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Sunday Worship 17 March | Sermon on the Mount: Seek First The Kingdom

I have said in the past that the church could do worse than listen to the Sermon on the Mount on repeat until we fully understand its meaning and live out its teaching. In 2019 we did a series on the Lord’s Prayer, in 2022 we heard three different translations or interpretations of the Beatitudes, and then in 2023 we did a series digging into those “blessed are...” sayings in more detail. This Lent we are going to look at a few other sections from that most famous preach.


Matthew 6:25-34 (NLT)
So I tell you do not worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Recently the house group has been using material from the Act on Poverty course written by Christian Aid, Church Action on Poverty, and the churches that make up the Joint Public Issues Team. We have heard that according to the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2023, more than 1 billion people in the majority world live in poverty. And according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 3.8 million people in the UK experienced destitution in 2022. Those statistics, and the conversations we have been having around poverty, provide an interesting background from which to approach this passage. “Do not worry about everyday life” is very easy to say, and it’s fairly easy to do when you have all you need, but to someone in poverty it easily sounds dismissive.


Many people have legitimate anxieties about what they will eat and what they will wear, and I don't think the point of Jesus' words is to shrug them off as petty concerns. What Jesus tells us is that God has provided for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and so we can trust that God has provided for us too. If anyone does not have enough, it is not worry that will change that, but social justice. Perhaps it sounds like I'm reading something into the passage that isn't there, but we should always be seeking to read scripture holistically, rather than taking a handful of verses in isolation, so I want to point us back to verses two and nineteen of this same chapter. “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets”, and “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth”. The promise of provision in this morning’s reading can only be understood in the context of Christ’s teaching that we should be sharing rather than hoarding wealth.


Here we see Christ’s theology of abundance set against the world's myth of scarcity. We are led to believe that there simply isn’t enough to go around, that there are difficult choices to be made, that we can’t help them without sacrificing us. Clearly running an economy is a tough job, and I’m not suggesting there are no hard decisions involved, but I simply do not believe that we are lacking the resources to meet the basic needs of everyone. The myth of scarcity keeps us protective of what we have, keeps us thinking small, keeps us from pushing for the big changes that our society really needs. On the other hand, Christ’s theology of abundance, made so beautifully tangible in the miraculous feedings, says there is plenty for everyone if only we get up and share it.


Moving through today’s passage, Jesus asks “why do you have so little faith?”, which could sound like a judgement or a criticism, but I want us to approach it as a genuine question. What makes it difficult for you to believe in the promises of God? For many people there is hurt and trauma that makes the idea of a loving God seem farcical. For others there are teachings they have received from the church that they struggle to reconcile with their experience of the world. The church needs to be a place where these questions can be asked gracefully and answered honestly, not because we think we can win people round with some well turned phrases, but because we believe that we should be able to bring all of ourselves and be met with love and understanding.


Jesus tells his followers to “seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need”. We can read this as saying ‘if you seek the kingdom and live righteously, then God will give you what you need’, but we can also read it as saying ‘God is going to provide everything, so you may as well focus on seeking the kingdom and living well’. Grammatically speaking, the ‘and’ in the middle of the sentence is a simple conjunction, which does not demand that we understand this verse as implying cause and effect, and I believe there is plenty in scripture to suggest that God’s grace is not dependent on our righteousness, so I would favour the second reading. We don’t need to think about God’s provision because it’s already there, we only need to think about what we do with it.


Jesus sums up this section of teaching by saying “don’t worry about tomorrow...today’s trouble is enough for today”. I am either the worst person in the world to preach on this verse, because I've never learnt its lesson, or the best person in the world to preach on this verse, because I know the consequences of not learning it. I am a worrier and I always have been. There is something about the way my brain works that means I consistently catastrophise to the worst possible scenario, and then assume it is my responsibility to put it right. This results in a vicious cycle of insomnia and anxiety, and for a while in my teenage years it manifested as obsessive compulsive disorder, focusing on repeated hand washing which left my skin painfully dry and cracked. I recently heard someone say they would be a different person without anxiety, because it shapes so much of how they think and act, and that hits home hard for me.


I’ve said before that I don’t want to use this platform as therapy, but I believe that honesty and vulnerability are important in preaching. I am still learning how to live this verse, and so I cannot in good conscience stand here and tell you how to do it. I can only tell you that we need to take it seriously, because worry will not add a moment to our lives but it will rob us of many of them, and God does not want that for us any more than we want it for ourselves. We need to come as those who are weary and heavy laden to the one who offers deep rest. We need to invite the Spirit to do the deep work that will release us from the grip of our fears and anxieties. We need to take up the counselling and the self care that can support that work. And we need to lean on one another as we do that because it is not easy.


I may not have much wisdom to share on this topic, but fortunately the poets do, so I offer three poems that have brought me blessing and comfort. The Peace Of Wild Things by Wendell Berry, This Is The Time To Be Slow by John O’Donohue, and I  Worried by Mary Oliver.



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