouse all the lofty ideals we want, but where do we really stack the chips? What are the things that we don’t quite get to because we’re “too busy”? When do we find ourselves saying, “Yes, but first.…”? How much of ourselves are we really giving to God and God’s Kingdom — and I don’t just mean “the church,” I mean God’s people, God’s world, our families, our friends, the people we don’t like or even know but who need us? “Yes, but.…” “Yes, but what?”
“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” One of the themes that seems to be floating around in this country these days — especially on TV — and not just in our country — is what is called “Prosperity Gospel.” If you serve God, God will bless you — with material prosperity. Strive first for the kingdom, and you’ll have all the food and drink and clothing you want! Well, maybe. I seem to recall Jesus saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.” The promise is resurrection: new life, real life, eternal life. But resurrection comes only by the way of the cross. Before we can be born anew we have to die — die to getting and having and possessing. And that is a real death. In our society, we measure value quantitatively — I am what I have. My net worth is given by a balance sheet of financial assets and liabilities. We are so accustomed to everything we really need, if not quite everything we want, that we find it hard to believe that in the end none of it really matters. Not even food and drink and clothing. None of our stuff really matters, in the end. We say, “You can’t take it with you!” and we laugh about it. But that’s true. It really doesn’t matter what we have or don’t have, because in the end we have nothing anyway — nothing but our own selves before God. And what kind of selves will we be?
Jesus does not promise to make us rich. In fact, he rather clearly suggests that being rich is not all that desirable. Jesus promises to make us free. Jesus promises to make us alive, really alive, eternally alive, not just in the sweet by and by, but now, if we will choose life, if we really will be free from having-or-not-having, and strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And from the perspective of life — real, full, true, eternal life — what else in there that really matters?
Memorial Day — BCP page 839
O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful
hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of
decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant
that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the
benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This
we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.