Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Are You Worried Yet?

The following is the sermon I preached last Sunday. The scriptures from the Episcopal Lectionary for that day were: Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9 and Matthew 22:1-14, The problems we've been seeing in our economy have hit some of our parishioners pretty hard, and I felt called to reach out to them, and perhaps to you, reminding us all of God's love for us, and his saving grace and care. May God bless and keep you all.

Are you worried yet? I think we all feel some undercurrents of concern about what’s going on in the country today. In fact, there are more than a few of us who are downright scared. It’s no longer a matter of simply waiting for the elections next month and then everything will work out. Though we want to believe that if our candidate wins, changes will be made and our discomfort will dissipate: the economic downturn will somehow turn around and we’ll all be okay. But until that dream actually comes true some of us are having sleepless nights, and stomach pains, fearing what will happen next with the sunrise of each new day. Will we lose our home? Is my job going to be there next week? The shoes you bought for the kids when school started are already getting tight, and the slight reduction in the high price of gas somehow doesn’t make up for all the increased prices we’re seeing in the stores. It’s been eighty years and more since our country saw the kinds of problems we’re seeing today, and it’s easy to become frightened of this unknown and shaky chasm of a world that seems to have just opened up before us.

The Israelites were worried too. They were out in the wilderness and Moses their leader had disappeared up on the mountain in the clouds filled with thunder and lightening, and they were full of fear. I see a connection here between them and us, and I want to point it out: They, in their fear, grasped onto something to alleviate their unrest, their disquiet: and the thing they grabbed onto wasn’t God – in fact, it was GOLD: an idol of a calf made from gold -- it was wealth they worshipped. Isn’t everything better and worry banished if you have a surplus of shekels, plenty of gold, the luxury of a big bank account? For surely, having enough money to ward off the wolf from the door will result in happiness and freedom, right? Well, the Israelites found that the golden calf may have been the occasion for a party, but it did not bring lasting comfort and peace.

Our epistle for today, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us some heartening news. He tells us that even when we don’t have enough…even in times of hardship and sickness and trouble: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And he tells us to rejoice. His words are literally, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

I sometimes wonder, do we Christians really know how to daily, moment-by-moment, rejoice? Oh, I think we do a really good job liturgically, having a bang up good time at Easter --- but what about our living into the wonder and excitement and sheer amazing JOY that should be ours every hour of every day? Are we truly in touch with how much God cares for us, and if so, shouldn’t that manifest itself in our lives with a deep abiding peace and great joy?

Now, I know I can’t get away with ignoring the parable for today from the book of Matthew, as difficult as it is. There is a way to tie all of this together, so let’s go to the gospel and seek out the message for us there.

Most of us have heard the explanation that those who refuse to come to the wedding banquet are the lawyers and scribes, the Pharisees and the Saducees who were given the opportunity to meet and listen to Jesus but could not get past their belief that the letter of the Law was the only way to God. First off, they believed that to have relationship with God you had to be a Jew, circumcised and ritually clean, and then you had to follow all the rules and regulations in the Torah. Their minds were not open and so they could not see any other way and they did not accept his teachings. Though Jesus was sent first to the Jews, many did not embrace him and his message of God as Love. So his salvific grace was poured out on all the people of the world, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, saints and sinners: to anyone who would believe. This applies to us today, as surely as it did when Jesus said it. Christ’s love is offered to any and all – everyone is invited to the banquet.

But what about that poor man who didn’t have a wedding garment? This is the part of the parable where most of us, and I know I am one, have great difficulty. This is not our loving, accepting Jesus. The Jesus I know and follow wouldn’t say to bind someone hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness just because his attire was incorrect! Surely not: but maybe, just maybe, he is explaining something a bit deeper than clothing – perhaps something we do to ourselves. I feel confident that whoever this person was in the story, he went to the wedding festivities thinking he was doing the right thing: he’d been invited and had taken his place. He was there; he made the decision to accept the invitation. But perhaps he didn’t decide to be fully present to what was really happening, and perhaps that's what the wedding garment is all about. Perhaps he was there, having accepted the invitation, but his attitude, his garment, was one of sackcloth and ashes, rather than the spirit of joy that should accompany a wedding party. If the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet, as children of the kingdom our natural attitude is to be peaceful, carefree, and full of joy – it’s party time all the time!

The more time and attention we pay to our relationship with God, the more we rely on Him, the more we are given that understanding of abiding – of living – in joy. Nobody has to have a closer walk with God. He has given us all the invitation and we can choose to accept it or not. You can walk alone if you choose to. You can choose to come to the wedding banquet and dance, and sing, and rejoice with all your heart. Or you can come to the wedding banquet and act like it’s a funeral if you want to. But why would you?

Remember Paul: that angry, frustrated, premier persecutor of Christians and anyone else who did not follow the letter, the jot and tittle of the Jewish Law? He had been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of Jesus, and when he was writing his letter to the Philippians, he was experiencing the words he wrote about living in joy. Paul had this attitude of living in joy when he was in the midst of other Christians and being well cared for, and when he was in pain and torment from physical ailments, and when he was in prison being beaten and maltreated for the faith. He, who had found a deep abiding joy through his awareness of being loved by God, tried every way he knew how to remind other followers of Christ to remain in that state of loving joy. When we can do that, when we can remain aware of how God cares for us, the worry and fear dissipate and blow away like so much smoke. It’s not a “pie in the sky by and by” sort of attitude, it is not that we don’t have to continue dealing with the hard decisions, it is simply and purely the blessing of knowing that as St. Julian of Norwich put it, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” And as Paul tells us today, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me…and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

So, try not to worry. Turn your concerns over to Him who will always guide and guard and keep you. Pay attention to the good, the amazing, overwhelming love in which He holds you. Rejoice in that love, share it with others, in His good time, all shall be well. Amen.