An Economy of Life – 2/20/11 – Matthew 6:19-34

There are a number of publications that come through the church office, more than can be read by any person who has more to do than just read publications.  Two of these that I try and keep up with have particular significance for today’s part of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus teaches about economy.  One is called Conspire and it’s put out by a network of small Christian communities across the country, many of whom are involved in the New Monastic movement.  We started receiving it after Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove came and spoke to us a year and a half ago.  The theme of one of their recent issues was “Economy of God: Your Money or Your Life.”  The table of contents contains the titles of the essays with a one sentence teaser quote from each one.  Here are a few:  “The Needle’s Eye – ‘Our family experimented with living on $100 a month – with some surprising results.’”  “Money Forsakes Us – ‘In our community, we keep a tattered dollar bill in plain sight as a reminder that abundant life has nothing to do with moolah.’” and “Money, Community, and God’s Abundance – ‘Money, like sexuality, is easier to discuss in theory than in practice.’”  Most of the authors would be a part of the voluntarily downwardly mobile, giving up many of the privileges that their culture affords them, trying to redefine health and wealth for themselves and their communities.

The other publication deals directly with being a person of faith in today’s economy, but speaks a different language to a different group of people.  The Marketplace is put out by MEDA, Mennonite Economic Development Associates.  It’s tag line is “Where Christian faith gets down to business.”  It focuses on the important role of business and the role that Christian people in the business world play in shaping local and global economics.  There are often articles by authors who see their business as a call from God, noting that how they treat their employees, the way they relate to their suppliers and customers, are all expressions of their faith.  It carries positive stories about the power of small businesses in poor countries, empowered through micro-credit, lifting people out of poverty.  Is also has testimonies from those working in corporate America about how their faith impacts their work.

There are different emphasis in these publications.   Conspire folks are much more likely to wear street clothes and choose to live below the poverty line.  The Marketplace folks are much more likely to wear a business suit and live a middle, upper middle class lifestyle.  More importantly, both affirm that Christian faith has a fundamental impact on how we live as economic creatures, and that we are to live consciously and intentionally within an economic system that does not always embody our values.  

The chunk of the Sermon on the Mount that we’re looking at today is Jesus teaching on economy.  It starts by saying, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” includes a caution that one cannot serve both God and Money, and goes on to offer an alternative to the predominant negative energy force that possesses our lives as economic beings – anxiety/worry.

In teaching about economy, Jesus follows in a long line of scriptural tradition.  It’s hard to flip through too many pages of the Bible without encountering some kind of economic theme.  In Genesis, creation begins as one of abundance and plenty, but soon takes a turn toward scarcity through an incident of asset mismanagement in the garden.  And so humanity lives at odds with creation and labors intensely for scarcity of food.  In Exodus we are given a case study of what happens when an economic system causes the many to live in a constant state of scarcity while the few have extravagant abundance.  It tells of the Hebrew people, working hard in Pharaoh’s economy, making bricks, producing an abundance of wealth and beauty for some, but themselves not receiving any of the benefits of their labor.  At one point they are even required to come up with their own straw to make the bricks, while keeping the same daily quotas.  Most likely using their own straw was not a tax deductible expense.  As it turns out, the pyramids of Egypt are much more than an architectural wonder.  They also reveal the structure of Pharaoh’s economy where the one at the peak rests on the backs of everyone below him.  The view is great from the top, but being at the bottom can be a bit burdensome, to put it mildly.

Out of Pharaoh’s economy, the Hebrew slaves cry out and Yahweh hears their cry.  Yahweh takes on Pharaoh and plunges his economy into recession through a series of comical plagues meant to disrupt the systems that seemed too big to fail.  A glut of frogs, gnats, flies, and other disasters grinds the economic machine to a halt and hits Pharaoh where it hurts.  Not until the firstborn, the next Pharaoh in waiting, dies does Pharaoh get the clue that Yahweh means business, and Pharaoh concedes to let these Hebrew slaves go free.

Yahweh not only means business, Yahweh means a new business model, and for the next 40 years the Hebrew/Israelite people are in the wilderness training academy, taking a series of econ course, trying to unlearn the economy of Pharaoh and relearn the economy of God.  The basic daily exercise: collect only the manna that you need for that one day – no stockpiling.  If you take more than your portion, it gets moldy.  There will be enough for you and everyone.  Repeat daily for 40 years and eventually get the picture that God’s abundance is for everyone.  Give us this day our daily bread. 

While in the wilderness the Israelites are given a set of laws that lay out an agenda for a new economy.  Central to this is the practice of Sabbath.  Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  You were slaves in Egypt when you had to work seven days.  Why keep living as if you’re a slave?  Yahweh gives the gift of Sabbath as a weekly practice of remembering that the purpose of economy is for the enjoyment of life.  Debt forgiveness, the year of Jubilee, and economic fairness for widows, orphans, and immigrants, the most vulnerable people of society, are also encoded in the Torah.  The creation of the people of Israel is the re-creation of an economy that honors the energies of life, free from the anxiety of scarcity.  The pyramid scheme is overthrown.  When the people revert back to old ways, the prophets let them have it and remind them of their calling.  The biblical vision of the just society is that everyone live under their own vine and fig tree, with no one to make them afraid. 

Jesus continues in this prophetic tradition by naming clearly the choice that is before his listeners.  “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and wealth.” 

 A note about that last word.  In this case, the good old King James Version is a more helpful one.  “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”  Matthew is writing in Greek, but he retains the Aramaic word for wealth that Jesus would have used, “Mammon.”  Putting Mammon alongside God illustrates its god-like power.  There’s nothing wrong with wealth in and of itself, but wealth as idol, the accumulation of wealth as the highest good, Mammon, like Pharaoh’s economy, is something that disciples must reject.

It would be fairly easy here to go into a rant against our modern economy which continues to serve Mammon rather than the God of life.  One could rail about the pitfalls of deregulation, the evils of banks that get private gain at public risk.  Lament the high percentage of everyone’s vine and fig trees in foreclosure because of the subprime mortgage mess.  Sometimes one wishes that Jesus would have used the mountain in Galilee to give the Rant against Rome rather than the Sermon on the Mount. 

But, here, like other places in the sermon, Jesus turns the conversation toward the heart of the matter. He doesn’t let the disciple off the hook by merely blaming the system.  Jesus asks his listeners to examine the inner spiritual condition of their own economic selves and to consider how one might turn one’s energies and orientation toward the God of life.                   

The primary internal condition of our economic lives that Jesus speaks to is that of anxiety/worry.  “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”  Within this span of ten verses, Jesus six times mentions worry as being the spiritual response that is counter to a response of faith regarding economic matters.  “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  “And why do you worry about clothing?  “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.”  Reading this part of Jesus’ teaching, one gets the sense that if he were to take the Myers Briggs personality test, he would come down strongly on the side of P – Perceiving – highly adaptable, flexible, and spontaneous.  Us J’s who like to plan and plot and analyze all of our options might take this as an affront to our economic MO, what we consider to be careful consideration of security and stability for ourselves and loved ones.  But Jesus doesn’t say don’t plan.  He says “don’t worry.”  Bobby McFerrin would add a couple additional words of counsel to this: “don’t worry, be happy.”        

It was the poet WH Auden who named our era, “The Age of Anxiety.”  “Now is the age of anxiety,” he wrote in the middle of the 20th century.  Interesting how the age of anxiety also happens to be the age of having a lot of stuff.  This is counterintuitive to what our worrying mind likes to tell us.  The mantra of the worrying mind is that if we only had a little more money, a little bigger house, a little nicer car, a little more saved back, that we could finally be content.  That we could finally put worry to rest.  What we find is that it’s not nearly that easy.

As a remedy to being possessed by anxiety, Mammon’s energy field, we are directed to focus our gaze on two unlikely suspects.  As a way of inviting us into the rhythms of God’s economy, Jesus names two economic indicators that the discipleship community should always keep their eyes on: birds, and wildflowers.  “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet the heavenly Mother/Father feeds them….Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even King Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  Jesus introduces birdwatching as an opportunity for conversion in how we live as economic creatures.  The wilderness training academy part II.  Graduate school.  As a follow up to the lessons of manna, this too is a practice by which anxiety-filled humanity might become more familiar with the gracious ease by which God’s economy of creation provides for its creatures.      

You almost have to wonder if this is more like a dare than a command – I dare you to consider the lilies, these beautiful wild burst of life and color that don’t labor or spin or go shopping, yet have style.  I dare you to consider the birds, these free creatures, who neither sow nor reap nor gather in barns, nor have 401ks, yet have social security.  This could seriously mess with us. 

What would happen if, rather than watching the stock market to determine whether or not we should feel economically secure, we would watch the birds and the flowers?  The new S & P 500 Index – Sparrows and Petunias.  Seagulls and Pansies, Screech owl and Periwinkle, The Songbird and Primrose Index.  Watch the wealth be compounded and shared.

In one sense, paying attention to the economic index of birds and flowers might not be all that encouraging, might add to the intense anxiety we already feel.  In a post-agrarian, post-industrial, urbanized society, birds and wildflowers can be harder to come by.  We can go days, weeks, months without considering a single lily.  Back in the early 1960’s a scientist by the name of Rachel Carson watched the birds of the air, and noticed some troubling things.  Chemicals being widely used, like DDT, were threatening bird habitats and she did extensive research into this.  She wrote a book called Silent Spring, imagining a world with no birdsong if this continued.  The book is considered to be the beginning of the modern environmental movement.  If you are bold enough to watch the birds, what do you do if you discover that the canary in the coal mine appears to be on its last breath?  Now is the Age of Anxiety, and we have strong scientific evidence to justify more anxiety than we can manage.

Which makes Jesus’ teachings here all the more radical.

“I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather in barns, and yet your heavenly Father/Mother feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you – you of little faith?  Therefore, do not worry.”

A spiritual orientation of faith, as opposed to one of worry, changes our whole lives as economic creatures.  Faith involves a trust in the reality of God’s abundance, a conviction that, contrary to popular rumors, there is enough for everyone, and that it is possible to have an economy in which everyone has enough.  Faith is willing to let go of one’s claim to the largest possible slice of the pie, gaining contentment with daily bread.  An orientation toward God’s energy of life turns us away from Mammon’s energy of anxiety.  Mammon thrives on anxiety, needs it to function and grow.  God’s people thrive on faith in the utter graciousness and generosity of creation and Creator.  Our bottom line includes not only economic profit, but also human and environmental health, and thriving communities, and spiritual vitality. 

In recessionary times when anxiety runs deep, one of our great callings is to join together as participants in the economy of life.  Both downwardly and upwardly mobile folks, street clothes and business suits, birds and lilies, participating in this grand economy of life.