Sermon - Sunday 27th February
Anxiety - The Sermon on the mount
Scripture - Matthew 6:24-34
Today’s second reading, from the Gospel of Matthew, is just a small part of a much larger piece of teaching. It is aways dangerous to take a few scriptural verses out of context and to treat them in isolation; and in this case we lose sight of the broad sweep of Jesus’s message if we isolate these verses from their surroundings,
Matthew includes five large teaching blocks in his gospel, and today we heard part of his first collection of the sayings of Jesus. This block of teaching is known as the Sermon on the Mount and is one of the most frequently quoted sections of any of the gospels.
And the reason why these sayings are so quotable is because of the way they are constructed. Matthew carefully shapes these teachings into a sequence of short, memorable packages which sound almost like family proverbs.
If we had been present at this event, I think we would have come away remembering phrases such as: ‘No-one can be a slave to two masters’, or ‘...not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed like one of these’, or ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will worry about itself.’ These are challenges to people’s values crafted into simple sayings which are memorable and thought-provoking. And they are the only kind of teaching which works in a society where teachings are passed on orally. It’s easy to forget that there was no-one writing any of this down at the time Jesus was speaking; there was no Jesus of Nazareth Newsletter to be copied and handed out and passed from hand to hand; everything was passed from mouth to ear, and so it had to be shaped and delivered in a memorable way.
When we begin to look at the wider context in which Jesus was sharing these insights, we learn that Jesus was on a mountainside addressing a large crowd. These were not intimate explanations with those closest to him: Jesus was effectively speaking to the world and his theme was the Kingdom of God.
The Sermon on the Mount is a many-faceted vision of life in the Kingdom of God as well as being an interpretation of how to travel the road towards that vision. It is something to be prayed about, to be worked for, and to be brought about as a reality of God’s relationship with humanity.
The early part of this teaching says that in the Kingdom those who mourn will be comforted; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled; peacemakers will be called children of God; and the meek will inherit the earth.
These are hallmarks of life in the Kingdom of God and they are memorable because they are so different to what life is often like for people in the kingdoms of this world.
The focus of that small part of the Sermon on the Mount that we heard today is about the very human tendency to slip into a state of anxiety and worry about the day-to-day aspects of our lives. Each saying in the reading sounds like a self-contained proverb, and it is easy to get hung up on each of the individual challenges in the passage and to miss the wider thought which seems to underpin what is being said.
The reading seems to say:
- don’t worry about food and drink
- don’t worry about clothes
- don’t worry about tomorrow
- as in all these matters we can rely on God to provide.
I really don’t think that these sayings mean that we should not take steps to have sufficient food and drink in the house for our needs; or that we should never buy the clothes we need; or that we should not make plans for tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or have no contingency plans in place for when things go wrong.
I think the deeper message of these challenges is around priorities and the choices we can make.
In amongst all the things Jesus says we should not worry about, the one thing he says we should do is to seek the Kingdom of God. I think Jesus challenges us to examine our priorities if we find we are becoming anxious, obsessive or overwhelmed about day to day things to the point where we lose sight of our commitment as Christians to work for the coming of the Kingdom.
He challenges us to consider whether getting ourselves into a state of anxiety about something planned for tomorrow might get in the way of recognising and responding to the needs of a neighbour today.
I think we can take these teachings about what we eat, how we dress, and how we plan for our future to be symbols for how we live our daily lives in every respect; and the challenge behind the teaching is to look at our priorities as followers of Jesus with his vision of the Kingdom of God in front of us.
It’s a broad vision of what God's values mean for our world: Matthew takes three chapters of his gospel to convey Jesus’s early teaching about it on the mountainside where he makes statements which say, time and again, 'are your priorities God's priorities?' It embraces many aspects of human nature and God’s loving response to each of us. But at its heart it explores the profession of every follower of Jesus: to work for the coming of the Kingdom of God.