A sermon on Matthew 6:24-34 by Alison Sampson
Many of you know that my husband Paul is a vegequarian; he eats only vegetables and fish. What most of you don’t know is why I am not – it’s quite simply because every time I see a cow in a field, I get hungry!
A few months ago, I had a most entertaining conversation with a gentleman at Northcote Lake. He was feeding the ducks, and we discussed whether duck a l’orange or Peking duck would be more delicious on that sunny afternoon. I enjoy going to Malmsbury to visit the bakery there – and to gaze at the geese in the Botanic Gardens. For that is the closest I get to the photograph of a golden basted bird surrounded by roasted apples in Nigella Lawson’s cookbook, Feast! (I thought the sermon might need a little food porn to liven it up.)
But what on earth do these introductory comments have to do with the lectionary readings?! In tonight’s gospel reading, we are told that Jesus said:
“So don’t get all anxious and go asking, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘Where will we find a drink?’ or ‘What on earth will we wear?’. It is the people who don’t put their trust in God who put all their energy into these things. You can rest assured that your Father in heaven knows perfectly well that you need these things.
How we understand this passage depends, of course, on the lens we read it through. It is very tempting to get this far, and stop. Great, we think. Thanks be to the God who gives us food and drink and good friends to share it with. After all, God has indeed provided us with nice clothes and plenty to eat, and few of us have ever had to think about where our next meal is coming from. Let’s have a little bout of gratitude mingled with self-congratulation about the many ways in which God has blessed us richly. Hooray for me, I was born into a nation of abundance. I can afford meat and wine and warm leather boots. And I am aware of the blessings, and I do give thanks. What a good Christian am I!
But there are problems with this reading. To start with, it ignores the cultural differences between the original audience of his sermon, and who we are now. Jesus was addressing a ragtag crowd, a multitude, and he focussed on the poor. His comments were directed towards people who were living at subsistence level, in a drought-ridden, war-torn and heavily taxed region. These were people who rarely had tomorrow’s bread in hand; they really did have to pray for their bread daily. For these people, a bad crop, a vicious military encampment, a new tax, or the death of a working member of the family often meant extreme hunger. Extortionate taxes were forcing many off the land, and smallholders were being driven into homelessness, beggary and prostitution. In this context, Jesus’ words promise relief, and some security in God’s new economy.
But in our economy, a Western industrialized nation linked into an often exploitative global system, we are all comparatively overpaid, overfed, overdressed. In this context, Jesus’ comments need to be looked at a little more carefully. For us, eating and drinking and dressing ourselves is a different theological ballgame. Like it or not, what we eat, drink and wear is always a decision. It’s a theological decision. And it shows up the systemic nature of sin.
For we have been born into a system in which the production of goods has been taken almost wholly out of our hands. Few of us grow our own food, or weave our own cloth. If we do, it’s a hobby, and not out of necessity. We have little control over how things are grown or made; and the corporations which grow or make our goods are legally required to maximise the profits they provide to shareholders. This means that it is in their economic and legal interest to find the cheapest ways to grow and make stuff – and the economic system places very little or no value on the safety of foreign workers, or on the environmental or future costs of many of our means of production. Damaging industries are heavily subsidized by our governments, and we, as consumers, often don’t even know the hidden or environmental costs of the products we buy.
Eating and drinking and dressing with little thought has enormous ramifications, environmentally and socially. What we decide to eat, drink and wear affects other people, mostly poor people, in other parts of the world, and often in terrible ways.
After all, when we buy things that are made in sweatshops, we are buying things made by young women and children working in unsafe and often forced or violent situations. When we buy fabrics that are produced with the aid of toxic chemicals, we are asking someone else to work with these chemicals, often in countries where workplace safety is negligible or non-existent, and we are leaving a poisonous soup to leach into the soil. When we buy foods flown in from interstate and overseas, we dump carbon dioxide into our atmosphere and consume precious petrol. When we eat steak over soybeans, we use ten times the water and energy to produce the food, and contribute to the degradation of fragile Australian soils. When we continually take more than we need, we leave less for everyone else to share in.
We are often oblivious to the effects of our wealth and over-consumption. But the greed inherent in our society’s way of life, which we all participate in, is violent. It affects the earth. It affects the workers. It particularly affects the poor. So what does Jesus have to say about all this?
Well, in the next bit of the reading, after telling us not to get all anxious about what we eat, drink and wear, Jesus says,
So you can make your first priority the new culture of God and doing the right thing, God’s way, and all these other things will be taken care of for you.
And paradoxically for us, history’s rich people who are trying to live out the new culture of God and do the right thing, God’s way, this does mean thinking about what we are going to eat, and what we are going to drink, and what we are going to wear. Because if we don’t think about it, we perpetuate the systems of environmental pillage and violence and oppression of the poor which currently provide much of our food and drink and clothing.
For most of us, thinking about what we eat and drink and wear will mean changes in what we buy. It might mean eating less meat, which I, for one, find a constant challenge. It might mean giving up eggplant and tomatoes in a Melbourne winter; and imported Italian parmesan and avocadoes and mangoes altogether (and I can assure you that I am definitely not up to those sacrifices yet).
It might mean buying less stuff that we don’t need, and trying, where possible, to buy the right stuff when we do need it: second hand clothes, fair trade clothes, clothes made from organically grown fibres. It might mean wearing our clothes until they are worn out, not just until we are sick of them.
Living out the new culture of God might mean advocating on behalf of the poor who are working and living in terrible conditions, whether by writing to politicians, writing to corporations, or choosing fair trade food and garments. It might mean being willing to spend more of our money on things which are made in right ways, ways that don’t exploit the earth or the poor who work for us. It might mean buying local, and buying less. The things we do buy will probably be more expensive that what we currently choose, but this is God’s economy and this is the price we pay for being born into such a wealthy nation, and at such a wealthy time, when there is so much imbalance and injustice in the world.
This might all sound too hard. But maybe there’s something in this intentional way of living that will turn out to be joyful and filled with the presence of God. After all, we are told that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
Besides, living frugally much of the time doesn’t mean that we should never feast. Jesus himself feasted with rich and poor and he shared many meals: one criticism of him has been that he was a glutton! As another great glutton, the theologian, Martin Luther, said, if the good Lord sees fit to provide a nice fat pike and a bottle of Riesling, then I see fit to eat and drink.
In my own life, living with a vegequarian, you will mostly find me eating bread, lentils and greens, or pasta and locally grown vegetables. But you will also find me devouring an enormous rare rump steak with a glass of cabernet sauvignon on our wedding anniversary. I look forward to it for months! And one thing I’ve discovered is that choosing to indulge less often means that the abundance (which in my case is almost always steak), tastes glorious indeed. It marks the event as a time of celebration, feasting, and God’s good grace.
Making good choices about what we eat, drink and wear is about living with our hearts and hands open wide, sharing what we have now rather than storing it up for tomorrow. When we do this, we are participating in the new culture of God, the kingdom of God. And what is the kingdom of God like? Well, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a party. It’s like a wedding banquet. It’s like a woman inviting friends over to celebrate when she finds something precious that was lost.
The kingdom of God is joyful; there are songs and laughter. Little kids play under feasting tables, not sweatshop tables. Old women sit with their arms resting on their ample stomachs, and beam blessings on the gathered company and the children sitting at their feet.
The kingdom of God is eating soup together after the service, sharing a meal and stories. It’s telling jokes over the dishes and drinking the leftover port in the kitchen. There’s enough to go around, and, as Frances taught so many of us, there are many gifts to be given and many gifts to be shared.
The kingdom of God is raising our glasses together as one, as we taste the first fruits of the coming joy. It’s celebrating our life together now and our shared hopes and dreams of a world where all might eat and drink under the reign of God. As God’s faithful servants, we are called to do what we can to bring this world about, but we are also to model it right now, eating and drinking and sharing what we have already.
And we are told that when we do this, Jesus himself will be among us. And in his gracious and glorious abundance, he will save the best wine for last.