A sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost; Matthew 6:24-34
It was one of those images, something about it caught my eye. While surfing the web I saw an image of a young newly married couple standing in front of a magnificent cathedral. The caption read, “Wedding Photo Shoot Witnesses Earthquake’s Destruction.” I clicked on the story and found a series of images documenting the aftermath of the massive earthquake in China’s Cheng Du province.
It seems the cathedral was part of an abandoned Roman Catholic monastery, and it had since become a very popular location among local residents for taking wedding photos. The wedding photographer captured some pretty harrowing images, among them an unforgettable picture of the cathedral’s tower collapsing.
When the shaking stopped, the cathedral was in ruins, but the photographer continued to snap pictures. One of the most moving, for me, was a picture of the bridal party, clearly shaken, standing amidst debris, the bride’s dress and hair disheveled with a look on her face that defies easy description.
We have become quite good at documenting disaster these days. With cell phone cameras that also shoot video and with the ability to send these images around the world in a matter of seconds on the internet, we find footage of destruction on our television and computer screens nearly every morning these days. Storm chasers drive along side dangerous tornados, hoping to get a really good shot. The news programs rerun this footage in endless loops.
We have become all too good at documenting disaster these days. But I have to stop and ask myself, “What is the story here?” Is the story the devastation and destruction or is it the people left standing in the rubble. Sure we are attracted to dramatic images of tornados and collapsing buildings, but when the dust settles, the real story begins.
There were an estimated 80,000 killed in that earthquake in Cheung Du. Cyclone Nargis has left 200,000 dead or missing in Burma. And dozens have been killed in this country in this tornado outbreak over the past few weeks. But the earthquake also left 1.5 million homeless in China. There are 2.5 million homeless in Burma. In a scenario that seems all too familiar these days, many of these victims have never heard of a thing such as insurance. No claims adjusters are on their way to Burma. They are simply wiped out. All that they once had is gone, leaving nothing.
“Consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus says in today’s gospel. “How they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” How might these words sound in the ears of congregations whose buildings were destroyed in the recent tornados? How would people still living in the devastation in the aftermath of Katrina hear these words?
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
Where’s the story here, Jesus? We need some good footage!
“Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”
To those gathered to hear the Sermon on the Mount, these words may not have meant at that moment what they would come to mean in the lives of those listening. We often hear the words of Jesus but lack the immediate context for using them in our own lives.
Jesus tells us, “God provides,” and we understand that concept. But can we understand it as intimately as someone who has seen everything they ever owned taken away by a cyclone or an earthquake or a hurricane?
Jesus words probably wouldn’t make headlines today, as perhaps they didn’t when he first spoke them. But to those left with the clothes on their backs, these are not words easy to ignore.
Jesus is describing a God who is not remote, removed from the world, but rather a God who is intimately involved in life. Like a Father, he said to them. We might just as easily add mother here. This passage begins with language that seems to set this father/mother God up against material power and wealth. You can’t serve both, Jesus says.
When all your possessions are taken from you, which one of these masters will not forsake you?
Money and wealth are ephemeral, but God’s provision starts at the level of the soil, from the dirt up. This immanent God provides for plants and birds, and they aren’t just surviving, Jesus reminds his listeners – they are more beautiful than even Solomon in all his glory.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel paints a portrait of this caring God throughout the gospel – this God who suffers with the least of these, who identifies with the sick, the homeless, the persecuted.
“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Often we hear these words of Jesus used to scold us for being too materialistic in the west. Rightly so – we do build great barns to house all our stuff. But Jesus wasn’t speaking directly to us, nor did the gospel writer have us in mind.
The early Christians who heard these words in the gospel were themselves a homeless people. In the year 70, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans. Not just Christians but the entire Jewish nation was essentially homeless, Diaspora. How would these words have sounded to their ears. Solomon’s glory was no more.
But this language Jesus used must have calls their minds and their hearts back to their sacred stories – it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things. We aren’t like them, remember? The Jewish people had seen God’s provision in the past. They intimately knew the character of this immanent, suffering God.
Through times of famine and war and exile, God had always provided. This was not news to them, this was part of their sacred story. If God has cared for us in the past, this same God, like a father, like a mother, will care for us in the future. Nothing has changed that.
I wonder if we rehearse our sacred stories enough. Do we have stories to share about how God has provided for us in the past? Surely in a parish founded in the frontier has stories of lean times but also times of abundance. God has not forsaken us in the past. This same God will not forsake us in the future.
But we have other stories to tell as well. These are stories Jesus alludes to at the end of the lesson today. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
We have a story to tell about how we, both as individuals and as a parish, have worked for that very goal – seeing God’s kingdom, God’s commonwealth here on earth. We have participated in the bringing about of God’s righteousness, bringing about justice, making things right, and we have stories to tell.
When earthquakes and tornados and disasters take life away and leave so many in desperate need, many evangelists and prophets will affix blame for why it happened. God must be punishing someone for something. But where I find God in disasters is in their aftermath.
“Will God not clothe you?” Jesus asks. So often, God does clothe the naked by using our hands. God provides for the homeless, using our hands. God feeds the hungry, using our hands. This is what it means, in part, to seek God’s kingdom. This is how we can bring righteousness and justice and peace to the world. That’s the news story if you ask me.
Yes our future is uncertain. The recent disasters that have shaken this globe should remind us of that, if we needed reminding. But even in our lives there is anxiety. If Jesus were speaking these words to us today in our context, he might say, “Do not worry about the price of gas, or airline tickets.” He might then point to animals that walk as a means of God’s provision. Despite the context of our anxiety or our need, Jesus words remind us that God provides.
Make your choice between the masters, wealth and power that can be taken away in a whirlwind or flood, or the God who has provided and will provide. In God’s commonwealth, with us serving as God’s hands, anxiety can be exchanged for hope. Amen.