Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sermon for Epiphany 6A

Sermon as prepared for delivery at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ithaca, New York on March 20, 2011 

Text: Matthew 6:24-34, Inclusive Bible

No one can serve two superiors. You will either hate one and love the other, or be attentive to one and despise the other. You cannot give yourself to God and Money. That’s why I tell you not to worry about your livelihood, what you are to eat or drink or use for clothing. Isn’t life more than just food? Isn’t the body more than just clothes?

Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet our God in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they? Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan? And why be anxious about clothing? Learn a lesson from the way the wildflowers grow. They don’t work; they don’t spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in full splendor was arrayed like one of these. If God can clothe in such splendor the grasses of the field, which bloom today and are thrown on the fire tomorrow, won’t God do so much more for you—you who have so little faith?

Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, “What are we to eat,” or “what are we to drink,” or “what are we to wear?” Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.


Will you join me in prayer? O God, we come to you as children, with quiet hearts, seeking comfort at your breast. Enfold us in your mothering arms and fill us with your peace. And may my words and our meditations bring you joy. Amen.
          I first welcomed our dog, Sadie, into my life when she was about 10 weeks old. A friend of mine found her, sitting on the curb at a gas station, looking like she really wanted someone to take her home and take care of her. She was malnourished and flea-ridden but also cuddly and sweet, and when I saw her picture on Facebook, I couldn’t say no, and she quickly became one of the family. Many of you will meet Sadie, and when you do, you should know that she is very anxious around new people and situations. Whether it’s because she was abandoned or because of her genes or some combination of things, all I know is that she is inherently distrustful of people she doesn’t know, and you have to be patient with her in order to gain her trust and affection.
          Now, I know people are not dogs and dogs are not children, but many of us know the kind of bond that can develop between human and dog. Because I have worked hard to establish a strong bond with her, Sadie looks to me when she is nervous or anxious. Like a little child going to hide between its mother’s skirts, Sadie sometimes tries to wedge herself between my legs, where she feels protected.
          When Sadie is anxious like this, my heart goes out to her and I want to coddle her. When she was younger, it was difficult to take her to places like the pet store, because she would tuck her tail and cower and dart around at the smallest provocation, or she would stand in a corner and growl and bark at every person who passed by. Watching her, I thought, this is no way to live, running around afraid of everything! So I sought training so that I could be a better parent for her.  I learned that giving her positive attention in her anxiety will only encourage her to remain in a fearful state. What she needs is not for me to fuss over her but rather to help her redirect her focus. The dog trainer had me take her to public places and to have her sit and make eye contact with me. Every time Sadie made eye contact, she got a treat, and she had to build up to holding eye contact with me for longer periods of time. Even though there were people walking by and all kinds of frightening things happening around us, when Sadie’s focus was on me, she could remain calm and at peace.
          In this passage in Matthew, I imagine Jesus looking out at his disciples – we know he is addressing them and not necessarily the entire crowd, because he uses the phrase, “You of little faith.” I imagine him seeing them and feeling a father’s love and protective instincts, wanting, on the one hand, to gather them up and hold and comfort them, and knowing, on the other hand, that what they needed most was to redirect their focus.
          And Jesus’ words really hit home for me. I want to react and say, what do you mean, stop worrying? Do you see what this world is like, and what’s going on all around me? There is a crazy and violent dictator killing people in Libya. There are homeless people walking around on Ithaca Commons. There are people without clean water. Our elected leaders at every level are making cuts to needed services in the interest of saving money. And Jesus responds with, don’t worry?
          When I was in 5th grade, one of the top hits was, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin. You probably know it well: Here’s a little song I wrote… and then the part of the song that makes me a little mad…
Ain't got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
Don't worry, be happy
The landlord say your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don't worry, be happy
          At first glance it feels like Jesus’ message is the same as McFerrin’s – hey, don’t worry, just be happy. When you worry, you frown, and that brings everybody down. So just be happy! But that seems rather shallow to me.
          I did a little research on this song and found that it was inspired by words from Indian mystic and sage Meher Baba. The full quote reads, "Do your best. Then, don’t worry; be happy in My love. I will help you." So, rather than a flippant response to troubles that abdicates responsibility, Meher Baba offers a challenge to trust in God’s love.
          When we read this passage, it’s tempting to see it as a release from responsibility for the challenges in our world. Mike Beard, a Republican state representative from Minnesota, recently argued that coal mining should resume in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, in part because he believes God has created an earth that will provide unlimited natural resources. "God is not capricious. He's given us a creation that is dynamically stable," Beard told the Minnesota Post. "We are not going to run out of anything." It may seem like Beard is taking Jesus’ message to not worry to heart, but he actually misses the whole point.
          Jesus’ words in Matthew are not an easy or flippant “don’t worry, be happy,” but a challenge to radically reorient our lives. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice. The ultimate challenge here is not to brush off all responsibility and go about life in a carefree, who cares manner, but rather to seek God’s face and let our lives be guided by right relationship with God.
          Like Sadie learning to look to me when she feels afraid and take her cues from me, we have to train ourselves to refocus on God. And in this passage, I think Jesus gives us some clues about how to do that. Jesus reminds the disciples to look around them…look up at the birds of the air, flying overhead. Look down at your feet, at the wildflowers. See how beautiful they are! Just look around you, at all the ways God provides.
          Look at this community, at each other’s faces. Look at all the ways God caring for this church. Look at the youth, many of whom are getting ready to take to the skies to travel to Back Bay Mission to serve others. And our outreach and endowment committees, who work to support clean water projects. And our leadership event tomorrow night, where we will have the opportunity to take a look around us and see God’s continued care and focus on God’s vision for our community.
          Reorienting our lives toward God’s purposes does not mean that we never think about money, or that we should become nudists or stop enjoying food – it means that we seek first to be in right relationship with God, through one another. It’s much easier said than done…but just as I have to continually remind Sadie to look to me for security and guidance, we can help each other. Let us move into 2011 with renewed trust and faith that God goes before us! Amen.

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