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A Promise for the Fussing and Bothered

(a sermon for November 19, 2017, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Joel 2:12-17 and Matthew 6:25-34)

“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life…”

Don’t you just love that verse?  I mean, I think you’ll agree with me when I say that so often Holy Scripture has a way of shaking us out of our complacency and challenging what we’ve always held to be true in this life; there are times that biblical truth can be downright unsettling!  But not this time; here we have a simple and powerful affirmation from the mouth of Jesus himself: a sure and certain reminder that we need not ever be concerned about the stuff of life and living, because God will provide all that we need!  Whether it’s about what we’ll eat or drink, or our bodies, or our clothing; whatever it is for you, Jesus says, don’t worry, because it’s all good!

Like I said before, I love this verse; it speaks to the bounty of God’s blessing upon all of our lives, and what better time to lift that up than right now as we draw near to our celebration of Thanksgiving Day. There’s a lot of comfort to be found in Jesus’ words; so why is it that even as I hear them today, inside I’m thinking, “Are you kidding?  How am I not supposed to worry?”

The fact is, we all have more than enough to worry about, don’t we; worries attend us like bees to honey!  There are worries at home and about our loved ones; there are worries at work; these days we have worries about our safety and about the state of the world, worries that are exacerbated just about every time we turn on the news!  And then there’s all the rest of those unnamed anxieties that never seem to leave our thoughts.  Never mind that truism that states that 40% of the things we worry about never happen, another 30% have to do with things we can’t change anyway, and another 12% have to do with needless fears (I really can’t speak for the math there, but you know what I’m saying!); it just seems as though everywhere we turn in this life, we discover yet another thing to worry about!  It ends up being like the old story of one man who said to another, “You know, I’m so worried that if anything happens to me today, it will be two weeks before I can worry about it!”

So in the face of all of that, as wonderful and as inviting as it sounds for Jesus to say to you and to me, “Therefore, don’t worry about your life,” well, that just seems out of step with the kind of lives we lead in this modern age, to say nothing of the anxiety-ridden society of which we’re a part!  With all due respect, simply to go through life singing “Hakuna Matata” (which, if you happen to be familiar with the Disney musical “The Lion King,” is that “problem-free philosophy” that means “no worries, for the rest of your days!”) basically means you don’t understand the situation!  Bottom line is that there are problems in this world, and in our lives; so there’s plenty of things that give us concern… and we worry!

So all that said, what are we to do with Jesus’ admonition not to worry?  Where’s the truth in that word of comfort? Well, I would suggest to you this morning that our answer to that question comes in putting Jesus’ words in their proper context; because, in truth, I don’t think that Jesus is advocating for a “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle, any more than he would want us to spend all of our days whistling, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!”  There’s more to life than this; and frankly more to following Jesus than this! In fact, if you’re truly paying attention to the whole of Jesus’ teachings you begin to realize that the ability, the grace, not to worry actually comes in everything that Jesus has said before!  It’s all right there in one word that began our text for this morning; it’s a word – an adverb – so small and seemingly inconsequential that I’m guessing that most of us didn’t even notice it: “Therefore…” 

…as in, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life…”

Remember, you see, that this reading from Matthew’s gospel comes toward the end of his account of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” that very familiar series of verses in which our Savior deals with some of the central and arguably heavier issues of walking in faith: the realities of being salt of the earth and light of the world, and what it means to obey and fulfill the laws of God; about the dicier aspects of dealing with anger, and forgiveness, and love.  Interestingly enough, in the verse just prior to what we read this morning there’s even a rather unsettling teaching about… guess what?  Money!  “No one can serve two masters,” says Jesus, “…you cannot serve God and wealth.” (6:24)  This sermon of Jesus, taken as a whole, ends up as no less than a summation of what God expects from his people; and by any standard, it’s a lot!  But here’s the thing; it’s right after all of this that Jesus looks to the crowds gathered around him and says to them, and to us, “Therefore… don’t worry about your life.”  In other words, quoting the Rev. Neil Chappell here, what’s happened is that “Jesus presents us with this long list of things to do, to follow, to remember and [of course] we worry whether we’re up to challenge.”  And this is when Jesus tells us, don’t worry!

To put a finer point on this, I found it particularly interesting this week how Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates this passage.  To be clear, this is a paraphrase and not a strict translation; but there’s something about Peterson’s interpretation of this text that makes clear sense about this admonition against worrying.  “If you decide for God,” it says, “living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes, or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion… [likewise] has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch?”  To put this still another way, in the end it’s not that we don’t worry because God provides; it that because God provides, we don’t worry!

What Jesus reminds here is that when we are in relationship with God, and when God’s presence and guidance and love is at the center of everything we face in this life, we have entered what David Lose refers to as “the realm of abundance, the world of possibility, the world of contentment,” a place – which Jesus calls the “Kingdom of God,” by the way – where “not worrying actually becomes an option!”  Consider the birds of the air, or the grass of the field; “are you not of more value than they?”  God takes care of them, and so God will take care of you; even you who worries about anything and everything!  To quote The Message one more time, “People who don’t know God or the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. [So] steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions.  Don’t worry about missing out.  You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”

Don’t worry… be happy (Okay, I couldn’t resist!), for if you “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.”

You know, biblically and historically speaking, we really don’t know all that much about the prophet Joel; from whose book our Old Testament reading this morning is drawn. We know that he is named as one of the minor prophets, and that his words possibly date back to the eighth century before the Christian era; beyond that, we know very little… except that Joel was a spokesperson for God in a harrowing time, in the aftermath of a plague of locusts that left the land (and by extension, its people) utterly destroyed.  So the setting of the Book of Joel is of one of great calamity, followed by despair and all the deep anxieties that would most certainly come from that.  And yet, what does Joel say in the face of such worries?  “Do not fear… be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things!”

It’s a beautiful and amazing passage; we read of how God will care for the land and the animals; how God will bring early and abundant rain “for [their] vindication,” and make the threshing floors once again full with the grain of the harvest.  “I will repay you,” says the Lord, “for the years that the swarming locust has eaten… you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied.”  And perhaps most interesting of all here is that rather than calling the people to remorse or even to repentance, God calls them… to trust in his promise of abundance and to give thanks: “Praise the name of the Lord your God,” he says, “who has dealt wondrously with you.”

This is the beginning of faith, dear friends, and it is the very life to which Jesus calls you and me even now: one of true abundance that can only come from God.  Granted, to trust in that kind of promise is a hard thing for us in these times; especially given all the many kinds of scarcity and fear in this world that seek to cause us so much worry.  But if we focus on that which is good – acknowledging what God has done and continues to do in this world and in our lives, and living out that abundance – we may well find ourselves ready to heed Jesus’ call to relax, to breathe and to simply trust in God’s everlasting providence.

Well, in just a few days now, most of us will be gathered with some combination of family or friends to engage in that yearly, time-honored ritual of feasting we call Thanksgiving.  And in amidst the copious servings of turkey, mashed potato and pumpkin pie I trust that prayers will be said offering up thanks for the many blessings we’ve known in the past year: blessings of life and health and food; of love received and given; of the joys that were embraced and the sorrows that were somehow successfully endured.  Wherever we are and whoever we’re with this coming Thursday, we’ll be expressing praise and gratitude to the God “from whom all blessings flow.” And with humility and grace we’ll simply say, “Thank you.”

And so it should be… but might I suggest another prayer as well? It seems to me that this year we’d all do well to pray that in the year to come the Lord might deliver us from fussing… from allowing ourselves to become bothered by all those all-consuming and ultimately debilitating worries that keep us from wholly embracing the abundance of blessings that God has to offer us. I’m reminded here of something the late Henri Nouwen used to say about what it means to truly pray.  He used the image of a clenched fist, and explained that if we, after the manner of that closed hand, hold on tightly to those “clammy coins” we insist on keeping – things like hate and bitterness, disappointment and even worry – then you’re never going to be able to open your hand to receive all of the love the Lord wants to give you; to receive, you see, first you have to let go.

And so it is with all the worries that keep us from giving our full attention to what our Lord has to give us in the here and now, and also in the days to come; as the old saying goes, we simply need to “let go, and let God!”  Yes, there is true abundance in God, beloved; therefore, let us not be worried, but instead set ourselves to striving first for the kingdom of God… for in doing so, “all these things will be given to you as well.”

Happy Thanksgiving, my dear, dear friends, and may God continue to bless you and yours.

And may our thanks ever and always be unto God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2017 in Discipleship, Jesus, Life, Old Testament, Sermon, Thanksgiving

 

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An Attitude of Gratitude

thanksgiving_pumpkin_600x400(a sermon for November 22, 2015, Thanksgiving Sunday, based on 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Lamentations 3:19-26 and Joel 2:21-27)

And so it’s Thanksgiving.

But after all is said and done with turkey dinners, family gatherings and the threat of “Black Friday” meltdowns, I would suggest that the real challenge before us this week comes courtesy of our reading this morning from the 1st Epistle to Timothy:  “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone… so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.”

Actually, I’m reminded here of an old Peanuts comic strip in which Lucy asks Charlie Brown to help her with her homework, promising, “If you do, I’ll be eternally grateful.” Fair enough, Charlie Brown replies.  After all, he thinks, I’ve never had anyone be eternally grateful before!  So the two of them sit down to look at Lucy’s homework, and Charlie Brown says, “Oh… just subtract 4 from 10 to see how many apples the farmer had left.”

Hearing the answer, Lucy’s eyes open wide.  “That’s it?” she says.  “That’s it?! I have to be eternally grateful for this?? It was too easy!”  But then of course, Charlie Brown – being the good ol’ wishy-washy Charlie Brown that he always is – says in reply, “Well, then… whatever you think is fair.”  And to this, Lucy says, “How about if I just say, ‘Thanks, bro?’”  Then, as Charlie Brown leaves to go outside, he meets Linus, who asks, “Where’ve you been, Charlie Brown?” “Oh, helping Lucy with her homework,” Charlie answers.  “Did she appreciate it?”  Linus asks.  And Charlie answers, “At greatly reduced rates!”

Well, friends, may I say to you this morning, lovingly, that this is exactly what’s wrong with our thanksgiving celebrations?  What with a culture actively trying to commandeer the day as merely a gateway to the Christmas season (don’t even get me started on these stores that have been relentless in moving “Black Friday” to Thursday evening or earlier!), to say nothing of our own sad propensity to take far more credit for our many blessings than we ought; we also are often at risk of giving thanks at “greatly reduced rates!”  The sad truth is that as persons and as a people, we have often tended toward exchanging humility for avarice, worship for self-congratulation, and faithfulness for forgetfulness; which is bad enough on the face of it, but particularly tragic for those of us who would claim an identity as God’s people, for it is, in fact, a spirit of true thanksgiving that drives the life of faith.  As followers of God, you see, we are called to an “attitude of gratitude,” as it were, making “supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings” for everyone… and everything!

Let me unpack that just a little bit:  if we look at that which is central to what we believe as Christians; if we take, for instance, the entirety of the biblical message and boil it down to its most essential truths, you’re going to find a pattern emerging and that pattern always begins with praise and thanksgiving.  The words of the Psalmist, which are amongst my very favorite:  “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.” (Psalm 103:1-2)  There is inherent in everything we believe this profound awareness that God has acted for us; that everything we have, everything we know, everything we can ever hope to be comes to us from God.  This is a theme that runs all through our readings for this morning:  from Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;” from Joel, “Do not fear, O Soil… do not fear, you animals of the field… children of Zion, be glad,” for “the LORD has done great things;”  as well as in literally hundreds of other places we could name in scripture, what we have here is a God who seeks to bless his creation in a multitude of ways; and who is deserving of our thankfulness and praise!

And that’s central to everything we understand to be true about our faith; but the other piece of that “core value,” if you will, is our embracing a true sense of gratitude for all that God has done and continues to do; and how that, in turn, serves as our motivation to live our lives faithfully, or as it’s expressed in 1st Timothy, to live “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  To put it another way, it’s a “cycle of thanksgiving;” in which faith leads to gratitude, gratitude leads to action, action nurtures faith, and that faith inspires more gratitude!  Ultimately, you see, it is a spirit of thanksgiving (or, conversely, the lack of it) that affects most of what we do or what we envision for our lives and for the world; and it has a way of very quietly, but most certainly, reshaping who we are as people.  It’s a prayerful attitude in which true gratitude for all that the Lord has given us becomes the tool by which we are empowered to show God’s love to others.  And that all starts, as the Epistle succinctly puts it, by having “thanksgivings be made for everyone” around us; up to and including, interestingly enough, “kings and all who are in high positions.”  A challenging proposition, to be sure, especially in these times; but then, how are we as people of faith ever to change the world for the sake of God’s kingdom if we can’t first prayerfully express our true thanksgiving for all those things – and all those people – that God has placed on our pathways?

There’s an old story about an elderly couple – married 60 years – and one evening, they’re sitting out on their front porch swing, rocking together in the quiet and watching a beautiful sunset.  And as they sit there, the old man begins to ponder as to just how much this woman who is sitting beside him has meant to him in his life.  And so, filled up with gratitude in that moment, the old man reaches out his hand to hers, takes her hand in his own and finally, after another long and deep moment of quiet, he says to her, “You know, deah… you’ve been such a wonderful wife for all these years that there are times I can hardly keep from telling you.”

That’s how it goes, you know; most of the time, it’s not that we don’t know we’re blessed.  The very fact that we have “gathered together” here in this sanctuary this morning acknowledges that we do know how much we owe to God for our lives, our health, our food… that we are aware of how God has blessed us by our families, through our friends, in our work and by our play… that we are indeed the recipients of a great harvest of blessing that comes to us by faith and in infinite and redeeming love.  But like the old man in that story, so often we hold our gratitude inside: we never say it aloud and certainly we never say it to God, and thus true thanksgiving is never wholly expressed; which is not only our first mistake as people of faith, but it’s also what breaks this all important cycle of thanksgiving, this simple “attitude of gratitude” on which everything else we say and do as God’s people – and might I add, as the church – proceeds.

In the end, you see, this has less to do with the fourth Thursday in November and the “official” beginning of the holiday season than it does with you and I seeking to be the persons and people God has called us to be.  This week, and always, we need to be cultivating within us and around us a prayerful spirit of thanksgiving; and that begins with actually using words say thank you, and then following that up with lives that say we  mean it.  For when we do, things change, for us, and by extension, for the world; beginning with this Thursday becoming a true festival of God’s surpassing grace that will last far beyond the holidays.

After all, beloved, we are a blessed people: “the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven,” as Abraham Lincoln famously put it in his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863; led by “the gracious hand which [has] preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us.”  Moreover, as God’s own people, we are loved beyond measure and without limit; in that love we are given life that is both abundant in this world and eternal in the next; and we are gathered as a community of faith that makes us, both individually and collectively, more than we could ever dream of being.

Whatever our difficulties this day; whatever challenges are ours as we go out into the world, at the very heart of it all remains this truth that in more ways than we can begin to imagine, God has blessed us.

So how else can we respond to this but with true thanksgiving, and then, with acts of love?

Happy Thanksgiving, my dear friends at East Church; and may our thanks, yours and mine, be unto God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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