a sermon based on Matthew 6:25-34
"Like the gentle rain nourishes the flowers,
like the gentle rain helps the rivers grow,
like the gentle rain falling from above us,
we are nourished by God's love."
(Mary Lynn Lightfoot, 1937)
God -- the Creator of this marvelous, intricate, world of nature -- pours out grace (unearned & undeserved) like a gentle rain, like a baptism, free for the taking. God's presence and power is nourishing, sustaining, creative... Falling on the just and the unjust alike. God is woven into the fabric of all life. All matter is endowed with divinity, thanks to God, who is the Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer of it all.
Today's Scripture lesson appeals to the nature lover in us. You want to know something about God? Jesus tells us to look at the birds... look at the flowers. "Consider the lilies and how they grow... Look at the birds of the air..." I can’t help but think of St. Francis preaching to the birds... Seeing the flowers & budding trees of springtime, the squirrels running and birds chirping after a dormant winter helps restore that primal sensual, animal connectedness to the word of nature: God’s Creation.
Last week, when I prepared the worship bulletin for today’s service and put it in the mail, I thought that (being springtime) I’d want to speak about those nature-images: pointing to birds and lilies, nests in the trees, and a lawn full of dandelions. Instead, I was struck in re-reading today's text, that three times in these ten verses we are told not to be anxious!
Do not be anxious… about your life. Do not be anxious… saying: “What shall we eat? Or, what shall we drink?” Do not be anxious… about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. "Take no thought," says the King James version. "Don't worry," we say. … Easier said than done, isn’t it!
Instead of pastoral reflections on the goodness of nature, I think it is more important that we address what Jesus was getting at in today’s text from the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s be honest and admit that we struggle (in this day of economic down-turn) with material anxiety.
I’m sure you know that the stock market has been on a roller-coaster since it’s high-point back on Feb. 19 -- dropping 28% in value before March as the stay-at-home orders shut businesses down, then the oil prices collapsed down to $6 a barrel, and interest rates got so low that some portfolios were in negative numbers (which means they’d pay you to take it off their hands), and since then we’ve seen the Dow Jones Industrial Average swing back up in value and then back down by 600/700 points a day over the past three months, as big investors move their money around, putting their bets on their best-guess future. (I want to say: “Hey, that’s my pension plan you’re messing with!”)
I don't know about you (your occupations & life situations, whether your family is single-income, double-income, or no-income...) to say whether or not you have any cause for anxiety... but I DO know ME! And the passage Lynn Borke read for us this morning hits me right where I live: Jesus is talking about my appetites, and my income. (!) And it seems (since the economy tanked in March, and Wall Street lost a quarter of it’s value, together with the massive numbers of unemployed people – with the jobless rate as high today as during the Great Depression!) our world is over-whelmed with anxiety just now. … And (did you notice?) I haven’t even mentioned the CoronaVirus health crisis!
Why would I start my sermon on such a sour note? I’m sure you didn’t tune in to today’s “virtual worship” service just to be reminded of how bad things have gotten lately. We who have faith in God are supposed to be part of the solution, not adding more fuel on the fire!
But this passage makes me look at my spending priorities. How I spend my money, yes -- but even more: how I spend my TIME! How I spend my hours in the course of each day. Am I moving forward, or am I just spinning my wheels (spinning like a top!), trying to keep up with my daily schedule… ?
Yes, it’s been different lately without restaurants -- Patty & I have been cooking at home. It’s different to be told to stay put, when we like to get out and drive somewhere, see something, do some shopping…
With the forced isolation (and the sequestering at home we’ve been enduring for 12 weeks now), we’ve all had plenty of time to sit and think! We’ve had time to sort through our accumulated stuff and to make plans for when things get back to normal. I have had to ask myself: have I set priorities for spending my time, my talents, and my treasures, that are in keeping with the character of Jesus Christ, who is my role model...?
For example, am I "hungering & thirsting for righteousness" (as Jesus says his followers should!)? Well, not if I am preoccupied with my physical appetite -- organizing the refrigerator, making lists for grocery shopping (so Patty can get in and back out again quickly), planning meals and counting calories. Wondering which “take out” restaurant we should be supporting just now in order to help keep them in business…
Now, look, there's nothing wrong with eating sensibly, frequently, even "healthy-ly" -- but we ought not let it consume so much of our time & attention that ther day revolves around it. As someone with diabetes, I know that I am supposed to monitor my blood sugars and lower my cholesterol intake, eat less bread & starch & alcohol; more proteins and raw vegetables. But that cannot become a central focus of my daily life: taking thought for what I’ll eat & drink. It’s a “sideline” at best.
Or, to use another example: You and I cannot be spending our time and our energy devoted to MAKING PEACE (peace with our spouse right there in our house, or peace in the world; making peace with your kids, or with cranky parents)... We can't be spending our time & energy devoted to making peace, if we are focused on making money (& meeting time-payments!), keeping ahead of the fashions, and not missing a meal.
"Do not be anxious," Jesus advises us, "Saying: what shall we eat, and what shall we drink, or what shall we wear?... FOR THE GENTILES seek all these things…"
Of course, unlike his original Jewish audience in Galilee, you and I are Gentiles! We act like Gentiles, because we ARE! But does that mean we have to act as though we have no revelation of God? No access to the mind of Christ, or to the generous resources of the Creator?
If you and I, in our daily behavior, cannot be distinguished for the good from those who are totally in the dark about God… who have no concept of grace and forgiveness…
… from those who have refused the "love of neighbor" which is God's plan; or those who do not have a supportive community standing with them (like this church has been for so many of us)...
If you and I, in our behavior and in our daily thoughts, are just as anxious as any unbelieving Gentile, then we are saying (in effect) to the world: "Yes, I believe in God, but MY GOD IS UNABLE to supply my needs. My God is unable, or unwilling, to communicate with me. My God is unconcerned with my physical and material well-being."
Friends, if our God were truly UNABLE, unwilling, or unconcerned... then we may just as well lock up this building for good. Auction it off for its property value, and be done with it.
But, if we believe God IS ABLE to supply our needs… with a bit of creative sharing on our part, and caring, and vision, and encouragement... If the Holy Spirit IS WILLING to communicate with us, through Scripture and song and telling our stories... If our Lord Jesus Christ IS concerned for our well-being... Then we ought to be living in that assurance! (Right?)
We should be living lives, which are so radiantly attractive, spiritually centered, and emotionally secure... that (when we re-open next week) every other one of these pews (keeping six-feet of physical distance, of course) are full! Full with our friends, who need what we've got; full with our family members, who have seen the great change in our attitudes at home! Full with the refreshing sense of being free creatures!
A spirit of anxiety betrays our faith. And so do our words: "Therefore do not be anxious, SAYING: what shall we eat, and what shall we drink, and what shall we wear?..."
Anxiety uses the language of unbelief. It has been said that "from the abundance of your heart words spill out of your mouth."
So, what do you suppose fills the heart when our mouth is saying: "What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?" This is not the language of faith. These are not the words that spill out of a heart deeply concerned with matters of the spirit; admitting where we have fallen short, rejoicing that we have been forgiven, and committing ourselves to LOVE ONE ANOTHER...
OK, so it's obvious (what I‘ve been saying)... our material anxieties make us unable to function as a follower of Christ in our world; and finds us using the language of unbelief. Still, if you are like me, it is so easy... so natural... to get caught up in worry.
How often? How often since you and I came to know God's grace and assurance in our lives -- God’s forgiveness & faithfulness -- have we pushed the panic-button when the piles of bills come in? Ministers are not immune from material anxiety. Patty & I are paying two mortgages -- one of them (our house in Long Beach) is expensive! Like you, we, too, have had to scale-back our expectations, our vacations, and our spending-habits. As everyone keeps saying: We’re all in it together!
Every line item in a “budget” reflects our values, and every decision to defer paying a bill shows our priorities. Expenses don't just go away when money gets tight. Expenses don't take a summer vacation. The economic down-turn that has pinched some of you, tweaks our church’s investments as well. (Now, don’t get me wrong. First Congregational is in fine financial shape, for a small congregation. Some of our former members – like Olive Steele, Lukas & Janet Pfeiffenberger, Jennie Kerr, and Sharon Stewart – left money to the church in their wills. Furthermore, half of the Andrew Comstock Fund can be used to help keep us afloat. You can relax about that. First Congregational is still sending out mission money into our community to assist with local human needs & agencies.)
The point is that when the cash flow dwindles, I know the temptation to reach for the panic-button. And I know the convicting power of this text, as it flies in the face of so much of my own life... pointing out my own misplaced priorities! And so, this question is for me, as well as for you to consider:
Have we searched our hearts lately, in the light of the principles Jesus offers us, to know WHERE our treasure is? To know where we place our day-to-day values? To know where our anxieties are rooted? Perhaps it is time again to really listen to the kinds of words that spill out of our hearts, since they reveal where our deepest loyalties lie.
Jesus said to the crowd on that hillside, and says for us today: Do not be anxious! (Take a moment. Pause.) Consider... "Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?"
To Jesus, it is apparent we do not have our sense of VALUE right. That is, we don't appreciate our intrinsic WORTH in contrast to the things which sustain us.
If God has given you LIFE... and given you that body of intricate complexity... then certainly God will provide what's needed to preserve and to protect it. Focus upon the real you: do not be anxious, pause to consider... "Your heavenly Father KNOWS that you need them all." That's the way you are made! God knows -- God made you that way!
It's through no effort of yours that you have a body. It's through no work of yours that you have the gift of life... whether for only a dozen years, or for a century. It is through no skill of yours (or will of yours) that your stomach can digest a lump of bread... So, why spend our energy, spend our life, spend our conscious will worrying about whether we might miss a meal!? Compared with your life, what is today's lunch? Compared with your body, what is clothing, but external decoration! Jesus would have us realize our precious worth as a human being, as a creature of God, who is loved as a child. There is no NEED to worry; God knows you. And you are precious!
Not only are our anxious thoughts needless, Jesus shows that they are senseless as well: "Look at the birds of the air... Consider the flowers of the field..." God cares and provides for their needs. Are you not of more value than they?! They are not children of God, but you are. No one baptizes birds; flowers have not been reborn through faith in God, but you have been! What makes you think God would have less to do with you, than with the rest of nature? What makes you think God would care less for you than for them?
Once you realize your worth, anxious thought appears sense-less... needless. And, Jesus shows us, too, that it is USELESS, as well: "Which of you, by being anxious, can add a single hour to your span of life?" ... I can't... Just like you, I have 24 hours to live -- today, that is. 24 hours for which I will give an account. One day at a time; it's how life comes to us all. It's measured for our own good. Jesus advises us to avoid spending the present day rehashing the past, or fretting about the future.
"Don’t worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will bring worries of its own," he says. "Let the day's own trouble be enough for today."
These 24 hours can be a GREAT time to be alive! A time for doing something to overcome the hate in this world with love. Time to help another human being toward the personal dignity you & I want for ourself. Or we can be sapped of our time -- sapped of our energy -- by pouring it into anxious thoughts about our own material well-being.
Someone once reminded me that:
"Worry never paid a bill! Worry never climbed a hill;
never led a horse to water; never did a thing it ought-a."
Material anxiety. It's natural... but it's needless, it's senseless, it's useless -- and, for us in the church, worry proves faith-less. "Will he not much more clothe you, O YE of LITTLE FAITH?"
Jesus is not talking to folks who have NO faith; he's talking to folks like us, who have some faith, but it needs to grow. (!) He's talking to his followers: men and women, who are unable to relate their faith in God to the worrisome need which is in their minds.
Spinning like a top over matters of material well-being may come easily to us ... But that anxiety may also effectively eliminate our potential for serving God in this community... all because of needless, senseless, useless, faithless worry!
It is (1) unlike the character of a child of God.
(2) It makes us unable to function AS a child of God.
And (3) our words betray a heart of unbelief.
Christ would have us stop spinning... and rest in Him.
All will be well. All manner of thing will be well. Amen.