February 28, 2011

I want to be set free from worry - a sermon

You can listen to this sermon here - or read it below.

I'm not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point during his sermon on the mount Jesus went from preachin' to meddlin'. It might have been at the end of chapter 5, the part we heard last week, when Jesus told the crowd to be perfect. It might have happened in the portions of chapter 6 that we skipped over when Jesus started telling people how to give to the poor, how to pray, and how to fast. If it hadn't already happened, then the shift most certainly occurs when Jesus starts talking to people about their money. It is commonly held that polite people shouldn't talk about religion or politics, but religion and politics become the weather and sports when you compare it to talking about money. Especially as that money relates to religion and politics. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
In effect, Jesus asks, “Who do you want to serve? You are going to be a slave to something or someone, so go ahead and make your choice now, do you want to be a slave to God or to mamon? What's it going to be?” Jesus doesn’t stop at meddlin' with our money, but goes so far as to meddle with every aspect of our lives; he wants it all. Several weeks ago, I mentioned somewhat offhandedly that the word, Christian, when literally translated means, “a slave to Christ”, but today that offhanded remark takes on new meaning. This morning, Jesus asks each of us, “Do you want to be a Christian, a slave to Christ, or would you prefer to be a slave to something else?” It is a decision we all have to make: a choice that most of us will be forced to make over and over and over again.
Are you a slave to your work? Is the need to get ahead in your career a driving factor in your life? Do you strive to always be the best? Do you work 60, 70, 80 or more hours a week to show the boss that you will give your life to your company? Does your family suffer at the expense of your work?
Are you a slave to your children? Have ball practices and dance classes and PTA meetings and wrapping paper sales come to define your life? Do you have to eat dinner through a drive through 5 nights a week to make it all fit? Has your relationship with your spouse suffered at the expense of your children?
Are you a slave to an addiction? Do you compulsively overeat, gamble, drink, or depend on the happiness of others to make you happy? Is your mind focused only on the next score so that the present moment is nothing but a blur of anxious waiting? Has your health suffered at the expense of your addition?
Are you a slave to money? Do you have so much money that you have become completely independent of the world around you? Do you have so little money that all you can think about is whether you will ever have enough? Do you strive for more in order to keep up with the Joneses? If, by chance, you've managed to attain the status of the Joneses, do you find yourself striving for even more so that you can keep up with the Trumps or the Gateses? Has everything else suffered at the expense of your seeking after wealth?
In the course of my life, I have been a slave to a lot of things, and this week I became a slave to this sermon. After taking Monday and Tuesday off to recuperate from working something like 25 out of 28 days, I sat down early Wednesday morning to take a look at the lessons and thought, “Oh no. This is going to be a tough sermon to preach.” Then I thought, “Oh no. This is a short week for me.” Then I thought, “Oh no. There is no way I'll ever get a decent sermon written for Sunday morning.” From that moment on, this sermon was the only thing I could think about. I read resource after resource in search of that one golden preaching nugget. I thought and prayed and contemplated. I wasn't paying attention to my family because my brain was fighting with this sermon. I wasn't paying attention while I was driving because I was distracted by this sermon. I became a slave to this sermon.
Do you know what happens when you become a slave to something other than Christ? You worry. Will I get that promotion? Will my kid make all A's? Where will my next drink come from? Do I have enough money? Will this sermon ever get written. By 3:17 on Thursday afternoon, my slavery to this sermon had become so overwhelming I was compelled to write a blog post entitled, “I'm worried.” By 4:30 that same afternoon the folks who run the Christian Century website had already picked up my post to publish on their site. By 6:15 my alma mater, Virginia Theological Seminary had posted a link to it on their facebook page. It seems as though I wasn't the only slave to the text this week. I wasn't the only one worried. Misery loves company, but that doesn't make the decision to be a slave to something other than God any wiser.
In choosing to serve this sermon as slave I chose worry over freedom, stress over comfort, and my own will over the things of God. Jesus says not to worry, but that was all I could do. Maybe you know that feeling too. You start to worry, but then you remember that Jesus said not to, then you worry that you were worrying. It is a vicious cycle that ends in frustration, guilt, and despair – three things that I am certain are not from God.
Jesus says not to worry about anything. Don't worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink. Don't worry about your body, what you will wear. As we've seen, however, this is a lot easier said than done. So how then do we keep from worrying when it seems to be such a natural reaction? How do we avoid worry when the money always seems to run out before the month does. How do we not worry when the news is full of violence, when the price of gas jumps 20 cents in a day, when the world seems to be in such disarray?
Jesus says, “Consider the birds of the air. They don't sow or reap. They don't gather into barns, and yet they are fed by God everyday.” There is an old poem that reads, “Said the robin to the sparrow: 'I should really like to know why these anxious human beings rush about and worry so.' Said the sparrow to the robin: 'Friend, I think that it must be that they have no heavenly Father, such as cares for you and me.'” Do we really believe that God gave us life? If so, why do we find it so hard to believe that he'll take care of that life? The birds use their God given abilities to seek out food and drink. Why then do we ignore our God given talents and instead work ourselves to death in the pursuit of more food, more drink, more clothing, and more money?
Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field; they don't toil or spin, and yet not even King Solomon in all his splendor was dressed as fine as them.” Men toil in the fields making sure the crops grow at a high yield. Women spin at the wheel creating usable yarn and beautiful clothing. Lilies do neither, but by way of their God given abilities they take energy from the sun and nutrients from the ground and make themselves into beautiful flowers that are often seen only by their Father in heaven. Why then do we ignore our God given talents and instead worry ourselves with the need to look as good as, or better than our neighbor?
Jesus says, “Don't worry about tomorrow because today is full of enough garbage of its own.” Why anticipate the troubles of tomorrow? Why double our trouble? If our worries never materialize then we've wasted a lot of energy on nothing. If tomorrow's troubles do arrive, then we suffer through them twice over. The really dangerous thing about worry is that it is usually a self-fulfilling prophecy. In worrying, we create the scenario in which tomorrow's troubles can flourish. I worried that this sermon would be hard to write, and lo and behold I was sitting in front of the computer at 5:05 yesterday afternoon and again at 5:30 this morning writing in fits and starts, my mind swimming with useless scholarly details, hoping that maybe, just maybe the Holy Spirit would overlook my lack of faith and show up to preach again this morning.
Jesus says, “Strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all of these things will be given to you as well.” Here is the crux of it all. The key to a life without worry, seek first the Kingdom of God. When we are striving after our own goals: career, children, money, addiction – whatever, we are a slave to something other than God; a slave to something that will bring only frustration and destruction. But when we seek first the Kingdom, when we long to bring God's love to the world, when we aren't worried about better food, drink and clothing because we are too busy sharing what food, drink and clothing have with those who don't have any, when we become slaves of God, our creator, the giver of every good gift, then we can come to know what it is to live the life God dreamed for us in the Garden of Eden. When we choose to be slaves of Christ we are set free to enjoy the abundant life that he promises to those who love him. Jesus meddled in my life this week. He showed me the folly of my worries. He asked me again to choose his way over any other. I want to be set free from worry, and I hope that you do too. So we pray again:
Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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