First the Kingdom
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Trinity, September 25, 2022
“Seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself.”
FIRST things first, they say. But what things are first, so that we may keep them before us, at the head of the line when we set things in order? If we consult our passions, our sense of need, our causes of urgency, self-preservation: we could get it all wrong. The person caught in an undertow may become disoriented and can swim away from the shore and safety. A man on a desert may crawl toward a mirage. How do we know what’s first?
Abraham Mazlow offered a pyramid hierarchy of needs. At its base was shear survival: bodies needing—air, food, water, and sleep. Next level up was physical safety, employment, resources, health, property. Above that: love, friends, family, intimacy, belonging. Next up, if those were satisfied: self-esteem, confidence, achievement and mutual respect. At the top of Mazlow’s heap was self-actualization: creativity, problem solving, well-being, and morality. So: the body first? Is that so?
Jesus talked about this first level of Mazlow’s pyramid in the sermon on the mount, in our Gospel today. The Lilies of the Field it’s often called. He sets our survival concerns at peace by pointing in a direction Mazlow never mentioned or believed in. Is it crazy to discount the needs of your body to seek the spiritual needs of your soul? I think that’s an essential question, and one seldom asked in the 21st century.
Put another way, if life were a game, how would you know if you’d won? If all your chips were in, and you were either winner or loser, what are your chips? What is life telling you about you? Have you crossed some essential finish line, gotten to the goal, achieved whatever says you’re a success? In whose eyes? By what standard? To some, the one who dies with the most toys… is still dead. And life was all about toys.
If you launch a spacecraft, it’s pretty essential that you land it on the moon, or the space station, and finally get it back to earth. If you build a cathedral, it is to be hoped that it lasts several centuries and is filled with worshipers in awe of the God who inspired its design. If you dig a pool it ought to hold water. And if you live the life of a human being, what does that look like once and for all?
Jesus said it’s not all about food and drink, clothing, shelter, warmth, survival. He didn’t deny the necessity of them, but life was not the pursuit of them. They are not first.
Jesus observes what any good scientist would, but with better eyes. To understand humans, watch the other life forms. How do birds eat? Are they hassled? Do they worry about their food? Much of bird life is spent finding those bugs and seeds and worms they love. It takes a lot of food to give the energy needed to fly. But where are their storehouses? Birds aren’t like squirrels who bury their acorns in the garden. Birds don’t lay up large quantities of food. They eat as they go. Do they survive? They migrate, follow the food supply, drop down on locusts from time to time. Jesus says, “Your heavenly Father feeds them.”
I’ve fed birds. I’ve spent many dollars buying birdseed, thistle for goldfinches, sugar water for hummingbirds, sunflower seeds for jays, and set it all out to watch the birds eat. Was God feeding them? God made me, God made the seeds, God let me set the food out. Sure, God fed them. I just find myself somewhere in the food chain.
Jesus says not to worry where your clothes come from. And He infers that the length of your life is part of that question. How is that? We wear clothes for protection from elements, sunburn, cold or rain. But we also wear clothing for modesty. The body is shy, and for good reason. The body is mortal. It only lives a lifetime. But how long will you live? Our own Mary Bedford turns 101 years old next week, but how long will Mary live? Mary’s going to live forever. Only her body is mortal. It’s like her clothes. They last until they wear out. But the soul lives on. Jesus asks us, “Why are ye anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;” they don’t spin thread or weave cloth or sow pants. Yet they are beautiful like no suit of clothes can ever be. Our bodies are just suits, earth suits. We take care of them because they have to last a lifetime, and they were given to us by our Creator, like food.
Christ came, but not to help humans survive on earth. Certainly, He fed a lot of people with miraculous bread. He did that twice. He turned water to wine. That was wonderful of Him. But He knew man does not live by bread alone. He raised at least three people from the dead, healed withered legs and arms, blind eyes, the deaf and dumb. Jesus set up no welfare system, no soup kitchen—important as charities are. To know what He was up to, listen to Him speak.
“Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matt 3:2 He announced a kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom. He told Pilate that He Himself was a king, but His kingdom was not of this world. That’s good, because this world can’t last. He told His disciples that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like leaven mixed in bread dough, like a treasure buried in a field, or a pearl of great price, like a net that brings up every kind of fish. Matt 13:31, 33, 44, 47 He told Peter “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and He said some of His disciples would see “the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” Matt 16:19, 28 It was like a marriage feast, or virgins waiting for a bridegroom, like talents given to a king’s servants, like sheep and goats. He never stopped talking about it, and created an appetite for His followers to enter and see this great kingdom.
There were conditions for entry into His kingdom, and conditions to be allowed to stay. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”John 3:3 “Except your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom.” Matt 5:20 “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” Matt 7:21 He instructed them to pray that the Father’s kingdom come and His will be done here on earth as already it is in heaven. “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever.” Matt 6:9ff
Is life our first concern, biological life, food, water, clothing, survival in the basest sense? A bird has better sense than that. The flower in our garden knows more than that. Why be pretty? Why sing? Why flock? Why produce young, bear seeds, fly high, make the world smell so fragrant? Everything we see in this beautiful world speaks of a yet more beautiful world and its Creator. This world, for all its beauty, is broken, a clock running down. Our bodies live only so long, but our souls cry out a song of forever. Our first need is not for physical survival but for our Maker. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. He knows what you need. He should. He made you and your food and the cotton fibers in your jeans. Nothing is too much for Him to provide for you, if you will simply seek first Him, then what He creates for your well-being.
Pull back from the individual to a social construct like a church. What is a church and what does it do? And what does a church need to consider first and foremost? The answer comes to hand—God’s kingdom, His righteousness, obviously. But get pastors in the discussion, preachers who get paid for successful ministries, and you hear different goals and aspirations. “We must reach the world for Christ,” can translate into a major shift in church culture toward convincing people they need Jesus. A worthy objective, but is it first? Church growth ‘experts’ call the mission of churches is to always be adding members and building facilities, a campus, a multi-media auditorium. All this can get in first place if we let it. None of it is bad. But food or clothes aren’t bad unless they form the base of our pyramid. Forget pyramids. They’re Egyptian, spiritually we’re Hebrews. God is worshiped in spirit and truth, on a mountain top, in a cave, at the shore, in your bedroom, and in this sanctuary at 249 feet above sea level.
And so how will we know when we’ve won? As a church? Surely there’s enough food at our coffee hour. But if there weren’t, did we succeed? Certainly, I wear the vestments this congregation bought for its priest, but if I didn’t, would God still show up? Could we say we’ve worshiped?
The kingdom is by definition too big for us to see, too large to be contained in one building, one denomination, even one century or age. This kingdom we’re speaking of can only be approached with awe and wonder, faith and godly fear. It’s too powerful to touch without a mediator, too mysterious to find without a guide. But it is here, just the same. God is quite near us, and Jesus is the way. His righteousness is not perfectionism, being good enough to be allowed in the door. His righteousness is a breastplate worn by faith in the One who is Righteous, Jesus Christ our King. In Him we find our way, our peace, our strength, our hope, and then all the rest of our needs are met and exceeded to our great joy.
First things first. First His kingdom, His righteousness. If you’re ready for what is first, then all you need will surely follow.