Sermon

Matthew 6:24-34

A Promise of Incessant Finding

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

Recently,
when I visited an airport,
I stopped in a shop there,
the sort that sells souvenirs.
Facing me was a big wall of magazines
with glossy, colorful covers.

These covers were shouting their messages.
Some presented a stressful picture:
the high performance athlete,
the tense and successful CEO,
the powerful political figure.

Other covers
extended an invitation to indulgence:
expensive and stately houses,
fancy new cars,
luxurious food and drink.

These glossy magazines
occupying an entire wall
united in a frenzied presentation.
They made their case for a life
of bouncing back and forth
between stress and indulgence,
between indulgence and stress.

Of course,
it doesn’t require a trip to the airport
to get our society’s message
about stress and indulgence.
The message is shouted at us, whispered to us,
in many places and in many ways.
We should welcome stress
so that we can indulge later.
We should indulge
to prepare ourselves for more stress.

This cycle of stress and indulgence
is nothing new,
even if in our culture
it keeps gaining in popularity
and in speed.

A form of it existed in the time of Jesus,
and so Jesus confronts it head on
in the Sermon on the Mount.
Do not worry.
Do not worry about
food and drink and clothing.
In a world like ours,
where trends for the rest of us are set
by foodies and fashionistas,
this amounts to an invitation
to give up for Lent and for life
the cycle of stress and indulgence,
indulgence and stress,
for what fuels this cycle is worry.

The contemporaries of Jesus
had far fewer resources than most of us have.
Their worry about food and drink and clothing
was often whether they would have any at all.
Our worry about such things
is sometimes consumer worry:
what we want, how good it looks,
whether we can pay for it.
Our worry may be less grounded in reality,
but still it is worry,
and it eats away at us,
without us even recognizing
the damage that it does.

Worry fuels the cycle
of stress and indulgence
that our culture promotes
and that so easily becomes a substitute for life.
Advertising is the propaganda system
marvelously sophisticated and so widespread
that promotes this cycle as the way things are
rather than as an aberration, a cancer of the soul.

But let us dig down still further.
Indulgence and stress, stress and indulgence
is a cycle
centered on our ego,
our small self
which has a legitimate role to play,
but easily becomes a tyrant.

Thus when Jesus calls on his disciples
not to worry,
he tells them not to let egocentric questions
preoccupy their speech and their activity,
questions like:
“What shall we eat?”
“What shall we drink?”
“What shall we wear?”

Notice what he is not saying.
He is not saying
that food and drink and clothing are unimportant.
He is not saying
that making provision for necessities is wrong.
He is not saying
that we must avoid the enjoyment of such things.

What he says
is that we must not get wrapped up in stuff
or achievement or possession or pleasure
so that our ego concerns
fill all the space in our lives.

Jesus does not advocate self-denial for its own sake.
Even practices of giving up
can become subject to the stress/indulgence dynamic.
Instead,
he advocates taking lightly
whatever the stress/indulgence dynamic
would have us take seriously.

Jesus invites us
to become less willful about what we “gotta have,”
and more willing to recognize
unexpected gifts that come our way.

He also talks in his own way
about the end of the world.
Whatever else we gain from this teaching,
it can serve us as a reminder
that what we commonly treat as “the end of the world”
is something else instead.
It is not the end of the world
to take some time off from stressful striving.
It is not the end of the world
when a specific indulgence becomes unavailable.
The end of the world, he insists,
is a more cosmic deal than that.

Jesus not only points out the problem
of the stress/indulgence cycle,
he indicates an alternative, a remedy.
We are released from
the dizzying cycle of indulgence and stress
when we seek
the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.
There is this alternative.

If at the heart of the stress/indulgence cycle
is our ego
enthroned as a nervous tyrant,
then what Jesus describes as
God’s kingdom and righteousness
means the acceptance of divine sovereignty
in our lives.
We are not the center.
No other human person
nor any collective or ideology
is the center.
The center is One
whose mercy is unlimited,
whose mystery is incomprehensible.
We must continually seek this kingdom;
it is ever changing and ever new
in the circumstances of life.

That this is so strikes us
as both simple and profound.
But something more remains to be said,
for we are called to seek single-mindedly
God’s kingdom and righteousness,
and often we are not simple and profound,
but complex and superficial.
So we must be wary,
not about God,
but about ourselves.

First,
the cycle of stress and indulgence, indulgence and stress
is set so deep in who we are
that we start to treat its antidote in these terms.
Seeking the kingdom becomes stressful
in various ways.
Seeking the kingdom becomes indulgent
in various ways.
Never underestimate the human ability
to take even what is best
and make a mess of it!

But God is greater than our hearts.
God is bigger than our distended egos.
And so we can always start the search again.
We can access the kingdom anywhere.
Access is universal.

Francis Thompson recognizes this
in lines from his poem “The Kingdom of God”:

“The angels keep their ancient places;–
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many splendored thing.”

Not only can we start again
in our seeking for the kingdom,
but we can do so in confidence,
knowing that at every moment
God is active in seeking for us.
God never forgets us.

Do you want a reminder of that?
Consider what the Lord says to us
in the Book of Isaiah,
indulging in holy hyperbole.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion
for the child of her womb?”
(Such a thing is hard to imagine.)
“Even these may forget,”
the Lord says,
“yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you
on the palms of my hands.”

Like a kid in elementary school,
God writes words on his hands,
important words he wants to remember.
What he writes are names,
the names of his children.
Sometimes we forget him;
he never forgets us.

So the alternative to the stress/indulgence cycle
remains what it has always been:
recognizing that our true center
is the Holy One,
not our small self, our demanding ego.
Only in this way can our ego be healed
and made fit for service.

This happens as we seek God’s kingdom.
We must do so continually,
because the kingdom is mystery,
and because often we fall back
into the cycle of indulgence and stress.

Yet to the incessant seeking of God’s kingdom
there is attached a promise
of incessant finding,
of discovering the reign of God
inside each present moment
that we live.

We knock on the door,
and the hand that opens it from within
already has our name written on its palm.

Copyright 2011 Charles Hoffacker.  Used by permission.