Monday, November 23, 2009

Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday, "All Gathered In"

Sermon 11/22/09, Matthew 6:24-33

Giving Thanks: All Gathered In

What, if anything, do you worry about? That was a question posed to me in an interview about blogging that I did a few years back, and my response was something like this: “What don’t I worry about?” I was still serving my first congregation at the time, and my response expanded mostly in relation to pastoral ministry. I said, “I can be a worrier. I worry about my congregation, and whether I am serving them well, and if the church is growing numerically and spiritually, and if I visit enough people often enough, and if my prayers are too long, and if a new worship service will work, and, and, and . . .”

This interview response came to my mind because I was also thinking of another blog-related item about worry – a post I wrote about how I handle stress and worry. Sometimes, I can worry as that stress, anxiety, in the pit of my stomach. But sometimes, I’m stressed and worried and I can’t even remember why. I have that anxious, gnawing feeling, but I don’t know what about. This makes it feel even worse, even more worrisome. I recounted on my blog that I’ve gotten better, though, at stopping, when I feel this dread, and working to identifying the cause of my stress or worry so I can confront it and move on. One time I was feeling very anxious, and so I worked hard to find the source of my worry. Finally it hit me. I’d been reading news articles on CNN, and become worried over and article about the melting of the polar ice caps. That was my cause of stress! Now, I take issues of environmental justice very seriously – but my worrying about the ice caps wasn’t really accomplishing anything – it wasn’t helping me act with more care for the earth – it was just filling my stomach with dread without even remembering why I was so upset! What do you worry about? How does all that worrying make you feel?

Today, our text is about worry. It seems like an odd text, at first, to flip back to, after all these passages about discipleship in the gospel of Mark. And it seems like a strange Thanksgiving text, which is its primary purpose. Certainly it is maybe an odd choice for a text for Consecration Sunday – a day when many of us are thinking about pledges and giving and budgets and hoping things work out for the church financially. But as I think about our own life together as a congregation, I think it makes perfect sense – before we can move forward, before we can get out there and be in ministry, we have to make sure we aren’t so weighed down with burden and worry that we can’t function, can’t be disciples.

And so, I think this text is perfect for us today, because I think, as a congregation, we’ve been carrying with us a great deal of worry, and stress, and anxiety. I feel it, and I think many of you feel it as well. A long time of pastoral transition, from a pastor who was here for 28 years, to an interim ministry, and finally to a new permanent pastor, a sense of being in a suspended mode, waiting to see what would happen next, waiting to see how things would turn out, where things would go, how things would move forward, how things would or wouldn’t change – I think all of these things can cause stress, worry, and anxiety in a congregation. And in particular, we, like many churches, have been worried about money – our financial situation. We’ve been worried about keeping the lights on, keeping the bills paid, supporting our staff, supporting our denominational connections, keeping our ministry here going. We’re worried about our future, about how people will respond to our needs, about how we will take care of this faith community. And we can carry this stress, this burden, this worry with us everywhere – into every church meeting, into every gathering, into every decision we’ve been making. And I worry – I worry about what our worry does to us! I worry that with all our worries, we don’t have much energy left to do the work that Christ calls us to do. And into the midst of all this worry, comes our perfectly placed passage for the day.

This text comes as part of what we call from Matthew “The Sermon on the Mount.” It’s part of a long set of teaching by Jesus preached to crowds of people gathered with him on the mountainside. He’s just shared with the crowds a way to pray that we now call The Lord’s Prayer, and he’s been telling them that where their treasure is, there will their hearts be also. And today we hear Jesus saying that one cannot serve both God and wealth. This statement is a springboard for Jesus to speak about worry. Don’t worry, Jesus says, about what to eat, or drink, or wear. Life is more than these things. The birds of the air don’t work or worry, and have plenty to eat, and we are more valuable than birds. And the lilies are clothed with great beauty, but they only last a little while. Won’t God take even greater care of us? So why worry? God knows what we need. So strive for the Kingdom of God, not these other things, Jesus concludes. Strive to live righteously, and everything else will come as well.

In some ways I love this passage – it is beautiful, comforting. But I have to share with you my other reaction: Is Jesus serious? How can he be? Clearly he has no experience with financial stress or other worries. How can he be so naïve? How can you tell people who are hungry and homeless and without clothing or work not to worry? Sure, our own situation is not that bad – we’re abundantly blessed even though we’re facing these hard times. But how can you tell people who are going without not to worry and that everything will be ok? Is Jesus just an idealist? Is he exaggerating? Is he just out of touch?

For me, the key to understanding this passage is to consider what Jesus is really saying when he speaks of worry. The Greek word here is merimnate, which means more literally to “be preoccupied with or be absorbed by.” (1) When Jesus speaks of worry, he’s speaking of something that preoccupies us, absorbs our attention, takes our effort and energy and heart’s direction. In fact, in this way, Jesus is equating worry to something that’s very close to idolatry. Idolatry is when we take anything that is other than God, and give it the place of God in our lives. All through the scriptures, idolatry is one of the things that God most deplores about our human behavior. Again and again, we’re putting something else in a more important place than we put God. Worried? Preoccupied? Absorbed? Not only is your stress hard on you, it’s also putting your very soul at risk, because your worry is just another form of making idols.

Instead of being naïve, Jesus is, of course, being extremely wise. He calls our worry out for what it is – a way of distancing ourselves from God and God’s plan for our lives. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, writes about it this way: “Does not every man see, that he cannot comfortably serve both [God and wealth]? That to trim between God and the world is the sure way to be disappointed in both, and to have no rest either in one or the other? How uncomfortable a condition must he be in, who, having the fear but not the love of God, -- who, serving him, but not with all his heart, -- has only the toils and not the joys of religion? He has religion enough to make him miserable, but not enough to make him happy: His religion will not let him enjoy the world, and the world will not let him enjoy God. So that, by halting between both, he loses both; and has no peace either in God or the world.” (2) Wesley knew that by trying to strive for what’s important in worldly terms at the same time we strive spiritually would only make us miserable in the world and miserable in our relationship with God.

So what do we do? How do we change? How do we give up this striving, our obsessive anxiety, our stress, our worry, our preoccupation with so much that has nothing to do with God, faith, discipleship, ministry? How can we just “not worry” like Jesus says? He gives us the answer: We still strive, we’re still preoccupied, we’re still consumed – but all that energy is given to striving for the kingdom of God. And we’re able to do that when we recognize that our lives are covered already by God’s love. Our lives are given value already by God who created us, and if this God who created us even gives value to birds and lilies and grass in the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow, how can we doubt the value given to us? We’re precious to God, of such value to God. The value we get elsewhere isn’t real. The things we worry about only define us if we let them define us. But if we choose otherwise, if we strive after God’s kingdom instead, we’ll find our real value as children of God.

Does seeking God’s kingdom free us from worry? Does seeking God’s kingdom clothe us and feed us? Maybe not in the ways we’d expect. But I think striving for God’s kingdom ultimately turns our view from ourselves out to the world God has created. So striving for the kingdom lead us to feed others, to clothe others, to fill others. If the whole world strives after God first, I think we’ll find that Jesus is right – all the rest is added to us as well. We face some difficult times ahead as a congregation – we always will, as we struggle to exist in a world that is full of worry, ever torn, as John Wesley described, between more than one master, never being satisfied by either. Our life together can be so much more than we sometimes settle for. Strive first for God, God’s kingdom, God’s justice. If we do that together, God promises that the rest will come to us as a gift to God’s beloved children.

Today, we’re consecrating our gifts to God, our pledges, or our hopes for what we can give to support our ministry in the year to come. This very Sunday and all the responsibilities that come with it can be a source of stress and anxiety for us. Will it be enough? Are we giving enough? If there’s not enough, what do we cut? What do we go without? What do we not pay? But today is also Thanksgiving Sunday, and God always means giving thanks to be an act of joy, giving to be an act of love and hope and promise from God to us and from us to God. God seeks for us to give and receive with thanks, hope, and holy anticipation in the same way that we would feel about waiting for a loved one to open the carefully selected treasure we’ve chosen just for them. Today, then, as we consecrate our gifts to God, I’m seeking to let go of my worries, which take my energy from seeking after God and God’s kingdom. And instead, I’m letting myself be filled with Thanksgiving for the signs of the kingdom I see everyday, right in our midst.

This very week, I am thankful for Derek and Becky Hansen and the energy they’ve instilled into our young people for participating in the life of the church. I’m thankful for the youth that tried something new this weekend and went to learn about God with hundreds of other young people of faith. I’m thankful for Dale and Lori who stepped in to support our youth coordinator in his time of need. I’m thankful for your outpouring of support for the refugees over the past month in response to a plea for help, and for the people you will feed over the next weeks through your support of our Thanksgiving baskets. I’m thankful for those of you who consistently reach out to our homebound members, so that when I visit, they can tell me that they’ve already heard from one of you recently. I’m thankful for a congregation pulling together a church dinner that could go on while I was on vacation. I’m thankful for those who have been working hard to find ways to make our church more welcoming who those who come here seeking a closer walk with God. Our church is overflowing with blessings and riches that will help us as we seek to draw close to the heart of God, as we strive after the kingdom of God.

Today, as we offer our gifts to God to be consecrated, my prayer is that we ask God to use our gifts in ways we can’t even imagine yet. That God can transform our worries into thanksgivings. That God can turn our dollars into lives touched by God’s love through our congregation and beyond. Jesus said, “Strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” May it be so for us. Amen.

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