Comfort and Considering

Epiphany VIII
Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; I Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

This Gospel lesson is one of my favorites;
it was read at both my daughters’ weddings,
so that should tell you the place of anxiety
in our house. Here is a message every family needs.

During these last two weeks, while I’ve been away from church
I’ve been reflecting on how much has changed in our world
since we started reading the Sermon on the Mount just a month ago.

So much change, so quickly:
revolutions and earthquakes,
a people’s uprising organized on Facebook,
nervous dictators and the madness
of their power exposed for all to see.
Food and oil prices rise around the world;
nations grapple with budgets and defecits.
Here at home, it is a hard winter,
and many of us worry about
how to pay our bills and feed our families,
keep our jobs, or businesses going.

Jesus’ world did not move as quickly as ours does,
but the restlessness of anxiety
was present for his followers then, too.
Most of them were poor, and suffered deprivations
in a way we cannot imagine.
Even the people in our homeless shelters
of Cape Ann don’t know the kind of poverty or risk
first century Palestinians experienced.

Questions of life, food, clothing, of survival
and well-being are at the core of life,
no matter when or where we live.
Jesus’ teaching today on the true cause of happiness,
as ancient as it is, is meant for us, too.
A hillside in Galilee
becomes a fishing village in New England;
our landscape is cold and snowy,
instead of their warm Mediterranean fields.
All our lilies are still underground, though I have heard
the snowdrops are beginning to come up.
The birds of the air are gulls, and winter chickadees and cardinals.

Jesus knew well what it means to be human,
what it means to be anxious about our lives.
Sharing our human existence, he knows our insecurities,
our tenuous hold on life.
He speaks this morning to our very core,
to our deep and realistic worries.
He doesn’t dismiss our concerns as unworthy,
but places them squarely before us
oriented toward the light of God’s mercy.
And he invites us to ask:
What does your life look like when it is drenched in grace?

Here is an invitation to put our dependence,
our need where it belongs,
not in the struggle for more and more possessions,
or economic security,
but in the hands of a gracious Lord,
who wants nothing more than our highest good.

Here is an invitation to contemplate
the beauty, wonder and abundance of this world,
as signs of God’s on-going compassion.
This is one of Jesus’ original contentment teachings.
Our happiness doesn’t arise from the struggles of life,
but from the Sabbath rest of faith.
From that Sabbath center, we receive
the courage and strength to face those struggles.

Jesus, knowing who we are, calls us to seek
our hearts’ true safety.
He calls us to the kind of prayer
we hear in the Psalm this morning,
the prayer of deep trust.
The peace of God’s presence stills our anxious worries, as
the peace of a mother contents her child.
I’ve always loved what St. Augustine wrote
of this peace in his own conversion:
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Everything we hear in the Sermon on the Mount
is Jesus’ vision of what our lives look like
in right relationship to God, in the whole-hearted,
nothing held back, love of God.
This whole-hearted love calls us to deeper care of each other.
We learn it’s not enough to love friends,
but we also love our enemies.
We give more than is necessary; we return gentleness
where there is insult, we offer help where it is sought,
responding to others’ needs with generosity.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, today,
Jesus teaches us where to find peace.
Where the world tells us to seek security and prosperity,
Jesus asks us to surrender,
and place our faith and energy where they belong.
You could call this the “let go and let God”
part of the Sermon.
Here is Jesus’ midrash, or interpretation
of the first commandment,
to love God with all our heart,
all our strength, all our soul, and all our mind.

These words, in this portion of the teaching,
are also Gospel promise.
God loves us so deeply and profoundly
we cannot begin to imagine it, holding us dear
in the immeasurable depth of his care.

This is who God has been all along.
Isaiah knew this God, too, and describes him in prophecy:
God calls his people to a holy covenant with him,
into a holy relationship, promising,
that he will bring them out of darkness into light:
a saving God who leads them into high pastures,
and to springs of living water;
a mothering God,
who in great compassion never ever forgets his children.
Our names, Isaiah tells us,
are written on the palms of God’s hands.
“I will not forget you, I will not forget you.”

When Martin Luther was writing his catechisms,
he talked about the refuge of faith.
Seek God, seek Him as a small bird
seeks the shelter of its mother’s nest.
Draw near to God’s heart, as you would a loving parent.

We’re called to live as non-anxious people
in a world that would have us be anxious.
Jesus wants us to understand
our peace comes from the open field of faith,
the wide places of holy joy,
the certainty that help is at hand: God is near.

Perhaps, in these oh so anxious times,
the offering we make to our neighbors,
as a community, is a counter-cultural one.
When we live the Gospel, this peace
Jesus speaks of today is present in our ministries.
Who can be anxious when God has promised
never to forget us—how can we be anxious when our names
are written in the palm of God’s hand?

Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom, the ways of God,
to put our spiritual lives in order;
from there, peace will come, instead of anxiety.
Strive first for the dominion of God,
and the rest will come into place.
But this teaching isn’t just for individuals;
it is for Christian communities.
No one wants to come to church,
and leave anxious, or worried.
What’s the point of that?

Faith is its own best evangelist,
when people of faith reflect the peace of God
for their anxious neighbor.
We’re blessed by that peace,
and can offer its light, its salt to others.
Fear and anxiety never work as advertisements for Chrisitan faith;
loving God and neighbor do.
People will want to be around you,
because your presence brings peace with it.
We all know people like that, whose faith brings courage and peace.
Dispelling worry in a worried world is one of our callings as church.
If the Gospel doesn’t bring comfort, why believe it?

We call churches sanctuaries—
we name them that, thinking it’s the building,
but the sanctuary really is God in all of you—
the living rocks of this church.
Your faith, your lives are testimonies,
and you yourselves become sanctuaries of hope
for the people in your lives.
Faith in God becomes visible, tangible in your words and deeds.
You are the light of the world, Jesus said,
and the comfort you offer, as a person of faith
in a desperate world, is profound.

Consider the birds and the lilies,
in an invitation to consider the love of God,
what the ancients called a contemplation on the love of God.
Jesus asks us to see God’s love at work everywhere,
in everything, all the time,
to believe God’s compassion is our shelter and best refuge.
May our hearts find refuge and rest in him.
In turn, may we be a non-anxious people
offering Sabbath shelter for others,
offering the holy peace we ourselves have received.

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