We cannot know Christ
unless we follow him daily in life
~ Hans Denck, 16th century
Grace must be lived out,
or it is not grace
~ Karl Barth, CD II/2: 695
Title: Grace and wealth
Texts: Isa 49:8-16, Matt 6:24-34
Date: Feb 27, 2011
Author: Isaac Villegas
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matt 6:26).
I’ve been watching the birds in my front yard—because, after all, Jesus says we should: “Look at the birds,” he says to his disciples and the crowds, and to us. So I look at the birds in my neighborhood, and I notice that they are very busy these days—scurrying around, investigating various patches of earth with their beaks. They are the harbingers of spring, preparing for new life, announcing what is soon to come. A couple blue birds have been flying in and out of the birdhouse, making a home, nesting. I see each of them take turns, gathering twigs and pine needles, and bringing them back into the birdhouse. Soon, in a month or so, I will walk by their home in my front yard and hear the sound of hungry baby blue birds.
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” I take it that Jesus’ point is that the birds of the air don’t horde their wealth like we do; they don’t obsess over their possessions; they aren’t ruled by the fear of poverty, the fear of becoming poor. Instead, the birds show us what trust in God looks like: “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,” Jesus says, “and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” While it’s true, as Jesus says, that the blue birds in my front yard do not stockpile wealth in their small house, they do spend a lot of time gathering—flying in and out of the house, preparing a nest for the coming eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the blue birds will continue to gather, finding food for the young.
When Jesus says that our heavenly Father feeds the birds, obviously he doesn’t mean that the birds don’t do anything for themselves, that they don’t have to work for food. The point Jesus is making, I think, is that all of life comes from God—the one who is the creator, the provider, the sustainer of the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, and each of us. Without God, there is no life. At the heart of creation, at the center of the world, at the core of every creature is a fundamental dependency on God. We are, all of us, needy before God. We are beggars; it’s just that some know how to beg better than others. Some are more comfortable with being needy than others. Some are more familiar with their dependency than others.
After all, the heart of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6 is a prayer, a prayer that invites us to confess our neediness, a prayer that renders us beggars before God. Right before our passage for this evening, Jesus tells his disciples how to prayer. He tells them to beg, to say, “Our Father, who art in heaven… give us this day our daily bread.” And daily bread means daily bread—it’s a request for food, that basic necessity of life. Through the Lord’s Prayer, as we pray, we are invited into a place of neediness. It’s a prayer for people who need to remember that they are beggars.
The trouble is that we—or perhaps I should only speak about myself and say: the trouble is that I have been convinced that I am not a beggar, that I am not needy, that I don’t have to pray for my daily bread, that I don’t have to pray because I deserve the money I’ve earned, it’s mine because I’ve worked for it, and that it is somehow mine to use as I want, at my own discretion, to buy another book for my library if I so desire, especially if it’s a book about God, even if it’s a $50 book on Karl Barth’s ethics.
This past Thursday I was on my way to buy another book at the Regulator Bookstore. A man approached me as I walked down the sidewalk and asked if I had some money to spare. Now, at this point in my sermon, I should remind you of something Chris Gooding said in his sermon last week. Chris talked about a pastor who declared from the pulpit that he was entirely sanctified; the pastor said that he had attained a level of holiness where he no longer knowingly sinned.
Well, that’s not me. I’m a pastor who sins, and I’m about to confess to you one of those sins. When the man outside of the bookstore asked me if I had any money to spare, I gave him a handful of change and told him that was all I had, when in fact I had a twenty-dollar bill in my pocket that I was planning on using to buy Pauli Murray’s autobiography in the bookstore. I lied to a man because I didn’t want to tell him that I actually didn’t want to give him my money, that I thought the money in my pocket would be better spent on a book than on his needs, his daily bread. The money was mine, not his. I had forgotten that the money in my pocket came from God, a gift from our heavenly father that was supposed to be used to nurture life for others, to sustain God’s children, to provide daily bread for all who are hungry, not books to satisfy my intellectual appetite.
When Jesus says to look at the birds of the air, my way of life is called into question. Everything that the two blue birds in my front yard do is organized around making room for life. They shape their lives around building an environment that welcomes new life, the life of newly born blue birds, and nurturing and sustaining those lives. They work for the sake of others, for the sake of needy creatures that must live from their labor, completely dependant on them. When I watch the birds, I hear a question, maybe from them, or perhaps from God. I’m asked: “What are you working for? Who benefits from your labor? Who will be served with the money in your pockets?”
As Christians we are a people who have been shaped by a history of people, who bear witness to a way of life that looks like the birds of the air—people who have worked hard, making sure to provide for their needs, and who have worked to earn extra money so as to provide for others who do not have enough. Traditionally, for Christians, income has been tied to redistributing God’s provision to those who need it. The only reason to earn more money was to participate in God’s generous economy of provision, of sharing the abundance of the earth with those who beg for their daily bread.
Menno Simons in the 16th century has this to say: We are prepared “to share our possessions, gold, and all that we have, however little it may be; and to sweat and labor to meet the need of the poor, as the Spirit and Word of the Lord, and true love teach and imply.” For Menno, the sweat of labor was for the purpose of providing for the needy, not for our own financial security.
But this isn’t just a Mennonite thing. The theologians of the early church, the people who helped articulate our Christology—our beliefs about Jesus being God—these theologians also thought that our beliefs about Jesus were tied to our economic practices (see Justo Gonzalez, Faith and Wealth). To believe that, in Jesus, God left the glories of heaven to become a poor Jewish peasant for our sake, meant that Jesus has saved us by inviting us into God’s life and mission, which is a movement of self-giving, a movement of grace, of sacrificing one’s own life for the sake of others: that’s what we see in the life of Jesus, culminating on the cross. According to those early theologians, to believe in God, to have faith in Jesus, is something we do with our whole bodies, with all that we have, with all of our lives. Our faith in God is too big to be segregated or restricted to our heads or our hearts. Faith is the way we receive the grace of God with our whole lives, with everything we have, with all that we are.
For some reason, our form of Christianity in the modern West has tended to separate doctrine from ethics, and as we have created these two artificial categories, we have tended to prioritize doctrines as definitive of Christian faith, while ethics are optional—they are like accessories to decorate the life we are already living, they are ornaments not the substance of faith. But the problem is that Jesus came to invite us into a whole new way of life, not just to change our minds about God. The eternal life Jesus offers us changes everything. The call of faith is to enter into a new way of life—which may mean death to some of the things in our lives that we hold so dear, but death for the sake of resurrected life, unimaginable life, abundant life.
God’s grace is an invitation to put on the life of Christ, an invitation to let God’s word become flesh in our bodies, in what we do and say, in our work and play, in our relationships with loved ones and enemies, with friends and strangers. To receive God’s grace offered to us in Jesus Christ is to become one with that grace, to unite our lives to God’s life, to let God’s grace flow through us, washing away our sins and showing us the way of eternal life, of overflowing life, of a grace-filled life—a life lived for the sake of the world, poured out for the world, because that’s the life revealed to us in Jesus. To receive God’s grace is to become ambassadors of that same grace, which means we provide daily bread free of charge because that’s what God is all about. Grace is a way of life that reflects God’s nature, the way God freely gives life to all who ask, not just to those who we think deserve it. The kingdom of God is for the undeserving; that’s why it’s only by the grace of God that we find ourselves members of God’s kingdom, children of God. God’s grace is a power of life that transforms us into children of grace.
In our passage from Matthew, Jesus singles out a force in this world that threatens to snatch us from being children of grace. . “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 24). What is it about wealth—about money, about possessions—that Jesus finds so threatening to our faith? Apparently there’s something uniquely tempting about wealth that pulls us away from God, that seduces us into a way of life that operates outside of God’s grace. I think it’s that wealth keeps us from growing in our dependency on God; we convince ourselves that we deserve the money we’ve earned, and that we can do with it what we want, because we worked hard for it, harder than those who beg for their daily bread.
With our wealth, we protect ourselves from being at the mercy of another, from being needy before another—and the more we protect ourselves from needing someone else, the more we become unfamiliar with the habits of begging, which is the heart of the Christian life because we live by a prayer, the prayer Jesus taught us to pray to our heavenly father who feeds us, who provides our daily bread, who gives us life, like the birds of the air; the God who, as we heard from Isaiah, will not forget us, who will not turn from us, who will not abandon us:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isa 49:15-16).
The One who bears our life in his hands, whose palms bind our lives to his life, invites us to draw even closer, to rest into the grace of God, and let that grace enliven us, flow through us, that we may become children of grace, freely giving what we have received.