Monday, February 28, 2011

Should We Take Jesus At His Word?

(This sermon, based on Matthew 6:24-34, was preached at Messiah Lutheran Church, Knoxville TN for the Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany. What is below has been edited slightly.)
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Whenever this portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount comes around, I find myself tempted to hum a little ditty. It goes a little something like this:
[sung]    Here’s a little song I wrote
 You might want to sing it note for note
 Don't worry be happy
Of course that’s from the 1988 song of the same name by Bobby McFerrin.

Or, some of you may find yourself drifting back even further, to something like this:
[sung]   Que sera sera
Whatever will be will be
The future's not ours to see
Que sera sera
That you’ll remember is from the 1956 song by Doris Day.

But, even at their best, I think those songs do not get to where Jesus intends in our gospel reading for today. His is no syrupy, sweet “Don’t worry; be happy.” In today’s passage, Jesus is plumbing the depths.

The farmer-poet Wendell Berry comes close to the depth to which Jesus descends. In his poem The Peace of Wild Things, Berry writes:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Berry seems to echo Jesus who points to the wild world around his disciples as signs of God, the father’s care and attention.

Jesus, who says:
26  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? 
27  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  
 28  And why do you worry about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they neither toil nor spin, 
29  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 
30  But 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? 
31  Therefore do not worry…” (Matt 6:19-34)

Jesus’ admonition to “not worry,” comes just minutes after telling his disciples to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matt. 5:48) and just a moment after teaching them about prayer. (Matt. 6:9-13) It’s within this context, as part of his sermon of the kingdom, that Jesus tells them, "don't worry". In fact, he repeats himself five times.
-       Don't worry about your life.
-       Worry won't get you anywhere.
-       Why worry about your food, drink, and clothing?
-       Stop worrying.
-       Don't worry about the future.

Even still…it’s hard to hear Jesus admonition, isn’t it? When you think of the history of the world, even the wild world of Wendell Berry’s wood drake and great heron, it’s hard to take Jesus…at his word. When you think of wars and terrorists, or earthquakes and tornadoes, or diseases and death…can Jesus really mean…do not worry? Should we take Jesus at his word?

When we hear from Jesus, what sounds like naïve, feel good words we have to remind ourselves who it is that is speaking. This is not some guy speaking from some ivory tower. This is the guy who was born to a poor unwed mother. This is the guy whose family had to flee with him to Egypt for fear he would be hunted down and killed. This is the guy who was born under the oppressive and violent empire of Rome. This is the guy who is heading to Jerusalem, and to the cross that awaits him there. This one will know pain and suffering, death and the grave.

Jesus shares this word on worry having been schooled in the history of his people, the Hebrew people. He knows what they’ve been through. As he’s advising his disciples not to worry, he may very well be remembering the word of prophets like Isaiah, who we heard from early today. Jesus may be remembering today’s first reading even. He may be remembering that it was written in the midst of exile. That years and years after being drug off into slavery in some pagan land, with no reason whatsoever to hope, his people heard this word from the prophet Isaiah:
8  Thus says the Lord…
     to the prisoners, "Come out,"
to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves."
They shall feed along the ways,
on all the bare heights  shall be their pasture; 
10  they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them. 
11  And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
and my highways shall be raised up. 
13  Sing for joy, O heavens,
and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing! (Isaiah 49:8-11, 13) 

Jesus knows this word. And, Jesus knows his people’s history. And he remembers that in the midst of that reality, the reality of their difficult world Isaiah proclaimed a word of hope and trust. To his disciples then, even in the midst of their difficult lives, and knowing what difficulties lie ahead, Jesus gives them a new word: 
-       Don't worry about your life.
-       Worry won't get you anywhere.
-       Stop worrying.

He’s not meaning to sound trite or shallow at all. He’s very serious. And yes, he wants them to take him at his word. Jesus believes so strongly, and trusts so completely in the Father, and in his care and attention, he can’t help but say…do not worry. He can’t help it because his trust and hope, they are born of experience with the Father, a life lived trusting in God’s word and in God’s promises.

Mumford & Sons is an indie band whose music plumbs the depths of human experience. Theirs is no syrupy, sweet pop tune. They write and sing, it seems to me, from lives lived in the reality of the suffering of this world.  Yet, they also strike me as ones who hold on to hope, who trust in something or someone greater.

In their song “The Cave” I think they come closer to where Jesus is, certainly closer than Bobbie McFerrin and Doris Day.
           
It's empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you've left behind

But I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again

Cause I have other things to fill my time
You take what is yours and I'll take mine
Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind

So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears

Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it's meant to be

And I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again

“Let me at the truth which will refresh my broken mind. And, I’ll know my name as it’s called again.”

Here’s the word of truth, as I understand it. We all know that this life is difficult. We’ve seen it, touched it, tasted it. We’ve known its pain and its disappointment. We’ve experienced its suffering and pain. Yet it is into this very life, that God has chosen to come. To live life to its fullest, in its joy and in its difficulty, even unto it’s death. God has chosen to be in solidarity with us, to suffer with us in the flesh, incarnate in Jesus. And with us in the flesh, God calls us, gives us a new name and a real purpose, a real calling. He has named us Child of God and Body of Christ. And he has given us as gifts to one another. So that none of us need travel this difficult life alone. We have each other, God’s promises and hope to hold on to.

Therefore Jesus can say, with all depth of being, a word that we can count on.   God the Father cares and is attentive to you. You are more valuable than anything else God has created. Do not worry. Hold on hope. Rest in his grace, in the grace of God’s world, in the hope of God’s promises, and in the strong sense of your name and your calling. Hold on hope. You can take Jesus at his word…
In Jesus’ name. Amen. 
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