March 2 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 49:8-16a; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34
Theme: “Blessed Assurance Trumps Private Insurance!” I know, crazy stuff, but that popped immediately into my mind when I started this exercise this week. You could, of course, play it safe and cut it back to the first two words (and there’s one of the hymns chosen already). And the old favourite, “Stay Calm and Carry On”, might be a reasonable summary of the larger part of the gospel reading this week. But what about that smaller, more deadly part – verse 24? How about the Dick Turpin classic, “Your Money or Your Life”? Scoff not: isn’t that really what we’re being asked in that verse? But if you want something a little gentler, what about the more modern pious platitude, “Let Go and Let God”? For all its cuteness, that bumper-sticker slogan is a fair summary of today’s piece of the Sermon on the Mount.
Introduction. We’ve had some hard teaching over the last few weeks as we have looked below the surface appeal of the Beatitudes – just made for posters or even tea-towels – and struggled with their implications as the Lord has applied them to particular topics. Today we are reminded that we can only attempt the way of life he is teaching because it is rooted in divine love. No one describes this better than Isaiah in our first lesson this week, in what must be some of the finest love poetry ever written. St Paul takes this theme in a new but connected direction: we are stewards of God’s gifts, not absolute owners: we are accountable to him for how we carry out that stewardship. And then we have a sort of half-time break in the Sermon on the Mount – with another blow to our self-image just before the ref’s welcome whistle. Never mind that there is another torrid time to come (have a quick peek at chapter 7 if you dare) – right now we need a break. Right now we need the Coach to tell us not to worry. We might be well behind on the scoreboard, but that doesn’t matter. Only the final result matters – and WE CAN DO THIS! Not by worrying about what might happen tomorrow, but by living out our faith today.
Background. In one brief radio news bulletin this week I heard two items which together had a greater impact than the sum of their parts (if you see what I mean). The first announced the selection of “The New Zealander of the Year” – a title given to a GP practising in Northland. The second concerned a huge pay increase given to the CEO of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council in recognition of his extra responsibilities in relation to the proposed dam. Now this isn’t about those two individuals personally, but these two news items seem to me to illustrate wonderfully well the very issue that Jesus puts before us in somewhat blunt terms in verse 24. Which master are we serving? What is our motivation?
And we could come at this from a somewhat different angle. Who do we most admire? Followers of the news on TV1 will be familiar with the closing item on Sundays, “This Week’s Good Sort”, presented by Hayden Jones. In two or three minutes we are shown someone, or sometimes a couple or small group, often facing their own struggles, reaching out to others in need, and providing marvellous support for them, not just in one-off emergencies but often week-by-week. We may well know people like that in our own communities – “good sorts” is the right way of describing them. Our New Zealander of the Year is very much a good sort himself: he provides a medical service to all those in need in his area, regardless of their ability (or, more usually, their inability) to pay. Why does he do that? Why does he take such an impractical approach to medical practice? Doesn’t he know that a medical practice is a business and has to be run along prudent business-like ways? Doesn’t he know (horror of horrors!) that his approach is “not sustainable in the long-term”? Does he not realise that as his practice has grown and he has taken on more and more responsibilities he should be expecting a substantial increase in his take-home pay?
What if every doctor took such an approach? Where would we be then? Well, okay, we would be a lot healthier, and happier and far less stressed out; but surely our GDP would take a hit, or the tax-take, or something really important like that? At the very least we should be calling in consultants to spend a lot of time and money to produce a proper cost-benefit analysis to be sure that the long-term reduction in hospital admissions would result in greater savings for the taxpayers than the reduction in taxes paid by medical practitioners...
Do you remember the great share-market crash of 1987? At that time I had a colleague who collected beautiful things, antiques, art works, and so on. One day over morning tea she was telling us of her latest acquisition when someone made a rather snide remark (okay, it was me), something like, “it’s good to know the hard times haven’t caught up with you yet”. She instantly reacted, insisting that she and her husband had worked hard over the years and had earned everything they had, etc. What I should have done at that point was to apologise for my rudeness and changed the subject, but I didn’t. Instead, I asked her: “And who gave you the strength and health and talents that have enabled you to do all that hard work over the years?” In the context of social chit-chat that was, of course, outrageous, and it took a while to restore our relationship. But years later we met at a funeral and she raised the incident, and told me how much she had reflected on that question, and how she felt it had gradually changed her outlook. [Moral: God can use even our rudeness.]
So much of society’s goals we adopt for ourselves without really thinking about it, don’t we? What do we tell our children to do when some other kid at school starts pushing them around? Turn the other cheek? Stand up for yourself – push him/her back? What do we tell them to do at school? Work hard so that they can – what? Become “good sorts” – become like our New Zealander of the Year? Or do we encourage them to reach for more self-centred goals?
We’re back to that fundamental choice with which we have been faced over recent weeks – the choice between life and death. This week we may paraphrase it: a choice between faith and worry. Of the two possible role models, the man from Hawke’s Bay would seem to have the more secure future, wouldn’t you say? But less worries?
Isaiah. As a prelude to this reading go back to the start of this chapter 49. Recognise it? Yes, it is the second of the so-called Servant Songs. It is because of the Lord’s Servant coming to us that we can know of God’s unfailing love for us, a love that protects and nurtures and provides. There may be tough times when it seems that God has forgotten us; but what sort of parent ever forgets her or his child? So what are we fretting about – why are we so anxious?
Taking It Personally.
· Sit for a while in silence. Listen to your inner noise. What is going on inside you? What is bugging you – what are you dreading – what, in short, are you worrying about?
· In what way does worrying help the eventual outcome? Would the eventual outcome have been worse if you hadn’t worried about it?
· Read this passage slowly out loud. Try to listen to it. Hear it addressed to you by someone you trust and you know has your welfare at heart. Then reflect on your feelings. Has the passage had a therapeutic effect on you? Has it calmed you down?
· Notice the change in tone between verses 12 and 13. The reassurance having been given, your response is now invited. Without frightening the cat, sing for joy, if that’s how you now feel, and if you don’t feel like that, why not?
· If you have children, think about them for a while. Remind yourselves of those times when they have pushed your parental feelings a bit hard. Was there ever a time when you really gave up on them – when you forgot them?
· Look at the palm of your hand. Write on your palm the name of a person you love. (Use something washable: if you want something permanent get a tattoo.) Spend some time thinking about that person.
· Then read verse 16a again. Imagine God’s hand with your name inscribed on it. Give thanks.
· Any worries now?
Corinthians. St Paul’s major complaint against the Corinthians in these early chapters of the correspondence is that they are competing with one another by boasting about their own spiritual gifts. “I can speak in tongues and you can’t!” They are forgetting that they are recipients of the gifts, and it is of the nature of those gifts that they are not earned – they are not rewards for something previously done by the recipient – and therefore are not proper grounds for boasting. Secondly, of course, such boasting involves the judging of other members of the congregation. St Paul takes this one step further by suggesting that judging ourselves involves only human judgment and is therefore likely to be suspect. Only God can judge us. I’m not sure what the proverb, maxim, or whatever it is in verse 6 means. A rough translation may be “Stick to the Script” – do and say only what the Spirit tells you and don’t make up stuff for yourself.
Taking It Personally.
· The converse of boasting about our spiritual gifts is denying we have any. Are you guilty of that? How would you feel if you gave someone a gift and they denied having received it? So what gifts has God given you? Give thanks.
· Are you inclined to be too hard on yourself sometimes? Who are you to judge yourself? Isn’t that the question St Paul is asking here? Is that helpful for you, or does it seem like an evasion?
Matthew. Once again Jesus’ teaching comes straight at us. Which is it to be – wealth or spiritual well-being? He has never heard of the gospel of prosperity, it seems. Once again it is a matter of a stark choice: which way do we choose to follow? Around whom or what do we intend to centre our life? What are the false gods or masters that we might be tempted to follow instead of him? This week he names the most obvious candidate – made all the more dangerous because it hides behind many names. But the NRSV gets it right: it no longer refers to Mammon with a capital letter – a name that sounds like a shortened version of Agamemnon or some other shadowy figure from a long-forgotten Greek story. Now it speaks of “wealth”, not quite as in-your-face as “the mighty dollar”, “dosh”, or bit-coins, but clear enough to strike a chord. And it’s not too hard to see the connection between this and the rest of this passage, is it? Get rid of our concerns about money, getting it, saving it, making sure nobody pinches it, investing it so as to get more of it, and so on and so on, and there isn’t much left to worry about, is there?
Taking It Personally.
· Is God more or less important to you than your career, your home, or your family? Monitor your feelings as you react to this question. Who or what is your master?
· Re-do the first two exercises suggested for the passage from Isaiah.
· Now read slowly through verses 25 to 34. Monitor your feelings as you respond to it. Are you aware of any feeling or irritation? Imagine you are having a one-on-one session with Jesus and Jesus is “counselling” you along the lines of these verses. How long before you interrupt? What do you want to say to him, even if your nerve fails?
· Can you recall a situation where you gave up trying only to find that things worked out well from then on?
· This week practice living day by day. Try not to think about what may or may not happen tomorrow. Concentrate fully on whatever is before you at the time. At the end of the week, review this practice. Has it been easy, difficult, maddening, helpful, or what?