September 8, 2013 Fifteenth Sunday After Trinity
Proverbs 26:1-12, Psalm 49, Galatians 6:11-18, St. Matthew 6:24-34
When I was a lad, back when what is now called history was being made, I loved playing ball.
I grew up in a small subdivision on the southern fringe of Houston. Even when we had all the guys in the neighborhood together, we didn’t have enough players for two teams. We’d leave right field open and make other adjustments as necessary. In an extreme case, we’d even let little brothers in the game.
As soon as school let out each summer, we’d gather at a vacant lot every day after breakfast and set out floor mats from cars or pieces we tore from a cardboard box for bases. We’d play all morning and then, after lunch, we’d go at it under the broiler all afternoon.
Occasionally, we’d arrive at our field and find stakes set out for a foundation to be poured. We’d
migrate to another lot like a colony of ants, carrying our “bases” like morsels of food, and begin anew. We’d throw and catch and run and jump and swing and swing and swing . . . and sometimes hit. All day long. We had a glorious time playing ball. After supper a couple of nights a week, we’d pile into the car with our folks and drive to a proper field with lights and real bases and play some more.
We played Little League and when we outgrew that we played Pony League – all under adult supervision. And that wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because we were still playing ball.
None of us was any good. Dave Chambers went on to play for a while without a scholarship at a
small college; most of the rest of us didn’t even make our high school team. We would have loved nothing more than to make it to the big leagues, of course, but it was fine, too, that we didn’t. We
had a glorious time playing ball. For us, the game was the thing.
For them, back then, I’m sure it was, too. They had talent beyond our dreams, talent that poured off of them the way sweat rolled off of us. They grew up and played on. Gifted writers extolled their exploits in books with titles like “The Boys of Summer.” Their summer—and their boyhood -- never
Lefty Grove “could throw a lamb chop past a wolf.” Trying to slip a fastball past Hammerin’ Henry Aaron was “like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.” Cool Papa Bell was so fast “he could turn out the light and jump into bed before it got dark.”
Some of them no doubt fell on their knees and gave glory to God for the gifts He cascaded down on them.
But something changed. More recently, one player took so much white powder up his nose that, “He probably tried to snort up the line from home to first.” And so on. If we wanted to cook up some metaphors for our era, we’d have to invoke performance-enhancing drugs. But let’s not bother.
As one scandal chases another, I ask myself, “why?” But I think I know. For the superstars, anyway, it’s the glory grab. The superstar has a tougher time than most buying for himself. When your niche in the Hall of Fame is as secure as the softball trophy on Joe Sixpack’s shelf, when you own records that will stand for years or decades, what else is there?
Just one thing: immortality in this life, sweet hosannas chiming in your ears -- the best who has ever been and ever will be. This is heaven in the here and now, also known as the kingdom of
When the glory grab begins, no longer is the game the thing. The superstar gorges on glory until he’s retching and ends up trading Hall for hell. The game fed his family and a great deal more; it gave him the eternal summer. But when he got a whiff of glory on steroids, the game was no longer the thing.
We can tsk-tsk and tut-tut, but are they not we writ large? Man’s love of mammon predates baseball. Our Lord’s sermon reverberates like thunder rolling down the mount: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”
We shout back: Maybe not, Lord, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
We confront today another of those hair-raising passages that try to catch us off guard and spin us around to face the haunting question: “What if Jesus really means it?”
“No one,” the Lord says, “can serve two masters.” The word for “serve” is the verb form of the noun usually translated “slave.” The word for “master” is kurios, normally rendered “lord.” You cannot enslave yourself to two lords. It’s not like working two jobs, each with its own boss.
Pick one: God or mammon; mammon simply means “possessions.” It sounds simple enough . . . but it’s a choice we spend a lifetime ducking – or trying to. Our Lord is not commanding us to avoid working and earning and saving. God provides all we need, He goes on to say. God intends that we use the things He supplies.
He does not intend that we gag on them. Our enemy’s strategy is to induce us to do just that.
St. John put the matter rather well in his first epistle: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world-- the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life -- is not of the Father but is of the world.
And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”
If you try to serve both God and mammon, our Lord Jesus says, you will be loyal to one and despise the other. He is calling us to an affirmation as long and loud as a Hank Aaron home
run, an affirmation of God as our Master. If we divide our loyalty, we become not part-time disciples but full-time idolaters.
God wants us to own our possessions, the world wants our possessions to rule us. Having pledged our allegiance to our living, loving Lord, will we run away to enslave ourselves to
a dead tyrant? “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
He gives us what we must have to sustain us as we live today in His kingdom. If we take what He gives and worship mammon, the gift, we forfeit the greatest blessing – serving the Great King. When the glory grab begins, the kingdom is no longer the thing.
And we, thinking ourselves more modest than our idols the balljocks, have traipsed after them in trying to create heaven on earth. The difference is merely one of scale. With their tens of millions and hundreds of millions, they work as hard as our government at spending it all and still they have more. For them, security takes the shape of everlasting fame.
But security is the all-American idol. For the rest of us, no matter how much God provides, we must store up more treasure on earth so we can call ourselves “secure.”
We fall into the old trap of the gnostics, separating spirit from body: We must provide for the body now; God will have our spirit when we enter His kingdom after we die. This is the teaching of most of the churches in our time . . . but not of the Bible. It gives us religion but robs us of faith. Religion makes a handy substitute.
Jesus tells us the Father owns all who belong to Him body and soul and provides for us even now as we live in His kingdom this day, walking by faith and not by sight. A story about reality might
help: It is a reality far different from that we find unfurled before us in daily life. This reality is
that which God sees and we access by faith and not by sight. When we rely on sight we fail to see what is real. We find the story in 2 Kings 6.
The Syrian army surrounds the Prophet Elisha and his servant. The servant quakes at the terrible odds against them. Elisha reassures him with these words: "Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
The prophet then prays: "LORD . . . open his eyes that he may see."
We read next: “Then the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”
Elisha then prays that God would strike the Syrians with blindness. When He does the prophet leads them away so that they are no longer a threat to the king of Israel. God has given spiritual sight to Elisha’s servant and physical blindness to Israel’s enemies.
God’s reality heaves into view for those to whom God provides faith. They see not what appears
before their eyes but what is. For those who have eyes to see spiritual truth, this is the
testimony of Scripture throughout. Those who see are often blind. Those who are struck blind, like Paul on the road to Damascus, are about to see. Those who are willfully blind, like the Pharisees, will ever refuse to see.
God supplies protection and provision for His kingdom and His subjects, the royal priesthood.
And He expects service from those subjects in the here and now of kingdom life. When St. Peter tells us we are a holy nation set apart by God, He adds the reason: “that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
Now, do you see?
The New Testament oozes the idea that we are all Elisha’s servant and that Christ is our perfected Elisha who intervenes for us with His Father that we might see His reality. He sends His Holy Spirit to guide us as we walk by faith in God’s promises. If we are worried about what we will eat and drink we are not acting in faith.
Worry is for pagans. In the ancient world, those who worshipped idols lived in a constant state of
anxiety. Would they have rain . . . a harvest . . . food to eat? They appeased their wrathful gods, they manipulated their capricious gods – let’s use a plainer word; they bribed them – to provide for them. Some sacrificed even their children in a bid to entice these gods to supply their needs.
Modern man has developed a more spiritualized anxiety. From Islam to Mormonism to some quarters of the Christian church, men try to pile up enough points to offset their sins and earn salvation. It’s something like building an insurmountable lead in baseball.
Trouble is, as Yogi said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Anxiety is not fearing the Lord but serving the fear. Anxiety is unbelief. One theologian called it “practical atheism.”
Standing on the mount, our Lord tells His people that worshipers of the one true God have no reason to be anxious. This God who sustains the life of little birds and pretty flowers loves so much more the one creature He has made in His own image. Those who believe in Him can know peace. Our prodigal Father will provide for us abundantly; He will not let us go without.
Oh, but Preacher . . . that all sounds very nice – like a fairy tale. Have there not been good
Christian people who went without? Have not many more faithful than we hungered and thirsted?
Did not St. Paul, the great apostle to the gentiles, suffer privation and torture as he pursued the ministry God entrusted to him?
True enough. But here appears the fallacy of the idea that we have both feet planted today in the
kingdom of man, stuffing ourselves with the fruits of our labors, until the Lord returns to whisk us away on a magic carpet ride into His kingdom.
As our heavenly Father provides all we need to exist in His kingdom on this earth while He renovates it in preparation for the return of His Christ, He commands us to bear a hand. Having
provided already for our physical needs, He offers the greatest blessing – the blessing of serving our King.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” our Lord says. The imperative is in the
plural – all of you. “And these things shall be added to you.”
If we replace our appetite for those things that beguile the pagans with hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God’s kingdom, we will tend to the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ and no Christian will live in want – or have reason to be anxious.
In Egypt, the faithful Joseph used the power God invested in him through favor with Pharaoh not to make a name for himself but to bless all around him . . . and to provide for his extended family in time of famine – including those brothers who had sold him into slavery. This family flourished and grew into Israel, the nation of God.
St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “. . . as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” And in our epistle lesson for today from Galatians, he goes on: “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus
Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
Putting aside any boasting in our flesh – the glory grab -- we can take up our role in redeeming the creation we have polluted with our sin. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” the Lord Jesus has said in Matthew 6, just before our present passage. And, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . .For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
At the coming of the Christ, God’s kingdom arrived on earth in a new and powerful manifestation. If we pray for spiritual sight, we will see that it is far more glorious than anything our eyes can take in.
This kingdom is called the church. It arrived with Christ – but it did not depart with Him. He commissioned apostles to carry on His work and gave them authority to appoint successors. He sent His Holy Spirit, who bestows spiritual gifts – you can’t see them -- on His people to use in growing the kingdom.
“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is not a vain wish but a celebration of God’s purpose in reclaiming His creation and our gratitude for the service He allows us in that work. God wants the same response of love from us He desired from Adam.
It is to push out the boundaries of the kingdom until it fills the earth . . . an earth teeming with worshipers of the God of creation. And the greatest threat to that mission is not Islam or resurgent Marxism or fascism or even the inner decay of liberalism in our own culture. It is materialism.
The balljocks loved the game . . . until they loved the rewards more. And then they could never
love the game as they had before. Money and glory are not evil in themselves. Only when men make them idols do they charm men out of the Hall and into hell.
In the ancient world, the word “mammon” was neutral. Possessions hold no intrinsic harm for us.
But when we worship the gifts we no longer adore the Giver as we once did.
Our eyes brim with the delights of the present age and we become blind to the far greater glory of the kingdom that is to come . . . and now is. We turn from service to God and neighbor to service to self.
At a missions conference in Turkey, I met a missionary from Montana named Von who had entered Albania shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not long before, in an official proclamation, the Soviet state of Albania had declared itself perfected: It was the first completely atheist nation on earth.
As we visited, Von mentioned one of his supporters back in Montana. Her name was Lois. I
never met Lois but I do not believe I will forget her in this life and I will be honored to wash her feet in the life to come.
She was single and lived in a trailer on the edge of town. She had worked a civil service job for decades. When she reached retirement age, she left that job. Knowing she could get by just fine on her government pension, she took a factory job . . . and sent every penny it paid her to Von to grow the kingdom in Albania.
She had never traveled to that land but back in Montana she saw it . . . and she did not see a spiritual wasteland but a place where God’s chariots of fire were arrayed and ready to engage when someone prayed God open the eyes of the people’s hearts so they might finally see.
Jesus offered that prayer for us.
Von said the harvest was going better than anyone had dared dream.