Today's Sermon is based on Matthew 6:24-34
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the American children’s novel from 1910 named ‘Pollyanna’.
The central character, Pollyanna, is orphaned at a young age and is sent off to live with her dour spinster aunt who doesn’t seem to have a kind or cheerful bone in her body. Pollyanna’s philosophy of life centres around what she calls ‘The Glad Game’. The Glad Game was taught to Pollyanna by her father and it consists of trying to find something to be glad about in every situation.
So, when her aunt gives her a stuffy attic room to live in without any carpets or pictures, Pollyanna is glad for the beautiful view over the town from the room’s window. When her aunt punishes her by forcing her to have only bread and milk for dinner in the kitchen with the servant Nancy, Pollyanna is glad because she likes bread and milk and she likes Nancy.
Slowly, Pollyanna’s cheery personality has a positive effect on her aunt’s New England town and even her dour aunt begins to lighten up a bit. But then tragedy strikes and Pollyanna is hit by a car and loses the use of her legs. For a long time, she can’t find anything to be glad about. But then all the people of the town come to visit and to tell her what a positive effect she had has on their lives.
And being a children’s story, of course there must be a happy ending. Improbably, the doctors discover a new miracle cure for Pollyanna’s legs and everyone lives happily ever after.
Despite many people questioning its literary merit, the novel was so popular that there were 13 sequels written by different authors, but there were also a number of children’s games produced, some of which were still being sold in the 1960s.
And the novel also had an effect on the English language, bringing us the terms ‘Pollyanna’, ‘pollyannaish’ and ‘pollyannaism’. These terms are now most often used pejoratively to refer to someone who is unrealistically and cheerfully optimistic – about a situation or a person – despite all evidence to the contrary. More positively, a ‘pollyannaish’ person is simply someone who is optimistic and generous in spirit.
Irresponsibility or Aestheticism?
This morning’s Gospel reading tells us about how the birds of the air and the lilies of the field do not toil for what they need. And, if we were going to take this reading as a straight-forward moral instruction from God, it would be easy enough to make a Pollyanaish interpretation in the negative sense of the word.
We could use this reading as a license for irresponsibility: ‘I’m not going to worry about anything. There is no need for me to make any provision for the future or to take responsibility for my own day-to-day needs. Let the other poor drones work hard, I’m going to take it easy and let other people provide for me.’ And that might have actually happened in the early Church. It might have been the reason that Paul was compelled to write to the church in Thessalonica saying that brothers and sisters in Christ were not allowed to free-load off other believers and that ‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat’ (2 Thess 3:10)
Still another way to interpret this Gospel reading would be to understand it as an instruction to self-denial of all worldly possessions. Some early Christians – like the Desert Fathers and Mothers – took this second understanding and adopted lifestyles which rejected family, permanent housing, and all but the most basic food and clothing. Working with a different understanding of what we would now call ‘science’, they believed that when a person truly became united with God in this life, that he or she would no longer need to eat.
Trusting in the Goodness of God
However, I’m not convinced that this reading is recommending a totally aesthetic lifestyle on the one hand or that it is condoning irresponsibility and free-loading on the other. I think that this morning’s Gospel reading is recommending to us a different way – the ‘positive’ way of being Pollyannaish, if you like.
This text paints a beautiful picture of God’s good creation and, in so doing, I believe that it points us in a poetic manner to the goodness of God and to his good provision for us. However, this text is not simply calling us to a naïve and irresponsible lifestyle. Connected with trust in God is also our responsibility to use the resources that we have been blessed with in a Godly way.
This morning’s Gospel reading begins with the text: ‘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’.
So our enjoyment of God’s good creation is to be accepted in light of the knowledge that everything that we have comes from him. Our primary focus is not to be the accumulation of God’s blessings, it’s not to be the accumulation of wealth, but rather our primary focus is to be God and his will.
The Good News in this morning’s reading is that whether a person is poor in body or in spirit or rich in body and spirit, Jesus tells us that God cares about us and that all he has created is for our nourishment, our benefit and our enjoyment. For those who are poor in body, mind or spirit, trusting in God’s good provision requires faith – sometimes a great deal of faith. It requires a ‘Pollyannaish’ approach to life in the good sense of the word. It requires a person to focus on the eternal, enduring promise of the Gospel that ‘God is Good’ and to count their blessings in the midst of trouble. This is not an easy thing to do; but it is when we are poor in body, mind or spirit that we understand very clearly how trust in God brings us hope where trusting in worldly wealth and resources cannot.
Of course, disciples of Christ who are rich in body, mind or spirit are also invited to trust in God’s good provision and to celebrate all our blessings. But our discipleship and our commitment to God’s Kingdom also call us to share our blessings with others. Those of us who are rich need to guard against the prevailing values of society. Because these values are centered in the accumulation and the protection of individual wealth: the complete opposite of God’s values. We cannot serve both God and wealth.
But when we do share our riches - our money, our time and our other resources - we will receive the additional blessing that comes from sharing our good gifts with others. Because a celebration is only a celebration when it can be shared.
Jesus enjoyed God’s good gifts and he enjoyed sharing them with others. In a few minutes, we will celebrate at Lord’s Table. Some use the word ‘Eucharist’ which means ‘grateful’. And some use the word ‘mass’ which smeans ‘sending out’.
Whatever term you use for this celebration, I pray that this morning we will joyfully celebrate our communion with each other and with Christ. And my prayer is that we will be sent out from this place to be grateful witnesses to the blessings that God has bestowed upon us. Amen