Trinity XV. September 24, 20017. Saint Francis’, Gainesville, Georgia
Saint Matthew vi, verse 24 – But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today we are given a commandment and a promise. The commandment is about priorities: ‘[S]eek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness’. The promise follows: if we put God first, then ‘all these things shall be added unto you.’ So, first the commandment, then the promise.
Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. The lesson is from the Sermon on the Mount, which we find in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Saint Matthew’s gospel. My text is the end of chapter six, two-thirds of the way through the Sermon. Chapters 5 and 6, which come earlier, contain the law of Christ. Both the law of Moses and the law of Christ are given on mountains to govern God’s people. These are the rules of God’s kingdom and describe the righteousness to which he calls us, with the law of Christ fulfilling the older law.
The bad news, my friends, is that the new rules are not easy. In many ways the law of Christ makes God’s law harder, not easier; more demanding, not less. Where the law of Moses demanded an external set of behaviors, the law of Christ demands an inner attitude. The old law says, don’t eat pork or shell fish. The new law says, eat everything with a thankful heart and be mindful of those with nothing to eat. The old law says, don’t commit murder. The new law says, do not hate or be angry. The old law says, don’t commit adultery. The new law says, don’t indulge lust and sensuality. The old law says, here are 300 or 400 things you must do and must avoid. The new law says, everything you do must be in service to God.
Think of it this way. I might say to Johnny, ‘Don’t hit your sister.’ Or I might say to Johnny, ‘You must love your sister.’ Now not hitting Janey is a pretty clear and really not a terribly difficult thing. But loving Janey is a commandment without limit that involves a whole attitude, an all-encompassing orientation of the heart. Or again, suppose I say to a child, ‘Clean up your room.’ That’s clear, simple, and should be easy. But what if I say to the child, ‘Always do the right thing’ or ‘Always be good’? That is much more demanding.
Our commandment today, then is general and demanding: always seek God’s kingdom, the road to which is straight and narrow and difficult. This is not a commandment which tell us, say, what we ought to do on Sunday mornings: though if we aren’t making the effort on Sunday mornings we’re probably failing otherwise as well. The text is not, ‘On Sunday morning seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness for at least one hour.’ No; the command is not about one hour: it is about how we live all of our lives all the time. I do not mean it is about being perfect, which we are not and never will be. But it is about the constant choices put before us every hour. Do we put God first or somewhere well down in our priorities? Today’s command is to put God first always. Or perhaps we might say, in everything we always act for God and with God in mind. That is the command.
The promise in the second half of the text could be seen as a reward: ‘all these things shall be added unto you.’ The things in question are stated earlier in the chapter – clothes and money and food and all the things over which we spend much of our worry and time. The promise is that if we put God first, then the other things will fall into place.
Now I don’t think this means the prosperity gospel. I don’t think it means, the better Christian I am, the richer and more successful I will be. This is not magic. It is not, ‘If I do A,B, and C, then God will give me X, Y, and Z.’ I believe the point is that our worry does not help us, but hurts us, while putting God helps us and does not hurt us.
Let me give two examples. My late friend, Father Irvin, worried about money very much. He was worried he would not have enough in his old age and would run out. But he died in his mid-60s while still working. All his worry was pointless. It made him less happy when he was worrying and didn’t help at all in the end. It did not help him, but hurt him. Insofar as he worried he was distrusting God and did not put God first, and that hurt.
Then consider an example of putting God first despite the possible hurt that would do. After 1976 I knew many priests who believed just as I did – that the new prayer book was awful, the ordination of women was wrong, and that abortion was wicked. These were the three issues that led to the formation of our Church. Of these many priests, though, most did nothing. They were afraid. They were afraid of losing jobs and comfortable rectories and social status. They were afraid to do what they believed was right, because they gave other concerns priority.
While many, many priests and parishes failed, some did not. After the General Convention of 1976, a group of men from St. Mary’s Church in Denver took their rector, Father Mote, out to lunch. They asked him what he was going to do. He said he wasn’t sure. They said to him something like this: ‘Father, you’ve taught us the faith for many years. We believed you and we believed what you taught us. We know on the basis of what you have taught us that we cannot remain in a faithless Church. We are leaving. The only question is whether we will leave following you or will leave on our own.’ Father Mote had taught his people so well that they left him no choice but to do the right thing, to put first the kingdom of God as they understood it. So Father Mote did the right thing, and Saint Mary’s, Denver, was the first parish to leave, Father Mote was the first priest to leave, and so our modern Exodus began.
Then God added all the other things to them in response to their fidelity. St. Mary’s, Denver, lost the struggle for their buildings and property in the U.S. Supreme Court, but money poured in and they bought back what they alone had ever paid for. They then funded a retirement plan for Bishop Mote far better than what he would have had if he had stayed put. The parish is still there. This story of faith rewarded could be multiplied, but I think you get my point.
There you have the second half of the text: and all these things shall be added unto you. If our priorities are right, if the kingdom of God and its righteousness is our first priority, then other things will fall into place. God says to the priest, Eli, ‘[T]hem that honour me I will honour…’ (I Samuel ii.30). If we honor God above all things, then he will bring us through whatever difficulties he allows us to undergo. If we fail to arrange our priorities in this way, then everything will tend to fall apart. It is never too late to pursue God’s kingdom and his righteousness. The promise of my text remains before us. If we put first things first, then all will be well, and all will be well, and God will ensure that all manner of things shall be well.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.