Grace and Mercy, 8 Epiphany (A) – 2011

February 27, 2011

Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

Here’s an experiment: read the gospel appointed for today to a group of friends, all of whom have jobs, places to live, and automobiles. Then – at least in your imagination – read this gospel to the 800,000 or so people in Haiti who have been living in refugee camps for a year. This message – don’t worry about what you will eat or drink or wear, because God will take care of you – might be heard by the well-off audience as an admonishment to keep focused on the things that matter, rather than material wants. But the second group doesn’t have that option.

If you have spent the last year or so worrying every minute about feeding your children, giving them shelter at night, and perhaps someday being able to get them some shoes, Jesus’ message cannot be easy to hear. What does he mean, don’t worry? Life is nothing but worry.

Jesus is not saying that the basic necessities of human life don’t matter, nor is he saying that theses necessities will magically appear if we believe in him correctly. He is talking to people who have enough, it seems; otherwise his encouragement not to worry would simply be cruel.

But what about those who truly don’t have enough? How can they hear good news in today’s gospel?

Though the message is going to be perceived differently by those who have enough and those who do not, the message is really the same: don’t spend your time and energy and heart fretting about this stuff. If you have enough, be thankful, and beware of making an idol of having what you want, rather than merely what you need. If you don’t have enough, it’s not because God doesn’t love you. Jesus is working to disconnect the link that was commonly made in his day: those who please God have plenty; those who have displeased God will suffer.

If only it were that easy! Of course, there are those in our culture who spout off after every natural disaster or act of violence, claiming that they know what specific sin is being punished. It would simplify matters, certainly, to be able to draw a straight line between a list of do’s and don’ts and the corresponding benefits or punishments. For example, if you steal, there will be a tornado; its strength will be determined by the dollar value of what is stolen. Or if you cheat on your taxes, wham, a sinkhole will open in your back yard.

It seems that Jesus is encouraging his followers to look beyond that kind of straight-line thinking that attaches virtue to success and vice to failure. He is making a claim that God’s desire for us is that we all have enough, rather than using some complex calculus to determine precisely how blessed or cursed we will be. “No one can serve two masters,” he says. We’ve got to decide what our priorities and values are, and if we’re going to follow Jesus, then those priorities and values are probably not best focused on ourselves. Jesus is saying, “Look beyond the boundaries of yourself.”

In this light, the situation in Haiti doesn’t get magically better, nor does the person in desperate circumstances automatically understand this as good news. But it does sound like encouragement not to let dire straits reduce us all to complete selfishness. If we are sitting at the top of the comfort scale, we should not be worrying about getting more, but about how to share what we have. If we sit at the bottom of that scale, we should not regard that as permission to lie, cheat, and steal our way to comfort. But more than a moral admonishment, this message claims God’s care for everything God has made: people, lilies, the birds, you name it. While we have ample evidence that God doesn’t prevent disaster, Jesus assures us that God is deeply concerned with the lives God has created. In other words, we are not alone, no matter how bad things seem. And no matter how good things seem, we didn’t get there on our own. God’s love suffuses all creation. God’s careful design shows up in everything: mountains and mollusks, grass and the Grand Canyon, human lives in Poughkeepsie or Port-au-Prince.

The Sermon on the Mount, of which today’s gospel is a part, is not only subversive to the values of the empire, it’s a set of marching orders for those who want to follow Jesus. There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world; this was true in Jesus’ century, just as it’s true in ours. Jesus’ teaching in the face of all that is wrong with the world is consistent: have faith, and do something about the bad stuff by doing all the good stuff you can.

Today’s gospel is part of a larger message, and part of Jesus’ challenge to his hearers and to us: life in the kingdom of God has different values from life in the empire, or life in a profit-based society. Life in the kingdom of God includes the poor, the merciful, those who mourn. Life in the kingdom of God includes our privilege and duty to bear light to the darkest parts of the world, to salt the world with mercy and justice. Today’s gospel, taken outside this context, sounds unrealistic to someone who is suffering. In the larger context of this entire teaching, however, Jesus is reminding his followers – and us – of God’s profound love for everything and everyone God has created, and encouraging his followers – and us – to focus on the kingdom of God.

In a parish context, it is extremely easy to justify worrying about the basics. “How will we pay the electric bill? Can we afford full-time employees to clean or do administrative work?” Vestries and finance committees feel an understandable obligation to be sure that parishioners’ money is carefully spent, and many parishes hold a parishioner or two who want an accounting for every nickel.

Being good stewards of what we’re given is important work. But in light of Jesus’ message today, it seems that an additional criterion for good stewardship should be in place. The question must be asked, “How are we serving the kingdom of God?” Are we worrying about stuff when really, there’s abundance all around us?

Anyone who has run a program that feeds or cares for our poorest neighbors has at least a couple of stories about how money or food or space or some unexpected gift has shown up at the right time for the right people. It seems that God’s desire really is for abundant life for all; and for those of us who have enough, this gospel reminds us that however we worry and engage in elaborate schemes to get what we think we need, there is actually a stream of mercy and grace available, directly from God. If we stand in that stream, we are going to have more than enough to share with those who need it.

There is no magical formula, such as “Do these 10 good things for others and get an equivalent number of blessings. Fail to do good things and get nothing. Do bad things and bad things will come to you.” That’s not the economy of God; that’s a limited human perception of virtue and value.

What Jesus proclaims, to refugees in Haiti and comfortable Americans alike, is that the kingdom of God is at hand. Grace and mercy are available to all. For those who already have much, it may well be that God’s grace and mercy come through us on their way to those who are in the deepest need. What an awesome responsibility! And what an amazing joy – to be a conduit for the care and love of God for God’s people and God’s world. Even Solomon in all his glory didn’t shine as brightly as those who share and give and work for the kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.