Sunday, May 25, 2008

A: Proper 03 (RCL)

Matthew 6:24-34
Psalm 131

Brenda and I are in the stage of life when our own children are fully grown—hovering either side of the thirty-year milestone—but they haven’t yet produced any grandchildren for us. When we’re out at a restaurant and see a family with a baby in the next booth, we find ourselves paying perhaps a little more attention than we once would have. Sometimes we’ll play a silent game of peek-a-boo, and it’s especially gratifying if the baby starts to jump and giggle as a result of our interaction. But it’s even more endearing, and utterly sweet, when we see a baby fast asleep in its mother’s arms. The sight of a sleeping or nursing infant touches a nerve that connects directly to that place in our hearts where we look for peace and contentment and freedom from all stress and anxiety. It is this very image that the 131st Psalm evokes for us:

O Lord, I am not proud; *
I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters, *
or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother’s breast; *
my soul is quieted within me.

Are we ever so fortunate at any later time in our lives? More than anything else, I think, we crave the sort of deep peace that transcends the ups and downs, the changes and chances, of this life. And the opposite of such peace—consuming anxiety—has our fast-paced and fast-changing society in a vice grip. We not only think that sleeping baby is adorable; envy that sleeping baby!

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus knows his hearers even then suffered from high anxiety. They worried about what they were going to eat—some of them, no doubt, whether they were going to eat or not; others about whether they would have mere food or cuisine. They worried about what they were going to wear; fashion trends, you know, and the desire to keep up with them, go back a long, long way in human civilization. They worried about their social standing, what their peers and neighbors would think of them, whether they would be invited to the coolest parties. And in this sea of anxiety, what do we get from Jesus? We get this: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Seek first the kingdom of God … and his righteousness … and all these things—food, clothing, material security, reputation—all these things shall be yours as well. So quit worrying, and let loose of your anxiety.

Easy for him to say, maybe. Harder for us to do. Most of the time, it feels like anxiety is not something we have a choice about. We’re the victims. It’s something that happens to us. So let’s do a little unpacking of what it might be like to “seek first the kingdom of God.” What does that mean, anyway? Over and over again in the gospels, but particularly in Matthew, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven. Through parables and through direct teaching, he tells us how the Kingdom operates, what its core values are, what God’s vision is for His Kingdom. God has a mission in the world, which is that all people be reconciled to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. God’s mission is to redeem and restore the torn fabric of the universe, to lift the ancient curse that has kept all of creation captive to the power of sin and death. The economy of the Kingdom of God operates under some different rules than worldly economies—stewardship rather than ownership, for example; generosity and abundance rather than scarcity and fear, self-giving rather than self-indulging, the welfare of the whole rather than “I’ve got mine, you get lost.” When we seek first the Kingdom of God, we align ourselves in body and mind, in soul and spirit, in theory and in practice, with God’s redemptive mission. We commit ourselves to pursue lives of self-denial, integrity, and justice tempered with mercy.

But seeking the Kingdom of God doesn’t come easily or naturally. It’s not anybody’s default mode. It takes constant attention, and when that attention lapses, our actual default position is to “seek first” our own immediate welfare, whatever we perceive that welfare to be. Our default position is to make decisions according to what’s going to put the most money into our pockets, because we’re anxious about our material security. Our default position is to order our relationships with other people in whatever way will maximize our standing in the eyes of those whose opinions we care about the most, because we’re anxious about our reputations. Our default mode to is to make political decisions—to vote and to advocate—in ways that we think will advance our self-interests, or the interest of those whom we love and care about most directly, or are most like us, because we’re anxious about our place in a world that seems to be getting more chaotic and uncertain by the day. And what does all this get us? What does this default position accomplish? Anxiety, my sisters and brothers, simply breeds more anxiety. It compounds, like interest on a loan. When we seek first our own welfare, we only jeopardize that welfare even further. By investing in material security and social status, our exposure to loss leaves us wide open to fear, and fear lies at the root of a whole array of nasty and destructive behaviors.

But there is an alternative, of course. Jesus gives it to us. We have the option of “seek[ing] first” God’s kingdom, of putting God’s mission of redemption and restoration and reconciliation at the top of our list of priorities, making it the top window on our mental desktop. Now, without in any way devaluing the heroic witness of people like St Francis, who cast aside wealth and poverty to embrace a life of begging for the sake of the gospel, or soon-to-be St Teresa of Calcutta, who poured out her life among the wretched and the dying, “seeking first” God’s kingdom does not necessarily mean eating bland food and wearing drab clothes and not partying with your friends. It means God’s mission and vision and core values become our mission and vision and core values. It means the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, become the hub of the wheel on which we organize our lives. Food, clothing, friends, 401Ks, new hair styles, NASCAR, soccer games, track meets, career plans, even our own families, not to mention the hundreds of other things that bring light and joy to our lives—these things occupy various points around the rim of that wheel. These are the things that Jesus says will be “[ours] as well” when we “seek first” God Kingdom.

When we make God’s Kingdom our priority, when we pray “thy kingdom come” in the Our Father, and mean it like we’ve never meant anything before, a subtle but remarkable change will occur within us. We will relax! More and more we will relax about all sorts of things. We will relax because we will have begun to understand the character of God’s provision for us, of God’s care for even the littlest details of our lives. The grip that anxiety has on us will be considerably looser. Best of all, we will begin to enjoy the sort of inner peace that we see in a baby asleep on its mother’s breast—completely trusting, grateful for today, and not worried about tomorrow—no pride, no arrogance, no anxiety, just trust in the presence of the Lord who cares even for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.


Mark Michael Zima said...

Mr. Hayden,

You said:

“God has a mission in the world, which is that all people be reconciled to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.”

I agree with you but the “soon-to-be St Teresa of Calcutta” did not. She taught:

“The Kingdom must be preached to all” (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, 133).

But the kingdom she preached was:

“I convert you to be a better Hindu, a better Catholic, Muslim, Jain, or Buddhist” (Mother Teresa: The Case for The Cause, 4).”

This is not exactly the Gospel. And this type of contradiction was very common with Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa said, “There is so much contradiction in my soul” (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, 169). Those who heard these words presupposed that these were the words of a saint going through a “dark night of the soul.” If they would have examined her words and deeds a little closer they would have seen that there was a lot of contradiction in her soul—but it was not from the dark night of the soul.

If you are interested in learning more about Mother Teresa’s teachings, I have written a book, Mother Teresa: The Case for The Cause. My book is an intensively researched book exploring the faith and morals of Mother Teresa as compared to Catholic and Christian standards. My book is also unique in that there is no book currently in print that explores the faith Mother Teresa practiced in light of the faith she professed.

Peace & Grace,
Mark M Zima

us300 said...

Wow, some people just don't read things all the way through. Is this guy just looking for a quick buck, or did he make an honest mistake?

Mark Michael Zima said...


What did I miss?