Göttinger Predigten im Internet
ed. by U. Nembach, J. Neukirch, C. Dinkel, I. Karle

A sermon based on Matthew 6:24-33 (RCL) by Hubert Beck
(->current sermons )

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. 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 into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious 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 arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.


 A List of Gifts For Which to Give Thanks

Have you made your mental list of all the things for which you are thankful today? Maybe it reads something like this:
For family and friends who surround me with love and care;
For a measure of health that makes it possible to enjoy life;
For the church where I find the strength to continue in this life of distress and trouble;
For plenty of food and drink to stave off hunger and thirst;
For ample income to maintain a reasonably comfortable way of life with security for the future;
For a nation in which my life is fundamentally stable and secure;
For a warm (or cool, here in Texas!), well furnished home where I can relax and be contented;
For this and that and a lot of other things that I could name but can’t bring myself to bother
about naming them all.

It’s really not a bad list at all – and, as the final phrase indicates, many more things could be added to the list, all of which are really quite good.

The Uneasiness That May Accompany the List

Does it ever make you feel just a bit uneasy when you make up a list like that, though? Or, for that matter, is your list a bit circumscribed by troubles and difficulties in your life, dampening some of the good things for which you raise your thanks?

Does it ever cause a bit of discomfort when you thank God for family and friends, only to remember the neighbor who was widowed several months ago? Does it ever cause a twinge of nervousness when you thank God for your health when you remember your close friend who is dying of cancer? Do you ever feel uncomfortable thanking God for your plenty when you suddenly remember the homeless and hungry people you have read about in the paper this past week? Do you ever sense that your thankfulness is for a multitude of gifts that you enjoy, many or most of which ever so many people both in our own society and around the world cannot even imagine? I, personally, must confess such an uneasiness in my own thanksgiving, for it carries certain “overtones” and “undertones” such as these:

“I thank you, Lord, that I am NOT one of the homeless or the hungry or the people who cannot find work or who are estranged from their family. I thank you, Lord, that I do NOT live in ______________ (fill in the nation you do NOT want to live in) etc., etc., etc.” My thanksgiving is so frequently centered on what I have that it becomes troubling when confronted with how many other people have little or nothing.

My health is to be treasured, to be sure . . . but not with a secret thankfulness that it is not as troubled as somebody else whose health is in jeopardy. My relative security in terms of money or home or family or diet is to be treasured, without question . . . but not as though it placed me over against those who are not blessed in the same way that I am.

A way to check this out is to ask if you would be equally thankful if your last paycheck did not even cover your current expenses. Or would you be equally thankful if your health was deteriorating rapidly and your life seemed to be at risk? Or how thankful would you be if your son or daughter had just informed you that he / she no longer wanted to speak with you? Or what kind of thanks would you give if you had just been flooded out of your home last week?

I am not accusing anybody of being either hypocritically thankful, or of being unthankful even though they use words of thanksgiving, or of only being superficially thankful. What I am doing is to ask you to recognize the pitfalls that surround us on Thanksgiving Day. I know about them because I have fallen into all of them – and a considerable number of others that remain unnamed here.

We have a strong tendency to “measure” our thankfulness by virtue of how great or how small our blessings have been – by virtue of how visible or how clearly felt our blessings have been – by virtue of whether we can enumerate them or whether they are so ephemeral and theoretical that we find them beyond naming. We know better, of course, and maintain both the words and even the best attempt at our disposal to say and think thankfully. But sometimes it is hard to do, either because
we, ourselves, have fallen upon times for which it is hard to be thankful, or
we are stricken in conscience about having so much we hardly know what to do with it all while
others have so little they do not know how they can make it through the next day.

Watch Your Prepositions

For that reason it is important to watch our prepositions! So long as we are thankful FOR whatever it is that we bring before the Lord, our thankfulness is relative to the gift, whether it be gifts to us or gifts denied others. It is entirely right and proper, let me emphasize, to name and even list before the Lord those things for which one is thankful, for the very specificity is a way of acknowledging that every last thing we have right down to our life itself is a gift from God. As Luther answers his own question, “What does this mean?” in his explanation of the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “God gives daily bread, even without prayer, to all people, though sinful, but we ask in this prayer that he will help us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanks.” And he also makes clear that “daily bread” includes everything needed for t his life. Or, as Jesus says in today’s text, “The Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”

Perhaps that is where some of our uneasiness in thanksgiving comes from, though. So much of what we in our time and place give thanks for are things far beyond our needs. It is for two cars rather than one, for four TVs instead of one, for a freezer full of food rather than merely for tomorrow’s necessities, for money safely deposited for the future rather than for payment for today’s bills that we give thanks. Once more, it must be stressed, there is every reason to give thanks for all these things.
But our uneasiness is raised when Jesus and Luther and anybody else starts talking about “needs” rather than “wants,” speaking about essentials rather than luxuries. We become deeply aware at times like these of how much more we have than we need and our thanksgiving turns just a bit sour in our mouth as we speak the words, recognizing the many needs around us. It is not as though we would with any degree of willingness, to be honest, turn loose of those things we have or give them to someone else who has less that we give thanks. It is a thankfulness that God has blessed us over and above so many others, and we are thankful that he has not taken them away from us to give to others. He leaves that part up to us, you know, and there, indeed, is precisely where the “rub” comes!

It is the preposition “for” that becomes the sticking point in all this. That is why we must watch our prepositions. In that word, perhaps, we find the distinction so subtly made (or, really, not so subtly made at all!) in the opening verse of today’s text: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Is it for “money” (which is merely a word to designate any final or ultimate attachment or to or trust in those things that, in the final analysis, this world has to offer) that we give thanks or is it “God” to whom we raise our voices of thanksgiving?

Did you note the change of prepositions that took place there? Do we give thanks for whatever we have at hand or do we give thanks to God for whatever he gives us? In that change of prepositions we find ourselves smack in the middle of today’s text, for in the words of our text Jesus is making plain that the primary source of all that we have is the One to whom we ultimately look, upon whom we ultimately depend, and to whom we ultimately render our thanks. Can you . . . or will the things for which you give thanks, for that matter . . . extend your life or clothe you more brilliantly than God clothes the lilies of the field or give you food more richly than that which is given the birds of the air? In the end we know that none of this happens apart from the Lord who provides everything from life to the things necessary to sustain it. Rather than giving thanks for things, we are to give thanks to the One who provides all that surrounds us.

If, when, where, however he chooses to provide richly there is reason to thank him. It is equally true, however, that if, when, where, however he chooses to provide less richly there remains reason to thank him also. For God is always the Giver and we are always receivers. Thanksgiving is not so much a time to remember the gifts that we have received as it is to remember the Giver who has bestowed them upon us. For that reason we can and do give thanks in wealth and poverty, in health and trouble, in good times and in bad, for good harvests and in the times of desperate need. For in all or any of these conditions he remains the Provider. In the Passover Seder (the order of service for the Passover meal), a long series of phrases is spoken antiphonally. Examples such as these will give you the sense of the reading:
Had God brought us to Mt. Sinai, and not given us the Torah,
for that alone we would have been grateful.
Had God given us the Torah, and not led us into Israel,
for that alone we would have been grateful.
Had God led us into Israel and not given us the prophets,
for that alone we would have been grateful.
Well, you get the idea. Although God brought Israel out of Egypt, preserved them in the wilderness, and gave them the promised land, anything short of total fulfillment alone would have been reason for gratitude. That is what it means to give thanks to God rather than for the gifts he gives!

The Preposition That Finally Counts

When we get our prepositions straight we understand the text. “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Once we give full recognition to the Source of our blessings, we can appreciate our blessings as truly gifts – none of which can be taken for granted at any time, but all of which flow from a good and gracious hand.

The Gentiles receive the same gifts, Jesus says. They also very likely give some kind of thanks to someone somewhere who perhaps is behind all the gifts. The “gifts,” however, sometimes come in forms that seem more negative than positive – in the forms of sickness, poverty, drought, distress, and the like. So how can one be confident that the Giver means well or ill toward those who receive the gifts? The Gentiles are at a loss to answer this other than merely “hoping against hope” that the Giver will not turn on them and do them ill. They will try to appease the Giver, to do whatever they can to either get him or keep him on their side, to secure the future by appealing to his hypothetical good favor.

It is here where we find the “new thing” we call the Gospel to be our hope and our comfort. In the very opening verses of this same set of sayings called “the Sermon on the Mount” Jesus has said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” The righteousness after which we seek so hungrily is that righteousness that is the greatest gift of all. It resides in the person and work of him who spoke these words. It is indeed for him that we hunger and thirst, for in him the righteousness of God is found. It is in his life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension that we find the full faithfulness of God exhibited. Through him we know that the Giver is “on our side,” is “for us,” no matter what the surrounding circumstances might be. It is for him who clothes us with what Luther called an “alien righteousness” that we give thanks to the heavenly Father who did not withhold from us his most precious possession. For him and to the Father . . . both prepositions are appropriate at this point . . . we give thanks.

But the Holy Spirit adds a third preposition to make our thanksgivings complete and whole. The Spirit fills us with Christ and all that the Father has given us in this one called his Son. He has poured out the full grace and mercy that permeated the cross of salvation in our baptism. “You were buried with him by baptism that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” Paul assures us. (Romans 6:4) We, along with all our sins and all that leads to death, were buried with him who died and was buried in our stead. Had the Holy Spirit not been with the waters poured over us in our baptism, they would have been simple water. But with him and the word through which and in which he infused those waters with divine mercy we have been born to a new life and sustained on our way from those waters by the same word that was with those waters from the moment of our new birth. The same word is offered with bread and wine to enrich and renew regularly the life we live with Christ. The Spirit is with us in the whole of our living through his word.

Thanksgiving – For, To and With

Now our thanksgiving has come full circle. We need feel no guilt for what we have inasmuch as it is the Father’s gift to us. We, in turn, go to the Father with our thanks for what he has given us. And just as Christ lives with us in all that we do, we live with him in our brothers and sisters, seeing them as the ones for whom we are to live just as Christ lives for us and with us. His gifts are many. They are thrown out in abundance among us. It is his will that we who give thanks to him should be thankful not only for the gifts but, in turn, as he shared with us, share our gifts with those around us.

Why did he not distribute those gifts more equitably? On the one hand we have no answer and we can only go to him with thanksgiving. But on the other hand we can make a pretty educated guess that a major reason he did not do it is because he wants to challenge those to whom he gives the gifts to look around themselves and discover with whom those gifts can more equitably be distributed! It is astonishing what happens when we watch our prepositions!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hubert Beck, Retired Lutheran Pastor
Comments are welcome to hbeck@austin.rr.com