Friday, February 15, 2019

“Prayer, Fasting, Money, Worry” - February 3, 2019

Text: Matthew 6:7-34


I don’t know if you noticed, but we had a very long scripture reading this morning.  We will be in the gospel of Matthew through Easter, and in the coming weeks we will read a good portion of Matthew.  But since we have a long passage this morning, since this is a lot to cover, I thought I would give you all the option on where to focus the sermon.  What in this reading do you find the most engaging?  What would you like to hear about?  The choices are:

  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • Not making a show of fasting
  • You can’t serve God and money
  • Do not worry
Ok, the winner is: worry!  (Worry actually crushed the other options!)  If you voted for worry, you can come to the Super Bowl Party tonight and celebrate!

Now you may be impressed that I put together four different sermons this week, to cover the various possibilities.  Pretty good, huh?  I guess it’s just a good thing it wasn’t a tie and you would get two sermons, right?

I was wrestling a bit with what angle to take, what to focus on in this rather long passage of scripture.  So I went through this same exercise myself and decided to let you all make that choice.  Now I have to admit that my first plan was to guess which section would win and just go with that and hope for the best.  But as I explored this passage, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount - teaching to his followers - I was struck by how much these teachings were all a part of one piece – how connected this all was.  So regardless of how you voted, I can truly say, we will be looking at that part of the text today – at least to some extent.

It’s kind of like an orange: there may be various sections, but it’s still the same orange.  That’s a cop-out maybe, and you may feel like this was a bait and switch, but I do actually have 4 different sermons here.  They are pretty similar, but there are four sermons.  And as a bonus, there will be a bonus joke on the winning choice, in this case worry. (I’m not saying it’s a good joke, I mean I can only do so much, but there is that.)

Now – with that out of the way - The Sermon on the Mount takes up three chapters – Matthew 5-7.  If you have a red letter edition, with the words of Jesus in red, you will notice that other than an introductory sentence and a closing sentence, those three chapters are entirely in red.

Jesus had been talking about not practicing your piety before others, so that they would see how good you are.  He returns to that theme when he talks about fasting in the scripture we read.  He warns of praying in order to impress others, and then says, don’t pray like the Gentiles.  Don’t pray like the Gentiles.  This always seemed kind of curious to me.  Usually, it’s don’t be like the scribes and Pharisees.  Don’t be like the self-righteous religious leaders.  But here it’s “don’t be like the Gentiles.”

Well in the first place, this tells us that the Gentiles – those who were known by Jesus’ followers but were not Jews – were people who prayed.  The Jewish people did not have a monopoly on prayer.   But unlike the way that some prayed, Jesus said that you don’t have to use a lot of words or impressive phrasing – just pray like this.  And he gives what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  Although this is a fine prayer for use in worship, the point is not that you have to use these exact words when you pray.  It is more of a model prayer for us, an example of what prayer is about.

And I think a key is found in the very first verse, in fact in the first two words.  “Our Father.”  The point is not about gender.  It is about relationship.  It is about intimacy.  Those who prayed to gods and followed other religions in the Greco-Roman world would not have dreamed of having such a close and intimate relationship with God that you would address God as Father – and Abba could even be translated as “Daddy.”  This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Don’t pray like the Gentiles.” 

The prayer is simple; it is direct.  It includes praise, a statement of dependence, and an acknowledgement that this is God’s world.  We pray for God’s will to be done.  There is an acknowledgment that all is not right with the world, and we pray forgiveness for our part in that and discernment in how to live into God’s kingdom.  It is a deeply personal and relational prayer.  This is what made the prayer different.

Connected to prayer is Jesus’ teaching about fasting.  Now, fasting is not a big part of our tradition.  For many of us, the best we do when it comes to fasting is to give up something during the season of Lent.  But fasting is a way to learn and deepen our dependence on God.  In Jesus’ time it was commonly observed as a spiritual discipline.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at Jesus’ temptation.  One temptation was to turn stones into bread, and quoting from Deuteronomy, Jesus told the devil, “We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” 

Jesus says that when you fast, don’t put on a big show about it.  Don’t look pitiful and tell everybody that you are suffering for Jesus.  Because you are not doing it for others.  You are doing it for the sake of your relationship with God.  The audience is not other people, it is God.  And “audience” is not the right word, really - the idea is a deepened connection to God and dependence on God.

Jesus goes on to say, you can’t serve two masters.  You can’t serve God and wealth.  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.

At first it seems like this is backwards.  It seems like it should be, “Where your heart is, that is where you will put your treasure.”  If we care about something, we will invest in it.  Well, that may be true, but that is not what Jesus is saying here.  He is saying that where your treasure is, there your heart will be.

Have you ever bought a new car – or a new used car? You buy a Hyundai Elantra and suddenly you see Hyundai Elantras everywhere.  Our loyalty follows our money.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.  When we give to the poor, we notice the poor.  When we give to the needy, we notice the needy.  When we invest in the things of God, we notice the things of God.  You can’t have two masters, Jesus says.  Something is going to claim our ultimate loyalty.  As Bob Dylan sang in that period when he was making Christian music, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

We act like we can separate our financial life from our spiritual life, but the fact is we only have one life.  What we do with what we have has spiritual implications.  What we do with our money is connected to and actually influences the deepest yearnings of our heart.

All of this leads into our winning topic of the morning: worry.  Yay, worry!  I had thought that worry would probably win, although I was a little surprised by the margin of victory.  But the reason I thought that this might be the most engaging topic for the most people is that we all struggle with worry.  This is a universal concern.  Worry comes pretty naturally to most of us, and let’s face it: we have had a lot of practice. 

There is a cartoon that shows a guy sitting up in bed, scribbling on a note pad while he talks on the phone.  He says, “When I have trouble sleeping at night, I find it’s sometimes helpful to jot down my anxieties.”  Then you notice the walls of his bedroom and they are just plastered with sticky notes listing all kinds of anxieties - war, the stock market, killer bees, measles, hair loss, on and on.

If we were to make a list, we could probably take most of the morning jotting down reasons for worry.  Just among my circle of family and friends and acquaintances, I can count unemployment, struggling children, aging parents in poor health, serious illness, divorce, mental illness, student loans, maddening neighbors, workplace problems, financial problems, difficult professors, roommate problems.  We worry about what other people may think.  We could add to our list items those big national and world issues that weigh heavily on our minds. 

And you know, it’s not just individuals.  Churches worry.  A lot of churches look at the demographics, look at the saints who are providing a lot of the financial support and leadership, and wonder what kind of shape they will be in a few years down the road. 
   
That reminds me of the message seen on a church sign.  It says, “Don’t let worry kill you- let the church help!”  (In case you didn’t notice, that was your bonus joke.)

We’ve all got reasons for worry, and most of us are pretty good at it.  But Jesus comes along and says, “Do not worry about your life.”  Jesus’ familiar words strike a chord deep within 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, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you… Therefore do not worry... But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Jesus is speaking of a different way of living, a way of living that we long for.  We are not meant to live surrounded by worry and anxiety; we are meant to live with the certainty of God’s care and provision.

Jesus says, “God gave us life, so surely we can trust God for the smaller things.  God cares for the birds and plants and flowers, so surely God cares for us that much more.

Don’t fret about the past or obsess about the future over which you have no control.  God knows your needs and God cares for you.  Learn to trust in God.  Learn to live in the present moment.”

Jesus says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  Worry is misplaced energy.  It is unproductive.  It can be debilitating.  We can become paralyzed with worry and fear.  Most of the things we worry about are things over which we have absolutely no control. 

All of our worrying does no good, and our worrying can do us harm.  Worrying takes our time, it takes our energy, it keeps us from thankfulness, it robs us of joy.  John Powell said that worry is “a mild form of atheism.”

Now I want to circle back to where we started.  At the most basic level, Jesus’ teaching - about prayer, about fasting, about money, about worry – it is all connected.  It is about dependence and trust and relationship with God.  Worry and prayer are connected – Paul wrote, “Don’t worry about anything but pray about everything.” 

We can fill our lives with worry, we can fill our lives with seeking after money, we can fill our lives with impressing others – or we can fill our lives with trust and dependence on God and live in relationship with God and others. 

Living in relationship with God and trust in God does not mean we will be problem-free or worry free.  That is just part of being human.  But it means that we are connected to the source of hope and power and grace and joy that we need.

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century English mystic.  She lived during the Black Death that killed 75 million people in medieval Europe.  I mean, you talk about reason for worry.  Many interpreted the plague as divine punishment, but not Julian.  She believed that God loved every person and that God would redeem every tear.

In her book of visions called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, the first book published in the English language written by a woman, Julian wrote one of the best-known sentences in all of Christian history that is also the perfect antidote to worry.
          
Julian concluded that she was wrong to worry about the sins and sorrows of life.  Jesus told her that these trials and tribulations were simply a part of our human story.  And she said that in God’s love and providence, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

And it will.  “Don’t worry about anything but pray about everything.”  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Amen.
 

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