Sunday, 19 February 2017

What about the people whose only
song is ‘We’re caught in a trap’?

‘Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of life?’ … graves in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 19 February 2017,

The Second Sunday before Lent,

11.15 a.m.:
Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert, Co Kerry, The Eucharist.

Readings (‘Option B’): Isaiah 49: 8-16a; Psalm 131; I Corinthians 4: 1-5; Matthew 6: 24-34.

May I speak in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Do not worry about tomorrow?

I can imagine two different ways of reading this morning’s Gospel passage.

People in the first group have respectable, well-paid jobs, good houses, adult children who have good prospects, regular holidays, and can change their cars every two or three years.

The second group I imagine includes people who live in deprived areas, single parents, people with mortgaged houses in negative equity, those of us who are unemployed, people facing severe cuts in welfare payments, parents with an adult child with special needs, adult children with an ageing parent who needs residential care that is too costly and unaffordable.

How then do you hear the repeated message, do not worry about your life or what you will eat or drink or wear (Matthew 6: 25, 31), because God will take care of you? Today’s trouble is certainly more than enough for today, and tomorrow is going to bring more woes and worries (verse 34).

For the first group, this is irrelevant, meaningless. They may be worried about higher taxes, winding down and preparing for retirement, that their children marry the right sort of people. If they have worries, they are hidden behind the curtains from neighbours, perhaps even hidden from themselves. Would I want those problems exposed to my neighbours or discussed in public?

For the second group, it verges on the absurd. If you have spent the last few years worrying about the roof over your head, unable to afford or prepare adequate meals, worried about school fees and the friends and dangers your children meet at school, the future they face, then this is no easy message to hear.

What does Christ mean, ‘do not worry about tomorrow’ (verse 34)? Life is full of worries … every single waking day.

But is Christ really saying that the basic necessities of life do not matter?

In Jungle Book (1968), the bear Baloo sings to the boy Mowgli:

Look for the bare necessities,
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife …


Whatever about Baloo, is Christ he really saying that the bare necessities of life will appear miraculously if only we believe in him correctly?

Let us first put this reading in context – Christ is talking to people who have enough, it seems. Otherwise, his encouragement not to worry would simply be cruel.

But, what about those who truly do not have enough?

How are they hear good news in the Gospel this morning?

There is an Elvis Presley song released a year after Jungle Book, ‘Suspicious Minds,’ that begins with the words:

We’re caught in a trap.
I can’t walk out …


For the second group of people I described, burdened by debt, by family problems, economic woes and social isolation, they must feel they are caught in a trap and they can’t get out.

And they hear those who are judgmental may say to them they brought all of this on themselves. Like the people trapped in our Old Testament reading, they must feel like saying: ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me’ (Isaiah 49: 14).

Yes, the Prophet Isaiah tells us God cares for us, God loves, through good and ill, through the ‘time of favour’ and the times we feel we are forgotten, and reminds us that just like a mother can never forget the child she carried in her womb, God cannot forget us as God’s own children.

Although the message could be heard differently this morning by those who have enough and those who do not, the message is really the same: do not fret.

If you have enough, be thankful, but beware of making an idol of having what you want, rather than merely what you need.

If you do not have enough, it is not because God does not love you. Christ is working to break the connection that was commonly made in his day: those who please God are rewarded with plenty, while those suffer have earned God’s displeasure.

We still make that connection. How often we have an inner feeling of glee when we think people get what they deserve, get their ‘come-uppance’?

How often do we think people have brought about their own downfall?

How often do we think people could improve their lot if only they were not indolent, if only they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps?

Yet Saint Paul warns me in this morning’s Epistle reading not to be judgmental (I Corinthians 4: 3-4) and tells me: ‘do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes’ (verse 6).

In Ireland, we often describe ourselves as a nation of begrudgers, too often. When someone is down, we think they have brought their own woes down on themselves and on their family, that they must deserve what they get.

When I fail, I start asking questions like: ‘What did I ever do to deserve this?’

And when someone has got a little more than I have, I am culturally inclined to resent this, to think they have got beyond themselves, that they have got more than they deserve.

Yet, when I succeed too often I want to bask in the glory without admitting how others have helped to get me there.

We might say that very often we want grace for ourselves but law for others.

Christ encourages us to look beyond the narrow perspectives that attach virtue to success and vice to failure.

That does not change the circumstances today for the single mother or the unemployed father. But neither do present circumstances justify making political, economic and social decisions based on self-interest and selfishness.

But the Prophet Isaiah is saying if we aspire to the Kingdom of God, then we must hope for justice and mercy. When he talks about turning the mountains into roads and the highways being raised up, he might today talk about a ‘level playing field’ for all and not just for the powerful and the privileged.

In compiling The Book of Common Prayer and the collects, Thomas Cranmer introduced the Collect for Peace, which is the Second Collect at Morning Prayer. This collect originates in the Sacramentary of Gelasius and was incorporated in the Sarum Breviary, from which Cranmer translated it in 1549:

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Kingdom of God has different values from life in the empire, or life in a profit-based society. The kingdom of God includes the poor, the merciful, those who mourn. The kingdom of God calls on us to bring light to the darkest parts of the world, to be salt in the world, to be signs and sacraments of mercy and justice.

God is not promising to meet all our needs, like some shopping list brought to the Kingdom-value-supermarket, if we pay up with the right kind of prayers. Tomorrow is going to bring its worries: ‘for tomorrow will bring worries of its own’ (verse 34). But God does not bargain with us. God expects us to serve him through living out the kingdom values, and in that we find what Cranmer’s collect calls ‘perfect freedom.’

As we seek first the Kingdom of God, we come to accept with joy the things God adds to us. Our trials and troubles remain real, but that reality can be transformed and made glorious as we serve God and as we seek to do God’s will.

Then, perhaps, we can echo the Prophet Isaiah’s promise to those who feel like prisoners in darkness that God does not want a life of darkness and gloom for them, does not want them to hunger or thirst, that God has pity on them and will lead them, that God will feed them, that God will comfort them and have compassion on his suffering ones.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Matthew 6: 24-34:

24 Οὐδεὶς δύναται δυσὶ κυρίοις δουλεύειν: ἢ γὰρ τὸν ἕνα μισήσει καὶ τὸν ἕτερον ἀγαπήσει, ἢ ἑνὸς ἀνθέξεται καὶ τοῦἑτέρου καταφρονήσει: οὐ δύνασθε θεῷ δουλεύειν καὶ μαμωνᾷ.

25 Διὰ τοῦτο λέγω ὑμῖν, μὴ μεριμνᾶτε τῇ ψυχῇ ὑμῶν τί φάγητε [ἢ τί πίητε,] μηδὲ τῷ σώματι ὑμῶν τί ἐνδύσησθε: οὐχὶ ἡ ψυχὴ πλεῖόν ἐστιν τῆς τροφῆς καὶ τὸ σῶμα τοῦ ἐνδύματος; 26 ἐμβλέψατε εἰς τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ὅτι οὐ σπείρουσιν οὐδὲ θερίζουσιν οὐδὲ συνάγουσιν εἰς ἀποθήκας, καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος τρέφει αὐτά: οὐχ ὑμεῖς μᾶλλον διαφέρετε αὐτῶν; 27 τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν μεριμνῶν δύναται προσθεῖναι ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλικίαν αὐτοῦ πῆχυν ἕνα; 28 καὶ περὶ ἐνδύματος τί μεριμνᾶτε; καταμάθετε τὰ κρίνα τοῦ ἀγροῦ πῶς αὐξάνουσιν: οὐ κοπιῶσιν οὐδὲ νήθουσιν: 29 λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐδὲ Σολομὼν ἐν πάσῃ τῇ δόξῃ αὐτοῦ περιεβάλετο ὡς ἓν τούτων. 30 εἰ δὲ τὸν χόρτον τοῦ ἀγροῦ σήμερον ὄντα καὶ αὔριον εἰς κλίβανον βαλλόμενον ὁ θεὸς οὕτως ἀμφιέννυσιν, οὐ πολλῷ μᾶλλον ὑμᾶς, ὀλιγόπιστοι; 31 μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε λέγοντες, Τί φάγωμεν; ἤ, Τί πίωμεν; ἤ, Τί περιβαλώμεθα; 32 πάντα γὰρ ταῦτα τὰ ἔθνη ἐπιζητοῦσιν: οἶδεν γὰρ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος ὅτι χρῄζετε τούτων ἁπάντων. 33 ζητεῖτε δὲ πρῶτον τὴν βασιλείαν [τοῦ θεοῦ] καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ, καὶ ταῦτα πάντα προστεθήσεται ὑμῖν.

34 μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε εἰς τὴν αὔριον, ἡ γὰρ αὔριον μεριμνήσει ἑαυτῆς: ἀρκετὸν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ἡ κακία αὐτῆς.

Translation (NRSV):

24 [Jesus said:] ‘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.

25 ‘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? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

Collect:

Almighty God,
you have created the heavens and the earth
and made us in your own image:
Teach us to discern your hand in all your works
and your likeness in all your children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who with you and the Holy Spirit
reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God our creator,
by your gift the tree of life was set at the heart
of the earthly paradise,
and the Bread of life at the heart of your Church.
May we who have been nourished at your table on earth
be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s Cross
and enjoy the delights of eternity;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This sermon was preached on Sunday 19 February 2017 at the Eucharist in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert, Co Kerry

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