The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:  

s041g11  Amberley  Sunday 8  27/2/2011

‘you cannot serve God and wealth’  Matthew 6.24

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

It is interesting.   I suppose that every time I’ve heard someone preach on this text, it is about the danger of worldly riches, money, that those OUTSIDE the church supposedly worship.   How convenient this is, for it enables people inside the church to consider themselves spiritually superior to those outside, and the practical outcome is that these words, like so many others in the bible, are really only relevant to OTHERS.   People who go to church worship God, people who don’t go to church worship money.   We are right - they are wrong and evil.   We will go to heaven, they will burn in everlasting flames. ???

However I invite you to see these words in context.   They come after three well known injunctions, about almsgiving, prayer and fasting.   The essence of each of these is not that we must practice almsgiving, prayer and fasting, but that we should do them PRIVATELY.  So we are told: ‘Beware of practising your piety before others ..’ (6.1) ‘Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you ..’ (6.2) ‘Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door ..’  (6.6) and ‘Whenever you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites ..’  (6.16).   So the ‘wealth’ that Jesus is talking about is not material wealth, but spiritual wealth - conspicuous spiritual superiority over others.   And suddenly the words become relevant particularly to we who come to church.

But again, it is easy to personalise this and make it a rod to beat ourselves, an activity particularly associated with the coming Lenten season.   It is more important to see that this speaks to the church corporate.   And it means more than selling the wealth of the Vatican or Westminster Abbey.   It means that the church can get so wrapped up in herself and the good things she does and fail to see the good that non-church people do.   In effect, when we proclaim the good that the church is doing - are we not practising our piety before others, are we not sounding a trumpet as we give alms, are we not praying ostentatiously in synagogue and street corners, and are we not looking dismal as if we’d really prefer to be enjoying ourselves, like those at the Big Gay Out celebration recently?   I can well imagine some good Anglicans saying: ‘These people shouldn’t be enjoying themselves - they should be repenting of their sins!’

We may well assume that these sentiments amplify Jesus’ earlier words ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’  (Matt 5.3)   Significantly these words used to be translated: ‘you cannot serve God and Mammon’.  Mammon is actually a transliteration of the word used in the original Greek.   It is ‘a personification of riches as an evil spirit or deity’.   It is a counterfeit god, something we can be worshipping when we think we are worshipping the true God.   And, of course, the easy test to see which is which, is to ask whether we benefit at the expense of others and if so, it is really selfishness, and not the true God.   Of course, when we really read these words properly, they are directed towards those who would serve God, not those who don’t.   We cannot serve God AND wealth.

The role of the church is NOT to proclaim our goodness but to see in others lives of integrity and love.   So Matthew includes these words in chapter 6: ‘the eye is the lamp of the body .. if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness’  (6.22,23).   So if we look at others and only see evil, both those we look at, and ourselves, are diminished.

Following these words we have one of my favourite passages in the New Testament, and ones I find hardest to live up to: ‘Do not worry about your life ..’  (6.25)   I still have my old ‘Book of Common Prayer (with Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised)’ given to me by my uncle for my confirmation in 1962 with the text Matthew 6.33: ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’

Do not worry.   It is the one who perceived his master to be a harsh person that hid his talent away.   We do not have a harsh task master.   We have a God who knows what we need and what all other people need.   We have a God who cares - about us - as well as about all other people.   And the trilogy - about food, drink, and clothing - actually are all about dignity.   People are not meant to have to beg for the necessities of life, neither we or anyone else.   God knows what we need and we have a part to play in providing for ourselves as well as assisting others.   People ought not to have to beg - our society should be designed to ensure the necessities of life for all.

But, of course, the church is not especially a champion of the dignity of all.   As I have often observed, my birth-place, Australia, was originally settled by convicts, transported half way around the world by good Church of England magistrates, upholding the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’ to the poor and destitute desperately trying to provide a morsel to put into their family’s mouths.   The Rev’d Samuel Marsden, revered in New Zealand, was nicknamed ‘the flogging parson’ in New South Wales.   He was the magistrate where convicts knew they would receive no mercy whatsoever.

I have been reflecting recently that the church has often wanted to convert the world by osmosis.   That is: the example of ‘christians’ - what they do in terms of good for others as well as what they don’t do - for instance we no longer go around raping and pillaging - these things will attract others to join our fellowship.   And I certainly acknowledge that many folk in the Church do do many good things for others - but of course so do many people who are not church-goers.   But the problem is that the injunctions about piety, almsgiving, prayer and fasting are all about doing these things privately - so the church can’t use these to attract followers.   And again, I readily acknowledge that many, many good ‘christians’ do not go around raping and pillaging.   But this seems to have turned the golden rule: ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ into ‘don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t have done unto yourself’.   It seems we have retreated into a ‘holy huddle’ which has taken the initiative away.   Are we not caught in a conundrum here?

But I believe there is a way out of this conundrum and there is a way to grasp the initiative, and it is to remove the ‘selectively-permeable membrane’ on which osmosis depends.   Jesus calls us to follow him, and follow him in incarnation.   There is no separation, no ‘selectively-permeable membrane’ involved here.   All are accepted because there is no one inside and no one outside.

Our baptism is not our entry into the Church through that membrane but our exit into the real world, following Jesus’ example.   Jesus’ death has cut through that membrane, as scripture tells us: ‘the curtain of the Temple was torn in two’ - not to let ordinary people in, but to let God out!   The torn curtain means that the separation between God and all of humanity has been breached and implicitly the separation between human beings and others has been breached.  Sin is defeated because THE sin is that barrier between people, between ‘righteous’ and ‘unrighteous’.

And I want to finish with some words about not worrying.   Worrying is about not being patient, with ourselves and with others.    Patience is an acquired skill.   It takes time and intention to make it our own, and I would not want to pretend that it is something I have made my own yet.   The injunction to not worry is an antidote to impatience.   God gives us a full life-time to learn to be patient with ourselves and with others, to learn to be gentle on ourselves and gentle on others, to love ourselves and to love others.   This seems close to the essence of the gospel.   We do not have to worry about our own salvation and we do not have to worry about other people’s salvation, we are called simply to be patient - with ourselves and with all others.

Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"