Friends, this morning I am setting out to persuade you of two things. First that your narrative, your worldview, matters a great deal to you and to God, and second, that Jesus calls us to live within a particular narrative arc--the great narrative of God’s kingdom.
This is hard! “Don’t worry,” he says…
Of all the many things Jesus told his followers, of all the ways to live handed down from him to us, this is among the hardest. Well, I suppose dying to self is a challenge too, but living free from worry is pretty aspirational, if you ask me.
This difficulty we face in being free from worry has remained pretty much the same for two thousand years too. Listen to the specifics: Jesus told the crowd gathered on that mountainside not to worry about their clothing, their food, nor should they worry about the span of their life, or even tomorrow. Daily needs and future concerns are the very things we all worry about too. Maybe some of the specifics have changed, especially for those of us who are privileged to lead a middle or upper-middle class life. I don’t truly understand what it is to worry about my next meal or about clothing, but I do understand what it is to worry about the span of my life, and tomorrows concerns frequently bleed into today.
As a general rule that stands across millennia, workers and owners alike will be concerned about wealth, parents will worry about their children, outsiders will worry about being in, and insiders will worry about whether they should welcome or exclude the outsiders.
Today we add to this new worries about fake news and the political polarization that feeds it. We worry about international bad actors and the threat of nuclear war or maybe just a dirty bomb. We worry about the impact of pornography on minds, hearts, and relationships. We worry about casual hook-up culture. We worry about energy security, sea-level rise, and global warming. We worry about fairness. We worry about retirement and whether social security will be there for us.
Worry is a pervasive feature of our lives today, and so I think that when Jesus tells us not to worry, we have to start somewhere. This is one of those times we may need to start with faking it, and then fake it ‘til we make it, because building a narrative takes time, and may even require rewiring our brains a bit.
Jesus says that the eye is the lamp of the body. Our focus matters. In couples counseling, one common starting point is the observation that over time focus shifts from facing each other to facing the world together. This shift can take place literally too, say in a transition from playing games in the evening to watching TV. Focusing on the world together is not bad or wrong, but couples must also recognize their need for intimacy, or to focus on each other as well.
Our focus matters. Does your personal narrative focus on God or wealth? on fear or hope? Do you live within a narrative of scarcity or abundance? The world around us persistently reinforces a worry-filled zero-sum narrative that is rooted in a culture of death.
The powers of our world tell us to secure our borders, hoard our wealth, protect our own tribe, and to measure our worth against our neighbors.
We have a need for a new story. Jesus calls us to live in God’s story. A narrative rooted in the story of God’s Son, who entered into our life and gave his life for us--for you, for me, and for all humanity.
This week, my wife, Laura, told me a story about her co-worker. They work downtown in the County Administration Building. On May Day, this coworker stepped out during her lunch break and walked down to Westlake. As she was watching the various political protesters, she noticed a man with his arms very full, and she asked if she could lend a hand. The man thanked her and passed a third of his load to her. There in the bundle in her arms was a baby! The coworker was shocked. This man had entrusted her with one of his children!
She was living in a narrative that says helping a stranger is the right thing to do... but the man she offered to help was living in a narrative that places tremendous trust in strangers. Their narrative shaped their actions.
Our Christian narrative runs against the world’s grain, and it always has. The narrative of the kingdom is not about personal gain, conspicuous consumption, or constant comparison.
It is said that comparison is the root of all of unhappiness. Of course, as with every aspect of the world’s narrative, comparison is hard to let go of. I had a little bit of a wake up call when Laura and I were talking to our financial advisor. He’s a faithful Christian and a wise partner who we greatly appreciate. During our conversation I asked a version of the comparison question, “How are we doing?” Our advisor was quick to call out the question, noting both how frequently he is asked, and how comparison only ever results in either pride or envy. Pride if you compare well, envy if you don’t. He referred us back to our own goals and noted that we are on track.
Jesus knew how easy comparison is. I love his examples: lilies don’t compare themselves to roses, sparrows don’t compare themselves to eagles, grasses don’t stare up at the overhanging trees wishing they could have more of that sweet sunlight. Creation participates in God’s kingdom narrative of plenty.
The kingdom life to which we are called rearranges our priorities and changes our narrative. We participate in God’s narrative here at SPC when we make space for each other, in our caring, sharing, and in the way we support one another. Every time we pray for each other and our world, God’s narrative settles down a bit deeper into our hearts.
In God’s kingdom community we focus on the others around us. In God’s kingdom community we are invited to a life not focused on every worry that occupies our thoughts, but instead we witness to each other the miracle of God’s provision and care.
It can be hard to believe this works, so we get to build this narrative together. After all, faith is the hope in things unseen, the belief that the fish are going to swim from across the world to be caught by little Marco in McElligot’s Pool.
Our narrative starts with Jesus, with loaves and fishes, and with his own death and resurrection. God the Father was faithful to Jesus.
Our narrative grows with the early church, where Luke tells us in Acts 2 that, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” God was faithful to that first community of believers.
The narrative continues with us today.
- I watched it grow as a couple members of our church family participated in the “thankfulness project,” noting something they were thankful for every day.
- Years ago, I watched it grow as many of us, over several years, built a relationship with Mr. Roy, whose house was devastated in Hurricane Katrina. We helped he and Ms. Charlotte rebuild, and then some of us remained in communication with him for years.
- It grows in extreme circumstances, but also in mundane, day to day interactions.
- I watched it grow in our parenting class that ended this week here at church, as parents from Southminster, Lake Burien, and our community were real and honest with each other about the challenges we face as parents and were met with compassion, support and care.
The narrative on which you focus becomes the life you live. I was stunned this week to read a story in the Indianapolis Star about a letter penned by a mother in Auschwitz. Vilma Grunwald’s youngest son was crippled and so the Germans were sending him to his death in the gas chambers. Vilma chose to die with him, so he wouldn’t be alone. This story may have played out over and over in the genocidal German concentration camps, but what sets this moment apart is that Vilma was not just allowed to pen a letter to her husband, but that the guard chose to deliver it. This is the only known communication like this. Her husband was a doctor and both he and their oldest son survived the camp, eventually coming to live in the States. Her letter, in its original Czech, is preserved today in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. As I read, consider the narrative threads informing her life that propelled her to this action.
“You, my only one, dearest, in isolation we are waiting for darkness. We considered the possibility of hiding but decided not to do it since we felt it would be hopeless. The famous trucks are already here and we are waiting for it to begin. I am completely calm. You — my only and dearest one, do not blame yourself for what happened, it was our destiny. We did what we could. Stay healthy and remember my words that time will heal — if not completely — then — at least partially. Take care of the little golden boy and don’t spoil him too much with your love. Both of you — stay healthy, my dear ones. I will be thinking of you and Misa. Have a fabulous life, we must board the trucks.
--Into eternity, Vilma.”
Her oldest son, Frank (then known as Misa), kept the letter hidden in his desk for years, reading it every few weeks. The narrative that she established, that formed her response to unimaginable oppression passed on to him. As he said of the letter, "There's not a word of anger or hatred or resentment or bitterness against the Nazis," he said. "It's all focused on my father and me, on the future."
The kingdom narrative grows every time we gather, every time we lift our voices in praise of God, each time we pray as one, and each time we come to the table to eat the bread and drink the wine. These practices bind us together with all Christians across the world and thousands of years.
Together, we are invited to cast our worries upon Jesus, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light.