God and Mammon - St Bride's: Reflection

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God and Mammon

Matthew 6: 24-end

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25 Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?

26 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?

28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

34 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

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It is interesting, isn't it, the very different things that cause us anxiety as individuals. 

For example, I cannot bear ambiguity or lack of clarity in the written word: indeed I find unclear instructions completely disabling.  Which is doubtless why I have experienced a life-long struggle with certain kinds of road signs.  As a child I can remember feeling deeply anxious at roadworks where large warning signs said things like: 'Caution: Giant Plant Crossing' - or (even more chillingly) - 'Beware of the Ramp'.  I was firmly convinced that, at any moment, a monstrous killer Ramp would rear up menacingly from the roadside. 

And things weren't much better when I reached adulthood: there is a road tunnel that runs through Birmingham City Centre, bearing a sign that caused me anxiety for the whole of the twenty four years that I lived in that city.  It says simply: 'Use dipped headlights'.  Which might seem obvious enough to all of you - but was it instructing me to switch my headlights on in a dipped position, or was it merely informing me that, if my headlights happened to be on already, I should ensure they were dipped.  And I still don't know the answer to that one.

And other kinds of poorly-worded road signs are simply irritating.   Driving through the Republic of Ireland a few years ago, I came across a sign at some roadworks which contained just three words, but was devoid of some essential punctuation.  The three words were: 'Stop Men Working'.  (Well, I did try shouting at them to stop, but they ignored me and carried on working regardless.)  And possibly my all-time favourite, which I spotted on the ticket machine of a multi-storey car park in Bangor, in north Wales.  The machine had a sign on it that stated, confidently, but somewhat perplexingly: 'Change is possible'.   This gave me considerable pause for thought.  Was it suggesting that, if you didn't happen to have the correct money with you, it was possible, but not absolutely certain, that the machine would provide you with change?   In which case, what were the criteria by which the machine decided whether or not it would reward you?  Or was it instead a dramatic existential statement: 'Change is possible!' - There is time for amendment of life after all! - Alleluia!

Good communication is essential to human life, to human interaction, and to human flourishing.  And Jesus was unusually skilled at it.  We know that to be the case from the sheer scale and enthusiasm of his following: people travelled for miles to hear him, wherever he went.  And, in his teachings, he dealt with aspects of human life and human nature which are unchanging; which transcend time and culture.  Which is why his message is as fresh and as relevant for us today as it was in first century Palestine.  And yet many people, both then and now, have struggled to take on board the truths that lie at the heart of his message - not because they are ambiguous or unclear, but simply because his teachings run counter to so many of our in-built assumptions.

Take today's gospel reading, for example, which contains those famous sayings about no-one being able to serve God and Mammon, and the image of the lilies of the field.  The overall message is a very simple one: do not waste your time and energy worrying about what might happen tomorrow.  Rather, focus on the issues of the day, and entrust everything else to God.

Now, that might sound straightforward enough, and may well ring true, but boy, is it difficult actually to live like that.   Because there is a very natural human inclination to worry about what the future holds, regardless of our age or life circumstances.  Will I have enough money to live on?  What will happen to my children?  What will happen when I can no longer live independently?  In the modern world, whole industries have developed both to service and (it has to be said) to prey upon those types of concerns.  And of course, when we do experience those kinds of anxieties, it is very tempting to look in one very specific direction for a solution: namely, money. 

It is probably no exaggeration to suggest that the whole of our culture is based on the assumption that money brings you security; money is the one thing that can give you true peace of mind and take the anxiety out of life.

Except that it can't and it doesn't.  If anything it is prone to do the precise opposite.  As we all know from the global financial crisis of 2007/8, and the current turbulence over Brexit, money itself is actually nothing like as dependable or secure as we might want to believe.  But more than that, some of the wealthiest people I have known have also been the most anxious and depressed, and isolated.  My parish in Edgbaston was home to some of the wealthiest individuals in the West Midlands, and during my years as Vicar there, I took more funeral services for those who had committed suicide, than at any other period of my ministry.  There was a news feature a few days ago about teenagers who have won massive amounts of money on the national lottery, most of whom are now describing how the impact of their massive 'good fortune' in fact destroyed their life and their happiness.

But, hang on a minute!  Surely it is a mark of being a responsible adult that we should make plans and provisions for the future, and for the welfare of our children and grandchildren, as I am certain the parents and godparents of Amber, Margot, Peggy and Adelaide are committed to doing.  'Living for the day', without a thought for the morrow, is a luxury that most of us simply do not have, particularly in the context of a world as complex and sophisticated as ours own.  And I would not disagree with that.

But I don't actually think that in today's Gospel reading Jesus is primarily concerned about whether or not we plan for the future.  Rather, the main focus of his concern is much more to do with the nature of anxiety.  Because if our lives are dominated by fears about the future, then that will impact massively upon the nature of our life in the present.  And it will also tempt us to place our trust in the wrong things, in our misguided attempts to assuage that anxiety.  Which is, of course, precisely the point at which money comes into the equation.  Money itself is morally neutral - it is neither good nor bad.  However, the choices that we make about how we obtain it, and how we use it can most certainly be good or bad - as can the extent to which we allow it to dominate our lives and our decision making.  Because you cannot serve God and Mammon.

When I see people pastorally who are in some kind of trouble or distress, I often find myself observing that decisions that are based on fear almost always turn out to be bad decisions.  And one can say precisely the same about anxiety, because anxiety and fear are very close companions.  Do not let anxiety about tomorrow influence the way you live today, because if you do that, then all kinds of distorting factors will be unleashed, and your life will be greatly impoverished as a result. 

People who have recently recovered from a major trauma of some kind, whether emotional or physical, often speak of having to learn to live 'one day at a time'.  It is such a pity that it can often take a major life crisis for us to recognise the importance of that as a strategy for living for all of us.  Experience each day as it comes; face its challenges; accept its joys with thankful hearts.  After all, tomorrow is unknown territory.  We cannot know what surprises or challenges it may hold. Which is why that is the bit we have to entrust to God.

There is a rather wonderful saying attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, which one sees reproduced from time to time (I saw it recently on a car bumper sticker), which goes like this:

Yesterday is history
Tomorrow is a mystery
Today is a gift
That is why we call it the present.


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