Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 20, 2011

John 3:1-17
1  Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  2  He came to Jesus  by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."  3  Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."   4  Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"  5  Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  6  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.   7  Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You  must be born from above.'   8  The wind  blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  9  Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"  10  Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  11  "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you  do not receive our testimony.  12  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  13  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.   14  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  15  that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.   16  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17  "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Well, here we are with what is undoubtedly the most famous verse in the Christian canon.  Good old John 3:16.  Martin Luther called it the Gospel in miniature and it has been as much apart of American sports as raucous fans and over-priced concessions.   When I was a young boy, the permanent fixture of a John 3:16 sign behind the goal posts of Mile High Stadium confused me to no end.  I asked my father if Jesus had been a Broncos fan.  He tried to communicate to me what this verse had sort of become and why it was unavoidably a part of any large gathering of humans.  Yes, this famed verse, John 3:16, is as Luther suggested, a sort of short hand for the entire story of Jesus: it is a precise and neat encapsulation of what we believe as Christians.  It is utterly familiar to us, and like all things familiar, runs the risk of losing its meaning through sheer repetition.  For while it may be the most familiar verse to all of us, I dare anyone to recite Leviticus 3:16, don’t worry, I don’t have that one memorized either, there is a danger in this familiarity.   For this verse, this famed verse, is so much more than a slogan or a chant or a way to sequester ourselves from those who do not agree with us on the meaning of Jesus Christ.  No, this verse is God’s rhapsody for the whole cosmos, it is a foreshadowing of the great drama in which God reclaims and recaptures a sinful humanity. Yes, so much more than a slogan. 
To see how this is true, we need to back up to the beginning of the story and get into this wonderful and perplexing dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. We are working out of John’s Gospel, and there are a few important chronological features of John that are vitally important.  Whereas in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus goes down to Jerusalem and cleanses the Temple during Holy Week, right before his trial and crucifixion, this event happens much earlier in John.  In fact, it is the last action that Jesus takes before the scene that we happen upon here.  Jesus has just cleared the Temple and performed many signs that have created belief in the masses.  So enter Nicodemus, from stage left,  a man well trained in traditional religion, one who, in some sense, is in favor the Temple practices that Jesus just violently condemned. Nicodemus, under the cover of night, has come to see Jesus, with the curiosity of one who has witnessed something incredible and bizarre.  Now, we can easily make Nicodemus into some sort of conniving villain, a sort of stand-in for all those who opposed or oppose Christ, but to do so would mean to disregard what the text actually says about him.  Nicodemus is not so much manipulative or underhanded as he is confused, perplexed, and in this way, he is a stand-in for you and me.  He comes to Jesus, expresses admiration and respect for him as one who has come from God, given all these miraculous and healing things Jesus has been up to.  Yes, Nicodemus, with echoes from last week’s readings, is perhaps asking for a little bit more evidence that will unlock the mystery of this man Jesus.
Unfortunately, if Nicodemus was coming to Jesus to have his confusion answered and his anxiety eased, he has come to the wrong place.  For what next ensues is what we might politely call a disjointed conversation.  There seems to be no common conversational ground on which the two may stand.  Nicodemus sort of politely hints at his intentions and Jesus, totally unprompted, tells Nicodemus that the world must be born from above if it is to see the Kingdom of God.  Understandably confused, but still trying, Nicodemus asks, with the literalism of one who is, like, totally in over his head, how a person could possibly crawl back into the womb a second time.  The biological implications of this statement are more than Nicodemus can handle.  Jesus, next, rather than assisting Nicodemus, instead ups the ante with an equally confusing metaphor, this time referencing the wind.  If all this is not enough, Jesus is astonished that Nicodemus, as a religious authority charged with teaching Israel, cannot understand these things. So much for Nicodemus getting some precise answers that will help him make sense of this Jesus.  Instead, Nicodemus, then, sort of recedes in the background more perplexed than when the conversation started and probably a bit embarrassed for Jesus’ less than constructive criticism vis-à-vis his ability as a teacher. 
So, how does any of this help us recapture the wonderful, life-altering vision of God’s love that is captured in John 3:16?  Well, you see,  the conversational funhouse that Nicodemus has found himself in culminates in that famed verse and following.  John 3:16 is the way that Jesus will finally, in some sense, give Nicodemus the goods in a way that he can understand.  For Nicodemus and for us, we are being charged with this most difficult task: trusting the wind.  Yes, as deeply as Nicodemus wants to understand Jesus, he does not yet realize that he must let go of his preconceived notions of who God is and where God is to be found and simply trust in Christ’s goodness and love. To trust the wind is to trust that which you cannot control, that which blows where it will without asking for our input.  Is there anything more difficult than trusting a God who likens himself to the wind? How does one even begin to do a thing such as this?  Enter John 3:16 and its incredibly portrayal of God’s other-worldly love.  How do you trust a God who is mysterious beyond comprehension?  Well, you see that God has drawn you to the cross: the place where God’s glory is fully revealed and when you gaze up at your savior, and in that instant when the Holy Spirit births in you the faith that receive this crucified Christ as the glory of God, yes, it is that moment that the wind becomes not a threat by the power by which you came to believe.  “Yes, dear Nicodemus, you want to know what it means to be born from above?  To be born by the spirit that is predictable and manageable as the wind?  Well you, sir, you will be born from above only when I am lifted up on the cross” says Jesus.   “It will be in that event, in my being raised up on roughly-fashioned wooden planks, sallow with perspiration and blood, it is then that you will be born from above.”  This, dearly beloved, this is our kinship with Nicodemus.  We come to this place, struggling to make sense of pretty much everything in our lives: earthquakes and tsunamis lay waste to an entire region.  Budget cuts and a still sluggish economy work a deep fear and anxiety in us.  We ask where God could possibly be in the midst of all this.  And it is precisely in the moment we admit this fear, when we sit with Nicodemus in this befuddlement and confusion, when we ask how can these things possibly be,  it is then that the cross, that John 3:16 begins to be more than a slogan or an identity marker.  It is then that these most incredible words: “For God loved the world in this way . . .”   it is then that they become what they are intended: the sweetest sound of relief to our anxiety-choked souls.  For right when we are about to give it all up, this Christ proclaims to us that God’s love for the whole cosmos is such that God will go to the cross and draw us to himself as he is lifted up.  This, dear people of God, this is your birth from above.  You are named, you are remembered, you are loved by a God who preaches peace and forgiveness even to those who would betray and execute him. Like Nicodemus, we will never completely understand this God, but this much is certain: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lent Week One, March 16, 2011

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
                                                                                                        --Hebrews 11: 1

In our particular time and space, I do not know that there is a greater temptation than the temptation to a tragically-short sided view of reality.  We are everywhere tempted to believe that what we can see and touch, what we can accumulate and what we can reasonably observe, yes, that these things are really all that is left for us.  There are forces will make cynical ploys on our weaknesses and fears of death in order to line their own pockets.  They will have us believe that our lives, and the quality of those lives, can be extended ad infinitum, and that one minor and inconvenient fact we call death, well, that is to be ignored and denied at all cost, so that the charade of materialism may continue uninterrupted. 
This is, I think, what makes Ash Wednesday’s ritual so entirely powerful.  In a culture where the reality of death is everywhere suppressed, the Christian church stands together and says “no,” that we are all dust and to dust we will return.  It is, to me, sort of like a giant, cultural exhale.  It is a relief to stand up and tell the emperor that he indeed has no clothes, to name a reality, together, that everyone knows to be true.  But this squaring ourselves to the reality of death, this takes an incredible amount of courage, for there is nothing more terrifying than admitting this fact to ourselves and to one another.  In a culture where we can so easily distract ourselves, where endless entertainment is readily available, what compels the church to name this fact?
This, dearly beloved, is where the gift of faith is of such incredible importance.  The writer to the Letter of Hebrews names faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  The church, then, is able to deal honestly with death, to wear our mortality on our bodies, because of the faith in the crucified Christ that the Holy Spirit works in our lives.  Yes, faith is that deep yearning for immortality, the unshakably beautiful notion that we will enter into a day without end, a day in which nothing will be on our lips except the sounds of praise for a God who has made God’s home amongst us.  Yes, faith is that daring, audacious thing that can be honest about death because it compels us to believe in a reality that is larger than the grave.  For faith looks upon the crucified Christ, the broken and expiring body of this Jesus,  and says if God is here in this place, then there is nowhere that I can ever be without God.   This is the meaning of faith: to trust that God’s goodness in the cross and resurrection is the last and final word, and that what God has begun in our baptisms will be carried to completion as we see God face to face.
You want to know the even better news?  This faith is a present reality.  While it is, as Hebrews states, the assurance of things hoped for, this hope meets us right here in the present tense and breathes new life into our daily habits and rituals, animating the mundane with the presence of the holy. We need not wait for the new life to begin; for the abundance of an endless tomorrow is spilling over into our todays.   Faith reaches over the chasm of time, and takes hold of us, right here and right now.  The new day has already broken and Christ’s grace is already upon you.  So rise and greet the new day.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March 13, 2011

Matthew 4:1-11
1  Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  2  He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  3  The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."  4  But he answered, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' "  5  Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,  6  saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you,' and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' "  7  Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "  8  Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;  9  and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."  10  Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' "  11  Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

            And Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  Welcome, then, dear people of God, to the first Sunday in Lent, the season in which we move ever more near the cross and the empty tomb.  Yes, that is where this story, our story, is going to end up, but that is not where it begins.  Instead, it begins in two places, both fraught with the same problem.  Yes, for this Sunday, we are back in the Garden of Eden with our primordial parents and simultaneously with Jesus in the wilderness, as he does battle with the devil.  Now, these may seem like entirely different stories with different results, and that is true, especially in Jesus’ victory over the devil in this case,  but the very nature of the temptation that they all three undergo is essentially the same.  Yes, we pray weekly that God would “lead us not into temptation” but what is the real substance of that plea?
Now, often it is the case that we think about temptation in terms of illicit or inappropriate behavior.  From this way of thinking, temptation is basically the bodily urge to do something that we know is not in our best interest: we sneak some food that is banned by our diets, we have one more drink than we probably should, we mutter a gossiping word about someone we do not like, or our gaze at that attractive co-worker is just a second too long.   Temptation, in this way of thinking, is an issue of morality.  To fall into temptation is to act in a certain way.  This can be a helpful way to think about temptation, but I think our stories are after something more fundamental.   Temptation, at least according to the two stories that stand in front of us, is first an issue of how one relates to God before it is an issue what one does in the world. What hangs in the balance, then,  is whether God is to be trusted, or if we should go it alone.   This, as we will see, is a much more complicated ordeal than whether or not one should order dessert.
Take, if you will the story of Adam and Eve, and notice please how the serpent begins what the process of Adam and Eve’s collective ruin.  In response to Eve telling the serpent what God has said about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent plants a seed of doubt in Eve’s vulnerable mind.  “No, what God has told you is actually incorrect” says the serpent, and “my advice is far more trustworthy.  God is not setting for you a loving boundary but rather is jealously guarding power that very well could be yours.”  The serpent, then, convinces Adam and Eve that God is withholding something from them, that God’s motives are not entirely pure and there just might be a way into a power and wisdom that makes being a creature seem petty and trivial by comparison.   Yes, the rhetorical strategy that the serpent employs is one that cuts directly to the heart of the matter: is God to be trusted? 
In the same way, when the devil comes to Jesus in the wilderness, that particular force of evil tries to undo what God has just done.  You see, immediately prior to Jesus’ temptation is his baptism, that whole scene in which the heavens are torn wide open and God declares Jesus His beloved Son.  So, it is no accident that the devil gets right down to business.  Yes, if you are the Son of God, that is, if God is actually to be trusted, surely you can command these stones to become bread, after all, that sounds like something the Son of God would be able to do, does it not?  Or if you are indeed God’s Son, no doubt the angels will protect you in all things and so why not show off a bit of that divinity and be rescued by angels mid-sky dive?  Or finally, that whole Son of God title is a pretty powerful bartering chip, certainly worth a multi-million dollar off-shore bank account, provided that you will switch sides and worship me.   Yes, the temptation here is fundamentally the same as what Adam and Eve undergo.  Is the God that just proclaimed Jesus the son of God, the same God that established limits for Adam and Eve, is this God to be trusted?
Before it is anything else, temptation is the urge to reject God’s Word as sufficient for our lives of faith.   Accordingly, temptation is a tragedy before it is an invitation to immoral behavior, however we come to define that. Yes, temptation is that voice that ensnares us in the middle of the night, telling us that the love that has found and named us in Christ just may not be as reliable as we think.    Temptation is the urge to ask for some evidence, a little bit of stone turned to bread perhaps, or the deeper urge to step over the limits that God has established and to ask for things that are not ours but God’s. Yes, when the temptation takes hold of us, it is then that we are ever so vulnerable to forces of decay and destruction, forces that tell us we will never be good enough or loveable enough for God or for other people.   When we operate out of that fear and insecurity, we will chase after whatever illusions we believe may grant us some measure of security, as we frantically try and become people of worth and value.  To be sure, there is a void in us that we try and fill one way or another, but there is not enough money, or prestige or knowledge in the world to make us genuinely secure. Yes, this is the temptation, this is the tragedy that waits to everywhere ensnare us. 
While we might, then, believe that we must take up arms against this old foe on our own, nothing could be further from the case.  No, we will not be tempted or tested like Jesus, as none of us here are the Messiah, but the manner in which Jesus defeats the devil is of paramount importance.  You will notice that when the devil attempts to unnerve Jesus, to make him question who he is as the Beloved Son, Jesus quotes Scripture to him; which is to say that while the devil tries to lead Jesus away from his identity as God’s son, Jesus plants his feet firmly in the Word of God.  Jesus returns to the source of his identity, the God of the Word, and this is enough to keep the forces of evil at bay.  How true this reality is for us.  Yes, when we are tempted to believe that we are not beloved children of God, when we are tempted to believe that who we are is a matter of how much we have, or when we are tempted to see our neighbor as a competitor and a threat, yes, when the temptation comes as come it must, you have this to remember: Christ named you as his own in your baptisms.  Christ gives you his body and blood, and Christ dwells in your hearts through faith.  He comes to you in the promises that you hear in this place.   All this he does so that you may never be alone or forget that you are his beloved people, children of his own redeeming.  This does not take the struggle away.  In this life, sin and temptation are real threats, and to state otherwise is to venture into a dangerous denial.  So yes, the danger and the fear will remain as long as we have breath in our lungs. But this is not cause of despair or a reason to succumb to the urge that we are alone.  No, for the God who goes to the cross is with us. Yes, Christ is with you.  He is with you in your struggles and fears; he is with you when you cannot sleep for worries over this life.  He is with you to proclaim to you this one word, over and over again: you are my own, my beloved.   So when the temptation comes, stand defiantly against it and tell it this one thing: I belong to Christ and in him I am forever free.  For as Martin Luther was wrote: “this one little word subdues him.” In Christ’ name, amen. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

March 6, 2011

Matthew 17:1-9

1  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  2  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  3  Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  4  Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I  will make three dwellings  here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."  5  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved;  with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"  6  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  7  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid."  8  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.  9  As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

One of the bright spots on my life CV, as far as I am concerned, is the fact that I have lived in both Berkeley, California and Boulder, Colorado.  Now, the reason I say this is not because of the natural beauty associated with those places, though both are resplendent in their settings, nor do I say this because of the shared history of radical politics associated with both places.  Instead, my time in both places has allowed me to survey, in some detail, what passes for spirituality in early 21st century North American life.  Yes, both of these places, for reasons that fall beyond the scope of our discussion, have reputations for being places where spirituality, if not conventional religion, thrive.  If one is to take these reputations at their word, the following can be surmised in regards to spirituality:  First of all, it is an entirely individual exercise.  Whatever may “feed you” spiritually, and I cannot begin to tell you what that phrase actually means, is what is genuine, what is real, spiritually speaking.  Because it is an individual exercise, spirituality is not the sort of thing that cannot be regulated by a community.  Also, for something to be of spiritual value, it must do something to you internally.  That is, you must get some sort of spiritual high from the experience.  If you are not constantly being transformed by the beauty of a mountain or the sun dropping off into the Pacific Ocean, you should probably work a bit harder on cultivating the fallowness of your spiritual life.  In this way, spirituality is work that you are doing on your own to grow more and more into your own spiritual self.  
            And while we might be tempted to regard these spiritual pursuits as hippie-nonsense in comparison to our own deeply grounded and traditional spiritual beliefs, we let ourselves off the hook far too easily.  For while the ways that this striving after the spiritual take form may differ depending on the audience, we all have this sort of quest written deeply into our DNA.  We want to have these sorts of transcendent experiences of the divine, and when we do, we want to hold onto them, to capture them and to develop a behavioral manual that will guarantee we can have them at any time and place.  Yes, we want a spirituality that will take us away from the ordinary, the mundane.  We see this in Christian circles where an emotionally charged experience seems to be the central goal of worship.  The same can be said for sporting events, in which one moment of raw athletic talent becomes for us a way to escape our worlds. Think here of John Elway’s first Super Bowl victory.  Yes, this is what we want our spirituality to be, from the bright lights of Coors Field to the stark beauty of the Flatirons.
            Peter, you see, wanted this sort of spirituality, as well.  In the most real of ways, he speaks our language of what we think spirituality means.  Here he is, up on a mountain, and the two larger than life heroes of his faith suddenly appear with Jesus, who is transformed into something other-worldly right before his eyes.  These fireworks are just too much for him; he wants to capture and document it so that he may return to this holiness whenever he so desires.  He wants to hold and possess this moment, maybe in our day he would have reached for his camera so that his facebook friends could see what an incredible afternoon he had just had.  Really, I cannot say that I would have done anything different in Peter’s shoes. 
            And this project of building a dwelling for the holy is going just fine until God interrupts Peter’s designs with the following: “this is my Son.  My Beloved, in him I am well-pleased.”    To this, Peter and the other disciples fall down in fear.   To be sure, it seems a bit strange that a voice from heaven, and not the appearance of Moses and Elijah, long since dead, would terrify these men.  So perhaps the issue is not so much that God spoke from heaven, but rather what God said.  You see, just before this passage begins, Jesus has begun to instruct his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and to the cross.  That the only way to enter in discipleship is through death and resurrection: death to the self and its ideas about who God is and where God is found.  Death to the belief that God can be contained and manipulated by human whim and desire.  This, then, is the substance of Peter’s terror.  Not that the transcendent vision is not somehow real, but that it is not final. The story was supposed to end on the mountain, but this is not the case, for Christ has another mountain in mind, the one upon which he will be put to death. Yes, this is the terror that takes hold of Peter.  That what he thought he knew about God is entirely mistaken. 
            “This is my Son, my Beloved, listen to Him.”  Oh, these are the words that put Peter to death, for they mean that what Jesus has said about the cross is real, and that God’s glory will be found not apart from the ambiguity and sinfulness of life, but rather right in the midst of it.  God’s glory will be found first on a cross before it is found it is found in other worldly joy and beauty.  Yes, there is no way to get to Easter without first going through Good Friday. This is terrible, terrifying news, for it means that Peter is deeply and profoundly mistaken in his attempt to keep Jesus from going to the cross.    And lest we mock Peter across the distance of space and time, his terror is ours, as well.  For what is being asked of us is the same death that Peter must undergo.  We, too, must die to our beliefs about who God is and our attempts to find a God apart from the crucified Christ.  We must die to the belief that we can find God on our own and capture this God by our good behavior or correct opinions.  Yes, we must return to the waters of baptism, in which our pride and despair were indeed put to death and the suffocating grips of evil and hell were themselves destroyed.  
            Oh, dearly beloved, please do not think this the final word, however.  For listen again to what Jesus says the instant after God has again confirmed Him as the beloved son: “Rise and do not be afraid.”  Yes, the first words of the Messiah who is heading to his death is, ironically enough, a word of abundant life.  Get up, rise, be resurrected.  Rise from your fear and your guilt, rise up from your failures and your pains, your broken pasts and current troubles.  Rise into the new life that was given to you as Christ touched you in your baptisms, just as he first touches the disciples. For you were buried with Christ at your baptisms so that may be raised, by the glory of the Father, into new life, and this you have already undergone.  For while Christ’s presence and his cross may mean death to our attempts at finding a God on our own, they also mean that death itself is about to be vanquished. Yes, rise for the terror of death is going to be conquered by the Christ who is going to enter the grave on your behalves and in so doing, gives you the faith to rise in the everlasting splendor of the Father.    This is what the season of Lent, actually all of life, is about.  Lent is forty days in which we again enter the waters of baptism and their continual movement of death and resurrection.  Lent is the time to return from the distraction of chasing after the wind and our attempts to find God in how much we own, how good we are at our jobs, how well our sports teams are doing, or in how well we sequester ourselves from those who do not believe in the same way that we do.   Yes, Lent is the time to come down off those mountains and to be found again by Christ and cross.  The disciples looked up and saw Jesus himself and alone.  For from here to eternity, he is all they, all you, need to see.  In the name of Jesus, amen.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Feb. 27, 2011

Matthew 6:24-34
24  "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.   25  "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,  or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  26  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  27  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?   28  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  29  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  30  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  31  Therefore do not worry, saying, "What will we eat?' or "What will we drink?' or "What will we wear?'  32  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  33  But strive first for the kingdom of God  and his  righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  34  "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.

Well, if you thought that last week’s portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount presented some difficulties, you know that whole praying for enemies and turning the other cheek business, I dare say that that was only a preview. Yes, indeed, it appears as though Jesus was just getting warmed up.   For in today’s selection: we receive the following admonition from our Lord:  Do not worry about your life, about what you will eat and drink.  If there were ever place in the Gospels where one is tempted to ask Jesus exactly how well he knows humans, this would be it.  Really, do not worry? Indeed, the relative difficulty of praying for enemies now seems a minor and wholly accomplishable task.  Worrying for us is as natural as breathing or eating.  The instant that our brains develop the capacity to recognize that things go wrong in this life, we meet that realization with worry.  So, what exactly am I not supposed to worry about?  Should I not be concerned with the health of my children or grand children, or how well they are performing at school?  Should I not be concerned that my job will continue to supply the income for the needs of my family?  Isn’t only responsible that we watch our retirement savings and social security accounts?  And what about getting into the college that we most desire or maintaining good enough grades?  Yes, these and sundry others are the worries that cloud our minds and make us desperate, desperate for any word that may offer some comfort, however limited, or respite, however brief, from the unfailing feeling that we lack the control over this life that we so desire. 
And make no mistake, dear people of God, there are forces everywhere in our midst that will gladly prey upon this anxiety, and they come in all shapes and sizes, yes, even in the garb of the religious. Sadly, it is our lot as those who instinctively mistrust God to give heed the seductive call of these forces and we suffer the destructive results.  While they present themselves in any number of ways, these forces seem to share this one basic principle: they want us to believe that there is not enough (enough money, enough jobs, enough education, not enough youth left in our bodies, not enough wideness in God’s mercy) yes, there is not enough to go around, but with their help you can make certain that you will be one of those lucky or enlightened ones who made the decisions or aligned themselves with the right forces to have enough.  These are forces that promise us that we can game the system in attempt to shore up some security in this world where stability is far from promised. Televangelists will promise us that our material wealth is only dependent upon us simply having enough faith.  Yes, new age gurus ensure us that negative thinking is the only obstacle on our way towards some state of self-discovery and fulfillment.  And what of your neighbors, those who were not fortunate or wise enough to be on the right side of this great divide?  Well, better you than me, I suppose.  Yes, this force that we are here describing is what the Bible calls “mammon,” and “mammon” is a stingy god, indeed.   What “mammon” does to us is reinforce the fundamental belief that we are alone in this universe and that there is limited supply of whatever it is that we need, from food and clothing to work and education to youth and attraction.   So, with no regard for the God who provides for us or for our neighbors who may have less than us, we stockpile and accumulate, and this is how we bow our need at “mammon’s” vulgar altar. The problem, though, is this: we are never really given what we were promised.  This “enough” is finally entirely elusive, and just when we think we are there, our security slips through our fingers once again.  However we once defined enough, enough money, enough education, enough happiness, when we reach that point, we suddenly discover that we want, nay need, more.  This is how mammon, the fear, works on us. 
It is no wonder, then, that Jesus begins this passage by saying that we cannot worship both mammon, that is, wealth and God.  For there could not be a more pronounced difference between the way God and wealth operate.  While mammon works on our insecurities and our fears, God gives us more than we could ever imagine or require.  Though, we make a crucial error if we assume that this giving of God’s is the same as the mass accumulation of wealth and status that drives our culture.  No, God is after something entirely different.  Something that that breaks the cycle of fear, insecurity and accumulation for accumulation’s sake.  And God will stop at nothing, not even an encounter with death, to ensure that you will never be separated from this love of God in Christ Jesus. This giving of God’s self, this is the kingdom that has taken hold of us and in so doing, has beckoned us to strive after it.  And it is only the kingdom, which is given its fullest expression in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, that can fill our deepest needs.  For it is only at the cross that we can say we have been apprehended by a God who knows us in our fear and weakness, in our sin and unbelief.  For in Christ and his cross, we are met by a God who enters into our fear, who joins us in our worry-soaked sleepless nights and gives us the loving presence of a God who can transform worry with the assurance that this God will not let us go.  Yes, this is the comfort that wealth, that mammon, can never provide: a God who does not manipulate our fear and worry, but a  God who enters them and transforms them by his sweet presence.
And to be sure, dear people of God, this love is not somehow disembodied and removed from the concerns of this life.  It is tempting to believe that being “spiritual” means somehow rising above the concerns of this life, but a spirituality such as this cannot be called genuinely Christian.  For this is not a God who is somehow indifferent to the very real concerns of this life, including food, clothing, work, stable family life and all the rest.   No, as Jesus says, “your heavenly Father knows that you need such things.”  There is no guilt in wanting to provide for yourself or your family, nor are such urges somehow a mark of weak faith. Yes, the point that being made here is that Christian discipleship is a deeply embodied reality.  Unlike so much of what passes for “spirituality” in our time and place, Christian discipleship, yes the kingdom of God, does not negate the importance of the body or the complexities of life. This, then, is also the reason that care of the neighbor, in providing food and shelter, is of such importance to our lives as Christians.  For when we do that, we participate in the kingdom of God, right here and right now.  Yes, there can be no more spiritual an act that reaching out and giving someone who is hungry a bit of food, or a new immigrant a blanket to help stay warm.   For genuine discipleship is nothing less than saying that with God there is more than enough.  With God we have the abundance that we crave and we are given the security to live our lives in ways that honor the needs of those around us.  To be sure, the worries and the concerns will persist.  This is a given, but we are also given a God who meets us in those worries and who promises to provide, no matter how different that may look from our expectations or from what the culture around us says we must have and be in order to be people of status.  For in Christ, we have all that we need, we have the kingdom right in this place.  In Jesus’ name, amen.