1 Corinthians 3:10-14; Matthew 6:19-24

I am thinking of a song, song written by that remarkable composer, George Gershwin. It goes, “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.”

For me, this song never fails to bring to mind images of what can be most enjoyable about this time of year—the temperature is up and the frenetic pace of life is supposed to slow down; God’s creation is in full bloom all around; and hopefully we find some time to step back, take it in, and enjoy it. To get away from all the crazy, demanding, seemingly endless stream of things that commandeer the other nine months of our year and find some relaxation—to sit back in an easy chair, take an afternoon nap, while the big, puffy clouds in the sky lazily roll on by.

And as we do, our minds often wander off to think about those things we rarely seem to find time to think about in our busy, work-a-day world. Our hopes, dreams, and aspirations, which too often we ignore or suppress, find it safe to come out from hiding and remind us they still exist. Sometimes, we imagine life could be different and wonder what it might take to us get there. We indulge in a bit of self-evaluation, quietly asking ourselves, “So, how am I doing?” Am I being the kind of person I want to be? Am I doing the kinds of things I should? Am I living in healthy relationships with those closest to me? Am I a contributing member of the larger community? Are the organizations, in which I participate, making a positive difference in the world? Are there areas in my life where I could live better? All such things come to mind during times, such as these, and challenge you and me to think about them.

So here we are at Labor Day weekend—in many peoples’ mind, the last gasp of this precious summertime before the hectic pace of fall kicks in. Let’s think of it as one more opportunity for relaxation and thoughtful reflection before our noses return to the proverbial grindstone. And lo and behold, today’s lessons help us to do just that.

From Matthew’s gospel, we hear a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, Jesus teaches the things—certain aspects of human behavior—that are required of those who seek to align themselves with the spirit of God. In today’s passage, Jesus speaks specifically to the topic of materialism—you know that popular strain of thinking that promotes the adage, “we are what we buy.” Jesus asks the pointed question, “Where do you place your trust?” Do we place it in those tangible things fashioned by human hands—money, real estate, art, jewels, precious metals, stocks and bonds? Or do we place our trust in intangible things—heavenly things, such as love, kindness, joy, righteousness, and peace? And on this Labor Day holiday, the question can be extended to ask, “What is the point of all our labors?” Is it simply to acquire personal wealth, power, notoriety, or is it done in service to others, to build up the common good, to make the world a better place? These are questions as old as the Scriptures, as old as humankind itself, but have particular relevance for you and me in light of the economic crisis we currently face.

Peter Whybrow, who directs the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, recently wrote a book entitled American Mania: When More Is Not Enough. In it he states that American society is shackled to a treadmill of overwork and overconsumption, and that as our material prosperity increases, our health and personal satisfaction declines. Not only that, but few of us are able to step off this treadmill long enough to savor our good fortune. In fact, for most of us, regardless of what we have, we want more, and we want it now.

Dr. Whybrow argues the reason for such behavior is the result of our genetic disposition. As creatures of the natural world, having evolved under conditions of danger and scarcity, we are by instinct reward-seeking animals that discount the future in favor of the immediate present. Brain systems of immediate reward were vital to our survival several millennia ago when finding fruit was a rare delight, and dinner had a habit of running away or flying out of reach. But now as we live in relative abundance, when the whole world is a shopping mall and our appetites are no longer constrained by limited resources, our craving for reward—be that for money, the fat and sugar of fast food, or the novel gadgetry of modern technology—has become a liability, a hunger that has no bounds. Our nature has no built-in braking system. More is never enough. Shopping has become the national pastime, and at all levels of society we hunger for more—more money, more power, more food, more stuff.

Well, my gosh, what should we do? The good Dr. Whybrow suggests that, “now with reality challenging the laissez-faire ideology of recent decades, we have the opportunity to take stock with a renewed self-awareness, curb our addictive striving, and reach beyond immediate reward to craft a vigorous, equitable, and sustainable market society—one where technology and profit serve as instruments in achieving the good life and are not confused with the good life itself. The dream that material markets will ultimately deliver social perfection and human happiness is an illusion,” he says. Not a bad conclusion for a secular publication!

In today’s gospel, Jesus makes the same point, albeit more theologically. He argues that materialism is in complete contradiction with any desire you and I have in fostering a relationship with God. Certainly, material objects are important in helping us engage the world and surviving in it, but forming a devotion to such “things” becomes a hindrance—they get in the way, they distract, they prevent us from growing closer to the One who is the source of all true sustenance. We cannot pursue both—it is only an “either/or” proposition. We must choose one. And if we choose materialism, then our choice will be in vain. Material objects will never satisfy our heart’s desire. Only the love of God can satisfy that deep personal hunger.

Yet, with that being said, the implications of today’s lessons extend beyond our individual well-being. There is a larger purpose at work here as well. These implications also shape our communal well-being. In other words, all of us are involved in organizations, groups, various circles of people in some form or another, be it churches, civic groups, businesses, non-profits, federal, state, and local governments, even society in general. And like it or not, we are, by association, implicated in the actions of these particular groups, either directly or indirectly. None of us are islands in and of ourselves. Therefore, it is necessary for each of us to ask ourselves, “Does this organization, of which I am a member, function in a righteous way? Do our labors benefit the common good? Do our collective actions promote justice and respect the dignity of every human being?”

St. Paul raises such concerns in today’s reading from his first letter to the church in Corinth. In it, he uses the image of constructing a building as an analogy in building up the church. Paul proclaims a proper foundation has been laid—a foundation consisting of the love of God as made known through the Incarnation of Christ. If the church is to grow, it must build with integrity on this one foundation and if it does so, then it will flourish. However, if it builds with anything less, the structure will not survive.

Paul’s lesson to you and me is that we, as children of God, have a part to play in the actions of, not only the church, but also the larger public bodies of which we are participants. Sometimes, we may feel we exert little or no influence on the larger organization, but that does not relieve us of the responsibility of speaking up. Where we see right, we should support and praise it. But where we see wrong, we should challenge it and work for change. To do anything less is negligent and irresponsible, and ultimately implicates our spiritual well-being, both individually and collectively.

Wow, these are some heavy things to think about on a holiday weekend! So, let’s get to the point. Why do it? Why listen to the wisdom being offered in today’s lessons? Is it just to be good little girls and boys and do as we are told? No, it’s more than that.

If we return to George Gershwin and the lyrics of his song, “Summertime,” we find some help that points us in the right direction. Gershwin writes, “One of these mornings, you’re going to rise up singing. Then you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky.” You see, here are words and images that bring to mind the promise inherent in the Gospel. God’s love for you, me, and all of humankind is so enormous that God chose to become one of us. And in doing so, God wants to show us the ways in which we can grow beyond the limitations of our primordial instincts and live fully into our potential. That through the assistance of God’s love, we become spiritually strong and capable of enduring the intense suffering that is part of the human condition, without fear or flinching. And we do so with hope and great compassion for our fellow sisters and brothers. This is what it means to be holy. This is what it means to be children of God. And this is what I suspect most of us are looking for in coming here today.

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