Sorry, that’s not for the faint of heart I guess. Don’t get whoozy. I don’t have a clue what this guy’s hand went through, and no, it’s not mine. But it’s the closest thing I could find to what happened to the pointer finger on my right hand a couple of years ago now. It all started one Friday afternoon, I try to consistently take Fridays off and it’s become tradition to get up a game of touch football at Winthrop. So I was defending my man one play, and the quarterback drilled it in to him, so I stuck a hand in real quick to break up the pass.
Next thing I know my hand is numb and I can’t move my finger, so I look down and things look not too different from that picture above — my right pointer finger was jacked up at the knuckle, sticking almost straight up, yarrrgh. The guys run over, and we’ve always been taught to try to “pull out” a dislocated finger, so one dude grabbed my arm and another the finger and yanked on it some. No good. I’m feeling pretty funky by then, so another guy drove me to the doctor’s office.
You can imagine the different feelings at that point. I’m getting the whole red-face, hot flashes, “every time I look at my finger I feel like puking” deal. The pain comes in waves. Weird. So the doctor proceeds to stick several needles into the knuckle (real weird to watch), and to try to jerk the finger back into place. No good. So we head to the orthopedic surgeon. And this guy knows that if he can’t pull the finger back right, he’ll be the one to do the surgery, so he’s pretty motivated to yank it straight. And he wasn’t a small guy. And my dad was there by then and said it looked like somebody trying to snap a chicken bone. When he gets done wailing on the finger, it’s still no good, and about 45 minutes later the surgery has been done and all is well.
Good happy ending. But that’s one of my better personal physical trauma stories. And some of you have been through physical trauma that blows that away, car crashes and military combat and injury and disease, and more. Still deeper, yes, many of us know other mental, emotional, spiritual trauma that blows some of that away. But I tell the story, and invite you to carefully consider your own, because I wonder if there’s not a common message through all those experiences. There was a clear message from my body to me during the finger thing: whatever you do, if you can, you must try to avoid ever experiencing this again.
The nausea and all the rest made that clear. And it’s just the way our bodies work, eh? I’m talking about that instinct that we all have towards self-preservation, keeping ourselves alive and well. Even in more minor ways, you see that force at work, when our bodies communicate to us to take care.
One huge example is just pain. Pain isn’t something we generally enjoy. We don’t want to repeat it. And it’s a tool for our bodies to tell us things. Our workout/athletic people know that muscle soreness indicates progress, and it also signals time to rest; or deeper pain signals injury so that we have to let things heal up. Stomach aches, cramps, headaches often let us know something is up in our bodies that needs to be addressed. Sunburn screams, “Get me some aloe and 60 SPF!” Kids learn not to touch the live stove-top because it freakin’ hurts.
Pain has its purpose. If we ignore it over and over, then some of those issues blow up into life-and-death situations. Pain is key to self-preservation. And it’s a good instinct.
But can we agree that at some point the instinct can do us harm? At some point, I bet our desire to avoid trauma and preserve ourselves can limit our fullness of life. And by all means it can become a hindrance to our connection to God.
I think Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 6:24-34 this time. We have a passage that focuses on one big aspect of self-preservation — worry. For those of us who, whether we say it out loud or not, hope that we can avoid all sorts of bad things and protect ourselves if we just cover all our bases, and make enough plans, and crank our brains every hour of the day. Worrying.
We can hear a challenge in Jesus’ words. He challenges one of the biggest traumas we all spend time fretting over, death, pretty much saying that for all our worry over our basic life needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.), do we add any time to our lives? Negative. And he challenges the next big “trauma” for most of us. Not just if we’re going to stay alive, but how we are. Not just will I have enough to eat, but what am I going to eat. He talks like many of us treat discomfort like a great trauma. Like life just isn’t living if we don’t experience it just right. Those ideas aren’t new for us, Americans spend a great deal of time confessing our love for comfort and all the ways we ought to do something about it. It’s a common topic for Jesus, who goes as far as to say we can be like the wealthy who have so much in abundance they build huge barns, while their neighbors starve to death. That’s strong language.
And it’s strong here, too. Remember how Jesus started out? He said:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
To frame things up, even with something as everyday as worrying, Jesus talks in terms of being mastered. And he compares it to the choice between masters. God and Money. What does that choice look like? Well, it’s easier to see for me when we consider why the NIV capitalizes the word “Money” and why other translations use the word from the Greek, mammon. Because Mammon, translated as wealth or money, was often treated more like a person unto himself in those days. People could actually worship little idols and gods called “Mammon” in hopes their fortunes would change. And those who ran after wealth/security and held it above all else were said to bow to the altar of Mammon. To get a feel for this character, I did a Google image search, and here’s some of how artists make it out (not for the faint of heart):
There’s a theme in the pictures with Mammon. Yes, there’s dollars and gold and Euros. There’s excess, he’s a swollen, disgusting thing. And there’s also the sense that he is worshipped or exalted. Either he’s lounging on a throne, or we even have images of people fawning all over him. Bowing at his feet, coming to him asking for security, safety, success, and above all the avoiding of trauma, even just the trauma of discomfort. Now these are just some artists’ ideas, but Jesus talks in similar language. Strong language. As if this is the reality of the choice in front of us. That something as simple as worrying, something that we all deal with, that can seem a little harmless, is connected to choosing a master. Because Mammon will promise to ease our fears, satisfy our comforts, and help us avoid trauma, if we just let him rule our hearts.
We don’t usually think of our choices that way, a choosing of masters. Most of us don’t like thinking that way, many don’t want to be mastered at all and insist we are the masters of our domain. Jesus paints the picture as a choice between something like that above, and the one, true, living God. Because we are going to set up systems in our lives to deal with discomfort, and fear, and the unknown. Which will it be?
And for those of us who already want to turn our backs on worry, the question might be, how? How do we turn it off? Seriously? Is it as simple as a choice? How do we override the underlying instinct that drives our worry? How do we become less obsessed with avoiding trauma and making sure we stay safe and comfortable?
I’d say every one of us already knows how. We do it all the time, we’re good at it. Because when our bodies start to tell us to slow down, or take a break, or heal, do we all listen and stop immediately? At the first sign of pain or soreness or, heck, even sunburn, do we all do a very good job taking care of ourselves right away? NO. When we want something bad enough, we work on in spite of discomfort. When our bodies are saying, “Stop, you fool,” we sometimes march right on and make them submit. We hear more drastic stories of mothers lifting cars off of babies, and people charging into burning buildings. Human beings are notorious for disregarding themselves when something more important is at stake.
So I hear Jesus putting that kind of choice to us. And not only putting it to us, but we see him take it up himself.
After all, this is God in the flesh. And is there any good reason that God should have ever had to know the trauma of pain? Any good reason God, the God of All Things, should have ever had to experience the trauma of death? No! Except that God saw our lives at stake, and his love moved him. Because some of us might believe that there are things worth enduring some trauma for. And all of us get a chance to choose, even to choose our master.