Sunday, May 25, 2008

Proper 3

Matthew 6
24“No one can serve two masters; 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.
25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

A small sample of this week’s headlines:

Food costs a major worry for consumers
Study: Worry increases men's heart attack odds
Cloud of worry gathers over wireless health risks
Should we worry about John McCain's temper?
Should we worry about soya in our food?
Space-Age Balls Worry Bowling Purists
Don't Worry, Mariah Has a Prenup
Gas prices cause worry, but habits change little
Gas prices worry Americans more than terrorism
And You Thought Oil Was A Worry

This might be the moment, then, to worry about the effectiveness of a sermon about worry. We call this pre-worry: worried that things won’t go well. You could argue, however, that this is just garden-variety worry, because the sermon has started, and there is little I can do now. Later, of course, I’ll worry how it went, creating the perfect storm of worry, a kind of worry-melange where past, present and future come together to really stress me out.


We may be the least receptive generation to the message ‘don’t worry.’ With a 24-hour news cycle, online coverage and a mitt full of communication tools, we have more information than anyone ever had before and therefore more cause to worry. It was reported this week that micro-bloggers broke the news about the recent earthquake first because they were blogging about it while it happened. You may ask why someone would continue typing rather than dive under the desk, but then you might be accused of being out of step with this modern age.

If we had the time, I might like to set up a little debate here, with the general question, “More cause to worry: Yes or No?” The historically minded among you could argue that our age has less to worry about than the past. Taking first-century Palestine as our point of comparison, we might be tempted to think that a small agrarian society produced less worries, the cycles of seedtime and harvest, the absence of clocks, the pleasant sameness of each passing day.

Then we would need to look closer. That small nick you received in the carpenter’s shop could get infected, and then usual outcome was death. Seasons of drought brought widespread hunger, some fell into debt, some ended up slaves. Palestine was a training ground for conquest, the place to begin any campaign for near-eastern dominance. Between debt, disease and death, and the constant threat of war, it may turn out that our day is almost worry-free by comparison.

Suddenly the message ‘don’t worry’ has new currency, profoundly counter-cultural words in a first-century world of worry. Place this beside our own sense that we are the champions of worry, and a good conversation is inevitable. Jesus’ meditation on worry fell on deeply skeptical ears, much in the same way we hear the words and allow for that little voice that enters our head:

Sure he can say don’t worry about what you will eat: he could feed the five thousand.
Sure he can say don’t worry about your body, but he could heal people and raise the dead.
Sure he can say don’t worry about what you will wear, but he was an itinerant preacher with a single article of clothing.
Sure he could preach against money, but he didn’t have a vineyard full of workers to pay or kids running off to the big city to spend half the family fortune.

The advice ‘don’t worry’ only makes sense, then, if we make the primary audience the disciples. The crowd was listening, but there is a single and conclusive clue that this was a message for the closet followers of Jesus and not the crowd: he said “ye of little faith.” This was the reprimand Jesus reserved for the disciples, his constant companions and twelve guys who seemed to frequently miss the point. It was an ongoing tutorial on the Kingdom of God, and these twelve were struggling to keep up. It’s also the companion to another set of instructions given to the disciples:

"Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. 10Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you…” (Mark 6)

Determining that the message of Matthew 6 was specific to the twelve may seem, then, to let us off the hook. A couple of minutes of biblical interpretation and ‘presto’ no more worries about worry. It was the Simon and Co. that needed to give up worry, and so we can now worry with abandon. Think of it as worry-free worry.

Not so fast. The whole point of recording the instructions to the twelve is so that we will follow them too: we who are the heirs to the disciples, the successors to the twelve that (with proper records) could trace our way back to the same “ye’s” who had so little faith. Whenever we see the word “disciple” we are meant to read ourselves into the text: going into the world to make disciples, messing up in Good Friday, and running to the tomb on Sunday.

So how do we translate the message “don’t worry” to our fellowship two-thousand years on? What worries can we shed as we imagine our life together and the state of the church? This may be harder than you think.

It would be an understatement to say we have entered an anxious age. The church is suffering decline by most measures, morale is low, clergy are in short supply, we are property rich and people poor, one-size-fits-all solutions abound, most in contradiction, and all of this is met with seaming indifference by the society that surrounds us. Do you agree?

I try to take heart, of course, and look for the little signs that point to a brighter future. Yesterday was the beginning of “Doors Open Toronto,” the opportunity to see inside 150 buildings in the city. There are the usual attractions like the Lower Bay subway station, and this year the addition of 50 or so places of worship, along the theme of “sacred spaces.” At first I was excited by the interest, then I had second thoughts. You see, back in my day you went to church in order to see inside a church. Now you can see 50 churches (and temples and mosques) in a weekend without the hassle of worshipping the maker of all.

Back in worry mode, we have spent two years and a bunch of money advertising and retooling, honing our welcoming skills and rethinking the way we approach newcomers. There are two issues:

The first issue is the assumption that we can open the hearts of people in the neighbourhood with a few well-placed ads and a hearty welcome. And the truth is we cannot. Yes, we can get our churches ready for newcomers, maybe make the bathrooms cleaner and the nursery prettier, but only God can open a heart to pray. Yes, we can prepare better brochures and blinking websites, but only God can open a heart to the wonder of God’s world. Yes, we can identify appropriate mission for this time and this place, but only God can open a heart to see suffering in the world God loves so much.

We must do all the technical welcoming things that Emerging Spirit has taught us, then we need to leave room for God to move through our streets and neighbourhoods and touch the hearts of those who need to hear the message we share. In other words, don’t worry.

The second issue is something we can worry about, mostly because I couldn’t leave you empty handed. Thank goodness, you will say over lunch, he gave us something to worry about.

Jesus gave advice, he gave instructions, and he gave commands. Again, the majority of his commands were directed at the twelve, and therefore we need to take them really seriously. The companion to ‘don’t worry” is found in John 15 (and plenty of other places): ‘Love one another.’ He was emphatic:

“This I command you, that you love one another.” This was a command given specifically to the twelve, who were given to squabbling, but also to each new disciple in turn down to today. And this, of course, means long-time disciple and disciple made yesterday, or a minute ago. We are called to welcome people and to love them as one of us. There is no probationary period, no cooling off time, only the command to love one another whatever the circumstances. This means overcoming conflict, abandoning pride-of-place, and defending whatever crazy ideas new people bring when they arrive.

‘Don’t worry’ and ‘love one another.’ Simple but hard. Both happen through the help of the Holy Spirit, and both are vital to the life of any congregation. May God bless you and this fellowship, today and always. May you reach out beyond these walls to share to love of God, the grace of Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home