Sunday, February 27, 2011

Eighth Sunday after Epiphany

Preached @ St. Mary Magdalene, Wheaton, MD. 2/27/11 Matthew 6:24-34


e are gifted a Gospel reading we do not get to hear very often. Today is the 8th Sunday after the Epiphany: a long Epiphany season, as Easter comes just about as late as it can come in our church calendar. Today’s readings, as well as the Collect, are good stewardship readings (you finance people and treasurers take note for your stewardship drives later this year), as they talk about wealth and worry, and being good stewards, as well as setting our priorities correctly.

Today’s Gospel reading is a rather challenging one, in particular given the harsh economic times in which we currently live. For those who are unemployed, how can worry not be a part of life’s daily routine? Worry about food, and clothing. Worry about paying the rent or mortgage, as well as all the other bills that pile up. There is a seeming incongruity between the Gospel’s beginning about serving wealth and the second part with Jesus telling us to cast off worry and focus on today, not tomorrow. This is challenging stuff to wind our way through.

We need to look closely at today’s Gospel in order to not miss the nuances of Jesus’ message to us. Our translation has Jesus saying “No one can serve two masters.” This translation does not do the original Greek justice. We can only imagine that the intent of the translators was to soften the harsh and embarrassing memories of slavery throughout history, as the Greek is more appropriately translated as “No one can be a slave to two owners.” Listen to the difference: “No one can serve two masters” and “No one can be a slave to two owners.” I won’t bore you with the parsing of the Greek words, but the stronger of the two statements reflect Jesus’ message better…..because slaves had no rights while someone who “serves” gentles the notion, and owners provide a stronger inference to having absolute authority over others, than does the word master. This distinction is important because Jesus than goes on to say “You cannot serve God and wealth,” and these two statements are closely linked.

The Greek word translated wealth here is mamon. Originally, mamon was a word meaning wealth and possessions. Over time, and when this Gospel account was written, mamon had grown to be a slur. Mamon was used to describe people who put their trust in material things. In essence the slur meant that people who had this word mamon associated with them, were tagged with the label of putting their trust in possessions over their trust in God, owned by possessions as opposed to owned by God. Another translation of “You cannot serve God and wealth” could be “You cannot trust God and trust wealth.” And that leads into Jesus exposition on worry. All these verses are closely tied together.

Some may believe Jesus is attacking people who are wealthy, who have numerous possessions. Jesus is not doing this as he is ridiculing the worship of wealth and possessions. The possession of wealth does not automatically make us sinful. The sin comes from not being responsible with the utilization of those possessions and that wealth. With wealth comes responsibilities Jesus is saying, including not allowing that wealth to control us, and just as importantly, not allowing those possessions, and that wealth, to usurp the rightful place that is God’s.

Jesus goes on to talk about worry and trust. He uses the word “worry” six times in the course of eight verses. By all of the examples that Jesus uses concerning what not to worry about, the carefree nature of birds, the beauty of the lilies in the field, Jesus is saying that by worrying we are not trusting God, and are placing our energy and focus on the wrong thing. Think about how disabling worry can be to us: like possessions and wealth can control us, so can worry and anxiety.

The prolific writer, retreat leader and Episcopal priest from the Diocese of New York, The Rev. Barbara Crafton has written “ Of course, we cannot escape pain in our lives. People may or may not love you, but God certainly loves you, but none of that has anything to do with whether you are hurting. One’s own well-being is a poor barometer of God’s loving presence in our lives. It is precisely when life hurts that we need God most, not as the perpetrator of our suffering, but as a companion of it.”

I visited an elderly parishioner who was in the hospice area of a nursing home. Being in the hospice unit was a clear indication that he was soon going to be leaving this world and enter God’s loving embrace. His family was around him and they were not only sad but markedly worried. He, in contrast, was content. Although his body was failing him, his mind was as sharp as any person I have met. As I approached his bedside, with the oil for last rights in my hand, he smiled at me and told me that he was not worried. He said he had been blessed with a full life, a loving family and that he knew God’s love for him was secure. He then motioned me to come closer so his family couldn’t hear what he was about to say. I leaned over and he said, “this anointing you are about to do is to calm their worries, not mine. Please take care of them after you are done with me here.” What a wonderful model for us to mimic and a particularly poignant and strong message for the anxious family surrounding that dying man: all highlighting the message of today’s Gospel.

We are challenged today to search for and live into this place where worry and anxiety are held at bay. We are challenged to think of the wealth and possessions we have as blessings from God and tools to be utilized for the furtherance of the Kingdom Jesus is announcing. If we are able to find that calm place we will be avoiding the trap we are warned about in our Collect: not falling into faithless fears and worldly anxieties.

Not worrying, not being anxious, trusting that God will be with us through the harsh changes and chances of this life is not easy. Nevertheless this is where Jesus is directing us: to a different perspective on life. On being focused on today, the world around us, and giving our best efforts to live into the kingdom he is creating. Not ignoring our future and the concerns about life, but putting trust in the knowledge that God is travelling this challenging life with us. Although we may not get all we desire, and more than likely we will not walk this journey pain-free, we can walk courageously into whatever faces us based on our faith that we are not alone and that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginings. Life will almost certainly be different than how we planned it, but that does not mean we should not trust and have faith that we are better off because of those differences.


Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.

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