A Christian’s Attention

A sermon based on Matthew 6:19-34 preached on March 12th, 2017

Sermon audio

I’ve been pondering this passage all week, rolling these heavy words about treasures and eyes, light and dark, talk of worrying and lilies and God and the Kingdom of Heaven—it’s all been tumbling around in my head, like a cement mixer. These words about worry can feel preachy and demeaning. We’ve been trained to hear these words from Jesus as a piece of advice.

There was a song that was popular years back called Don’t Worry; Be Happy. And I’m afraid this passage is often whittled down to something that silly. What we hear Jesus saying is, simply drop your worry and everything will be better! But when has that advice ever helped us?

If ever I’m worried about something, the last thing I want anyone to do is pat me on the shoulder, and tell me to stop worrying because worrying is never helpful. Although that may be true, but it’s a terrible thing to say. Most likely, it’ll make me worried about the fact that I’m worrying. In the words of that annoying Bobby McFerrin song, that’ll make the worry double. It would be cruel of Jesus to preach these words if this is what He means. Jesus knows better than we do how our minds work.

We too often read this passage thinking of Jesus as some sort of self-help guru—someone with a huge smile on his face trying His best to sell us the idea that we can be free from our worry in 4 easy steps. We read this passage assuming that Jesus is scolding us for being worried, or worse, dispensing advice, for how to live a worry-free life. But, I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. Perhaps we should listen deeper. I don’t think this is Jesus patting us on the shoulder, saying,

There, there, cheer up! There’s no need to worry! Everything will be just fine!

Jesus was just as human as we are. He knew better than to say such a thing.

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Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells a story about a time when she took part in the blessing of a friend’s house. That day, many people pitched in to get this friend of hers moved in, and the plan was that by the end of the day, she would be settled enough in her new place that they all could come back that evening for a housewarming party.

Everything went off without a hitch, and that night everyone brought over a dish. They gathered in the living room in a big circle to start the party off by blessing the house. They read several passages from scripture. Some Barbara Brown Taylor had picked out. The last scripture passage was this one from Matthew’s 6th chapter. A surprising passage for an occasion like this. Why this passage to bless a house with? Why not a passage from the Gospel that was more along the lines of, “You will be warm and safe now, here in this house.” A passage like that would have made sense. But these words,

Do not worry about your life.Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will drink. Don’t worry about how you clothe your body. Living is about more than merely eating, and the body is about more than dressing up.

These words surprised everyone gathered. They fell deep inside of every houseguest and deep inside their host, too. And as they sunk in, she said,

Oh. Oh! I get it. Or at least I think I do.

Jesus preached to that new homeowner that day. And His words startled her and moved her. Through these words, Jesus was telling her she was safe.

You are safe. But, not because you have a house. You’re safe because the God who made you has made a promise never to abandon you. And that promise is your home. And it’s something no one can take away from you.

That’s what she heard that day.

And the same is true for us. Worry not! You are safe. You are home. Already. Jesus does not want worry to be our home address. Worry is a money pit of a place to live. It’ll take from us everything that we feed it. It’ll suck us dry. Like a thief, it’ll break in and steal from us everything we’ve got.

Worry is type of attention, it’s also a place we can reside. Don’t give yourself to it in either way. Don’t live there,

Jesus says.

Do not reside in its rooms. You’ll never be able to rest your head.

Worry not. You are safe.

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Jesus warns us about the split life. He tells us that we cannot serve two masters.

In older translations of this passage, Jesus says we cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon refers to a Syrian deity, a god of riches. This Syrian deity is closely related to the Greek god, Plutus, the god of wealth. They sound to me like the same god.

The Greek god Plutus was the hungriest, emptiest god there was. Plutus is the god who constantly craved the praise of the people. He demanded unending attention from his subjects. He was never satisfied. His need to be worshipped was insatiable. The word Plutomania is the excessive desire for wealth. A Plutocrat is someone whose power derives from their wealth.

It was said that the god Plutus always left faster than he came. Isn’t that true for money, too?! The love of money and the excessive desire for wealth take everything from us but they never leave us satisfied. They demand everything from us, but give nothing in return. They give us very little satisfaction, and leave us chasing after nothing. We might wonder what the wealthiest among us have to worry about, but it turns out that it’s the rich who worry most about money. It’s proven time and time again that the super-rich are also the super anxious.

We have a planet—or maybe it’s a moon—named after this empty god, Plutus. Pluto is the tiniest planet out there. Completely void of atmosphere. It’s a remote place to be. No way to breathe. Our airways would be constricted there. It’s an empty planet. Empty of life and any life-giving substance. By referring to money as Mammon, Jesus is telling us,

Don’t live there.

Life out there is hollow. Making a life that way will take everything from you, and give nothing to you. It will empty you. The life dedicated to serving Mammon is a far-flung life on a far-flung planet. Don’t live that way, because you’ll find yourself frozen, way out in space, far away from God. Cold and all alone. Almost out of orbit. Pay no attention to those things that will take you so far away from God. And certainly, don’t try to make your home out of those things. They will make for a very inhospitable place. There’s no room to breathe there.

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In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about where, and to what, we’re to give our attention. He starts out saying,

Do not give your attention to treasures on earth. Focus instead on those heavenly treasures.

Pay attention to eternal things. Then He moves to talk about where our eyes are focused. Don’t give yourself to the dark. Darkness is empty. There’s evil in there. You’ll lose yourself if you stare too long.

Instead, pay attention to, give your life to, what gives light. Move into those spaces. Then he finishes up by telling us,

Don’t give your attention to worry, because it too is corroded by rust and moth-ridden. It too is all darkness. Don’t live in that room called worry. It will swallow you.

In verse 31, Jesus declares, ‘Do not consume (or perhaps, ‘Be consumed by’) questions like ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’

Don’t fear those things. Fear is the ugliest way of paying attention. We give ourselves away when we worry, when we grow anxious, when we fear. The only thing we should fear isn’t a thing. It’s a person. Fear God. Fearing God is the only type of fear that doesn’t cost us, that doesn’t pull us away from ourselves. Fearing God means paying attention to the one right thing. The only thing that’s worth giving our whole selves to. A Christian’s attention belongs only to God. Earthly treasures, dark, worry. Those are lesser things. Don’t give yourselves away to them. We are what we pay most of our attention to. We also worship what we pay attention to. So, first and foremost, pay attention to God.

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I’ve called Lent a disappearing act. Here we are, two weeks in. During Lent, we practice disappearing so that God appear in and around us. God wants to move into the most central place inside of us.

Most of the time, if we’re honest, we assume the central place in our own life. We live our days at the center of our own universe. Most days, we attend to ourselves, and that’s how we get by. Preoccupied. The rooms of our hearts and minds are filled with our own efforts and questions about how we will eat, pay the bills, how we will get by today and tomorrow. The day after that, too. But, in what ways do our lives end up owning us? How much of our day are we giving ourselves to that greedy god, Plutus? Giving ourselves away to that thing inside of us that feeds on worry and is never satisfied?

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Lent is the season of enough. It’s an invitation to practice enoughness. To confess that God is enough, satisfying, sufficient. Until we rest ourselves in Him, we will spend this life, each and every one of our days, and every one of our efforts paying homage not to God, but to minor gods like Plutus. Lent is when we let go of the empty notion that we have it in us to be our own answer to the question of what will ultimately satisfy.

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If we let it, Lent can move into the rooms of our hearts and minds, and drive out the Plutomania. If we let Lent do its work in us, it can throw us into a new orbit. One where God becomes our Center—the Center of our lives, the Center of all our days, hours, and minutes. And the Center of our attention. And this God wants nothing more than to be all those things for us. Than to call Him ‘Home.’ No matter where we find ourselves.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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