Eat Less, Pray More
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God! Amen.
In the stately granite entrance to the picturesque campus of Pomona College in Southern California are carved these solemn words: "Let only the eager, thoughtful and reverent enter here."
What a noble, idealistic and possibly even naive sentiment from a bygone era, from the days before keg parties, frat houses, co-ed dorms and spring break.
On the opposite side of the tree-shaded entrance, to be read when leaving, is carved "They only are loyal to this college who departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind."
The writer of that statement was probably referring to the wealth of knowledge students would hopefully receive at Pomona College. But what about material wealth? Are riches merely entrusted to us, to be used to benefit mankind? Or is that a naive, obsolete sentiment today as well?
Today's Gospel is a portion of the larger Sermon on the Mount, a section that covers public prayer, fasting, and handling wealth. Jesus warns us not to accumulate money or possessions here on earth during this life. Possessions break, or rust, or wear out; money gets stolen or is badly invested, equity vanishes when the real estate bubble bursts.
Rather, He said, we should invest in the life to come, where treasures are safe from loss. Jesus is telling us to "seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness," that is, we are to live Kingdom lives, and not to strive so urgently for money, or possessions. Jesus knew that, more than anything else, that a preoccupation with money and possessions prevents us from living a Kingdom life, and sometimes even from just being happy.
Our media culture sells us on the idea that buying and consuming will give us meaning in life — but it's a lie. All that road leads to is coveting what our next door neighbors have, and that will just drive us crazy ... in addition to breaking the tenth commandment.
In twenty-first century America, more than ever before, we worship pleasure, leisure, and affluence, because that's what is broadcast into our homes 24 hours a day on TV.
It's been said that money, and the toys it can buy us, from hot tubs and surround-sound stereos, to jet skis and snow-boards, by themselves offer little more than a cheap anesthetic to dull the pain of an empty life. That's where the real danger of affluence lies.
Jesus calls us away from that empty life, masked by all our frenetic activity to earn enough money to make the interest payments on our possessions, even as they're breaking down or rusting or getting lost.
Jesus urges us to let go of that empty, dead-end life, even as He invites us to invest in a Kingdom life that "neither moth nor rust destroys, and thieves do not break in and steal."
Jim Elliot, the Christian missionary who was martyred in the jungles of Equador and whose powerful story was made into a recent motion picture, "End of the Spear" once said, "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
For all our human intelligence we're still simple creatures; it's difficult for us to keep two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time, nearly impossible for us to strive toward two conflicting goals. If we try, we end up with neither.
As a small child, a neighbor boy, would tease his dog by holding out two dog biscuits about two feet apart. The poor dog couldn't choose. If he started to go for the one on the right, he'd notice the one on the left and pull back for fear of losing it. Exasperated, the dog would finally end up barking at the unfair choice presented.
That's what Jesus meant when he said we can't serve two masters. We can't invest our time, energy and allegiance in both a Kingdom life and a life of collecting possessions and grasping at personal wealth. Or as Jesus put it, serving both God and Mammon. We end up, finally, with neither wealth nor the Kingdom, and it's far too late then to bark at the frustrating choice.
But it's hard to let go. The luxuries available to us in our modern world are enticing. You've probably heard the story of islanders in the South Seas using coconuts to trap monkeys. They cut a hole in a hollow coconut just large enough for a monkey's hand, and drop inside some delicious treats.
Once the monkey reaches in and grabs the treats, his hand no longer fits through the small opening in the coconut shell and he's trapped.
Refusing to let go of the attractive bait, he's unable to escape. He can't comprehend that he must forgo the momentary pleasure of a treat in order to save his life. He's been tricked.
Christians get tricked. The traps in our modern world work much the same way, and the bait is so attractive. Our money and possessions promise us not only comfort and pleasure, but also safety and security, and we're afraid to let go.
Later on in the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells us not to worry about what we'll wear, or what we'll eat. He exhorts us to look to the birds and the wildflowers, to see how God takes care of their every need.
Those examples might sell in Southern California, where you can sleep outdoors at least nine months of the year, but in Minnesota even the pioneers needed a house. You need a heavy warm winter coat to keep the chill away from your bones.
Your college-age son needs a reliable little car that will start up after a freezing night and won't break down in a blizzard. Depending on where you live, you may actually need a snowmobile. If you see a garage with a snowmobile in Los Angeles, trust me, it's just a toy. It's not how they get to the supermarket.
All right. Here are some truths:
We can have the possessions we need to live, without our life being all about acquiring them.
Our money and possessions serve us, we don't serve them.
We can choose a simpler lifestyle, get rid of the things that chew up our time and money and don't give anything lasting back. By choosing to live with less luxuries and fewer creature-comforts, we reduce our overhead, inflation hurts a little less, and our standard of living becomes easier to sustain.
We can share with others, use the money and material goods that God provides to bless those around us, and role-model that sharing to our children.
When times get tough, we can even let others share with us, because that's how they get blessed.
While we're feeding our bodies at the family dinner table, we can use that time to think about, and talk about, ways to feed our soul. It's called seeking first the Kingdom.
If there's not enough time in our days for reading the Bible, or prayer, or visiting a sick neighbor, we can unplug the TV and put it in the garage as an experiment. As the TV cools down in the garage, we can quietly cancel all the movie channels, and marvel as our family slowly evolves from passive watchers into active doers.
There are families today who are finding their stress and fear levels go way, way down when they disconnect the TV; it's like being set free from a dangerous addiction.
It's all about choices. The choices we make from this moment on will radically define who we are and the kind of life we live. Living a Kingdom life means having God's heart and mind for the world and its people.
As we see ourselves as part of the Kingdom's mission, we re-interpret every aspect of our lives accordingly. We become people not controlled or defined by the money we earn and spend, or the things we choose to buy, or the constant diet of materialism and fear that pours from the television set. We'll start to see others the way Jesus does.
As we prepare to launch into Great Lent ... here's a modern-day Lenten suggestion — Eat less ... pray more! Spend less ... give more! Think of self less ... be kind more! Sin less ... love more!
During these coming weeks of preparation, may we often be reminded of our familiar Lenten prayer —
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of laziness, faint-heartedness, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Your servant.
Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother or sister, for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
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