February 27, 2011

Isaiah 49:8-16a
Psalm 131
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

This morning’s Gospel text came from a portion of what is known as Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” We might imagine Jesus… sitting on the top of a hill with a crowd of listeners gathered around as he delivered the greatest sermon of all time. That’s what it looks like in the movies of Jesus’ life and ministry. But what we actually have in Matthew’s Gospel is a beautiful compilation of sayings and teachings from Jesus. Chances are that he didn’t put them all together into one sermon, but the editor of the Gospel did that in order to tell the story.

But I imagine that Jesus’ words in the “Sermon on the Mount” are probably the things that Jesus said over and over throughout his ministry. They’re the words of wisdom that he shared with his disciples along the road. They’re the teachings that he focussed on whenever a crowd was gathered to listen to him. They’re Jesus’ “twelve keys” to being a faithful follower of God. That’s why these sayings got remembered, and passed on, and written down, and compiled into one beautiful, wonderful sermon from Jesus.

And while much of the “Sermon on the Mount” was probably preached and taught in public – to the crowds of people that gathered so often to learn from the great Teacher, I imagine that today’s sayings were especially for Jesus’ inner circle of followers. It’s not that “don’t worry” and “strive first for God’s kingdom” are not good advice for almost anyone in life… but it seems to me that these instructions are especially directed at Jesus’ own disciples.

Remember, the disciples are the ones who dropped their nets, left their families behind, and went out on the road with an itinerant preacher. They were the ones who made a choice between the relative security of their lives and livelihoods, and the uncertainty of joining up with Jesus’ group and going out on the road. And so when Jesus said to them, “do not 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 his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well…” I can only imagine that it was a reminder.

Nobody would have gotten into following Jesus if they were too concerned about their own comfort and security. But when things started to get tough… when food was scarce, when clothing was getting worn, when the nights were cold and there was nowhere to sleep… that’s when Jesus needed to encourage his friends. He needed to encourage them to trust God and to focus on their mission. God was with them, and God would help them through.

I don’t know about you… but worrying is a feeling with which I’m quite familiar. When I’m worried, I feel it in my stomach. Sometimes I can’t tell whether I’m hungry, or I’m sick, or just worried. My stomach feels queasy, and then it begins to hurt, and I can’t get my mind to focus on anything else… anything other than the problem or concern that has me worried.

The worst seems to be when I feel like I have no control over the situation. A more humorous example is from our trip to Scotland last summer. At one point, we were driving through a hilly region of the country on our way back to the coast to visit St. Andrews. We were in a rental car. Nick was driving, sitting on the right of course, and I was the passenger on the left. The hills started off okay, and the scenery was breathtaking. But then the road narrowed, and narrowed, and the twists and turns got sharper and sharper, and the ups and downs were such that we couldn’t see the oncoming traffic (or the occasional sheep or goat on the road) until it was right in front of us. Not to mention that the road was often right on the edge of a cliff, with the drop off just a few feet from my side of the car.

And I could do nothing but worry. My stomach tensed up. My whole body tensed up.  But I had no control… except the occasional encouragement to Nick to feel free to slow down! My worrying did nothing to help the situation. It just made me feel awful, and made me miss a lot of the amazing views. That worry disappeared, of course, when we got back to flat road and away from the cliffs. And after a brief little worry about whether we would find a place to stay in St. Andrews, I could put those worries behind me and enjoy the beauty and the history of the university town on the East Coast of Scotland.

We all know what it feels like to be worried. It’s a natural reaction to danger or insecurity to start to feel worried, and it’s the kind of feeling that is meant to prompt us to do something about the situation. It’s self-preservation to get off the dangerous road, to search for a safe place to sleep, to find a way to get food and water when we need it. But it’s when worrying starts to get in the way of taking reasonable risks and doing things that are important… that’s when worrying becomes a big problem.

When worry about being accepted by her peers stops a child from going to camp… When worry about whether there will be enough food for dinner, affects a teenager’s concentration at school… When worry about finding a new job or career in which you can feel fulfilled keeps you in a dead-end job that you hate going to every day… When worry about what others might think of you, stops you from opening up and building relationships with other people…

Basic to our lives is the sense that the world is either trustworthy or dangerous. Psychologists tell us that this sense of trust or mistrust is set in infancy by early experiences of having our needs for food, comfort, and love either met or ignored. But we continue to shape and reshape our trust or mistrust of the world throughout childhood and adulthood.

An early positive experience at camp can teach a child that camp is a great place to be. And even if something difficult happens later, that child does not have to write the place off. They can trust that things will get better, as they have in the past. But an experience of betrayal in a relationship can affect even an adult’s ability to trust again. When we let ourselves be vulnerable with the people we love and we get hurt by them, it takes time to heal. And it takes courage to take the risk again… to trust someone enough to open ourselves to them.

Today’s scripture texts each contribute to the process of growing our trust by insisting that we can trust… we can take risks and we can live full lives… because God is in control.

The prophet Isaiah speaks words of comfort and hope to the People of Israel in exile. Despite the challenges that they have experienced… despite the bad things that have happened to them… the prophet encourages them to know and remember that God has not forgotten them… God has not abandoned them. Just as a nursing mother could not forget her child… just as a pregnant woman could not forget the little one inside her… God has not forgotten God’s People in exile. In fact, the prophet says that even if a mother could forget under some very unusual circumstances, God will not forget them because God has inscribed them on the palms of God’s hands.

The psalmist also writes about trusting God. Sometimes there are going to be things that are beyond our control. Sometimes there are going to be problems that we can’t solve… things that threaten to distract us from our purpose by causing us to worry and worry and worry. But somehow the psalmist has chosen not to become overwhelmed by things that he can’t control. He says, “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a young child with its mother.” In spite of the troubles and challenges of life, the psalmist has chosen to trust in God, to rest in God, and to find comfort in God, like a child who is at peace in the protection of his mother’s arms. And he invites Israel to do the same, to “hope in the Lord from this time on and for evermore.”

Trusting in God doesn’t guarantee that things will start to go well for us, but it may give us the courage not to retreat from the challenges of life, but to face them, to live full lives, and even to overcome some of the things that once worried us.

I think of the apostle Paul’s words in our reading from 1 Corinthians today, and I believe what was happening was that some of the Corinthians were questioning Paul’s leadership and judging his behaviour or perhaps his ideas. Those of us who worry about what other people think about us can easily imagine how difficult this must have been for Paul as a leader.

But trusting in God, Paul responds to the people who have challenged him. He says, “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”

Paul has figured out that striving to gain the approval of anyone or everyone is a waste of time. He has decided to accept the fact that he will not always be popular as a church leader. In fact, later in chapter four Paul talks about the reality that as apostles, he and his colleagues will not receive honour, but disrepute. He writes: “To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.”

Imagine the faith required to put up with all of that, to endure that kind of rejection by other people, and not to get overwhelmed by worry. But Paul knows that the only person’s judgment that matters is God’s judgment. The only person’s opinion that counts is God’s opinion. And Paul will not allow worrying about what people think of him to distract him from his mission of preaching the Good News about Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel text, Jesus declares that no one can serve two masters. We cannot serve God and wealth. We cannot serve God and comfort. We cannot serve God and popularity. At some point, we need to set those other things aside and to stop worrying about them. And it seems to me that the best way to do that is to focus on the one master that we do want to serve. We need to strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and we need to trust God that everything else that we truly need will be given to us as well.

Within a matter of a few years at most, Jesus’ disciples would move from worrying about food and clothing and lodging, to worrying about getting accused of blasphemy, being arrested, and executed. And although they may have started to learn how to trust God when it came to the provision of their daily needs, when the risks involved in following Jesus became too great, most of them became too worried and too scared to stand up with him in the face of danger.

But Jesus was not too worried. Jesus was not too scared. Jesus obviously felt the pain and anguish of what was going to happen to him, but he decided not to worry about his life and to strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.

And indeed, all these things… all the things he truly needed were given to him. Because though he died, God raised him again to new life. And by his life, by his death, and by his resurrection, we also are given the gift of everlasting life where there is no more sorrow, no more crying, and no more worrying.

Let’s not wait until we die to experience that freedom and joy. Let’s trust God now and stop worrying now. Let’s strive together for the kingdom now, and may God’s kingdom come. Amen.