The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Don't worry about a thing" (reprise)

26 November 2009

Thanksgiving
Matthew 6:25-33

**NOTE: faithful followers of this blog might recognize this sermon.  It's an updated and contextualized version of a sermon on the same text that I preached about a year and a half ago.  It's one of the most googled sermons I've written, mostly because of the Bob Marley reference.  When I was asked to preach on this text for today's Thanksgiving service at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, I decided it might be good to bring back an old favorite.  Usually I'm philosophically opposed to "recycling" sermons, but since it's for different people, a different occasion, and a while has passed, I thought it might be okay this time.  Thanks for indulging me :)

In the name of God. Amen.

“Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…. But strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.”

That’s nice, isn’t it? Just quit worrying, because God’s going to give you every thing you need. If you listened closely to the Gospel reading this morning, you could almost hear Bob Marley in the background: “Every little thing is gonna be all right”. I guess I could just go ahead and sit down. We should probably just all go home. God will take care of everything. As the bumper sticker theologian put it, “Let go and let God.” Right?

So why am I still standing here? If it’s true that “all these things will be given to you” as Matthew has said, why are we all here? Why are we all still engaged in the process of discerning God’s will for the church? Or for ourselves?

Worry is a natural phenomenon. We’ve all experienced it at one time or another. Even on this day devoted to celebrating and giving thanks, some of us are probably experiencing worry right now.

So in some ways, this text makes me angry. “Don’t worry”?? We do worry. We will worry. Isn’t it a little condescending for the writer of the Gospel to say we shouldn’t? Would Jesus really have told us to just stop worrying?

And remember, these words are part of the Sermon on the Mount. They are to have been spoken by the very man who, as the story progresses, will lead his followers into Jerusalem, and who will be brought before Pontius Pilate, and who will eventually suffer death on the cross. He is going to tell us not to worry? I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I’m buying it.

I doubt that any of us are fated for the kind of life and death that Jesus had, but even so, we have our own causes for worry. We could probably list them more easily than we could ever presume to “count our blessings”. The economy. Violence. Drugs. Fearing for the security of our jobs. Fearing for the stability of our relationships.

“Every little thing is gonna be alright?” I’m not so sure. We all have plenty of cause for worry. And I’m sure you could think of more personal – maybe even secret reasons that I couldn’t know to mention. So I hope Matthew and Bob Marley will forgive me if I don’t just blindly jump on board.

“Don’t worry”? Easy for you to say.

Of course we will worry. Jesus knew we would worry. Advising us against worry wasn’t a preventative measure. It was a recognition that in our worrying, our efforts are often misplaced.

If all we hear in this text is Matthew’s Jesus naïvely telling us not to worry, we’ve missed an important piece of the advice. Bob Marley may have stopped at encouraging us not to worry, but Jesus offered something more, an alternative: “strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things [the things for lack of which you could consume yourself with worry – all these things] will be given to you.”

It’s a radical concept! Strive first for the kingdom of God – before we even consider our own needs or desires. It’s not just “Don’t worry” – he’s saying, don’t worry about the stuff. Don’t worry about money or possessions or superficial needs. If we strive first for the kingdom of God, we needn’t even worry about the really important things like food or clothing.

It’s counterintuitive, I know. When you’re hungry, it’s only natural to worry about where your next meal will come from. When you’re facing eviction from your home, it’s only natural to worry about where the next payment will come from. When you’re lonely it’s only natural to long for affection.

But what if we really did join Jesus in this counterintuitive thinking? What would it mean to strive first for the kingdom of God, instead of striving first for our own desires? What would it mean to replace all of our worries about things with an eagerness for the glory of God to be realized on earth?

Jesus isn’t telling the hungry, or the poor, or the lonely to stop worrying. More so, he is telling us – those who are not lacking – that it should not be their job to worry. We all have areas in our lives where we are lacking and areas in our lives where we are not lacking. But if we all could strive first for the kingdom of God as it can be realized in our midst, then there would be no need for any of us to worry over our human needs.

The kingdom of God among us would be defined by the reality that all of our needs would be met. If I am striving first for the kingdom of God then my neighbor will never be hungry. My neighbor will never be homeless. My neighbor will never be lonely. If we spend less time worrying over our own want of material possessions and superficial comforts, and more time striving to realize the kingdom of God, then that realization of God’s vision for humanity would ensure that all of our needs would be met: mine, yours, and those of our neighbors, both here and around the world.

I don’t think it’s an accident that on this – the day that is for most of us a day of seemingly unbridled bounty – it’s no accident that this is the day our church, in its wisdom, has asked us to consider our worries and perceptions of scarcity. We always have opportunities for worry, but it’s helpful to consider those worries in the context of our bountiful blessings. It gives us a chance to put them in perspective.

As we examine our lives as members of the Christian community, today reminds us that we must continually ask ourselves: what would it mean if we would make the radical, counterintuitive commitment to strive first and foremost for the realization of God’s vision for humanity in the world? If we made such a commitment, what worries could we allow to rest?

Could people of prayer heal a world torn apart by war and crime? Perhaps. A discipline of prayer yields peace in individual lives. Imagine how our tolerance for unnecessary human suffering would be affected if, as a people, we disciplined ourselves to be people of prayer and allowed our actions to be governed by that peace instead of by our fears. An active commitment to peace could become as infectious as the fear it replaces.

Can the church really speak to the epidemics of anonymity and loneliness that are so rampant in our culture? I think so. When we shift our focus from corporate strategies for consumption to Christian strategies for compassion community will emerge. That light of community will outshine the darkness of solitude that perverts God’s vision for the world.

God’s vision for humanity already exists. We are not called to build it or to create it. God has already done that heavy lifting for us. But we are called to strive toward it, even in the face of all the other kingdoms of this world that might stand in its way.

So don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing is going to be all right. Rather than allowing yourself to be consumed with worry, strive instead to make real God’s vision for humanity. When you do, all the little things will fall into place. Amen.

2 comments:

Peter Carey said...

Great sermon, wonderful! Thanks for sharing it...

...I think my folks might need some words of hope, rendered with pop references this week - we'll see...

Advent blessings,

Peter+
http://santospopsicles.blogspot.com

Jon M. Richardson said...

Thank you for reading, Peter!

Maybe it's because I am such a "young turk" but I find pop culture references very helpful in connecting with the congregation. Then again, they may just think I'm weird! :)

Peace,
Jon