Putting Love First (Feb. 21 – 27)

Sunday, February 27
Eighth Sunday after Epiphany

Weekly Theme
Putting Love First

God of tender care, like a mother you never forget your children, but comfort and quiet those who are restless and fearful; like a father you know already what we need. In all our anxiety, give us the spirit of trust; in all our worry, give us faithful hearts; that in confidence and calm we may seek the kingdom of Christ where your holy will of peace and justice has been made known. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Matthew 6:24-34

[Jesus said:] “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, 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? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

All readings for this week
Isaiah 49:8-16a
Psalm 131
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

Focus Questions

1. How does “putting love first” relate to not worrying?

2. What would you say “rules” your life? The life of your congregation?

3. Do you find yourself tempted to argue with this passage? Why or why not?

4. What do you spend the most time worrying about? Is that time well-invested?

5. What, or whom, do you think an outsider would say that your church puts first?

by Mark J. Suriano

Having skipped over the bulk of the chapter (verses 1-6, 16-21 will show up on Ash Wednesday), we land today on the last ten verses of Chapter 6 of the Gospel of Matthew. It is important for the purposes of study and for context as well that we look at the section that begins with verse 19, which is where this section of the Sermon on the Mount starts. After teaching on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, Jesus turns his attention to the questions of possessions, understanding, and divided loyalties, before we arrive at the “Therefore” of verse 25. What comes in verses 19-24 will directly relate to the teaching in verses 25-34 regarding worry, and what the posture of a follower of Jesus is toward such things. “The teaching, then, is not a call to carelessness or irresponsibility or indifference to human need,” Fred Craddock writes: “In view of verse 24, the warning is against a slavish, anxious, worried service to wealth (mammon).”

A quick look at verses 19-21 reveals an important bit of background. The larger question that looms over and informs our passage is a question about what rules a person’s life. While our passage has to do with worry, these first verses have to do with the details of what is in a person’s storehouse, what a person sees as treasure. It also has to do with what a person does with their treasure, and the presumption here is against hoarding things against an unknown future. In fact, Roger Van Harn asserts that the “treasures in heaven” mentioned in these passages are not treasures to be kept at all, but rather that “these ‘treasures in heaven’ refer to almsgiving….People store up treasure in heaven, that is, participate in the realm of God, by sharing material resources with those in need.”

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” is the beginning consideration of what is to come in the verses for this week’s reading, serving as a basis for the call to discipleship that requires both a singular mind and a persistent faith as those within earshot of Jesus are invited to lead the way into God’s New Order.

Thus it is that we come to the word “worry,” which defines the bulk of today’s passage. The center of Jesus’ teaching focuses on the idea of worry or anxiety, a concept, according to Fred Craddock, that “translates a Greek term having the base meaning ‘split attention’ or ‘divided concern.'” The word appears six times–in one form or another–in the nine verses, relating to the very basics of human life: food, drink, and clothing. Matthew uses images from Israel’s past and from nature itself to make the case that worrying today only brings more worrying tomorrow (verse 34), thereby creating an endless cycle of having to divide one’s loyalties between trust in God’s faithfulness and a fretful concern about life. The problem arises, however, not because a person needs all those things, but only because people worry about them and so divide their attention between God and the stuff (mammon) of life. “No one can serve two masters” is a challenge to hear the Good News as a call to have one’s life radically reoriented so that God is the organizing principle, the source from which all things flow, and around which everything that is takes its place.

In some ways it is a call to remember the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, where God creates all things and endows that creation with its own ability to create (progressive generativity) so that it can keep making more of itself. Into this scene humankind enters also as a creature endowed with creativity, but the role of humankind is to help God Creator in the ordering of creation so that it will create, provide, and thrive (participatory physicality). If the order is maintained, everything flourishes, but when the order is upset and humankind attempts to place itself in God’s spot, creation–including humankind–begins to suffer and wither. The text today challenges that “out of whack” reality that occurs when we get our priorities messed up, and reminds us of the order of things, of the way they work best for everything concerned, and invites those hearing to be reordered, so that the world may be restored to the image of Eden. (For more information, see Rob Bell: Poets, Prophets and Preachers, Session Two available at robbell.com). When everything is working as it was intended, creatively, generatively, faithfully, then the problem of worry is no problem at all.

Anxiety as the new base line in the symphony of life

The problem of worry is not reserved for the first-century hearers of Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, if you look around your world today (from the very personal to the very global), you may find that anxiety is the new base line in the symphony of life. We seem to be an example writ large of a people who find security in the accumulation of things tangible like cars, homes, televisions, the latest phone or gadget. But we are also an example writ large of a people who find security in the accumulation of the intangible things as well, like popularity (real or socially networked), beauty (from face cream to botox), or any number of things offered or sold whose value lies not in what they do for us, but what they make of us. We are all searching for a purpose, to be sure, and many of the things in life may have no moral value one way or the other, but to quote the old country song, are we “looking for love in all the wrong places”? And in that search, is our anxiety growing that we will never have enough, be beautiful enough, popular enough, right enough? What would happen if we opened ourselves to being radically reoriented in God, and in doing so discovered that the rest of the world also fell into place?

The question we need to ask ourselves is “enough for whom?” The God who tells us that we are more precious than the well-cared-for sparrow? If anything the Gospel today wants to redirect our vision and our lives in much the same way that the lives of the first hearers needed to be redirected. It beckons us to turn away from the worry that comes with a life edged by the “not good enough’s, don’t have enough’s” that urge us to believe that our value comes from our ability to try harder and hoard more, toward a trust in God that allows us to start from a place of “enough” and cast our gaze outward to the world as we share “treasures in heaven” through a life of generous love. Do our congregations and our people practice the art of generous love? Do we find ourselves worried so much about tomorrow, that we miss the life-giving and trustworthy activity of God today? How many of our congregations have become fretful about what we might lose if we took our gaze away from what we have to what God is calling us to? Might we find both new life in God and a new appreciation for our gifts?

Will we share the very things we need the most?

The mention of food, water, and clothing in verses 25-33 leads to another interesting parallel. While these things are listed here as items we have, need, or will be given by the God who loves and cares for us, Jason Byassee notes that they are also “precisely those things that will determine our place in the judgment. ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink….I was naked and you clothed me'” (Matthew 25:35-36). How can we fulfill the latter unless we believe we have enough of the former? Jesus’ instruction shows how discipleship has at its heart a sense of abundance in the world that, when discovered, sets people free to bring life to others. As long as we worry, we are enslaved to what we have and have put our trust in things that will corrode and rust, and that will in the end leave us disappointed. If we keep in mind that the entrance to the eternal life of which Matthew writes in chapter 25 is reliant upon our ability to exercise justice by the exercise of generous love, how would we change our lives and our congregations?

The mention of “troubles” in verse 34 draws the passage to its close and ties it together. Nowhere does it indicate that being a disciple would lead to a trouble-free life, and any attempt to hear the “do not worry” exhortation as a promise of prosperity and mental ease would easily be stopped in its tracks by this closing verse. In fact if the passage is about shifting our center to God so that worry does not overwhelms us, it is precisely because the day has troubles that we need to hear this good news! Worry tends to project outward into all the “what if’s” of life and remove us from the godly now, where we can know joy and gratitude if we can but trust in the Creator of all, who is also the God of the Moment. If we treasure this day, our hearts will lodge here also in wonder, in trust, in joy. Freed from worry we will be able to meet today’s troubles with the humble confidence that the God who holds tomorrow also holds today.

“Poets, Prophets, and Preachers” a gathering on the art of the sermon, held in Grand Rapids MI,  in the summer of 2009. Available in downloadable video from www.robbell.com   

The Rev. Mark J. Suriano is pastor of Old South Church United Church of Christ in Kirtland, Ohio.

For further reflection

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
There is nothing that wastes the body like worry, and one who has any faith in God should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever.

Robert Frost, 20th century
The reason why worry kills more people than work is that more people worry than work.

W.R. Inge, 20th century
Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due.

Simone Weil, 20th century
All the goods of this world…are finite and limited and radically incapable of satisfying the desire that perpetually burns within us for an infinite and perfect good. 

Winston Churchill, 20th century
When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.

Ashleigh Brilliant, 20th century
All I want is a warm bed and a kind word and unlimited power. 

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a source for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to reprint this resource and use in your congregation’s Bible-study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.