Scripture: Matthew 6:19-24Given on 01/22/2017
Last week, many in this community came to the end of a very long journey that begun with a burning bus and ended with a monument and memorial to all those who struggled for recognition and remembrance of such a troubling moment in the story of our nation. Last year, a large number of people gathered together during a public meeting with members of the national park service and department of the interior and collectively spoke in favor of the dedication of the national monument. In that place were folks from every community in Anniston, from every walk of life, from every class, and over the span of a little over an hour, came together in a show of unity and support for our community to honor those who struggled in that time. And while the meeting was in a church, it was not church, and yet, there were times when it was difficult to discern the difference. Perhaps it was the gathering of folks, many of whom were religious leaders within the community. Perhaps it was the manner in which everyone spoke and listened with great reverence of the occasion. Perhaps it was just a singular moment in time in which all other differences were set aside and we all simply dwelled in that space together—a single unit. And as I thought about the culmination of all those collected efforts towards a singular goal, I was reminded that indeed, no one should ever doubt that a small group of committed citizens could indeed change the world, as it has been and remains the only thing that ever has.
At this moment, more than anytime in its long story, our own faith tradition has an opportunity to experience a new resurgence, buttressed by the honest quests for meaning by individuals. At this moment, increasingly, folks who have departed the church find themselves on the outside looking in for deeper purpose for their lives, for a more lasting contribution that they might bring to their contribution to the great sands of time. This moment, too, comes at the end of a long stretch of time in which cultures tried to find greater permanence in things outside the walls of the church. For the last four centuries, the Western world has seen the rise to ascendancy of science, economics, and politics as each, in their own way, have become the dominant systems of discourse but, it would seem, that time is coming to a close. Science can offer an almost complete definition of how things happen. It is stunning, if not, at times completely, mind-boggling, to read scientific theories on the way in which the universe came about. Within the scientific community are those who believe they can explain the emergence of creation almost to the very milli-second after it began. But it cannot offer why it came about. Similarly, economics provides the way in which we interact with one another and the world in the exchange of goods and services. Economics in this country often dictate the value of labor and the goods produced in other countries. The last four centuries have witnessed the rise and fall of many theories believed to dictate these interactions as humanity has searched for the perfect way to determine the value of stuff, but in the end we find ourselves interested primarily in our own bottom line thinking not nearly enough of the backs upon which our bottom lines are drawn. Economic systems, by definition, cannot be concerned with the worth of the individuals participating within them and too often we fall short of any attempt to place the humanity of others ahead of our own. Politics determines the manner in which we must be in relationship with one another, it determines a social contract shared by all the members of a given community of people, but it does not contain the necessary knowledge to determine why it is that people act in the manner that they do. But, religion can. Religion offers the why in life, the meaning of life, it offers hope in life. Science, economics, and politics, all of these eventually fall away, a casualty of the finitude of all things. Religion touches the infinite from which all matter arose and offers an everlasting hope, an everlasting peace, a way to the abundant life.
Following the fall of humanity from the gaze of God, the story told in Genesis about our first parents, the dread, the fear of uncertainty began to infect the collective psyche of the world. In the shadow of the fall of Adam and Eve, what had seemed so simple, so complete in the innocence of the Garden now seemed confusing and disconcerting. Our relationships with one another, those that were intended to be cooperative, now seemed that they were wholly subsumed in the competition for resources and attention. Where love was once defined in terms of mutual respect and dignity it now was corrupted by power and lust. Where before our knowledge of the ways of God once seemed second nature, our souls forged in the fires of the laws of love, now it was if that knowledge had been shattered into a million tiny slivers of truth and each person has grabbed their own minuscule piece and declared it to be the whole. Where nations-states and cultures had the opportunity to elevate one another in advancement and survival with each contributing to the collective good, it seems we have each chosen the path of violence begetting violence over and again for thousands of years until all that was left, too often, is pain and sadness. This reality is evidenced in many of our own relationships today. And we are aware that often our faith in God can feel as if we are peering into the darkness and praying that we will once again see a light. So difficult are these moments that, at times, we back away from that ledge, from the darkness of the unknown and settle for the stuff of this life that can distract from the pain, as 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, Jesus 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 infinite power of each moment can move beyond the transient, the finite, the constantly eroding nature of the world. A life that gives us something to grasp onto—something that is forever. Jesus teaches how to live into God. In the passage today, he looks particularly at the way in which our clutching to earthly possessions interrupts the movement from ourselves to our God and he suggests that it is foolish to store up earthly treasures in hopes that one will gain some measure of permanence. Jesus goes further to declare that this type of thinking will always lead to consumption by moth and rust. Just think about that image. How many of us, living as we do, in the rural south can remember Sunday drives out in the country where 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. A reminder that the wealth of previous generations can never stand up to the inexorable passage of time.
But counter to that is the power of God, the strength of the spirit of the Most high to pull us from the endless cycle of life and death, of sin and brokenness, of despair and grant us that peace that we all so desperately want to experience. This moment that we occupy right now is pregnant with love, and hope, and grace and it has occurred an infinite number of times since the beginning of creation and will continue on until the end of the age. And 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 clinched fist. In this moment, our possibilities are literally limitless. Unfortunately, our better angels and demons are battling for supremacy. And yet, grace abounds because in this moment, this one moment, we get to 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.
It is possible that Jesus’ words grate at our modern ears and souls. Because 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 becomes a struggle to rid ourselves off all temptation to place anything in the throne of Jesus but Jesus. There are any number of things that can fall in this ordering and but there is only one holy, one good, one God and our lives will always be laborious if God does not rest on the top of the stuff of life. Our relationship to God must always be our ultimate concern, our singular priority, our deepest devotion. We know that all the things of life wrestle for the place of ultimate, but in the end, we know that we 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 reach out beyond ourselves, break down the barriers of our own little worlds and see the plight of the whole of the world, approach each one we meet with kindness and not callousness. We must know of the things that are going on within the greater world, really see them and then we must seek to do something about them. In the midst of violence which unfolds around the world we are called to be peacemakers, because no person is an island, and the bell tolls for thee. In the midst of hunger here and around the world we must have eyes to see, ears to hear, and we must work for change, because no person is an island, and the bell tolls for thee. And we must see the barriers of separation that we erect around ourselves and tear them down, because no person is an island and the bell tolls for thee. And we don’t 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 seek God or you can seek the stuff of the world, 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 with which we have been blessed 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. 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.