Seek ye first, the Kingdom of God, and his Righteousness, says Matthew 6, verse thirty-three and all these things will be added unto you. We say it, but only during Epiphany and then only once every three years. We sing it from time to time and we lean into the Allelu-Alleluia’s and it is a sweet and simple piece of scripture that seeks to make us think about why we do things and where God is in those decisions.
Sometimes I think we ought to read that little snippet of scripture more often because of what it reminds us of, the things that we ought to be considering before we make big decisions, or heck, even small ones. The theologically astute thing to say here would be that we rely on logic instead of listening for the movement of the Spirit when we make these decisions. It would be good politics to tell you all that instead of faith we use reason to make our decisions, big ones and small ones alike but that is not true either.
Think about it, when you are choosing which can of diced tomatoes in sauce at the grocery store or which new car we are going to buy or which bottle of wine you will drink with dinner you are not applying nearly so much logic as you might wish to believe. Seldom does the notion enter our heads that in many places, Hunt’s tomatoes are canned right next to First Street tomatoes and the only difference in the end is the label that gets glued on at the end of the line. We think with our pride that we are successful and can afford to be discerning on our shopping and so can grab a can of name brand red glop in a can instead of the commercial, or heaven help us, generic brand.
I wonder which weighs more heavily on our minds at the dealership; the mileage or how sexy we look driving whichever car we are in at the moment, which one makes us look more desirable to the people on the sidewalk as we whoosh by.
I don’t know about you, but I look at the Wine Spectator reviews when shopping for a bottle of wine, trusting that someone somewhere is smarter about his that I am and that I should trust them and their taste instead of just buying something that I know I will like. After all, if it bombs at the party, I can always blame Wine Spectator.
What we start with is far more likely our ego, then our prejudice and then our fear, and maybe then we’ll use logic to determine which of those motivations we will allow to rise to the top of our thinking and guide our purchase.
And to be fair, I’m pretty sure that Jesus isn’t as concerned about which wine you’d drink at whatever event you are about to attend, and I am certain that Jesus doesn’t much care for what kind of car that you drive or which can of tomatoes you pick off of the shelf, those are trivialities and even we should recognize them as such and Jesus is a lot less interested in our choices but Jesus is concerned about how we go about deciding.
Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.
I had a friend in college who stopped wearing tennis shoes because he couldn’t find a pair, that he could afford, that were not made in a southeast Asian sweatshop. My brother in law tried for a long time to find an acceptable pair of non-leather work shoes for his veterinary practice because he is a vegetarian and was trying to avoid wearing animals as well as eating them. People now opt for electric cars as an alternative to continuing to burn refined fossil fuels.
These are all choices that are at least trying to come to terms with what God might wish for us, to not exploit in the case of the tennis shoes, to respect the life of the animal in the case of Nathan’s work shoes, and to try and be better stewards of the creation in the case of electric cars and the attempt to keep the air a little clearer.
They are valiant stabs at seeking the Kingdom of God
But it is a lot of work to try and find a product in the store, in any store anywhere that does not involve some manner of exploitation, some manner of one creature dying to make another’s life better, or some corner of the creation a little dingier, a little less hospitable than when God made it in the first place.
How do you decide? How can you make a move and not feel the weight of the injustice inherent in your candy bar made with Palm oil the making of which involves mowing down the rain forest? How do you drive to work without wondering how much carbon you are putting into the atmosphere?
It seems that the only holy solution, the only way you can be certain to avoid degrading, or harming, or oppressing, or tainting in some way the people of the earth is to just stay home, grow your own crops and never go outside.
Like the hermits of old, the ones who wandered off into the desert and came to be called the desert fathers of the church because there were few women dumb enough to go out there. They sought to eschew the temptations of the world, the inevitability of sin in the company of other people, the dangers to their souls that commerce, and trade and relationship would bring and so they fled into the wilderness to try and stay pure.
In the pilot episode of the West Wing, a debate is taking place about the need to control the behaviors of America’s youth and on the one side is a televangelist and on the other side is the communications director for the Bartlett administration. The televangelist says “Show the average American teenage male a condom and his mind will turn to thoughts of lust.” And the communications director replies, “Show the average American teenage male a lug wrench and his mind will turn to thoughts of lust,” which is to say that avoiding each and every cause of potential sin, each and every interaction in which injustice can potentially ensue, avoiding all commerce and relationship in which some sin might occur does nothing to prevent sin from occurring.
Heck even the act of separating yourself from the pack so to speak goes against God’s initial proclamation, “it is not good for you to be alone,” and replaces it with the wisdom of mankind and that is pride and pride is a sin.
To think that you can keep yourself pure, to think that you can live a life in which there is not the abuse of another, the oppression somewhere along the line in your tilapia fillet is just hubris, we cannot achieve a life with no sin, it is not in us to do so.
But still we try, and worse we try and out-do one another. If there is one thing that binds all of the televangelists together into a knot, and I am excluding, for the moment the prosperity-Gospel folks, if one thing binds them it is that they are certain that someone else, in fact everyone else is less righteous than the ones who follow them.
If Jerry Falwell had formed the more moral majority I might have had more sympathy for his efforts but no, they declared themselves Moral, full stop; and from those lofty heights cast aspersions on all the rest of us. So it was with the whole raft of TV preachers from my youth, each thought of themselves as the only one pointing to the true way, each sought to outdo one another, not in actual acts of righteousness, like the ones described in the Bible, but in claims of actual righteousness; loud, sometimes tearful claims of actual righteousness.
I wonder if, when they read this morning’s gospel reading they thought of themselves or if they only thought of other people, people considerably less righteous than themselves.
Which one will be first? Which one will be greatest?
I want to thank Kathryn and Julie Combs for saying such nice things about me but I am completely uncomfortable with that kind of thing. I was born to be a Lutheran, even though my people are Evangelical United Brethren.
I am completely uncomfortable with that kind of thing because, at the very core of me I know my failings and the ones I do not know I am certain will be shown to me on the last day and so I am grateful to be invited to come along with Christ at all, let alone wondering who will be the greatest when Christ gathers us up again into His arms and takes us home.
I know that I have failed more than I have succeeded. I know that there are days when even I cannot feel the Holy Spirit moving though me and cannot seem to locate it through prayer and reflection. I know the darkness in myself and I know how it pains me.
But I also know that the darkness pains me the most when I enable it. When I am focused on the things of my own ego, whether or not I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, whether or not I am doing it well, how people see me, all of the sentences ending or beginning with me myself and I, those are the darkest days of all, not because I am not doing my job or not because I am not doing it well, but because those are the days when I am not seeking first the Kingdom of God, sure, it’s on the list, but not first.
Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.
We are all the time after things. We want to be safe and we want to be secure and we want to be a part of something larger than ourselves, something that makes a difference in the world and in the lives of other people. We have values and we want them expressed in the world so that people might find them useful, even beneficial and join us in our efforts. We have hopes and dreams for our children and our grandchildren and we want to leave them a world and a legacy that they can thrive with and grow beyond our imaginings.
But it depends where you start. Not that God is going to punish you for seeking ye first, say the kingdom of predictable returns on your investments, I think that falls under the category of things less important to God, but rather that the whole of the creation operates along lines deeply ingrained in all things, since the creation itself. Those things that are in harmony with the will of God and God’s mission amongst us tend to prosper and those things that run counter to the will of God tend to falter, or at least do not deliver the blessings that might have been.
Sure thieves get rich and saints get shot and God don’t answer prayers a lot, like Sondheim says, but for every dollar made off the backs of someone who is forced to live without dignity, for every mansion built on the blood of war and human degradation, for every tin-pot tyrant that inflicts his evil on an innocent population there is a world of blessing being denied, an unimaginable world that only comes to fruition when at the very first we seek the kingdom, not to rule it, but to be able to see it at all; not to build it for ourselves, but to be able to walk in it as the beloved of God; not to keep it for ourselves but to be able to hold it in our hand only long enough to pass it along to someone else and to know that sorrow shared is sorrow halved but blessings shared are blessings compounded.
Worst of all, like James says, is when we do not ask and therefore do not receive. If we do not trust that God is there for us and wants us to ask, wants to give, wants to bless and wants for God’s children to prosper and live in joy and peace, then we are truly lost and have only ourselves to blame.
Seek ye first the kingdom of God and know that God has resolved to give it to you for no other reason than God loves you, despite the fairly obvious reasons not to, and wants only for your good.
Sometimes even when we do ask it is not from a desire to see the kingdom, but for lesser desires and so we still do not receive. Like asking for rain or asking for snow or asking for only green lights on the way to work, our desires thwart God’s desire to give because they are not rooted in the Kingdom.
The decisions themselves do not matter so much as where our desire to see them come true is rooted. Anything rooted in a desire to see God’s kingdom and to see it spread across the whole of the earth is certain to prosper for that is also God’s will.
Anything else, and we skate away on our own path, faithful but flawed and only glimpse the Kingdom in our peripheral vision.
To be fair, that is where we all live. Skating there somewhere on the outskirts of true grace but that is not where we are destined to stay. Whoever is greatest is not the one who seeks to be greatest, but rather the one who seeks the kingdom and simply allows God to add all the other things.