14 November 2009

An Undivided Life

Joshua 24 & Matthew 6: 19-21; 24-34

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 15th November 2009

This past week we marked the twentieth anniversary of the toppling of the Berlin Wall, eventually leading to the reunification of a divided Germany. We have heard the stories of what it was like to live in a divided city, a divided country, of families, friends forever separated, of couples engaged to be married who were evermore divided as a result of that insidious wall. Seventh months after the wall came down I was in West Germany with my brother, Craig, and we drove through East Germany into the British sector of West Berlin. We made our way to the Brandenburg Gate and to the wall. We rented a hammer and chisel and broke off graffiti-sprayed pieces from the wall, which I still have. Dividing walls can come down – it’s difficult and risky and costly – but it’s possible. Other walls need to come down, like the so-called “security” wall snaking through Israel today (but that’s another sermon).

We were not born to live divided lives. Scripture has much to say about the enormous cost we pay when we live divided. The Joshua text invites us to “choose this day” whom we will serve. Will we serve God or something other than God. The issue of choice goes back to Genesis, when Adam and Eve chose self-interest over obedience to God, with a terrible price to pay. That’s a choice that wasn’t made once, but time and again and every time we make similar decisions; when our wills matter more than God’s will, we fall.

Choice runs through Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus loves to heighten the tension, particularly through the use of parables, in moments of conflict where we’re given two alternatives in which we have to choose. It’s the context behind Jesus’ warning that we can’t serve both God and wealth (mammon). He increases the tension here. It’s can’t be both/and, although that’s what we prefer. That’s impossible, Jesus says. Choose.

Now when Jesus invites us to choose he is not saying that wealth is bad. He’s not saying: God good; wealth bad. Wealth as wealth is not bad. Jesus is not saying that money is the root of all evil, because it isn’t. The problem comes when it’s an end in itself. An enormous amount of good can and is accomplished through money, particularly when wealthy people are generous with their resources. Then wealth is serving God, pressed into serving the Kingdom.

Whenever we hear Jesus preach about treasures, against serving wealth, about not to worry, we tend to receive these texts as a long list of negatives. Yes, Jesus is giving us a law here, a clear set of don’ts. “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth…store up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” “You cannot serve God and wealth.” “Do not worry.” But my guess is when you hear these verses you probably don’t hear them as good news, as the extraordinary declaration of God’s joy given to you. My guess is the first reaction is probably guilt and then maybe shame. Because…yes, I do have a lot of treasures and baubles and more treasures and baubles than I really need to make me happy and more than I can fit in my house or apartment and probably more than I can afford. And, yes, far too often I’m a servant of wealth than a servant of God, because I work to have more and more, a bigger house, a better car, to live in a better neighborhood with a better school system, to have a bigger portfolio and a bigger nest-egg that will hatch into the best retirement one could ever possibly imagine. And yes, we worry – man, do we worry – about everything, about not having enough, about the future, about all the “what if’s” that preoccupy our living and our sleeping – or that keep us from sleeping.

These are tough verses to hear. W. C. Fields (1880-1946) was once seen feverishly studying, reading through the Bible. Someone came up to him and ask, “W.C., what are you doing?” He said, “I’m look for loopholes.”

You see, Jesus gives these warnings because he knows what we’re like. He knows how materialist the human being can be. He knows how often we go astray. He knows how much we love money and our wealth – and all the comfort and security that go with it. Perhaps we love security more than our wealth, because when we are secure (especially financially secure), we think we’ll never have to worry again. But I know a lot of wealthy people who worry sick. Jesus is a brilliant psychoanalyst who pierces the human heart, the human psyche – who knows our drives better than we know them ourselves. Jesus knows what troubles us, what disturbs us, what robs us of life, what makes us sick, and troubled, and depressed. And he came, sent by the Living God to change this. As Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).” (This is the verse we chose for the door hangers we distributed to our neighbors yesterday.) Jesus knows the waywardness of the human heart because the human heart is divided.

So, what is the cure to our divisiveness? What will yield reconciliation for our alienated hearts, for the estrangement that we know exists inside? What will make us whole? There’s one answer, one word, Jesus would say: God. This might sound overly simplistic. But it’s really this simple – and this difficult. Jesus gives us these laws to live by in love; laws that seek to heal the split and offer a better life, a truer life. St. Augustine (354-430) famously said, “My heart is restless, O Lord, until it rests in thee.” That’s what Jesus is getting at here in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly in these verses that deal with treasures and wealth and worry.

Jesus wants us to see that we were created for God to be at the center of our lives. To be authentically human means to put God at the center of our lives. We were created for God – I’m not talking about belief in God, but life in God, with God, through God. That’s what we were created for and our heart of hearts knows it and longs for it. We were made for God. But there’s something in us – call it sin – that turns us away, that in fear puts the self at the center of all things. There’s something in us that is not satisfied with God and so we turn to other gods which are no God – and sometimes the god we worship the most is the god called Ego, or simply, I or Me.

Jesus comes with the good news that life is not about Ego, or I, or Me. It’s not about you and it’s not about me, but about something far more meaningful, profound, and expansive, beautiful and good. It’s about the kingdom of God and God’s justice.

Jesus calls us to be God-centered, theo-centric, focused on God. He’s not saying this to make our lives difficult (although that will happen), he’s not trying to take the joy out of our lives, he’s not trying to be a sourpuss. He’s offering this in love because he sees how much damage is done in our hearts and in the world when the focus is on anything other than God.

That’s why he calls us not to trust in our treasures because they will always disappoint, but to really trust in God. Put your trust and your energy in things that matter and will last, not in things that will rust and decay and be remembered no more. Put your heart in something worthy to be treasured – and what can be of more value than God and God’s kingdom?

That’s why he says we can’t serve two masters, even though we want to or think we can, because we will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. Love and hate, devotion and loathing are false alternatives for God’s people. Have one master, have one focus, put God first. You can put wealth first, it’s possible and plenty of people do it. But we will reap what we sow. We can live focused upon wealth, but this will inevitably put God in competition for our allegiance, we then run the risk of loving wealth and despising, if not hating God – if not in thought then certainly in action – because we will be serving something other God.

Serving wealth means we’re not serving God. Focusing on wealth, placing our trust it in and its treasures means we’re not trusting in God. This means that for all of us on any given day, if you think about it, we are always dangerously close to a-theism, it’s always there on the margins – believing and acting as if God doesn’t exist. And when we live that way we’ve lost the focus and the deepest desire of the human heart, which is for God. For the truth is, we’re all serving something, whether it’s the petty gods of our own creation, our ego, our careers, our security, or the Living God our creator. Either way, we’re all serving something or someone -- and we become the thing or the person we worship and serve. We’re always dabbling on the edge of idolatry. That’s why Jesus gives us this warning in love – he knows what makes us tick and what makes us sick, he knows what we need to make us whole.

There’s an enormous cost when we live divided lives, a price we cannot really afford to pay, causing so much suffering and pain in the world. When Jesus says, “Serve God,” he’s saying, “Here is the way to be made whole.” It’s all summed up in Jesus’ command: “Strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you.” And what are these things? Clothes, shelter, food – you know, all the things we worry about. This is not some kind of prosperity gospel message – just believe in God and you’ll get whatever you want. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Prosperity gospels are not really gospels at all because the focus is on prosperity and not God and that isn’t good news.

When people are fearful and worry and operate with an assumption of scarcity (that there’s not enough food, shelter, clothing, money, anything), we pull back, hold back, save, conserve – and do not share. Self-interest trumps sharing – I need to put “Me and my family” first. There’s a direct correlation between obsession with scarcity and an obsession with security (securing safety for ourselves because we can’t trust anyone else). “Compulsion toward security leaves no energy for imaging a different, more just world.” One fear leads to more worry leads to more fear, one thing leads to the other. Divisions begin to surface within and without. Over and over again in scripture, Jesus says, God says, “Do not worry.” Trust me.

Into the heart of all our fears and worry, Jesus says, you’re missing the point, you’ve forgotten what it’s all about, you’re striving for the wrong things, stop, calm down, remember what matters about all else: Strive first for the kingdom of God – strive for God’s justice. What a marvelous elixir for our worry-sick souls. Stop looking at yourself and direct your focus upon God. Strive for the kingdom of God – strive for God’s justice, when we do everything else we strive for will be put into perspective and we’ll know what matters and doesn’t matter. Jesus invites us to live our lives with a different set of assumptions: in God’s kingdom there’s more than enough, there’s always enough – and enough is as good as a feast.

Jesus was foolish enough to believe that when people put God first and strive after God’s justice and when God’s justice is present, there is always enough to go around. When we’re striving for God’s justice, then the hungry are fed. When we’re striving for justice, the homeless have a place to live. When we’re striving for justice, the naked are clothed. When we’re striving for justice – here in the church or in the world – there is more than enough, needs are met. Parker Palmer writes, “The divided life may be endemic, but wholeness is always a choice.” So is justice. Choose. Striving first after the Kingdom liberates because it puts all our other strivings into perspective, it focuses our attention, it heals the divisions in our heart; it has the capacity to make us whole. That’s the good news.

M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 12.

Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 17. Cf. the quote from the worship bulletin: “We are cursed with the blessing of consciousness and choice, a two-edged sword that both divides us and can help us become whole. But choosing wholeness, which sounds like a good thing, turns out to be risky business, make us vulnerable in ways we would prefer to avoid.”(9).

Photo: Construction of the Berlin Wall, 1961.

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