Posted by: smstrouse | November 19, 2018

Don’t Worry? A Sermon for Thanksgiving

shutterstock_496324180Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. You will either hate one and love the other, or be attentive to one and despise the other. You cannot give yourself God and money. That’s why I tell you not to worry about your livelihood, what you are to eat or drink or use for clothing. Isn’t life more than just food? Isn’t the body more than just clothing?

“Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap; they gather nothing into barns, yet our God in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they? Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan? And why be anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t work; they don’t spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in full splendor was arrayed like one of these. If God can clothe in such splendor the grasses of the field, which bloom today and are thrown on the fire tomorrow, won’t God do so much more for you—you who have so little faith?

“Stop worrying then, over such questions as, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.” – Matthew 6:24-34

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and Christ our Wisdom. Amen.

One thing that I really appreciated at the Parliament of the World’s Religions which I attended earlier this month was the attention and honor paid to the indigenous people who originally lived on the land on which we were meeting in Toronto. I made a promise to myself to do the same when I came home.  I learned that the first settlers of San Leandro came to the Bay Area between approximately 3500-2500 BCE and were members of the Jalquin Tribe. They were most likely the ancestors of the Ohlone Nation we know today, part of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area.I also learned that there was an important Ohlone settlement in San Leandro on what’s now 152nd Avenue. So, especially during this Thanksgiving week, I would like us to take just a moment to silently give thanks for the Ohlone people – past, present, and future – and acknowledge their presence on this land.

Now, speaking of Thanksgiving . . .  I had a real struggle with this gospel reading for Thanksgiving. It was one of those times when I would really have loved to be able to talk to Jesus – I mean face-to-face, up close and personal. Although I’m afraid that most of those times, what I’d have to say would be along the lines of “Huh?” or “Could you explain that?” Sometimes, my reaction to a saying or teaching of Jesus is even more visceral – like in this one: “Do not worry about your life.”

Don’t get me wrong; this is actually one of my favorite sayings of Jesus. I love the shutterstock_32150692imagery of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. But if I was given the chance to have a conversation about this with Jesus, I think it would go something like, “Are you kidding?!” – even though I know I’d be risking the admonition of “oh, you of little faith.” Still, risking that, I might say, “Look around Jesus. We’ve got plenty to worry about.  I don’t think it’s realistic to expect us to ignore all that.”

I have to admit, though, that Jesus lived in tough times, too.  Living in Judea under Roman occupation was no picnic. Poverty was rampant. Sickness and disease, mental illness, family strife – it’s all there in the pages of the Bible. 

So I don’t think Jesus was speaking from a place of ignorance or even denial. He doesn’t deny the reality of worries: “Don’t worry about tomorrow because tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” So he doesn’t have his head in the clouds; he’s a realist. So we can be too. We can be realistic about the things that worry us – as long as we don’t stay stuck there. This teaching from the Sermon on the Mount is about living in the world – with all its worries – as a person of faith.

I can imagine the people listening to Jesus and thinking about their own troubles and wondering if he was for real. Maybe they got to have that face-to-face conversation with him and got some clarity about how to put their worries in their proper place. I don’t know, though. Jesus seems to have been all about putting the teaching out there and letting his listeners work out the meaning for themselves. 

Which is right where we are.  So maybe it’s best if we start with the worries. Let’s start with family. If you have kids, worry is a given. My parents are both now gone, but I remember very clearly the worry my brothers and I experienced as we watched their ability to care for themselves decline while also facing the fact that they did not want to leave their home or lose any control over their lives. You may have your own story of a family situation that concerns you that you can’t help worrying about – and/or worries about your own health or job or financial situation.

As Christians, we also worry about the church. There’s no doubt about it, the church as we’ve known it in our lifetime is changing, some would say dying, others would say evolving into something new. In any event, it’s causing anxiety within congregations and denominations. We don’t know what the church of the future will look like. But even if we don’t worry about that, we still have to worry about what to do with the church of today. A conversation with Jesus could be very helpful right about now.

And then there’s our country. We have a lot to be worried about. No need to get into politics; those on both the red and blue divide are worried – I’d say even fearful. The stoking of that fear on both sides is itself worrisome.

Do I even need to mention wildfires? I looked up synonyms for worry: anguish, pain woe, distress, plague, torment, misery, consternation, dread, fright, horror. How about all of the above? We’re worried about the people of Faith Lutheran Church in Chico, Our Savior Lutheran and Paradise Lutheran Church in Paradise, as well as the health of our own lungs as we breathe in smoke and ash from this devastation.

Well, if you weren’t feeling anxious when you came in, your blood pressure has probably risen by now.  And this is supposed to be a Thanksgiving service!  

But don’t worry; it is. Paradoxically, it’s in the midst of great trial and tribulation that we have the potential to recognize most clearly the presence of God. Maybe this Thanksgiving we’ll have to go even more deeply into that holy place within us to find the kind of gratitude that enables us to give thanks for obvious blessings as well as for the ability to have faith that all will be well when all evidence is to the contrary.

I have so many stories from the Parliament, but the overarching feeling I had during the entire week was hope. Despite the fact that many of the issues taken up by speakers, panels, and workshops were about the many serious concerns shared by people of all religions from all over the world. There was the Climate Action Assembly, the Women’s Assembly, the Indigenous Assembly, the Justice Assembly, and the Countering War, Hate, and Violence Assembly. In no way was anyone denying the troubles of our world. And yet there was a spirit of joy, gratitude, excitement, and hope among 10,000 people.  

And here’s what I came away with: in order to do the work we need to do in the world, we must continually tend to our souls. There are many things over the course of a lifetime that can threaten to suck our spirits dry. But when we have a strong spiritual core, we are able to not only withstand the worries of the world, but also enjoy peace in the midst of them. In other words, our ability to take care of all of the stuff going on around us comes from the inside.

This isn’t anything new; it is the life of discipleship. But it does help to be reminded of it every now and again – especially at Thanksgiving. Jesus saying, “Do not worry” reminds us that the thing for which we can be most thankful is the presence of God in our hearts, which gives us our spiritual muscle.

This doesn’t mean that we can just sing “Don’t worry; be happy,” as if God is somehow going to swoop down and take care of it all. Try telling that to the people losing their homes, belongings, and lives in the wildfires.

No, that’s not what Jesus is saying.  Strive for the realm of God – which is not someplace or someday far away. It‘s here and now. Seek the presence of God within you; it is there, whether you recognize it or not. Exercise your spiritual muscles. Find those practices that feed your soul. If you’re having trouble finding one, talk to a trusted pastor or spiritual director. The possibility of finding a place of balance between trying to overcome the worries of the world and being overcome by them is within you. That’s also the place from which your genuine gratitude will come.

What I am thinking about this Thanksgiving is finding gratitude in the hard places – those worrisome places within me and around me. There were several firefighters on the plane from Chicago to Oakland last week – on their way to help fight the wildfires. I am grateful for all of them.

Another of the things I was most thankful for at the Parliament was the presence of young people. They even had their own plenary session and many workshops. At their planetary, I was in awe of the many ways young people are working for peace and justice in the world. And doing so from their own religious traditions.

For example, Habiba Dahir, working on women’s peace and security programs in the Horn of Africa.  And Frank Fredericks, founder of World Faith, a global movement to end religious violence, Jessica Bolduc, from the Batchewana First Nation in Ontario, Canada, Executive Director of the 4Rs Youth Movement, seeking to change relationships between young Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, dedicated to the idea that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a divisive barrier. With them, I felt like I was truly in the realm of God. And I give thanks for them.

And I give thanks for all of you, who are living out your faith in the midst of very real worries. But do not worry; give thanks. What a radical statement that is! A radical statement of trust, faith in that still small voice that resides within each one of us, reminding us that we are not in this alone; we have spiritual strength beyond our understanding. Worry may indeed be real, but it is not the final answer.

Thanks, thanks, thanks, be to God.



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