“Living in the Material World”

April 2, 2017

 

Job31:24-28

Matthew 6:19-24

 

I'm living in the material world,” George Harrison once sang. “Living in the material world…I got born into the material world/Getting worn out in the material world.”

You know what he means. Our bodies fail. Accidents happen. Our institutions are attacked. Things fall apart.

An awareness of these realities can distort how we live—or it can lead to a deepening sense of grace—a sense of God’s care for all of creation, and, yes, even for us.

Diane Komp is a pediatric oncologist at Yale who treats children with cancer. She was once asked how she finds hope in families where a child has a terminal illness.

“I have asked them,” she says, “‘If you were going to rewrite the story of your life, would you wipe out any memory of this experience?’ And the truth is, for many families, they never really knew the important things of life before this threatened loss or actual loss came to them.

“Although they would not want the physical or emotional suffering of their child, they don’t want to go back to being the same person.”

She adds: “The message out there is: go after one of everything you can acquire, and that’s the way you’ll make your family happy. Money and possessions. And all of these families learned that that was a lie”[i]

You’ll make your family happy with money and possessions. “And all of these families learned that that was a lie.”

What do we really value? Our children and their safety, our neighbors as ourselves, the health of the planet, the peace of the nations of the world?

Or one of everything we can acquire?

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Lent is traditionally a time for us to reflect on our spiritual lives, which can prove difficult because the Christian faith is material to its very core.

Our scriptures announce that his earth—and all creation—had a beginning point in the God who created heaven and earth. By faith we have the ears to hear the good news that the from the dirt of this good earth the Creator God brought forth good human beings and breathed into the spirit of life.

We began these days of Lent with the Ash Wednesday reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are dust. We are part of the earth, connected to it, rooted in it. But the scientists and the singers tell us we are stardust. So the ashes with which we began these days are more than a grim reminder of our mortality. They are “a pledge of resurrection,” a promise of life.

And this is the purpose of Lent—to better know who we are—so that we might better follow in the ways of Jesus Christ in this material world.

If we pray it is so that we might enter into a life giving conversation with the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

If we fast, it is so that we might know our hunger and thirst for righteousness.

If we give something up, it is so that we might be better able to take up what really matters to us.

If we give something away it is so that we might begin to store up treasure in those places where God is most evident—often among the marginalized and dispossessed.

In all of this we tell the good news that is peculiar to us—that in Jesus the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We speak of God becoming a human being—becoming dust as we are dust.

We are material beings living in the material world.

Not that this is always easy.

The temptation is always there—we can confuse the human with the divine, we can confuse the material with God.

Which brings us to those words of Job. In his attempt to defend himself to his friends and before the living God, Job begins by being very clear that his is a just and righteous person. He cares for others, he feed the hungry, he clothes the naked, he gives to the poor. He does not worship money. He is not the servant of two masters.

But Job does make it clear that trusting in wealth is as close to idolatry as worshipping the sun and the moon. Our possessions can possess us. Setting our hearts on what we have, we lose sight of the graciousness of God.

Maybe this is why Jesus talked more about money and possessions that about almost anything else. Wealth can distort our vision and warp our values. It can keep us from seeing the image of God in each human being. It can keep us from seeing that the earth is God’s.

In the adult education sessions during Lent, we’ve been looking at the ways that encounters with other religions can deepen and enrich our own faith. This morning we were talking about Buddhism, greed, non-attachment, and compassion. After giving up a life of privilege and luxury, Gautama Buddha discovered that there is something skewed at the heart of human existence. We suffer, he said, because our minds, our hearts, and our actions are riddled with greed, hatred, and delusion. So a Buddhist paraphrase of the words of Jesus might tell us: “The things you are greedy for, the things that you wish to possess, will take over your mind and heart and imprison you.”

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The way forward for Buddhists as well as for Christians, is not simply a path of withdrawal from the world. We are living in the material world—and always will. The way forward is a letting go that results in compassion—the ability to see and to respond to the suffering of others in this material world.

There are many ways to do this—and following our Congregational tradition, we do not limit our compassion and our concern to the forty days of Lent. We seek throughout the year to respond to the suffering world in ways that put our wealth, our treasure at the service of others.

Of course we have long used Lent and the One Great Hour of Sharing offering as a way of reordering our priorities, as a way of showing compassion.

For two years in a row now, Congregational UCC has been one of the top 100 givers to One Great Hour of Sharing in the United Church of Christ. Last year we gave $4,900 to this special offering that provides support for refugees, immigrants, and victims of natural disasters as well as ongoing health, education, and agricultural efforts nationally and globally.

We can do better.

The need for money to fund medical care, disaster relief, and especially, relief for refugees has never been greater. As our government acts to build a wall, deport thousands, and cut funds for humanitarian work around the world, our giving takes on an even greater importance this year.

I invite you to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, the way of compassion, and to give generously to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering that we will receive during worship on Palm Sunday, April 9.

If you have already decided how much you are going to give, double that amount.

If you haven’t yet decided, surprise yourself—shock yourself, even—with how generous you can be. When you write that check you should be asking, “What am I thinking, giving this much?”

Parents, help your children to give using those banks that we handed out. It’s hard to talk with children about other children who are suffering, but many of your children are very much aware of that suffering. Gently help them to see how they can help others.

I’m not asking you to give so that we will continue to be on that Top 100 list. We might be. We might not. But either way, refugees will have water to drink because of your giving; people who lost their homes in natural disasters will find shelter because of your giving; around the world women and men, boys and girls will get the health care they need and would otherwise miss because of your giving.

I’m asking you to give because Jesus calls those who would follow him to put place our hearts and our treasure in the same place.

Respond the needs of others with the same compassion that you have known in Christ.



[i] New York Times, Sept. 17, 1995 quoted in “Voluntary Simplicity” issue of UCC Connections.