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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Steps of Faith (#4): Reprieve

Matthew 6:24-34

Steps of Faith (Part 4): Reprieve

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Today is the last Sunday in a sermon series called, “Steps of Faith.” Over the past 4 weeks, we've talked about 3 steps of faith, Believe, Receive, and Achieve. You Believe at the edge of disbelief. So in those times when you're staring up into heaven asking God what the heck to do, be prepared because those are the times when we're ready to hear answers, the times when we believe. On Pentecost, when the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit we talked about getting your spiritual receivers tuned to God's wavelength. And last week, after believing and receiving, we talked about the need to get your foot off the brake and go – into the world to make disciples, in other words, to achieve something with your faith.

I again want to emphasize, these steps of faith aren't in any particular order and (while they do rhyme) they aren't the only steps of faith. But they do seem to be the ones we visit and revisit all throughout out lives. We're never finished believing, receiving, or achieving when it comes to faith. And church reminds us of this. Especially in the hard-working, pull yourself up by your bootstraps U. S. A., we preachers are very good at preaching how we should be working at our faith, building up our church, and making disciples, just like the Bible says. Sometimes you have to get tired, just coming to church, like, “What's he going to tell us we have to do this week?” The scriptures seem to know this. Jesus seemed to know this. So just at the point when the ship of active faith rides the waves higher and higher up to the peak of, “Go out there and win one for the Skipper!”... Scripture, Jesus, God all put an island of peace, out there, on the horizon. If all you ever do is work and work at believing, receiving and achieving, you're going to get worn out. After God created the universe in six days (and you have to admire a work ethic like that), even God took a day off. God needed a sabbath. We need a reprieve. We need a reprieve from the steps of faith. We need to find relief in our faith. We need to stand still and enjoy the faith we've been working so hard at.

Everyone remembers the part of this scripture where Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they neither toil nor spin, yet Solomon in all his splendor was not arrayed as these.” It sounds great. It sounds as if Jesus is getting ready to break into that song, “Don't worry, be happy.” That's the middle part of this scripture, and if you start in the middle I think you put even more pressure on yourself. “What? You mean after I believe, receive and achieve, I have to stop worrying, too?” If we preachers aren't careful, we can get people worried because they're worrying too much. Don't worry, be happy becomes just one more thing on the to-do commandment list: Don't worry. Be happy. Or else.

Wouldn't we all love to spend our days meandering through the fields of lilies, fishing, golfing, going to rummage sales, browsing the bookstores? Of course we would. We don't need scripture making us feel guilty because we don't. Unless we win the lottery, we can't. If you start in the middle of this scripture, and read only those few “Don't worry” verses, Jesus sounds pretty unrealistic. So instead of the middle, let's start at the end and the beginning.

The last verse in this passage says, “Therefore, don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.” Did you hear that? Jesus never says there won't be trouble. Jesus never says there won't be worries. In fact, he says today will be filled with worries. Today will have so many worries you can't worry about all the worries. Therefore, don't waste your time worrying today about what you can worry about tomorrow. When it comes to worrying, it's OK to procrastinate. Why? Because God knows there are enough worries on your plate today. Don't ruin today's worries by worrying about what you'll be worrying about tomorrow.

Jesus worried. He worried about Jerusalem. He worried about his disciples. But he didn't worry about what he would eat or drink, or the clothes he would wear. For one thing, he was always getting invited to other people's houses for dinner. And if he didn't get invited, he'd invite himself. “Zacchaeus, you wee little man, come down for I must eat dinner at your house today.” In those places where we see Jesus worrying in scripture, it's never about himself – about his clothing, or his food, and especially not about people's opinions of him. If Jesus is going to worry, it's going to be about the people and country he loves.

I'm pretty sure Jesus worries even now. I'm definitely sure the body of Christ, the church, ought to be worrying about people who don't have health care, who don't have enough to eat, who aren't sure if they can hold onto their houses. I think the most un-Christlike thing the church could ever say to people in hospitals or prisons or on the streets would be, “Don't worry, be happy.” If we're worrying about our carb intake while they're worrying about survival, we are misreading not just this but just about every other point of scripture. We ought to be worrying about them, and we ought to be doing something to help them.

The beginning verse of this passage is just as troublesome: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

There aren't many harder verses of scripture in the whole Bible. I know there are people who never worry about money. It's usually because they've never been without it. I say “usually” because there are the blessed exceptional few people who truly don't worry about money. They may not worry about money, but I'll bet they're “concerned.” In 2008 America, not worrying about money takes a lot of discipline. Because getting anywhere is going to cost $4.00 a gallon pretty soon, and your milk and loaves of daily bread aren't getting any cheaper, either. A lot of people could use some manna because their mammon's not holding up like it used to.

When Jesus starts off this passage about not worrying by saying, “You cannot serve both God and money,” I think he's acknowledging that there's always and forever going to be this tension between the things we can buy and the things that are priceless. (For everything else, there's MasterCard. Thank you very much, consumer credit industry.) Jesus never worried about money. But he did worry about the people who worry about money. He worried about them because by focusing so much attention on the money they had, or the money they didn't have, or the money they'd like to have, they didn't have any attention left for God.

So starting with the ending and the beginning of this passage, I think we clear some space for the middle. And this is a good thing. The “reprieve” of scripture doesn't come on a deserted island a million miles away from work and family. The “reprieve” doesn't come when you're too young or too debt-free or too clueless to worry. The “reprieve” doesn't come when you're in perfect health, when you have all your hair and most of your own teeth. The reprieve comes smack in the middle of your worries. Smack in the middle of today, when the power of money's pulling you this way and the power of tomorrow's pulling you that way, and the regrets of yesterday are pulling you yet another way; the reprieve comes smack in the middle of all this real-life stuff and it is this: God, your heavenly Father, Creator of all there is, and creator of you already knows. God, your heavenly Father, Creator of all there is and creator of you already knows you're worried, already knows there's not enough money to go around, already knows you need new clothes and a balanced meal on the table. God already knows. God knows. And if Jesus is any indication – and he is – God's worried about you, too. God, your heavenly Father, God the creator of all there is and creator of you, worries about you. God worries enough about you to send Jesus. God worries enough about you to send the church. God worries enough about you to put flowers and birds and even other people around you, to remind you, that God is worried about you. God doesn't want you to give up because there are too many worries. God doesn't want you to give up because there's not enough money. God doesn't want you to give up because you're not the person you dreamed you'd be. Sandwiched in between all your worries of all your days is the reprieve step of faith that says, “My grace is sufficient.” In the middle of all your troubles is the reprieve that steps forth to say, “I am your shepherd; you will not want.” In the midst of all the stuff that gets shoved at us is the voice that says, “Isn't life more than food? Isn't the body more important than clothes?” It's the voice that says, “I know you're going to worry, but all your worry isn't going to add a single minute to your life.” (In fact, we now know it's probably going to do the opposite.) The voice says, “I know you're going to work yourself sick even over good things, but isn't creation more than than just the things you can create?”

The reprieve, God's reprieve from all stepping steps of faith isn't “No shoes, no shirt, no problem.” (I have a feeling it's not even that easy for Kenny Chesney.) God's reprieve isn't necessarily in the form of “Just sit back, sip an iced tea, and do nothing for a while,” although if you can pull it off, God bless you. I mean, that's why God invented summer vacations and retirement. (Remember, even God took a day off.) But the real reprieve step of faith comes when you can't buy a break, when you're struggling through the zone between money and worries, the time between the beginning and the end of yet another day. The reprieve comes when you can look at the lilies and the lumps of coal and know that God made it all, not to be a burden, but to be a joy.

But if your life isn't a joy, you don't need a vacation; you need a reprieve. When you feel as though you've been sentenced to life, you don't need someone pointing a finger at you, you need a reprieve. Jesus Christ came into the world so that we might have life, not a life's sentence. Jesus Christ suffered and died on a cross so that we might find pardon, that we might find the grace and hope of a resurrecting God who knows our worries, shares our sorrows, and lifts up our eyes to see the lilies, the birds, our loved ones, and even ourselves in the mirror... and be glad.