This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville. The text is Matthew 6:24-34.
When I first went to seminary in 2003, I had no intention of pursuing ordained ministry as a career. I thought I was going to teach college. But I very quickly discovered that the academic world is quite cutthroat. Success didn’t just come from studying hard and doing your best; you had to make connections. You had to stand out in class so that the right professors took notice of you. You needed those professors to write you a good recommendation for the right PhD program, so you could get a good job with tenure at a university. It was really competitive! In order to be the best, you had to beat the best.
So, I went in with both guns blazing. I was determined to out-smart all my classmates. I thought I would make my professors notice me, no matter what it took. If I had to make other people look stupid in order to prove what a genius I was, I would do it.
This plan of mine didn’t work out as well as I thought it would. In fact, it failed on multiple levels. First of all, it turns out that I wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. In every class, there was always somebody smarter or quicker on the draw than I was. For crying out loud, some of my fellow students had already started writing their own books! I found out pretty quickly that if you try to portray yourself as better than everyone else when you’re not, you just end up looking ridiculous.
That leads me to the second way in which my so-called “genius” plan failed: After a while, I realized that I didn’t particularly like the kind of person I was becoming. I spent a lot of time being bitter and angry. As I look back, I can see that a lot of my troubles came from a particular fear that I held onto without even realizing it: I was afraid that I was on my own, treading water in a sea of chaos. I was afraid that the success of my future depended solely on my ability to make it happen.
When I look around at people in our society, I can see that this fear is a pretty common one. People everywhere are afraid. We’re afraid that there’s no master plan in life. We’re afraid that there’s nothing holding this universe together. We’re afraid that we’re all alone out here.
We will often do desperate things in order to keep this fear at bay. We invest in products and programs that are supposed to make us prettier, happier, and healthier. We pledge allegiance to organizations and ideologies that promise peace and prosperity. The peddlers of commercial advertising and political propaganda stand ready to prey on our fears.
For our part, we the people stand ready to make sacrifices to these idols (although we would call them “compromises”). In moments of desperation, many of us will do despicable things that we later regret (but dismiss as “unavoidable”). In Spanish, we would be called “Desperados”. We are not all that different from the ancient Israelites, who sacrificed animals and humans to idols of stone in exchange for good weather and plentiful crops. The real tragedy is that, despite our sacrifices, these objects of worship are totally unable to deliver on their promises. Our quantity and quality of life remain unimproved. It’s just like Jesus said in verse 27, “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” In the throes of my own fear, I bowed down before the false gods of ambition and competition. I believed their promises of a secure future. But in the end, those cut-throat tactics left me no closer to my dream job.
This slavery to fear is nothing new. People have struggled with it in every culture around the world for centuries. Jesus even noticed it in his own followers. He could tell they were stuck somewhere between faith and fear. The Greek word he used to describe that feeling is merimna, which literally means, “to be pulled in two directions”. Don’t we all feel that way sometimes? The voice of faith leads us in one direction while voices of fear jerk us back the other way.
We live in a world that is inherently opposed to real faith. Real faith looks ridiculous to a fear-driven world. Just look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted”. The world writes these people off as naïve idealists, but Jesus calls them blessed. You and I live somewhere between the world and Jesus. We try to follow his leading, but we inevitably get “pulled in two directions”. This is what Jesus meant in verse 24 when he talked about those who try to “serve two masters”. That kind of tension is unsustainable in the long-term. Eventually, our souls will snap and we’ll end up on one side or the other.
As I said before, the cause of this tension is our fear. Jesus understands this. That’s why he’s not shouting at us like a drill sergeant, telling us to buck up and try harder. Instead, Jesus takes a very gentle approach and addresses the problem at its root.
We’re all sitting here, scared to death that we’re on our own in life and surrounded by chaos. But Jesus interrupts our panic and invites us into a different way of looking at things. He prescribes a kind of meditation exercise for his followers. Specifically, Jesus invites them to meditate on creation. We already know that Jesus was preaching this sermon outdoors on a hillside, so he may have even had specific examples close at hand. In this exercise, Jesus directs our attention to the flora and fauna of the world around us. It says “Consider” in verse 28, but the Greek word is an intensified form of the word “to learn” or “receive instruction”. Jesus says, in effect, “Let the birds and the flowers become your teachers.” Have you ever tried to do this? If you have, then you know that in order to get a good, long look at something like a bird, you have to be very still and very quiet for long periods of time. Doing this when you’re outside can have a wonderful calming effect on the mind. Even if it doesn’t make your problems go away, it really helps to clear the head! The scene reminds me of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”
Just what is it that the birds and the flowers are supposed to teach us?
Look 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? …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?
The birds and the flowers teach us that we live in a world of order, not chaos. They teach us that we are surrounded, not by scarcity, but by abundance of life. The good news that Jesus wants to teach us through creation is that we are not alone in this world. We’re not our here on our own! No, the universe is permeated by a Love that will not let us go.
You are not on your own. It’s not up to you to fight back the darkness and the chaos. Wherever you are this morning, whatever you’re going through, there is a God who loves you. And, as it says in Jeremiah 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” It’s not up to you to do it. It’s up to God.
The end result of this meditation exercise is that we should let go of our fear, even if it’s just a little bit at a time. Three times in this passage, at verses 25, 31, and 34, Jesus tells us, “do not worry.” We should strive to just be in the moment, “Today” as Jesus calls it in verse 34, and be grateful for God’s abundant blessings in our lives. Jesus says in verse 33 that we should “strive first for the kingdom of God” and, if you remember from several weeks ago, where is the kingdom? It’s “at hand”! It’s right in front of us and all around us. God’s kingdom is the place where God is present and in-charge. That can be anywhere at anytime.
You might be thinking, “All of this is great for reducing stress and increasing relaxation, but what about my very real problems? Can I really depend on some invisible God to have a plan for my life?” Well yes, you can bet that God does have a plan. I can’t tell you the exact details of God’s plan for your life, but I can tell you a little about what’s happened in mine so far:
As I said before, I really didn’t like kind of person I was becoming during my first year of grad school. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that an academic career was not for me. I didn’t yet know what I would do instead, but I continued to press on toward the completion of my degree. Over the next several years, I began to realize that God was calling me to ordained ministry, first as a volunteer chaplain for homeless people. Later, much to my surprise, the academic world came looking for me, hat in hand! I was offered a job as a professor without a PhD or letters of recommendation. I didn’t make it happen with my cunning and wits, God made it happen in God’s time. Later still, a small congregation in an unfamiliar village called Boonville would invite me to become their pastor.
I never imagined that the puzzle pieces of my life would come together in such a complex and subtle way. I can’t take credit for it. This reality is far beyond anything that I could have planned for myself. That’s my story. The details of yours will be different.
This morning, I want to extend Jesus’ invitation to you. Let creation be your teacher as you listen for the voice of faith in your life. In the hard times, the voice of faith gives you strength. That’s the voice inside of you that says, “You’re not alone. You’re going to make it through this.” In the good times, the voice of faith gives you wisdom. That’s the voice inside of you that says, “Nothing in this world lasts forever. Use these gifts while you can to help those around you who are in need and to make this world a better place.”
Listening to the voice of faith rather than the voice of fear gives you the peace to live as a spiritually-centered person in the midst of this hostile world. The voice of faith gives you the power to be truly present in this moment and give thanks for the abundance of blessing that has been poured out over your life.