November 22, 2009
SERMON OF NOVEMBER 22, 2009
M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim - St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
"First Things First"
Psalm 126, Matthew 6:25-33
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous have a saying - "First Things First."
This phrase is intended to help alcoholics order their lives in terms of what's most important. Staying sober, depending on a power greater than oneself, and working the program are "first," while drinking, believing one has control, and living a life of denial come in a distant "second.”
By the time someone makes it to an AA meeting looking for help, a genuine, heartfelt question is reaching its final formulation - "Is there any help for me? Is there any hope for me? What's missing in my life? How can I stop drinking? What's most important? What comes first?"
Last week we heard a lawyer correctly tell Jesus which commandment is the first of all:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Lk.10:27)
In putting first things first, “All You Need Is Love,” as John Lennon and Paul McCartney understood:
“There's nothing you can know that isn't known.
Nothing you can see that isn't shown.
Nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be.
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
All you need is love (all together now)
All you need is love (everybody)
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.”
On this Thanksgiving Sunday the Good News is that we can all be thankful that I didn’t try singing that song.
The Bad News is that we all are being challenged, on this Thanks - Giving Sunday to give God not just our thanks but our selves.
On this Thanks – Giving Sunday we are all being challenged to also be Self-Giving in our love for God and our neighbor – to say with our lives and not just our voices that “all you need is love, love, love is all you need.”
The Bible clearly tells us that “God is love.” (I Jn. 4:8)
We put first things first in our lives by loving God with everything we’ve got and by loving our neighbor as ourself.
Or, as Jesus says in today’s text, “Strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt. 6:33)
In other words, put first things first!!
We don't have to be a 21st century alcoholic or a first century lawyer to confront the confusion of life that requires an intentional spiritual triage by constantly asking, "Who or what do I put first in my life?"
“What does it mean for me to put first things first?”
Every day we’re pushed and pulled in all sorts of different directions. We're caught in the constant competition of different feelings, different relationships and different expectations - all calling for our attention.
Putting first things first, according to Jesus, isn’t about setting our priorities or ranking our concerns.
It’s about recognizing that God, and God alone, needs to be first in our lives.
Putting first things first is that simple and that difficult.
Striving first for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness means recognizing that listening and responding to our Still Speaking God puts God’s voice in a different place in our lives than all the other voices that come to us each day.
As H. Richard Niebuhr once said, we're not talking here about "a voice among the many,” but about a voice "beyond the many."
“Strive first for the Kingdom of God…”
We do this in the context of many competing kingdoms – the most powerful of which is the kingdom of the marketplace – the kingdom that tells us “we are what we own” – the kingdom that tells us that “our lives consist in the abundance of our possessions” – the kingdom that says our security is found in our wealth – the kingdom that says happiness is produced by living in the right place – driving the right car – and having the right possessions.
In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton points to the power of this kingdom when he writes: “If we are fools enough to remain at the mercy of the people who want to sell us happiness, it will be impossible for us to ever be content with anything. How would they profit if we became content? We would no longer need their new product. The last thing the salesman wants is for the buyer to be content. You are of no use in our affluent society unless you are always just about to grasp what you never have.” (Through the Year with Thomas Merton, Edited by Thomas P. McDonnell, p. 198)
And we hear Jesus say, “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.” (Mt. 6:25)
Jesus was telling his followers not to worry about what we call necessities – food, water, clothing.
Imagine what he’d have to say about worrying if we could afford a Lexus rather than a Ford or clothes from Abercrombie rather than Target?
We live in a kingdom that competes with the Kingdom of God and most days it’s pretty easy to see who’s winning.
And yet, here we are – on this Thanksgiving Sunday – ready and able to put first things first – ready and able to strive first for the Kingdom of God – to strive first for God’s Kingdom of compassion and community – peace and justice – ready and able to love God with everything we’ve got and to love our neighbor as ourself.
While we are ready and able to put first things first it won’t happen unless we are both Thanks – Giving and Self – Giving in our relationship with God.
Many people have asked me many times why I went to seminary - why I took the next logical step after spending 4 years with the Travelers Insurance Company in Hartford, CT by going off to Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
As I’ve reflected on this for the last 33 years it’s become increasingly clear that I did this for two reasons. First, I wanted to know who to thank. I wanted to know who to thank for the bountiful blessings in my life. And secondly, I wanted to know how to thank them – or him – or her – or whoever it was that was the Giver of so many gifts in my life.
None of us can begin to “strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness” unless we know who to thank and how to thank them – unless we know how to be Thanks – Giving and Self - Giving.
One day Johannes Tauler, a 14th century German mystic, was walking through the streets of his hometown and came upon a beggar.
“God give you a good day, my friend,” he said.
The beggar answered, “I thank God I never had a bad one.”
Tauler replied, “God give you a happy life, my friend,”
“I thank God,” said the beggar, “I am never unhappy.”
In amazement Tauler said, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” said the beggar, “When it is fine, I thank God; when it rains, I thank God; when I have plenty, I thank God; when I am hungry, I thank God; and since God’s will is my will, and whatever pleases God pleases me, why should I say I am unhappy when I am not?”
Tauler looked at the man with astonishment, “Who are you?’ he asked.
“I am a king,” said the beggar.
“Where is your Kingdom?” asked Tauler.
And the beggar answered quietly, “In my heart.”
This medieval beggar understood that Thanks – Giving meant having an attitude of gratitude in the midst of all that life brought his way.
Putting first things first means having this same attitude in the midst of all that life brings our way.
A Catholic Sister in Niagara Falls, whom I’ve gotten to know through my organizing work with NOAH, the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope, told me about leaving a doctor’s office with a Sister in her order who’d just gotten word that her breast cancer had not been contained by chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
It had spread to her lungs. And it was clear that this stage 4 cancer would significantly shorten her life.
They went for a walk in a nearby park. My friend asked her Sister how she was feeling. She explained that she had this heightened sense of the beauty of creation and the beauty of her own life. She said, “Let me show you.”
It was May and there was a magnificent flowering tree next to them. They stopped and the sister who was ill pointed to the tree and said, “I want you to enter into this beauty with me. I feel like I’m swimming in an ocean of gratitude. I have waves of anxiety and there are times when I’m adrift in a fog of depression. I’ve been engulfed in storm clouds of fear – but all the time, even now, I’m swimming in an ocean of gratitude to God for the beauty of this world and for the beauty of my own life.”
This Sister’s remarkable Thanks – Giving attitude of gratitude – revealed her success in striving first for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.
This striving grows from having the right attitude and from doing the right thing. The Random House dictionary says that to strive means “to exert oneself vigorously – to make strenuous efforts toward a goal – to enter into battle.”
Attitude without action is powerless. Thanks – Giving without Self – Giving is a delusion.
It was 13 years ago this fall that Debbie Watkins found herself in the hospital following a frightening illness. She had an aneurism that left her in the critical care unit at Millard Fillmore.
My first introduction to Debbie came when she was in a coma. By my second visit she had regained consciousness.
During that visit it was very clear that Debbie felt very grateful for the healing that had already happened and she openly expressed her deep gratitude to God.
But she went on to tell me that the night before she’d fallen – trying to get out of bed on her own.
This was something she’d tried to do, even though the doctors had told her to always ask a nurse to help her.
As she was explaining to me what had happened she said, “I know God is helping me get better and that I can’t get better without God’s grace, but I also know that God wants me to do all that I possibly can to help myself get better so I can go home. That’s why I tried to get out of bed last night by myself. I know now that it was a mistake, but still, I had to do it. I had to do whatever I could to help with my own healing.”
“Do not worry about your life…” said Jesus.
In the next breath he didn’t say, “Sit back,” or “Stay put,” or Stand still,” he said, “Strive – Strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and all these things will be yours as well.”
Whenever we pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done,” we remind ourselves that God’s Kingdom comes whenever God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Strive first of the Kingdom of God – for God’s reign in your heart and in your world.
In Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 17:21) Jesus tells those who questioned him that “the Kingdom of God is within you.” In saying this he was also saying, “the Kingdom of God is among you” – for the word in Greek can mean both “within” and “among.” The Kingdom of God is in our hearts and in our word, as God created them both to be.
There’s a story about a boy who was without food and shoes who was asked by a woman, “Well, if God loved you, wouldn’t God send you food and shoes?”
And the boy replied, “God did ask someone, but he forgot.”
God’s Kingdom comes when our gratitude grows into Thanks – Giving and Self – Giving love for God and for our neighbor.
God’s Kingdom comes whenever we put first things first – whenever we strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.
Then and only then can we understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not worry about your life!” (Mt. 6:25)
When Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis in April 1968 to help settle a sanitation worker’s strike his focus on striving for God’s Kingdom had expanded to seeking economic as well as racial justice.
In his speech on the evening of April third he said:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.
And God’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.
I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.
So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing anyone. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
The next day he was shot.
“Do not worry about your life…”
Put first things first.
“Strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness – and all these things will be yours as well” – all you will ever need, will be yours as well.
That’s a promise.
That’s a promise from our God.
That’s a promise that our God intends to keep!
May each of us have the grace and the courage to shape our Thanks – Giving and our Self –Giving around that promise! Amen!