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Monday, February 28, 2011

Sermon from February 27, 2011: Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, A

“On God’s Hands”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Text: Matthew 6:24-34; Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

There’s a beautiful moment in John’s Gospel as he tells the story of Jesus’ night of betrayal. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, and has given them the commandment to love, even as he tells them he is going away. Peter promises to stay with him always and is immediately told by Jesus that he will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows the next morning. But right away Jesus follows those hard words with these words to Peter, and the other disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1) He meets their anxiety and fear, even at their own failings foretold by their beloved Lord, with peace and assurance, and this exhortation: do not let your hearts be troubled.

I kind of feel that same word from Jesus today. These are such important words to hear today after weeks of hearing Jesus elevate what it means to live in covenant with God, hearing Jesus describe what righteousness looks like to God, hearing Jesus call those who would follow to seemingly impossible tasks. Now, on this Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, we hear this: “Do not worry.” Literally, “don’t be anxious.” “God will provide.” It’s a breath of grace which we’ve longed to hear.

And yet if we listen carefully, Jesus is calling us to let go of a deeper, more paralyzing anxiety than simply concern that we can’t live up to his ethical standards, his modeling of what it means to be human. He’s talking about who we trust for our lives, about First Commandment questions: which master do we serve, and can that master truly free us from anxiety and fear to live lives of joy and hope?

And goodness knows we have plenty of anxiety and fearfulness.

But sometimes it feels a little inappropriate to focus on our anxieties. Imagine how you’d hear Jesus’ words, or the words of our other readings, if you heard them this morning in your house in Tripoli, or in your refugee tent in any number of places in the world. Jesus says not to worry about what you will eat, what you will wear. God will provide. How do you hear that when you have no home? When you haven’t had a meal for days? When your children, your family, have been wiped out? When your own government is killing anyone and everyone who dares protest a hateful regime? In some ways it’s hard to hear today’s Gospel and not feel guilty – we have so much, why should we be anxious?

And there’s another problem: our contribution to the suffering of others. How do we deal with these verses knowing that often our standard of living and our wealth comes at the expense of others? And this relates to Jesus’ image, too – he uses birds as examples of those who are fed and cared for by God without being anxious. But even among the birds it’s not all light and peace: if, for example, you have a bluebird house, you’ve got to be vigilant because house sparrows will drive out bluebirds and destroy their nests to make their own homes. Even among the animals there are some who deprive others of God’s provision and care.

So not only do we hear these verses as people who have much less reason to be anxious than do others, we hear them as people who participate – knowingly and unknowingly – in depriving others of God’s provision.

But that doesn’t mean we have no fears. We, too, are all vulnerable in our own way. We have our own reasons for anxiety and fear. To begin with, we have anxiety over the plight of others – we do care that others are starving and homeless, in our own nation and around the world. We do care, deeply, when disaster strikes and destroys the lives of hundreds, or thousands, making them mourners and refugees. And we are deeply anxious about how we might make the world a better place, so that hunger and disease and war and poverty are no more, so that all might enjoy God’s provision for all people. We feel anxiety and fear, because the task seems so enormous, and it’s getting worse all the time.

And it is also true that we have anxiety in our own lives, issues of trust, for we, too, face the chaos and turmoil of an uncertain world. In our economy, many are one paycheck away from losing their homes, and live with the uncertainty of knowing if jobs will be secure. Rising prices, collapsed housing market, world terrorism – so many things lead us to anxiety.

We know, and sometimes fear, that we’re only a phone call away from hearing that someone we love has a terrible disease. Or that something bad has happened that could not be prevented. Just this past week, a 23 year old man whom I taught Catechism as a fourth grader, whom I confirmed, and who was a light and a grace in his world was killed in a random, senseless accident while he was cross-country skiing. And the sixteen year old driving the truck which killed him now has a completely different life to face. And as Mary and I heard, my anxiety over my children, especially the two girls who are not at home with us, was so high – how can we live in this world? How can we protect those whom we love?

We’re all vulnerable and often feel as if we’re just a step away ourselves from being in serious trouble.

So it’s good to hear Jesus’ words today: Don’t be anxious, trust in God.

And Isaiah and the psalmist tell us to think of God as our mother. Isaiah says it’s unfathomable that a nursing mother could forget her child, but that even if that unthinkable thing ever happened, the prophet says, God will never forget. In an almost unspeakably beautiful image, God says our names are inscribed on God’s hands, we belong to a God who will never forget us. Like a middle schooler who writes important information on her hands with a ball point pen, God writes our names on the palms of God’s hands. God’s love for us is that of a mother who will always be there for us.

And so the psalmist invites us to find peace and quietness in God’s care, like a child nursing at its mother’s breast. So often parents – mothers and fathers – will carry their youngest children in worship and they come to communion with the child sleeping in their arms. Often the child is still sleeping as they leave worship. On more than one occasion I’ve thought, wouldn’t it be great to be able to have someone carry you in their arms again and let you sleep? That’s what I want sometimes! What an image of trust and love. Of course, they’d need to be giant-sized to carry us, but still . . .

But that’s what the psalmist invites us to find today – that we can trust God and know that God is carrying us, close to the heart, as a mother carries her nursing child. And the nursing image is good, too – not only are we safe and secure, but we are fed and nourished in God’s love as well.
But this makes Jesus’ initial point this morning deeply critical: just who do we trust for our life, our good? He says we can’t serve two masters, God and wealth. We have to pick. He’s not saying that we shouldn’t get food or buy clothes or do the things we need to do to care for ourselves and our loved ones.

What he’s saying is we can’t trust ourselves to take care of things. We can’t trust our wealth. We can’t trust the world. Jesus is saying there’s literally nothing we can do to prevent harm coming to those we love, ultimately. There’s no material thing we can purchase or make which will ease our anxiety about all those things we are anxious about. There is no work we can do, no security we can achieve, no insurance we can buy which will make all things new, which will ease our fears.

So Jesus tells us that the sensible thing then is to stop trying to serve all these other gods. He invites us to put our trust in the only One who can really take care of us, the only One who knows us and still loves us, and the only One who has defeated even the power of death.

We are loved by the motherly love of God who will not ever forget us. We are loved by the fatherly love of God who will always provide what we need. And in that love, we find the joy of simply living in the present, in the now, like the birds and the flowers – living in the sheer joy of God’s love for us which forgives and renews us and which always will be ours.

And this love in which we live and trust – it’s not a home where we hide from the world.

It’s the home which nourishes us to go and be God’s love to others in their chaos. At the end of this section, Jesus invites us to seek God’s rule and reign, and God’s righteousness. Perhaps that’s really what the psalmist and Isaiah are leading toward as well. That we first learn to trust God, and rest in God’s motherly love and care. And then we go out to do God’s righteousness.
No, we can’t change the world in one day, eliminate all fear and anxiety in one day. But Jesus reminds us of this great freedom, that we don’t need to worry about tomorrow. Take today as today, and let tomorrow take care of itself. In that freedom we can seek to live God’s righteousness, as Jesus has been describing these past weeks, a righteousness which we both live and are given by the work of God’s Spirit.

Step by step, one piece at a time, we can be part of God’s provision for the children of the world instead of being the ones who prevent it. And our trust in God can free us, too, from anxiety that we can’t do enough, or can’t do it all. We are to be salt and light for the sake of the world, but we’re not called to do it all, for God’s provision and care is sufficient for all. All we’re called to do is to invite others into God’s motherly embrace, even while we find our refuge there. So don’t worry – you are written on the palms of God’s hands and will always have God’s love. Let that take away your anxiety and send you out to let others know it as well.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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