Scripture: Psalm 42-43 & Matthew 6:19-24
Given on June 23, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY (Third in the sermon series, The Life, Abundant)
We are at a crossroads in our faith journey—as Christians, as believers, as Presbyterians. We are approaching a real kairotic moment in which the direction of organized religion may emerge as a true vehicle for peace, for justice. Or it may begin to fade away into the dustbin of history as fundamentalist and tribalist movements continue to define the language and symbolism for religion and greater numbers of people leave us behind for the peace and security in humanism or atheism. Even as we sit here today, wars are being waged in the name of religion, people are being killed in the name of religion, cultures are being decimated in the name of religion. Bombs are blown up, cars are blown up, people are blown up all in the name of religion. In America, there is an ongoing battle between faith traditions who seek to define what is right and wrong in the starkest of black and white terms, using outdated language and symbolism that most of us find both reprehensible and at times, hate-filled. And yet we sit at a crossroads, and there is hope. There’s always hope.
Today, more than anytime in its history, religion has an opportunity to experience a new resurgence, buttressed by the honest quests for meaning by individuals. For the last four centuries, the Western world has been riding a wave in which science, economics, and politics have become the dominant systems of discourse but that time is reaching its conclusion. Science can offer an almost complete definition of how things happen. It is amazing, if not at times completely overwhelming, to read scientific treatises on the way in which the universe came about. It is believed that Science is able to explain the emergence of creation almost to the very milli-second that it began. But it cannot offer why it came about. Similarly, economics provide the manner in which goods and services are exchanged. Over the last four centuries, many systems have risen and fallen as humanity searches for the perfect way to determine the value of stuff, but in the end these systems are only interested in the bottom line. They by definition cannot be concerned with the worth of the individuals participating within them. Politics can determine how people are to behave towards one another within a community but cannot offer why persons act as they do. Religion can. Religion offers the why in life, the meaning of life, it offers hope in life. Science, economics, and politics, all of these fall away. Religion offers an everlasting hope, an everlasting peace, a way to the abundant life.
In the time that arose after the fall, the angst of unknowing began to creep into the collective psyche of the world. What had seemed so simple, so complete in our Edenic innocence now seemed the thing that could very well be our undoing. Where human relationship had once been defined by cooperation, now it was seen through the lens of competition. Where our love was once defined in terms of mutual respect and dignity it now was to be seen through the lens of power and lust. Where our knowledge of the ways of God once seemed so self-apparent, now it was shattered into a million tiny slivers of truth with each person grabbing their own piece and contending it was the whole. Where nations could have supported one another in advancement and survival. Each one contributing to the good of the whole, now each country took up arms against its neighbors until all that was left was a world of bloodshed and heartache. And so it is that many of our own relationships are viewed in these same ways today. Skewed by the awareness that our faith in God has been turned into staring into the bleak darkness hoping against hope that there will once again be a light. Staring into the abyss and leaping into the waiting hands of God because that is all we can do. But so often we back away from that ledge, from the darkness of the unknown and settle for the stuff of this life and the world, believing that it is our earthly treasures stored up in increasingly taller storehouses, that will ultimately save us never learning the lessons of history as provided by the Romans, or the Persians, or the British, or the Spanish.
The Scripture lesson today from the Gospel comes in the midst of a collection of sayings and teachings from Jesus that have become known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” In this sermon, he tries to lay out the manner in which a new life, a life, abundant is to be lived, the way in which one, in the eternity of a moment can move beyond the transient, the falling away of the world and commit and live into something that is greater, something more permanent. Jesus teaches how to live into God. In the passage today, he looks particularly at the way in which earthly possessions interrupt the movement from ourselves to our God and he suggests that it is foolish to store up the treasures of this life, the stuff of this life in hopes that one will gain some measure of permanence. This type of thinking will always lead to the falling away of the material, in Jesus’ words the material becomes consumed by moth and rust. Just think about that image. As a child growing up in the rural South, I remember many a Sunday drive in which we would pass farmhouses from another time, from another era that were now shadows of their former selves—wasted away with the passage of time, until all that was left was a rusted tin roof, or the chimney and fireplace from some old antebellum mansion, the rest eaten away by time.
There is a moment that has occurred an infinite number of times since the beginning of creation and will continue on until the end of the age. This moment contains all the hope, all the potential, all the love in the whole of creation. In this moment, we may bring about world peace, and end world hunger, in this moment we may create new avenues through which grace may flow, we may offer a handshake where before there was only a cursed look. In this moment, our possibilities are literally limitless. Unfortunately, we can also do irreparable harm to relationships, we can react violently to the stranger in our midst, we can turn away the hungry who come to us looking for sustenance and shelter. We can decry the behaviors of some while turning a blind eye to our own fallenness, our own sinfulness, our own selves. In this moment, we can acknowledge pain and suffering that we feel, that we experience or we can continue to push it to the recesses of our minds, to the outer edge of our soul where it will continue to fester, continue to cause ourselves and others pain. In this moment, this one moment, we can decide not only what is important, but what is ultimate. We can decide who is important and who is ultimate, in this one singular moment we can base the whole of our existence on one thing.
Jesus’ words sound harsh and blunt to our modern ears. And the warning to his followers could not be put in starker terms. There are two ways in which you can enter this moment and they cannot be done at the same time. He tells those who will listen, that we cannot serve two masters, because the one who seeks to do that, will either love the one and hate the other or despise the former and love the latter. There are no two ways about it. You cannot serve God and stuff. You cannot place your trust in God and stuff. In that sense, all of life is a struggle to piece together the proper order of one’s devotion. There are any number of things that can fall in this ordering and really it is innumerable but life will always be laborious if God does not rest on the top of the stuff of life. The relationship to God must always be one’s ultimate concern, their deepest devotion. Many things would vie for the place of ultimate concern. Our relationship to the nation, our relationship to our race, our gender, our work, our stuff, all the things of life would wrestle for the place of ultimate concern, but in the end, we must return to God.
But how do we know when we have ordered our lives properly, how do we know when we have found our ultimate concern? Jesus gathered his followers and told them, “The eye is the lamp of the body, so if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” Jesus understood the need to look on all of creation with compassion, the need to see that each person was and is a beloved child of God. In each moment, we encounter people, both those in front of us and those throughout the world and we see their plights and we know their wounds. We read their stories and we know of their pain. And if upon hearing their stories, if upon knowing their pain, we turn a blind eye, then we are full of darkness, and how great is that darkness. Then we have covered others with that darkness, and how great is that darkness. Then we have said to them, “We don’t care,” and then they are immersed in the darkness and how great is that darkness. And so we enter this moment.
And as we enter this moment, we must be aware of the pain of the world that is constantly crying out for relief. The English poet and pastor John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” That is to say that we are all connected, all united in a single thread of humanity, in which we must care, we must love, we must take care of one another. We must move beyond ourselves, our own small worlds and become involved in other’s worlds, be concerned for others. We must know of the things that are going on within the greater world, but also those things going on within our own context, our own lives and then we must seek to do something about them. In the tragedies of war and violence which unfold around the world we are called to be involved, because no person is an island, and the bell rings for thee. And we know of those in our midst and around the world who are struggling to feed their families stuck in a weakened global economy, and we are called to work for change, because no person is an island, and the bell tolls for thee. And we know of the racist attitudes that continue to define the experience of so many in our country and we are called to stand with the African-Americans, and Latinos/Latinas, and Arabic, and all those who have been othered by this culture as they continue to strive for equality in the face of racism, because no person is an island and the bell tolls for thee. We also do not have to go searching out areas of the world that are in need of people who care, people who want to make this moment better than the last. No matter where you are, a struggle is always nearby and we are all called to join in the struggle because no person is an island and the bell tolls for thee. The call of Jesus is always the call to make this moment better than the last, it is always a call to live into the hope and the newness of this moment—always believing that creation can better embody God’s will for all persons.
We dwell in a single moment in time, the past is forever vanished, the future yet to be written and we have a choice. Jesus called his followers together and said you can serve God or you can serve wealth, but you can’t do both. You can serve a love that can spread throughout the whole world making everything beautiful and whole and new, or you can serve yourself, but you can’t do both. We in this place and in this time, in this church and in this community have an incredible opportunity to make change within this world, to take the resources we have, the treasures that we have been blessed with and begin to make the world a better place, one moment at a time. To find the things that move us to action, the things that reach across the boundaries that separate us and find our common humanity, the things that have been covered in darkness and invite us and our eyes to cover the world in light.
We are at a crossroads in our faith journey; as Christians, as believers, as Presbyterians. We are approaching a real kairotic moment in which the direction of organized religion may emerge as a true vehicle for peace, or it may begin to fade away into the dustbin of history. Jesus gathered his followers together and said, you can follow God or you can follow yourselves. One will lead to fulfillment, the other to fallenness. At this time, when darkness has again covered the earth, when violence and hate seemingly multiply daily, we have a chance to stand in the midst of the darkness and proclaim light, to stand in the midst of violence and pronounce peace, to stand in the midst of hate and declare love. But stand we must, or else we will become washed away in the pages of a foregone era. May God lead us to the light that is within us and all creation. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.