Sunday, February 27, 2011

8th Sunday after Epiphany - February 27, 2011

One of the things that I’ve always loved to do with my wife is take walks.  In the early days of our friendship we took regular walks with her mom and sister.  A few years later, I proposed to her on a walk around Lake Como in St. Paul.  We went hiking up Mount Webster on our honeymoon in New Hampshire.  We love taking walks together.  Now one of the reasons for this, from my point of view, is her great enthusiasm, especially when walking in the woods.  It can be counted on, that at some point, without fail, she will exclaim, “Look, a trail!”  Oftentimes it’s more a joke than anything and we’ll pass on by the supposed “trail,” but there have been many times when we’ve gone exploring.  These little trails have often been interesting, sometimes a little muddy, occasionally infested by mosquitoes, but one thing that they have had in common is that they have always been dead ends; they have never brought us to our destination.  That doesn’t mean I regret taking any of them.  In fact, I’d like to go down a few dead end trails with you this morning.

In today's sermon, I am going to go down two dead ends in interpreting our gospel lesson from Matthew.  Each trail has some interest and ends up in the theological mud with a bunch of mosquitoes.  After taking the dead end trails, we’ll get to the heart of the matter, our destination, the good news of Jesus Christ for sinners.

So let’s go down the trail!  

Here is how the first dead end message gets preached:  In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus talks about how we make money into our god.  In our country today, money makes all kinds of promises.
  • Money promises to safeguard our health.  Having insurance holds out the promise that we won’t have to worry getting sick. 
  • Money promises to make us happy.  We don’t have to watch TV for long to hear this promise loud and clear.  If we buy product XYZ then we’ll finally be happy.
  • Money promises to make us more free.  “Wanna get away?” is what Southwestern Airlines asks.  Buy a ticket and we will give you freedom. 
  • Money promises to make us loved.  Diamonds are a girl’s best friend and diamonds don’t come cheap. 

Preachers will correctly point out that money can’t keep all those promises.  “Money can become an idol, a false god,” they say.  And they are right to say it.  And then they start to make the connection to you.  “We in this country need to examine ourselves because too often we have made money our god.  We need to stop thinking so much about profit and do more to help.  We have programs that will help us to do all these things.  We need to get to work.  God’s work.  Our hands.” 

Now I am not telling you that this dead end message doesn’t have some truth in it.  Money can and does become an idol.  We are called to serve our neighbor and we are called to give generously.  This is most certainly true.  We must take care of the last, the least and the lonely.  But this is not the gospel.  This whole line of thinking is a dead end because there is no good news in it.  It leaves sinners like us all alone to examine our own lives and our own finances, hoping that we are doing enough to help.  Hoping we are serving enough.  Hoping that we aren’t condemned because of our prosperity.  It can also leave us very self-satisfied if we figure that we are doing well enough, or at least better than the other guy.
Thus ends the first dead end.

Now for the second dead end. And this one is a very tricky one because there is so much truth here it can almost seem like good news, but something is just a little bit wrong and it turns the sweetness to ashes in our mouths.  Here is how this message gets preached: 

In the gospel lesson today, the heart of the matter is the promise, "seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you."  “This is beautiful and sweet good news,” they will say, “because God is willing to give us all of the things that we need if only we will follow him.”  Further they will say, “God does not demand perfection.  God knows that we are sinners and he is so full of grace that he will forgive you and bless you if only you will respond to his grace.”

This dead end appeals to our seriousness as Christians.  We know that our God is a holy God and we know that we should seek his ways in all that we do.  These are both true.  Further, we know that living a godly life will be better for us and for our family.  This is also true.

So where is the problem?  The problem is that this is only good news if we are able to do it.  For you see, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” is not fundamentally a promise.  It is a command.  It is not the good news of Jesus Christ.  It is God’s law.  We should, we must try to keep this command, because it is the good and right thing to do!  But the day will come, maybe very quickly, when we realize that we have not kept it.  And then where will we be?  When we follow this dead end, Jesus Christ is not a savior. He is a law-giver and an encourager.  Being a serious and sincere Christian is not the gospel. 
Thus ends the second dead end.

Now for the heart of the matter. Here is the good news.  Jesus tells us that his Father cares for the birds of the air.  He cares for them enough to feed them.  God loves you more than that.  Jesus tells us that his Father cares for the lilies of the field.  He cares for them enough to clothe them beautifully, watering them so that they exceed the splendor of King Solomon.  God loves you more than that.  In fact, God loves you so much that he sent his only son to die for you, so that all your struggling and striving and failing could come to an end in him.  I have good news for you today.  Your God loves you.  Amen.

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