“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
One of the great advantages about working from the church lectionary, which rosters Bible readings each week in a three-year cycle, is that every three years you find yourself prompted to preach on the same readings, and when you’ve been preaching for as long as I have, and when you keep soft copies of every sermon you give, the cumulative effect of this process is a sizeable library of sermonic insights from years gone by that can be reworked into each upcoming sermon so as to minimize (if not entirely eliminate) the effort required to actually come up with anything original.
Unfortunately, I find that my most common reaction when I look back at sermons past is not, “Yep! That’s what I’m looking for!” but rather “No! what was I thinking?” That, at any rate, was my first reaction when I looked back at earlier sermons on Jesus’ words about the two masters and the exhortations that follow, urging us to model our lives on the birds and the lilies.
When I look back on those sermons given three, nine, twelve … and even twenty-four years ago, my assessment of those sermons can (sadly) be summed up in one word – smug!
Yes, there was a time when I would rale against those whose lives revolved around their pursuit of money and could do so from the perspective of a bird (more or less), but that was a long time ago!
‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go’ – take heed, you whose lives are controlled by your mortgages, you who live lives or quiet desperation due to your subservience to the Almighty Dollar, you who lie awake at night worrying about your wealth and whether or not you’re going to be able to hang on to it or whether thieves are going to break in and steal! Store up your treasure in Heaven, you fools!
It was easy for me to be haughty in those early days, and I confess that my early sermons on this passage contained a thinly-veiled smug self-satisfaction. But then, something terrible happened! I met … the other master!
It was my dad’s fault really. He never should have died!
In truth, I’d give anything to have dad back, but the reality was that when dad died in 2001 my life changed radically in more ways than one, and one of those ways was that, for the first time in my life, I had money, and lots of it!
I suppose these things are all relative, and some people wouldn’t consider inheriting a third of my dad’s house to be a significant endowment, but for me and my family it was completely transformative! Not only did it mean that we were able to take a family holiday to the US of A and buy a big TV set. It meant that we had assets to invest, such that we could set up share portfolios or even put a deposit on a house of our own!
As most of you know, I didn’t end up going with the ‘house of our own’ idea but opted instead to invest the money in a bush camp, in the hope of turning it into Australia’s greatest retreat centre for young people!
That then became the beginning of a new adventure, where we were able to house people and employ people and develop a property and see great things happen. At the same time, it was the beginning of an education into how easy it is to be defrauded by people, and how hard it is to make a business work, and how easy it is, as a business-person, to go bankrupt!
I don’t want to make this sermon about me, but I confess now before you all that I have never found anything more stressful than financial stress – than the stress of fighting off what seems to be the inevitable slide into bankruptcy!
I appreciate that in my case the prospects of bankruptcy are particularly nasty, as you can’t go bankrupt as an ordained priest and retain your priesthood.
I don’t know who brought in that rule, but there are three (and, as far as I know, only three) ways of getting yourself defrocked in our church tradition – namely, heresy, immorality and bankruptcy, and I really don’t want to be defrocked (that is, have my priesthood taken away from me)!
Yes, I know it’s all horribly unbiblical, but I like having people greet me in the marketplace and call me ‘father’. OK … I suppose I could get over the greetings in the marketplace, but the truth is that ‘Father Dave’ is who I am. It’s my identity. I don’t know how to be anybody else and the prospect of losing my identity is painful.
So I lie awake at nights, wondering how I am going to fix things up, wondering who I can trust, wondering how I’m going to get that million-dollar fight that will quickly pay all bills and put me back on easy street. I worry, I sweat, I stress about all the things that are going wrong and could go wrong, and it needs to be acknowledged at this point that this is EXACTLY what Jesus tells us we should NOT be doing!
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you of much more value then they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to the measure of his life?…
And why are ye anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. …
Therefore, be not anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, How shall we be clothed? … Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:26-34)
‘That’s easy for you to say, Jesus! Did you ever try running a proprietary-limited incorporated company?!’
I suspect that I’m not the only person to have that gut reaction to these ‘what me worry’ teachings of Jesus. Even if you’re not managing a proprietary-limited company, what would Jesus know about life in this day and age? Did Jesus ever have a mortgage? Did He ever have to bring up kids in twenty-first century Sydney?
In truth, I suspect that Jesus’ contemporaries reacted in much the same way:
- ‘What would you know about managing a fishing business, Jesus?’
- ‘Have you ever literally shepherded a flock of sheep, Jesus?’
- ‘have you had to bring up kids in first century Judea?’
In as much as we might like to romanticize life two thousand years ago, I suspect that it was not simpler to live then. For most people, life was a lot more difficult, and the truth is that the teachings of Jesus regarding material possessions, what we shall eat, what we shall wear, and money, have NEVER fitted comfortably into any culture during any period of human history.
Yes, I have met the other master, and yes, he has sunk his hooks into me, and yes, his servitude is harsh and exacting, and what I need is to be freed from my servitude to worldly wealth and freed to serve the better master, and I suspect that I am not the only one here who struggles under the same yoke!
In truth, I look back over church history and I wonder if we have ever got it right. Us Protestants, in particular, have always stressed the virtue of work and the virtue of savings, neither of which are ever extolled as virtues by Jesus. I appreciate that when the choice is between saving and spending that saving often appears to be a virtue, but we forget that there is always a third choice – namely, sharing!
There aren’t many people who live this way, apart from Jesus, and probably also apart from St Francis of Assisi – the man that G.K. Chesterton referred to as the world’s only Christian.
St Francis, in case you didn’t know, was the son of a wealthy businessman, but decided early in his life that he was going to become a ‘new sort of fool for Christ’. The upshot of this was a public confrontation with his father in the town square where Francis eventually stripped himself naked and declared that he had no father except his Heavenly Father (the idea being that he was returning to his earthly father everything that he had handed down to him).
Francis refused to even touch money, and when posed with puzzles such as what he would do if he came across some money in a field – the suggestion being that surely he should hang on to is at least until he could hand it over to the authorities – Francis famously warned that once we start hanging on to possessions, it won’t be long before we take up arms to defend them!
‘Consider the birds … consider the lilies’ … As I say, apart from extraordinary persons like St Francis, nobody really takes the teachings of Jesus regarding money and possessions particularly seriously. This is not the way we live. It’s not the way we were brought up to live and it’s not the way we teach our children to live, regardless of whether or not we are children of the church and followers of Christ!
The example of the birds is, frankly, too painful for us. These birds have no savings, no provisions stored up for the future, and no way of knowing for sure that they are going to able to feed their children tomorrow, and we don’t want to live like that – trusting, somehow, that our Heavenly Father will feed us.
The promise of Jesus, of course, is not simply that God will feed us because God is in the habit of feeding everything and everybody. The promise with which our passage climaxes is actually more specific than that: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (or ‘justice’) and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:34)
The promise, in other words, is actually an exhortation to focus our lives, not on satisfying our essential human needs, but on things of substance. The promise is that when we do that, all those essential human needs will be met as well. All I can say about that is that whenever I have lived that way, perhaps more obviously back in the days when our lifestyles were a bit closer to that of the birds, God was indeed true to His promises. All our needs were met!
I don’t pretend to have all the answers today. On the contrary, I see myself as being enmeshed in the problem rather than a shining example of the way forward. And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we can shelve these exhortations of Jesus as if they form part of the eccentric fringe of His wisdom teaching, for Jesus presents the issue, not as lifestyle advice but as a choice between discipleship and idolatry!
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
You can’t serve both masters! We might think that we can, and we might think that we can find a balance between the two. We might like to think of it as being like working two jobs or even just loving two children but it’s not! It’s more like fighting for two opposing sides in the same war! It can’t be done!
Let me finish with one final confession. Last week I got a visit from a friend who is a financial advisor. Admittedly, the reason I encouraged the visit was more because he was a friend than because he was a financial advisor, and because he told me that I would be doing him a favour if I let him give me financial advice as he’d only just started in his job and needed to show his firm that he had clients. Even so, I found the visit very discomforting, and when he challenged me with regards to my superannuation – ‘don’t you want to maximize your dividend on maturity?’ – I made a kneejerk response and cried ‘no!’ because the thought that I should restructure my life in order to maximize my dividend scared the hell out of me!
And I’m sure that wasn’t a particularly intelligent response, and I’m sure there has to be a better way forward than making knee-jerk reactions, where we kick feebly against the bars of the prisons in which we incarcerate ourselves.
In truth, I’m not sure exactly what form true discipleship takes for me or for any of us, but I know that the path begins with faith – faith in a God who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, faith in the God who promises that if we focus our lives on seeking His Kingdom and His Justice that all our other needs will be met.
first preached by Father Dave to Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on February 26th, 2017