Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 27, 2011
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Comedian Lily Tomlin once said (while in character): “I refuse to be intimidated by reality anymore. After all, what is reality anyway? Nothin’ but a collective hunch. I made some studies: Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it.”
Once again, Jesus brings us face to face with reality in the passage from the Gospel we just heard. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” And there is enough trouble in our world to last a lifetime. I can see my great aunt Rose sitting in her rocking chair pouring over the Daily News that she read every morning and then summarizing it for us all in one sentence: “The world’s going to hell in a hand basket.” Over the past month we have watched the struggle of people on the other side of the world who have for years been victims of great oppression and have observed the violence associated with these events.
Now the cameras have moved from Egypt, where the people have been successful in ousting Egyptian President Mubarak after weeks of intense protests and an extremely fast-moving crisis, to Libya whose dictator has gone to extreme lengths in an attempt to beat down the protest movement, bringing in mercenaries to slaughter people on the streets and ordering aircraft and boats to fire on crowds of civilians. Gadhafi, of course, does not hold a monopoly on oppression among the now-shrinking list of the world’s dictators, but he has wielded an unmatched amount of control over both the military and communications.
Airplanes were used to bombard people from a low altitude where reports say that 2,000 people have been killed in Tripoli and 3,000 injured. An accurate accounting of the number of deaths and injured is nearly impossible because of a blackout on communications. Moammar Gadhafi’s totalitarian control over the military and media has made Libya’s revolution the most violent so far in a region beset by uprisings. Libya is a country where one-third of the population lives below the poverty level, whose people have little or no access to medicine, but whose leader’s sons have paid as much as two million dollars to engage celebrities like Mariah Carey and Beyoncé to perform for them and their elite friends.
That’s a whole lot of harsh reality. I wonder if, viewed through the lens of the Gospel we heard today, what is happening in the Middle East might shed some light on what we perceive to be our own reality.
First, let’s put this portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in context. Those to whom Jesus was preaching that day lived in a land filled with oppression and poverty. They knew what it was like to wonder if their children would have enough to eat or proper clothing to protect them from the elements. The Romans controlled the economy. This was a very anxious society.
Jesus, however, wasn’t posing easy answers but offers a meditation on the glorious gift of life that is observable around us—from the lilies of the field, to the birds of the air, to God’s tender care for us. Jesus himself drank deeply and abundantly of this gift of life—being with children, eating and drinking with all sorts of people, healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, telling wonderful stories.
What he offers us in the Gospel today is a two-fold reality check. On the one hand, Jesus affirms the marvelous image that Isaiah gives us in the Hebrew Scripture—the image of God as a woman nursing her child, an assurance of God’s care for us, just as faithfully as God tends to the wildflowers in the fields and birds of the air. That’s the part we all want to hear. That’s the part that is meant to comfort us and ease our anxiety.
But then there is the other very clear message in the Gospel that is meant to arouse and startle us. “No one can serve two masters.” Most people wish to be unmistakenly righteous and correspondingly wealthy at the same time, laboring under the misconception that the two are compatible. Jesus debunks this belief in no uncertain terms.
Living as part of the Kingdom of God requires our giving up some things like greed, or climbing the corporate ladder at any cost, getting ahead even if it means a compromise of our relationships, keeping up with the Jonses even as it destroys our spiritual life. God wants us to feed and clothe ourselves, but do we need as much as we Americans think we do? Can we find our way to a kind of life in which we live simply so that others may simply live? We may not feel rich but, although we make up only 5% of the world’s population, we use 30% of its resources.
We spend more money at Starbucks some mornings than most people in the world make in a day. Think about how much we spend making ourselves look better—with cosmetics and botox, at the spa or the hair salon. We live in the most affluent nation the world has known and we own more gadgets than our ancestors could have ever dreamed of owning.
The nations of the Middle East that are in chaos are fighting from freedom—freedom from oppression. Their struggle is over basic human needs like having enough food and medicine for their children and having a roof over their heads. I watched a news clip of a group of Egyptians who had moved to Libya and were returning to their homeland after the ousting of Mubarak all carrying a large box or bundle on their back. It occurred to me that the box contained all their earthly possessions. What does all this say about our reality?
We think of ourselves as free but has our freedom become just another form of servitude as we allow ourselves to be driven by our desire for material things? Have we, in fact, lost touch with the word “enough” and are we utterly out of touch with how most people live their lives? Are we oblivious to the fact that the majority of the world lives in horribly inhuman conditions? Wall Street won’t tell us that, but Jesus does because Jesus deals in reality.
We’re a relatively small community and we may not be able to do much to help the many people in the world who go without everyday, who don’t have enough food or clean water or clothing or medical care.
We may not be able to stop the oppression under which they struggle to survive but we can live in such a manner that espouses our profound gratitude for all that we have been given by examining our priorities—maybe taking a good look at our checkbooks—taking stock of what really matters for us, how it reflects what we have sacrificed to partner with God in building God’s kingdom, how we use the resources with which we have been blessed.
Are we like the lilies, depending upon God for our needs? Growing where planted? Content where we thrive? Or are we hothouse flowers that must have constant incoming worldly goods? When those images of violence in places like Egypt and Libya appear on our TV screens or in the news source we use, do we recognizing in prayer how very good we’ve got it and how amazingly blessed are our lives?
Poet Wendell Berry wrote about what he calls “The Burden of the Gospels.” “If we take the Gospels seriously,” he writes, “we are left, in our dire predicament, facing an utterly humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to to be estranged from God’s presence in God’s work and in all God’s creatures?”
That’s the reality with which we are confronted in the Gospel and that reality never gets more real than when we start digging into the Word of God—for it makes us look at ourselves and everyone around us with a different pair of eyes as we struggle to put the teachings of Jesus into economic practice—striving first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness assured that all these things will be given to us as well.