November 19, 2000

"First Things First"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
Thanksgiving Sunday, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.

Scripture: 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33

The gospel reading this morning comes from Matthew's account of Jesus' sermon on the mount. The scene opens in Matthew Chapter 5 with the
comforting words of the beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit. . . , Blessed are those who mourn. . . ., Blessed are the meek. . . " But Jesus' teaching does not stop there; he has many things to stay to the crowd gathered on the slopes of the hills. He reminds them that they are a light to the world, that the faithful must lead a holy life that goes beyond a simple adherence to the letter of the law, and that there is a difference between looking faithful and being faithful. He teaches them how to pray through the example of what we know as the Lord's Prayer. And Jesus warns the hearers not to pursue the wealth of this world. Whatever they accumulate will perish. Store up, instead, treasures in heaven. You can't have two masters, because you'll neglect one and devote yourself to the other.

Read Matthew 6:25-33.

How many have begun their gift buying for Christmas? Don't be shy. Raise those hands proudly. I'll admit that I spent some time this week browsing through with my little electronic shopping cart, and I made some gift purchases. But I'm far from done, and I'll admit that I'm already starting to feel "gift deficit anxiety." What if Christmas nears, and I'm among those desperate and dazed procrastinators who pick through the department store leftovers, stacks of unfolded sweaters and partially opened packages of gift soaps, on December 24? What if I don't have time to wrap the gifts and I have to hand them over in garbage bags tied with red yarn? (I've seen it done!) I'm starting to worry and the shopping days stretch out before me for an entire month.

While, upon reflection, the anxiety over gift buying for Christmas might seem to miss the point of the Christmas celebration, in our society it's a reality. It is as much an actuality as our worries over whether we will have enough to get by or to live in the comfort to which we have become accustomed. And in our worry we may be missing the whole point of living. Why are we here?

Jesus' words to a first century crowd, living in a comparatively primitive time, don't seem to bring us much reassurance. Not worry about what we will eat or drink? First, those items cost money and it has to come from somewhere. If our incomes are not keeping pace with all of our obligations, we do worry about the food. And in addition, we are bombarded continuously with health reports regarding the food that we do eat. So even if we can afford what we eat and drink, there are all kinds of concerns around its safety and health benefits.

And what about the caution not to worry about what we wear? In this consumer society where styles and colors of clothing go in and out of fashion with the changing seasons, we've come to accept that what we wear is disposable. Some of you live in houses that are older, and you deal with the problem of too few closets. What was different when those houses were built 75 - 100 years ago? People didn't have as much stuff, including clothing. We can say that clothing doesn't matter, but for those of us who can remember being teenagers and for those who are living those years right now, what we wear can define who we are. We also know that there are spoken and unspoken "dress codes" in life. And while Jesus uses the example of how the lilies of the field are clothed, I'm not sure that he wants us to take that literally.

We worry about all kinds of things: food, clothing, accessories, cars, vans and trucks, televisions, computers and sound systems, electric kitchen gadgets, toys, furniture, home improvements, investment portfolios. It's the American way, and it so seductive that our belief system becomes tied up in the things we accumulate or want to accumulate. Recently, I came across this "Modern Creed", or statement of belief, by Ronald E. Vallet.

I believe in my income and Standard of Living, maker of pleasure on earth;

And in Things-I-Own and Things-I-Want-To-Get,

Which are conceived by desire for possessions, born of a regular paycheck,

Suffered under monthly payments, then glorified, cherished and admired.

They descend in their value, but on a future day I'll acquire some more,

Ascending in my status, 'til I sit in quite comfortable retirement,

From whence I shall come to enjoy them all without end.

I believe in my home, my comfortable automobile,

My vacation with pay, my insurance for life,

The satisfaction of my wants and a bank account ever increasing. Amen.

This creed may work for some, temporarily, but here's the problem. When we give absolute value to things that are forever changing, we will not find satisfaction. We will never be fully thankful, just thankful in the moment. We must give absolute value to what is absolute and lasting in order to be satisfied. But how do we change and make worry about things secondary in our lives? Jesus gives this alternative, "Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." In other words, "Look here! The kingdom has come." To us Jesus says, "Believe in me. Trust in me."

What are you striving for in this world? Where do you put your attention and your efforts? This is a question that challenges our stewardship of time, talents and resources. Here's my "true confession". In October I sat at the table for our monthly Administrative Board meeting, and I was in a cranky mood. When it came time for me to offer a my comments, I spoke about my concern for the finances of the church. Would we be in the black at the end of the year or would the red of the books match the Christmas trimmings? Those gathered for the meeting listened to me politely, and when I was done Jack Cooley reminded me that when Christians are burdened, we are directed to pray. In that moment, I understood that my priorities had gotten turned upside down. Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. What comes first? Doing our own will or pursing the will of God? What comes first? Holding our problems to ourselves or putting our burdens at the foot of the cross? What comes first? Making sure we have enough for ourselves or sharing God's abundance? We will worry about our families, about our health, about Dundee, our schools, our nation, our church. But first, first, Jesus calls us to strive for the kingdom of God in prayer, in thanksgiving, in gathered worship, in sharing our gifts, in service, in caring for our world.

And when we put the reign of God first, a mysterious and wonderful thing starts to happen. The worries of this world, the material concerns that cast shadows of anxiety, are banished in the light of God's kingdom. The anchor of worry that keep us chained to transient things and events is loosed by the power of the Holy Spirit. And we are free to to give thanks and feel the fullness of God's abiding love.

Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about food or drink or clothing. God knows that we need these things. And what's more, they have been provided by the Son of God. Jesus said, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry." (John 6:35) The food that will fill us is in God's word; it is in personal devotion and prayer; it is in Christian community. Give thanks to God, first things first.

To a woman who had come to fill her jar with water at a well, Jesus said, "Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." (John 4:14) Jesus says in Revelation, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life." (Revelation 21:6) The water that will quench our thirst, sustain our souls, move us from this life into the next, is Jesus Christ, fountain of life. Give thanks to God, first things first.

And will we wear? The apostle Paul writes to the Romans that the night is far gone and the day is near. Believers put on the armor of light; put on the Lord Jesus Christ. He reminded the church at Galatia that as we are baptized into Christ we are clothed with Christ. As professing Christians we wear the compassion, the devotion, the determination of Christ. Give thanks to God, first things first.

We've got Christmas shopping ahead. There are holiday meals to plan, bills to pay, projects to finish, so much to worry about. Jesus says, "God knows what you need. Strive first for the kingdom of God." Give thanks to God, first things first.

Craddock, Fred. Preaching Through the Christian Year: B. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993. Vallet, Ronald E. "Modern Creed", Remembering To Be Households of God