24 “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 God and wealth. 25 “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. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
26 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? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Today’s sermon is about the simple, essential things we require to live and be happy.
I’m reminded of the story about the Scotsman who was shipwrecked and, after several days, washed ashore on a small island. As he regained consciousness on the beach, he saw a beautiful, scantily-clad woman standing over him. She asked, “Would you like some food?” The Scotsman hoarsely croaked, “Och, lassie, I havna’ ittin a bite in a week noo and I am verra hungry!”
So the woman disappeared into the woods and quickly came back with a heaping plate of steaming haggis, which the hungry Scotsman quickly devoured. Then the beautiful woman asked him, “Would you like something to drink?” “Och, aye! That haggis has made me verra thirsty.” She went off into the woods again and returned with a bottle of 75-year-old single-malt Scotch whiskey.
The Scotsman is now beginning to think that he’s in heaven when the beautiful, scantily-clad woman leans closer and whispers, “Would you like to play around?” A great smile breaks over the Scotsman’s face, and he says, “Och, lassie, don’t tell me ye’ve got a golf course here too!”
Food…drink, and…golf. Your essentials for happiness may vary slightly.
This month we are talking about Simple Gifts, or cultivating a life of simplicity in our life, our faith, and our giving. Last week we explored what God requires of us: According to the prophet Micah, it is simply to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.
Today, we’re asking the question “What do WE require?” Or, to put it a different way, what do we as human beings, really need in order to be happy?
This Thursday is Thanksgiving–my absolute favorite holiday of the year. It’s a day where we are encouraged to pause and give thanks for simple things: Food on the table, friends and family, our faith, maybe some football.
But then the very next day is Black Friday, followed by “Small Business Saturday” and “Cyber Monday.” We go straight from being thankful for what we already have, to being bombarded with commercials, advertisements and sales trying to tell us all the things we NEED but don’t HAVE in order to truly be happy.
Truthfully, there is no shortage of voices all year round trying to answer that question for us–what do you really need to be happy? And most of those voices come with a price tag attached.
So…what DO we really need?
In 1943, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow published a paper in which he described a hierarchy of human needs. The idea is that our motivations progress from basic needs to complex ones. When we are struggling or experiencing difficulty at a lower stage, it makes it difficult (or impossible) to focus on higher stages–the ones that lead us to happiness (or as the pyramid puts it, self-actualization).
I find that Maslow’s attempt to answer the question “What do we really need” maps nicely onto Jesus’ answers to the same question in Matthew 6 (which is incidentally part of his famous “Sermon on the Mount” along with the beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer). I’d like to quickly walk you through that map.
The first level of Maslow’s pyramid is physiological needs–things like food, water, shelter. In Matthew this is verse 25:
“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. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Later, in verse 31 and 32, Jesus repeats this:
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”
Food…drink…and clothing (which is a type of shelter). God, through Jesus, acknowledges these are real needs, which God has provided for us through the resources of creation. But he also acknowledges that we shouldn’t spend too much time at this level, worrying about these things.
The Greek word for worry, μεριμνάω (merimnao) literally means to be divided, pulled in two opposing directions. In that light, I don’t think Jesus is ignoring the very real issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and the struggles people face to meet these basic needs–elsewhere he commands his disciples to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked.
I think Jesus is saying, “Don’t get stuck at this level. If you are adequately fed, adequately clothed and adequately sheltered, don’t keep striving to increase these things (more food, more drink, fancier clothes, bigger houses). Don’t let these desires pull you away from progressing to the next level.
The next two levels are safety and belonging. Safety is knowing that no one can forcibly and unfairly take away those things you gained at the first level. Belonging is being part of a larger community, where friendship, love, and bonds of intimacy can develop. These two things–safety and belonging–are related, and I think they are both addressed in verse 33:
“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (the lower level needs) will be given to you as well.”
Strive for righteousness, which is also translated sometimes as justice or fairness. These things form the basis of safety and security, and they are practiced best in community with others, where we also find belonging and acceptance. Whenever Jesus speaks of this kind of ideal community, he has a code-name for it: He calls it the “kingdom of God.”
So instead of striving after our most basic needs (what other people do–the Greek word for Gentiles is ethne, literally “other nations) we are to strive first to be part of God’s Kingdom, God’s community, which in turn provides us with acceptance, belonging, safety, justice.
Interestingly, that kind of community also has the capacity to help us secure our most basic needs: Food, clothing, and shelter. That’s why we seek God’s kingdom FIRST, trusting that among God’s people, who work together, and share with each other, living according to God’s righteousness, that all those other things will come naturally.
The penultimate level of the pyramid is esteem. A sense of self-worth, self-confidence. While this can begin to emerge from being part of a loving community, the Kingdom of God, I believe that our greatest understanding of our intrinsic value comes directly from God–from knowing that we are created in God’s image, and that God (or, if you prefer, the sum total of all the laws of physics and nature and the universe) loves us as unique individuals.
By the way…if you believe that the universe and the sum total of all the laws of nature and physics is a cold, impersonal force that could not possibly love you and favor you as an individual…consider these words from author and public speaker Ben Carey, who scientifically calculated the odds of your existence. He writes:
“There is 1 chance in 140 trillion that the Earth should exist. There is 1 chance in 795 billion that life should have evolved on earth. There is 1 chance in 89 billion that life should have evolved into mankind. There is 1 chance in 12 billion that mankind should have created the alphabet and thus civilization. There is 1 chance in 6 billion that your parents should ever have met and got together. There is 1 chance in 90 million that you should have been the one lucky sperm that fertilized your mother’s egg…”
Basically, if you are here today, alive and listening to me speak, you are already tremendously, incredibly, miraculously lucky–or blessed, favored, even chosen–by the universe and all the forces (which I like to call “God”) that conspired together for your existence.
In our scripture reading from Matthew, this comes across most powerfully in the two analogies Jesus makes, comparing us to the birds of the air and the lilies (or grass) of the field. Verse 26:
“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 verse 30:
“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?”
There’s one more level to Maslow’s hierarchy, although really this one is not so much a type of need as it is a final goal. Maslow called it “self-actualization” but it’s also connected with happiness, fulfillment, perfection.
Near the end of his life, Maslow revised and expanded this level, calling it “Transcendence” which he defined as “the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”
And that level doesn’t appear so much in today’s passage in Matthew, which is more concerned with the journey–striving and reaching in the right direction–than with the destination. But that destination–happiness, fulfillment–IS the subject of next week’s sermon, the final one in this series on simple gifts. That sermon is appropriately titled, “Simple Gifts: The Secret of Well-Being.” How’s that for a cliff-hanger to bring you back next week?
In case you’re still wondering about the answer to today’s question, “What do we require from God?” the answer is (at least in my humble opinion) the simple gift of God’s Kingdom. Or putting that a different way, the caring community of God’s people who are striving to live together in righteousness, in love, and in fellowship; taking care of each other’s basic needs, providing a sense of belonging and acceptance and safety to all. We were made for each other. We need each other.
And…since we’re in our annual season of stewardship, you might also be wondering… What does any of this have to do with giving? Also simple. Because if you don’t figure out the money thing, you’re not going to figure out the God thing, or the happiness thing. And when I say “figure out the money thing,” I don’t mean “figure out how to get more of it.” I mean figure out how to put it in the proper place in your life. At the very beginning of our scripture passage, verse 24, Jesus says:
“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 God and wealth.”
The Greek word for “serve” is δουλεύειν (douleuein), which literally means “be a slave to.” We become enslaved by our money (by the pursuit of it, by our need for it).
When we are in this mode (enslaved by our money and the pursuit of it, the need for it), too often we begin to envision God as a heavenly vending machine, or genie-in-the-bottle, or Santa Claus, who exists solely to serve us, to listen to and provide our wants.
God, please get me out of this mess I created. God, please help me win the lottery. Got please help me get this promotion, or this deal, or this win. God, please give me just this one thing…
Asking God for the things we desire isn’t necessarily bad, but if that’s the extent of your relationship with God–seeking God out only when you want something–then you might have things a little backward: Money at the top, God at the bottom. You exist to serve your money while God exists to serve you.
We need to flip that around: Your money exists to serve you, and you exist to serve God and God’s people in the world. Money at the bottom, and God–God’s purposes, God’s people, God’s kingdom–at the top. Getting that order right is the only thing that allows us to finally let go of our worry about money; to stop being pulled in opposite directions. That doesn’t mean that our problems, our needs go away, but our fear and anxiety about them can.
Giving generously to the church–to God’s work and ministry in the world–is not primarily for the benefit of the church (though believe me, my wife and my children, and all of our church staff members and their families, and all of the ministries that depend upon your generosity sincerely appreciate it!).
Giving generously to God’s work in this world is primarily for YOUR benefit. It allows you to be part of something greater than yourself. It allows you the opportunity to transcend your fear and anxiety, to move higher up Maslow’s pyramid to the things that will truly make you happy and fulfilled in the long run. It allows you the opportunity to put your priorities in the right order. It allows US the opportunity, together, to keep on building this dream, this community of faith, hope, and love, where ALL are welcomed, ALL are valued, and where ALL are embraced as God’s beautiful, precious children.
If that’s not a dream worth contributing to, worth working and sacrificing for…then I honestly don’t know what is.
People of First Presbyterian Church: May we give thanks this Thanksgiving week for the simple gifts God has given us. May we give thanks for the opportunities God has given us to share them. May we seize those opportunities eagerly and joyfully…today, tomorrow, and every day of our lives.