A Harvest Thanksgiving sermon offered on October 11, 2015 at St. Paul’s (Chatsworth).
Texts: Joel 2.21-27; 1 Tim. 2.1-7; Matt. 6.24-33.
I speak to you in the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Linus turns toward his friend, Charlie Brown, and says “You look kind of depressed, Charlie Brown”. To which Charlie replies “I worry about school alot. I also worry about my worrying so much about school. My anxieties have anxieties”.
One of the things that makes ‘The Peanuts’ an enduring comic strip is its almost prophetic description of modern culture. Ours is an anxious culture. Not only are we seemingly anxious about everything, there is also a myriad of medications, therapies, and self-help books available to help us cope with our endless anxiety. It’s as if our anxiety is manufactured and manipulated for profit. Indeed, our culture excels at creating an urgent sense of desire so that we chase after and buy things we don’t really need. We accumulate goods at such an enormous rate that we need to rent storage units to store our excess stuff. We spend at such a rate that the average Canadian household consumer debt, that is debt that does not include mortgages, is nearly $30,000. $30,000 in the red, plus accruing interest, just so that I can have the biggest television, the newest model car, and go on the best vacation? And this is to say nothing of our culture’s obsession with success where personal value is calculated on the basis of one’s fortune and fame.
No wonder ours is an anxious culture.
This seems like a bit of a negative way to start a Harvest Thanksgiving sermon, doesn’t it?
Yes, we have much for which to be thankful: a steady income, food on the table, warm and dry housing, and clothes on our back. Thanks be to God for these things!
What I am suggesting is that the priorities of our thanks are often misplaced; when we limit the focus of our thanks to material things, we end up perpetuating and participating in the materialism of our culture. The solution is to prioritize our gratitude, not simply by directing our thanks to God for our material things, but by being thankful first and foremost for God’s kingdom. It is only when we put things in proper spiritual perspective that we are able to truly give thanks for God’s abundance, given to us most fully in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that we are able to truly enjoy and share everything that God gives us. It is only when the Church, as a community of believers, focuses on God’s kingdom that it is able to fulfill its God-given mission to be Christ’s body on earth.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is in the middle of his ‘Sermon on the Mount’. We can summarize Jesus’ sermon very simply: “nothing matters but God’s kingdom; but because of the kingdom, everything matters”. Jesus wants his audience, both then and now, to see the world through a kingdom-lens, to see things from a heavenly perspective. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exposes the so-called wisdom of the world as folly, flipping it completely on its head. According to Jesus, God’s kingdom is completely at odds with the wisdom of the world: the meek inherit the earth and enemies are loved. I am sure you can imagine the thoughts going through some of his listeners’ heads: Jesus teaches the impossible. Yes, what Jesus teaches is impossible from a worldly perspective; but all things are possible from a kingdom perspective.
Seeing the world through a kingdom-lens requires that we have our priorities straight. Earlier in the sermon, Jesus says “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6.21). In other words, what matters most to you will directly shape the way you live your life. As Jesus makes clear, only one thing can take ultimate priority in a person’s life: “no one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6.24a). There are only two options for what takes ultimate priority in one’s life: created reality or the Creator of reality. Therefore, one’s perspective and actions in life is shaped by who or what they worship, by who or what they desire and value above everything else.
When Jesus says “you cannot serve (or worship) God and wealth” (Matt 6.24c), the Greek word translated as ‘wealth’ is Mammon. The word means possessions of money, but it has direct spiritual connotations in the way Jesus frames his statement. Jesus is saying that a person can only worship one god; it is impossible to serve two because at some point the two will come in conflict and a person must decide who they will follow. Jesus “does not want us to waste our lives practicing the impossible”. Rather, Jesus is encouraging his followers to put their total trust, their final allegiance, in God, to give him alone their worship; Jesus is asking his followers to become atheists who deny the gods of the world; gods that are never satisfied, gods that demand more than we could possibly give. Jesus is saying that our lives must be rooted not in created things, but in the Creator God who gives creation as a gift. There can be only one bottom-line in a person’s life.
So, the question Jesus poses to us on this celebration of Thanksgiving: for what are you most thankful? What is your bottom line?
Jesus’ words about possessions are challenging and unsettling. Jesus’ words make us uncomfortable because we are often directly implicated in his remarks about giving priority to the acquisition of unnecessary material goods. In order to assuage our guilt, we turn our attention to the poor: aren’t Jesus words not to be anxious about food, clothing and money unfair to those who have so little? However, Jesus is not suggesting that things like food, clothing, housing, and money are unimportant; Jesus’ whole life and ministry was an example of feeding the hungry and healing the sick. Rather, Jesus’ is commanding his followers to “to take our eyes of our selves, off our lives, off our own selfish anxiety for things for ourselves”; Jesus is commanding his followers to fix their eyes on God and God’s kingdom. It is only when we see the world through a kingdom-lens that we learn the way of self-lessness and joyful gratitude.
Jesus’ offers us liberation from our anxiety, freedom from the gods that enslave us, freedom from the myths of scarcity that manipulate and paralyze us. Jesus restores us to God, to life lived in fellowship with Him where our tears of sorrowful fear and anxiety turn into shouts of joyful gratitude for our liberation and new life! Jesus helps us to take our eyes off of our own lives and its obsessions with popularity and possessions in order to see all created reality not as a possession to be hoarded, but a gift to be freely shared. Jesus shows us a new way of seeing the world, a world where God’s beauty, abundance, and providential care are evident everywhere we look.
Overall, a kingdom-vision is utterly and completely fixed on Jesus Christ, the one who is God’s kingdom in the flesh. He alone is the one mediator between God and humanity, the one who gave himself as a “ransom of all” people (1 Tim. 2.7) so that all people may turn to him. We worship a God who gives good gifts; more importantly, we worship a God who gives himself. In the Trinue God, the Giver and the Gift are one in the same. Furthermore, God gives of himself without remainder and yet without diminishing himself; God’s giving is abundant and everlasting. We see God’s generous self-giving most clearly in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
If only the Church had the audacity to see with kingdom-eyes! No longer would it be bogged down by bottom-lines and attendance lists, no longer would it worry about whether or not it has a future. With kingdom-vision, the Church will see that everything it needs to worship and witness to Jesus Christ is already provided by its loving Father, our Father, the God who will abide with us through the highs and lows of life. Only with such a vision will the Church be liberated from its fear and anxiety and free to proclaim the good news with reckless abandon, putting its future firmly in God’s hands.
As Christ’s earthly body, the Church is called to follow his example of selfless giving. In order to do this, we must first receive God’s gifts, primarily trough baptism and the Eucharist. One of the ways in which we demonstrate gratitude is in the way we receive gifts. In the Eucharist, we offer ourselves, our entire lives, to Christ and Christ unites himself with us through the Holy Spirit. It is precisely through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the life of our parish that we can say that the kingdom of God is within us, the same kingdom that we are called to embody and share with the world.
The most important gift the Church is called to give the world is Jesus Christ. We do this primarily by being the Church – through our worship and in our witnessing in deed and word, by sharing our material blessings and by sharing the good news that through Jesus Christ God is reconciling all of created reality to himself. It is through the Church’s worship and witness of Jesus Christ that the Church becomes God’s gift to the world as Christ’s earthly body.
In order to equip the Church in its calling, God gives us spiritual gifts. The first of these gifts is the gift of the Holy Spirit who transforms our vision, turning our eyes away from the gods of the world and toward Christ. The Holy Spirit in turn gives individual believers gifts, each of which are meant to help the Church fulfill its God-given purpose to show the world the love of God. Everyone of us, young and old, clergy and laity have a role to play as we cultivate God’s kingdom, as we embody God’s peace, as we share God’s gifts.
This Thanksgiving, let us prioritize our gratitude by giving thanks to God first and foremost for his kingdom, shown to us in Jesus Christ. Let us give thanks for the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the fruit they bear in our lives. Let us give thanks for the Church, that community of believers transformed from the inside out by the abundant love of God and liberated from the wisdom of the world, as it joyfully moves into God’s future.
Let us pray – Heavenly Father, you are the Giver of all good gifts. We confess that in our anxiety and fear that we are often blind to the gift of your kingdom. Set us free and give us eyes to see your Son so that filled with joy and gratitude we, your people, may show Him to the world. We give you thanks for all the gifts you give us, for material blessings and for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Help us to use these gifts wisely and generously to the glory of your name and for the cultivating of your kingdom. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, your kingdom-in-the-flesh. Amen.
Quotation attributed to Gordon Spykman.
Frederick Bruner, Matthew: The Christ Book Matthew 1-12, p. 327.