Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - February 27, 2011 (Matthew 6:24-34)

“Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’…or ‘What will we wear?’”

I hear that line in today's gospel lesson, and part of me now thinks, “Well, easy for Jesus to say.  He never had to dress two little princesses.”  Generally I’m not too concerned with what kind of clothing I put on my own body, but whenever Melinda puts me in charge of dressing our two daughters, Clare (4) and Laura (2 ½), you can almost see my blood pressure begin to rise.  A terrible sense of which flowery outfits go with what, coupled with a mild case of colorblindness and an overall cluelessness as to what their wardrobe options are all have the combined effect of causing me a great deal of anxiety every time it’s my turn to put clothes on their bodies.

When they were just infants, it didn’t much seem to matter what they wore.  I could just slap on any ole onesie and get away with it.  But now that they’re actually having to present themselves in public more often, my lackadaisical approach to apparel is not cutting the mustard.  How many times have I heard, for example, “Phillip, has Clare been wearing her dress backwards all day?” Or, “Phillip, did you realize that the way you did Laura’s ponytail makes her head look like the top of a pineapple?”  And then there was the time I apparently got so flustered with figuring out which pair of pants—excu-u-use me, I meant capris—went with which which appropriately-patterned top that I completely forgot to put on Laura’s diaper.  Melinda only realized it later when her lap got mysteriously wet.  I’ll be honest: It’s not like I’m losing any sleep over it, but I can stand there in front of their dresser and break into a sweat.  Yes, Jesus, I worry about what they are to wear…and something tells me this won’t be the last time this dad will face that anxiety.

And while I’m on the subject, I’ll throw in a confession for my worry about what I’m going to eat and drink, too.  I always like knowing where my next meal is coming from (just ask the Timothy Ministers who keep track of my snack schedules on youth retreats).  And if daily bread, like Martin Luther explains, means more than what we put on our dinner plates, then I worry a good bit about that, too.  I am concerned about clothing, house, homestead, good government, good weather, good friends, trustworthy neighbors, health, and everything else Luther lumps in there.  Like anyone else, I want to receive these things—in fact, I want to possess them—and am on edge when I think they may not be provided.

Who here, in fact,  hasn’t wished for something like the convenience of that giant green arrow on the Fidelity commercials on television—the one that magically appears, turning here, veering there, to form a clear, safe path into a customer’s retirement?  Isn’t that somehow what we’d all like to have, but for all of life: a clear, distinguishable guide that will point our footsteps down the sidewalk of the days ahead, assuring us not just of wise investments for the future, but peace of mind in the present?  If you think about it, it seems like whole sectors of our economy are based on the worry each of us harbors for tomorrow and for today.  Long-range planning, appropriately-balanced retirement portfolios, 529 accounts for the kids so they can step into adulthood on the right foot!  Couple that with our industriousness, and pretty soon it seems that the sowing and the reaping and the gathering is all we’re about.

And that is precisely the point that Jesus is addressing here.  We’re not all about those things—the sowing, reaping, gathering—nor were we ever intended to be.  Life as a disciple, to be sure, is about being continuously aware of God’s providence.  What we are to be about is focusing on the goodness of the Giver and realizing the needlessness of anxiety in the face of that goodness.

Yet this isn’t simply an admonition about the futility of worry.  It is about the dangers of serving two masters.  Jesus’ remarkably tender Sermon on the Mount pep-talk here is set in the context of his own concern that we would learn to place our trust in other things, things that actually may come from the Giver himself.  For Jesus knows that at some point our concern over life’s many material necessities can actually become worship of those necessities.  Jesus is aware that at some point our main role as receivers of God’s grace—even through basic things like food and drink and clothing and shelter—can be overshadowed by our status as consumers and producers of stuff. 

You may snicker at my bouts of worry when it comes to clothing my girls—after all, I do want them to look good—but we all, in some form or another, fall into the trap of serving two masters.  We like the security that all that daily bread provides, so why not nail it all down for the future if we can, especially in a time of such stubbornly high unemployment rates and skyrocketing gas prices?  The reason is because it eventually becomes difficult then for us to live as one of God’s disciples.  So focused on storing up treasure and fretting about the future, we never quite figure out how to balance allegiances between ideas of our own success and self-esteem and the life of faithful obedience to God.  The lilies of the field?  They’re never bothered by this competition between two objects of trust: they just sit there, oblivious to gas prices, praising God 24-7 with their delicate, ephemeral beauty.

Yet this gentle admonition from Jesus about wealth and worry is not permission for disciples to live with frivolity, as if none of that daily bread mattered at all, or that we shouldn’t devote some of our energies to thoughtful stewardship of God’s gifts.  Jesus never denies that each day won’t bring some type of trouble, some concern or grievance that could make it a challenge.  God knows we have needs.

Rather, Jesus words here are a reminder to live with God’s coming kingdom and its righteousness at the center of our vision.  As we look for the wisdom to live through each passing day, we realize the green Fidelity arrow of God’s kingdom stretches out before us—turning here, veering there—to provide us with the strength and courage to embody the love of our Savior, Jesus.  We stand in each moment, looking first to the places and times where God’s grace is breaking in...where the needs of others rise up before us, where suffering is taking place, where love begs for a chance to heal some wounds...and focus there.  It means we stand at the threshold of every opportunity for worry and anxiety and remember the cross; that is, we remember the supreme example of God’s good providing—that in the very moment when we thought all was lost, when the trouble of the day (not to mention the day after that) had consumed us and all our hope, we still had no idea what God the Good Giver was to have up his sleeve that Sunday morning.

You don’t have to be a pastor or some other caregiver in the parish too long to figure out that you hear a good bit of peoples’ bad news.  It can sometimes get a little overwhelming, walking with people in their grief, in their fears, in their dashed hopes.  However, it is also refreshing to serve alongside people like many of you who are likewise so confident of God’s grace, who may actually have plenty to worry about—you know who you are—but who still choose in most instances to praise God for his faithfulness and display commitment to God’s in-breaking kingdom.  It is inspiring to be in a community with so many folks who know we can make God’s kingdom and its righteousness our priority only because God has already, through the cross of Jesus Christ, made us his priority.

It reminds me of a meeting with one of my colleagues in Pittsburgh one day.  We were in a group, discussing plans for an upcoming confirmation camp, and we had just finished business and were wrapping things up.  As is the custom, we all reached for our daily planners in order to schedule our next meeting.  As my colleague’s daily planner flopped open to the new month we were then in, we watched him stop and pull a small, dog-eared and faded Post-It Note from the month before and stick it randomly in the middle of the calendar.  “Can’t forget that,” he said loudly to himself, and he took the side of his fist and pressed the Note firmly as if it were in danger of coming unstuck.

“Can’t forget what, Greg?” someone asked him out of curiosity. 

Somewhat bashfully, my colleague peeled off the Post-It Note and showed us all that it contained the words, “Love you, Dad,” in sloppy handwriting, followed by a simple smiley face.  “When she was home over Christmas break a few years ago,” Greg went on to explain, “my daughter saw my daily planner open on the kitchen table and she wrote this silly note and stuck it between two pages to surprise me.  It reminds me of her every time I see it.  She probably just figured I’d see it and then throw it away, but I like to keep it in here.  It’s become a kind of tradition: every time I turn the page to a new month, the first thing I do is take that sticky note from the old month and put it on the current month.  No matter what the month brings, that little note is there,” he said as he put it back.

 A cutesy little gesture, perhaps, but for me it symbolized a life grounded in grace rather than worry, a calendar centered on the words of Jesus to his stressed-out disciples: “Don’t worry about next month.  Don’t even worry about tomorrow. The smiley-face is on today.  That’s enough.  And strive first for the kingdom of God.”  Greg’s Post-It was a tangible reminder that each day is anchored in the good news of Jesus’ love, the reality that, as the prophet Isaiah says, God has us “inscribed on the palms of his hands.”

Mike, I can give you no pointers on how to dress Sarah Stuart.  You can do what I do and hand it all over to your wife, Leigh.  But both of you should take heart that today you’re clothing her in the only garment she’ll ever really need.  You’re clothing her in Christ, her Savior, who, you may say, has her name inscribed on the palm of his own hands.  With nails.  Worry about her welfare will never completely leave you alone, but today you’re fitting her with the promise that, even though you may not be there to provide for her every day, God yet will.

God yet will, and he will love her and will lay before her her own path, like a big green arrow stretching out before her—turning there, veering there at times, but always pointing straight to her Master in heaven.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No comments:

Post a Comment