Eighth Sunday after Epiphany 2011

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 27, 2011 (8 Epiphany, Year A)

“Don’t worry, be happy.” That’s not actually in the Sermon on the Mount – which we continue to plow through again this week. And while I would never compare Jesus’ message to an upbeat pop song by Bobby McFerrin, there are some parallels this morning. “Do not worry about your life,” Jesus says, about “what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body.” And by all means, don’t “worry about tomorrow” he tells us. 

I’ve always thought of this passage from Matthew as the Scriptural equivalent of an anti-anxiety medication. It’s calming; relax, chill out, do some yoga. It’s like squeezing one of those squishy stress balls or being pampered at some sort of Biblical spa. “Don’t worry, be happy; look at the birds of the air – they have everything they need.” “Consider the lilies of the field – they’re not all stressed out about what to wear and yet they’re better dressed than Heidi Klum.” 

And then Jesus asks the ultimate rhetorical question: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Of course not! In fact, according to all the latest medical research, worrying has quite the opposite effect. It leads to heart problems and ulcers and all sorts of other medical conditions. And yet so many of us are incredibly good at it. We’re excellent worriers – especially about things outside of our control.

But what are we supposed to do with this passage? Surely Jesus isn’t telling us to just lounge around, play video games all day, and trust that everything in life will work itself out. That’s a recipe for a pretty miserable and useless existence. But instead I think this teaching highlights the tension between trusting too much – which makes us devoid of any responsibility – and working in concert with God to live into the fullness of the kingdom. At its best it’s a creative tension; one that encourages us to put our lives into the palm of God’s hand while at the same time inviting us to engage with God as co-creators of the stories that become our lives.

Still, I do think this passage speaks directly to us in our over-functioning, hyper-competitive, fast-paced environment. It is Jesus’ way of telling us to take a step back; to take a chill pill. If you’ve ever used the expression “There just aren’t enough hours in the day,” this passage is just what you need. The important things in life really don’t depend on what we can or can’t get done in a 24-hour period. And so a bit of perspective is important. Does it really matter if every hair is in place? Or every e-mail is answered before you leave the office? Or whether the kids eat their broccoli tonight? Jesus’ question resonates: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

Much of the Christian life is about keeping things in perspective. Because left to our own devices things can get out of spiritual alignment. And it’s good to let Jesus get under the hood and make a few adjustments by reminding us what’s really important. And what’s really important is two-fold: our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. When we get so distracted that we start sacrificing these relationships, our lives need some tweaking.

One of the things about losing someone close to you is that it absolutely helps to keep your own life in perspective. In the past two weeks there have been three deaths of members of the St. John’s family. Chris Henderson died last week – a 37-year-old young man who left behind a wife and a three-year-old son; Nina Gorman died on Wednesday – a 51-year-old woman with a husband and two grown children; David Lubrano also died on Wednesday – an 80-year-old man who left a wife and a number of children and grandchildren. Three people whose lives were connected only through their faith and their relationship with St. John’s. Three people at different stages of their lives who left behind both loved ones and a legacy of relationship with God and their fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith.

For those who knew Chris, and Nina, and David; and for all of us who have ever known and loved and lost a close friend or family member, the experience changes our perspective. We come to value the essentials of life – the relationships – and let the small stuff slide. Like the dishes in the sink that can wait until the morning, or the favorite TV show you missed because you were talking to a friend in need on the phone.

The Christian life doesn’t shield us from the pain and grief and trials of our mortal existence. It doesn’t make the tragic realities of our lives disappear into thin air. But it does give us context and meaning. And ultimately we are left with hope. Not a Pollyanna, rose-colored glasses sort of hope but a Christ-centered hope borne of faith. A hope that doesn’t ignore the realities of life but one that is proclaimed right in the midst of them.

Much of life can wait and much of life is not worth stressing about. There are larger fish to fry and better uses of our emotional energy. Which is precisely why Jesus encourages us to lift our heads and look at the birds of the sky and why he bids us to consider the lilies of the field. 

This doesn’t draw us into escapism; it draws us into living a life of perspective. It’s not about simply not worrying and being happy. This isn’t a faith of denial; but a faith of power and glory and the promise of eternal life. 

So don’t worry about the small stuff; again, concentrate on what matters – on loving God and loving those whom you encounter in this journey of life. Life’s too short to do anything less.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011

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