Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: "Seek First" (Matthew 6:24-33)

There is a remarkable passage in the gospel of Matthew. It’s three chapters long. It starts in chapter five, and continues through chapters six and seven. We call it the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew introduces the Sermon on the Mount by saying that Jesus went throughout Galilee and Syria, proclaiming the good news about the kingdom, and curing people from disease and sickness. This drew more and more people to him, crowds of people who came from all over to see him, hear him teach, and perhaps be healed by him.
Seeing all these crowds following him, Jesus went up on a mountain, and he began to speak.
The Sermon on the Mount is long. The teachings contained in it are numerous.
It begins with the beatitudes. It includes phrases like “you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” It includes teachings like the ones we heard last week, about murder and adultery and divorce, and how the desires and intentions of the heart are just as important as the actions one performs. It includes instructions to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and love your enemy.
And all that’s just in chapter five. There’s still chapter six and chapter seven.
Scholars believe that the Sermon on the Mount actually contains teachings that Jesus gave on numerous occasions. This would all be too much for one sitting, don’t you think? But Matthew took all these things that Jesus taught and preached on various occasions, and - for the sake of simplicity - combined them all into one dramatic scene.
A little later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “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.”
Then Jesus describes many things that people in his day were worried about: buying clothes to wear, figuring out what they were going to eat, wondering how they were going to pay for such things. Apparently there was a lot of stress about how to afford things such as food, clothing, and shelter. People were always asking, “What will we eat?” “What will we wear?”
These are things worth worrying about, are they not? Food and clothing are important. I sometimes worry myself how I can continue to afford the food and the clothing that my family needs.
On the other hand, I know most of us have closets full of clothes, and we still worry about what we will wear. Does this shirt match my shoes? Did I wear this same outfit last time? Do these pants make my butt look good?
And most of us have food at home. But we look at the pictures our friends post on instagram, of the marvelous meals they eat at some amazing restaurants, and we worry that the food we’re eating is, well, boring.
Jesus says: “Don’t worry about it. Gentiles worry about such things, but you - people of faith - should not. The only thing you should be concerned about is God’s kingdom. Worry about that - make that your priority - and everything else will fall into place.”
I don’t know how literally to take this. It does sound as if Jesus means it, that he really means what he says.
But, stop worrying? As if I could!
Although Jesus doesn’t exactly say “stop worrying.” He says, “stop worrying about the wrong things. Stop focusing your attention on things that are less important, and start focusing your attention on things that are more important.”
In other words: “get your priorities straight.”
What do we, as a church, worry about? What are the conversations in board meetings and in the parking lot that make us anxious? Are our priorities straight? How much of our focus is on the kingdom of God?
To focus more of our attention on the kingdom of God - to truly make the kingdom of God our first priority - we need to understand what the kingdom of God IS. And one of the best ways to understand what the kingdom of God is, is to read… the Sermon on the Mount.
The footnotes in my annotated Bible refer to the Sermon on the Mount as the keynote of the new age that Jesus came to introduce. And that new age IS the kingdom of God. If you want to know what the kingdom of God is… read the Sermon on the Mount.
And if you are particularly knowledgeable about the Bible, you will realize - when you read the Sermon on the Mount - that the ideas Jesus presents parallel the ideas, the visions & dreams, of the prophets.
The kingdom of God is the vision of the prophets. It is a world where all live in wholeness and harmony. It is the beloved community. It is no obstacles and no fear. It is peace, justice and equality.
Read the prophets. Read Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. And you will see:
The kingdom is every valley being exalted and every hill being made low, the rough places made plain and the crooked places made straight.
The kingdom is a world in which all people are recognized as being created equal.
The kingdom is people of all colors and races respecting each other’s dignity and worth.
The kingdom is people of all sexual orientations and gender identities finding affirmation and pride in who they are, who they were created to be.
The kingdom is Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and B’hai and all religions of peace living in community, in solidarity, without fear, working together to create a better world.
The kingdom is all people finding a home where they can be safe, where they can raise families, without fear of raids or deportations that tear families apart.
The kingdom is every person who experiences sadness and sorrow, finding comfort and support. The kingdom is every person facing struggle, every person dealing with addiction or mental illness, finding understanding and encouragement.
The kingdom is health care for all people. Jesus was a healer. He cured people, healed people. There is healing for all in God’s kingdom.
The kingdom is reverence toward the earth, understanding that everything is sacred and that nature is worth protecting and defending.
The kingdom is a fair distribution of wealth and resources among people.
The kingdom is holding businesses and elected officials to high ethical standards, demanding that they listen to the people and that they use their power and wealth to protect the poor instead of focusing on how to create more wealth for the one percent.
The kingdom is where the poor are blessed; where those who mourn are blessed; where those who hunger and thirst for what is right are blessed; where those who are persecuted for doing what is right are blessed.
From the Sermon on the Mount, from the other teachings of Jesus, from the writings of the apostle Paul as well as the ancient prophets, we see that this is the kingdom of God.
And every time we read in the Bible about salvation, it is talking about these things. In the Bible, the word translated as “salvation” comes from the Greek word “sozo,” which literally means to be made whole, to be made well, to be healed. Salvation means wholeness. Being saved means being made whole. Those who live in the kingdom of God live in wholeness.
So the question is: is this what we are seeking after? Is this where our attention is focused? Is this what we seek first before all other things?
If there is one thing that Black History teaches me, it’s that too many churches - and too many church leaders - are not focused on these things. They’re not focused on the kingdom of God.
Too often, the church is complacent when it comes to the kingdom of God.
Sometimes, church leaders pretend that the kingdom of God has nothing to do with this present world. Prominent church leaders in this country have recently said, for example, that issues like immigration are not issues of faith.
It makes me wonder if they have even read the Bible they constantly wave about. The Bible talks repeatedly about welcoming strangers, about showing hospitality to others… it’s a major theme that appears over and over.
Martin Luther King, Jr. got so frustrated with the church. He was a minister, and he loved the church, but he got frustrated. More often than not, church leaders - white church leaders - said they were sympathetic to his cause, but they told him to slow down, to step back, to not be so extreme. They told him to not march in the streets, to not break laws by organizing unlawful protests, even if the protests were nonviolent.
Their focus wasn’t on the kingdom of God. Their focus was on keeping their congregations happy, keeping their reputations in the community, trying to keep everyone happy.
Martin Luther King Jr. said that this made him realize that “few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those who have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.” [Letter From a Birmingham Jail]
King also noted that many ministers would say to him that the issues he fought for were “social issues with which the gospel has no real concern.” That’s an easy lie to tell when you want to focus on other things than the gospel. But the gospel, the kingdom, is precisely about freedom and equality and hope. It’s the liberation of the Jews who were slaves in Egypt. It’s the persistent vision of the prophets. It’s the new age described by Jesus. It is exactly what the gospel is all about.
Is this what we are focused on? Is this what you are focused on as a Christian, as a follower of Christ? Can you truly say that you seek first the kingdom of God?
If you’re not sure, spend some time this week reading the Sermon on the Mount. Gandhi read from it every day, and he wasn’t even a Christian,... yet he recognized its value.
It is the keynote of the new age, the new kingdom, the kingdom of God.
It’s Matthew, chapters 5, 6, & 7.

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