Epiphany 8 February 27, 2011

Isaiah 49:8-16a                                                                    

Matthew 6:24-34                                                                  

I do the grocery shopping in our household, and that requires me about once a month to go into Petco to buy cat food and litter. The cat food and litter department requires me to walk past the birds and small rodents in their glassed cages: parakeets, canaries, parrots, mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits, ferrets. They’re all there each time I walk past them, doing their caged animal things: eating, sleeping, running on treadmills, hopping about, looking out at me as I look in at them. There’s something very sad about them: all these creatures have been bred and raised in captivity. They’ve never known anything other than the lives they’re living, safe but confined, in those glass cages. And I think what does that say about me? About all of us?

Jesus says that none of us can serve two masters. Our hearts can be in only one place. Specifically, we can’t serve both God and wealth. Our life can be about seeking security and happiness in money and position, worldly power – building up material things. Or it can be about seeking security and happiness in God. But not both. Not ultimately. Not in the end.

That’s a disconcerting message to hear. Mind you, Jesus is not saying that we don’t need a basic level of material things to survive in this life. He specifically says that “our heavenly Father knows we need these things.” (And of course a lot of folks don’t have the basics these days, or are struggling to hold onto them.) What Jesus is saying, rather, is that we can’t make amassing material things the point and goal of our lives and and at the same time love and worship God.

And that’s what’s hard to take in, because we live in a very materialistic society. We’re like the caged birds and rodents at Petco: we’ve been bred and lived all our lives in a society that sees no ultimate conflict between its materialism and godliness. Indeed, a major strain of American religion says that if you’re “religious” and get deeply involved in your church, God will make you rich. In Chicago, where I used to live, there was a big “prosperity gospel” church (that’s what they’re called) that had its slogan painted on its roof, which you could see passing on the elevated train: “Name it and claim it, God’s got it to give.” We see no conflict between the pursuit of godliness and the pursuit of wealth. Indeed, quite the contrary: we merge them, see them as part of the same thing. Religion – let’s be honest – is often a con.

These Come and See Sundays that we here at Holy Cross have started doing each year are useful to us – quite apart from whether people respond to our invitation and come to see what goes on inside these walls of a Sunday. They’re useful to us because they make us stop and consider what it is we’re really about here. Do we just offer something that the world offers, though maybe with a little different twist? You can have a nice breakfast here and talk with friends, just like you can at the American Legion in the summer. Your children can learn things here, just like they can at school. You can have a peaceful hour with beautiful music and (I hope) an interesting talk by the pastor – but you could get these things from Sunday morning television or Public Radio or snowshoeing in the woods. So is that all that we’re about? More of the same, but with a little religious twist?

If so, then we’re also really a con. But obviously I think not. I think what we try to do here – and, God knows, it’s a matter of trying, not of always succeeding – what we try to do here is open ourselves to an almost completely different world or world view. As though I were to step up to the counter at Petco and say, “I want to buy all those caged animals and take them home and set them free.” (Not that that would be practical or even helpful, since most of them couldn’t survive back in the wild.) What we try to do, I think, is open our hearts and minds to this whole other reality called the reign or kingdom of God. This other reality embodied in the person of Jesus, in the Eucharist, where as Jesus commanded us we break and share Bread without asking anything in return. And it’s not that we suddenly or completely make the switch, from the world of pursuing and serving wealth to the life of pursuing and serving God. It’s that we see a glimpse of this alternative, this happier and fuller way, and over time, little by little, we venture forth from our cages into its greater freedom. We taste and see. In our tradition, change is a little by little thing, not a huge one-time “born again” moment.

So what is this “other reality,” this other way? What does it mean to live to serve God, not the materialism of the world? Well, it starts, I think, with the realization that there is this greater Being called God and that this God loves us regardless of who we are or what we’ve done. In the world we have to earn our points, we have to measure ourselves against others. In the kingdom of God, our points are given to us – confirmed in Baptism, where we’re marked as Christ’s own for ever. There’s this completely different starting point: that’s number one.

Second, there’s this whole different way of living out the gift of God’s love – the way shown to us in the life of Jesus. The life of Jesus is a life without fear, a life of forgiveness and generosity, a life of trust and hope, a life lived not just for ourselves, but for others. I had a conversation with a man here in town who was asking about the Weare food pantry, to which we regularly donate money and food. “How do you know people really need a handout?” he asked me. “How do you know they’re not just taking advantage of you? I couldn’t give to the pantry without being sure the recipients were really needy.”

“Well,” I just said to him, “the food pantry was set up and organized by a bunch of ladies from the local churches, and they don’t think that way. They think like Jesus. They just give out of love, no questions asked.” My friend went away shaking his head. I don’t think he’s basically a happy man, living the life of suspicion he lives. Not compared to the food pantry ladies, who are trying to serve God, who offer warmth and generosity to everyone who comes through their door. So that’s the second thing: here we try to live the gift of life as Jesus lives it.

And then third, and I guess ultimately, there’s this business of heaven. We don’t talk a lot about heaven at Holy Cross – about being “saved” or whatever. But part of what we’re about, between the lines, is an ultimate understanding that life here and now is not all there is. That there is a greater life, a fuller dimension, hereafter. And our trust in that reality frees us to not have to achieve and accomplish everything in this life. As I grow older, this third thing means more to me. “Well, you’ve done what you can do,” I say to myself. “Now you can turn it over to God. You can trust in him.”

“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says. Well, we all do to some extent. We’re not there yet, Jesus! But what this place tries to be about is showing us caged animals a greater freedom, a larger life, a more beautiful reality, so that little by little we can try to serve the One who serves us, the God known to us in Jesus Christ.

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