My sermon from this 8th Sunday after the Epiphany. You can read this selection from the Sermon on the Mount here: Matthew 6:24-35. It was a snowy day here in Southborough with light attendance at St. Mark’s due to the weather. And it is a sad day for dear friends in Colorado. A pillar of the church I served there is being taken off medical supports today, and he will be tremendously missed. I cannot help but think of George in the context of this sermon as well. May light perpetual shine upon him and all the saints.
I’ve heard a lot of awful sermons in my life—an occupational hazard I guess since I spend a lot of time in worship services—but there’s nothing worse than a well-delivered sermon that utterly misuses scripture. More often than not, these sermons are based on a single verse from the Bible that can be molded almost into anything that the preacher wants to say. One of the verses we heard just a moment ago is a favorite for this style of preaching.
“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
These preachers will then say without batting an eye that if we seek God, then we will be prosperous—Jesus mentions material things in this context, after all—and if we have enough faith nothing difficult will happen in our lives. God wants what is best for us and the means health and financial success and sun shiny days. And we can get all this if we seek God first.
The conclusion of these sermons is usually something like this: If you are in financial difficulty or your battling a terminal illness or your child is rebelling, it’s because you aren’t seeking after God enough—it’s because you don’t have enough faith. If you did have that faith and were genuinely seeking God, God would be blessing you.
I have a simple response: Bull-pucky.
These preachers forget to mention that many of the original listeners to the Sermon on the Mount would soon be persecuted for their faith, that they would endure beatings and imprisonments and some would ultimately be martyred. It also slips their mind, of course, that Jesus himself was homeless, would be abandoned by all of his followers, be wrongly accused and feel utterly deserted by God as he died a shameful death.
Jesus tell us not to worry about our lives—whether we’ll have enough food or clothing to wear or a place to stay—because God cares for us. We’re worth more to God than the blue jay or the sunflowers, and since God takes care of them, God will take care of us even more. God will be with us.
I can’t naively believe in a so-called prosperity or “health and wealth” gospel because I’ve seen faithful followers of Christ who have experienced dark situations in their lives—never mind the darkness I’ve encountered in my own life. Should we assume that we aren’t truly seeking God, that they don’t have enough faith? Or is there something else going on?
Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner recounts a dark time in his life in his writings. His daughter was suffering from anorexia and his entire life was slipping away from him. He writes, “My anorexic daughter was in danger of starving to death, and, without knowing it, so was I. I wasn’t living my own life anymore because I was so caught up in hers. … [S]he knew what she was doing to herself, I knew nothing at all about what I was doing to myself. She had given up food. I had virtually given up doing anything in the way of feeding myself humanly…. Of on one particular day she took it in her head to have a slice of toast with her diatetic supper, I was in seventh heaven. If on some other day she decided to have no supper at all, I was in hell. I choose the term hell with some care. Hell is where there is no light but only darkness, and I was so caught up in my fear for her life, which had become in a way my life too, that none of the usually sources of light worked anymore and light was what I was starving for.”
It was at one of the darkest moments during this time that Buechner sat in his car on the side of the road overcome by depression. Soon a car passed him with the single word in the English language that he needed to see most. The license plate read “TRUST.” Trust God, trust life, he thought. Some time much later, there was a knock at the door, and his daughter answered and an unknown man handed her the license plate. He was a trust officer at a bank and had heard about Buechner’s story. Rusted and battered, the plate become a holy relic for him.
Five years ago my mother was in the beginning throes of what turned out to be a short battle with cancer. Melissa and I had recently learned we were expecting our second child, and we prayed that Mom would be able to meet this new little one. We affectionately called this one “Baby Sunshine” since the due date was in August and since we didn’t learn the baby’s gender, though we felt nearly certain we would have another boy. In late May mom began hospice and two weeks later I stood by her bed, holding her hand and administering last rites. She would never meet our little Sunshine.
In early August, I stood by another hospital bed holding Melissa’s hand. After the tough final pushes, we heard the first few cries and the doctor saying, “It’s a girl!” In that moment we were washed over with a tremendous sense of healing and were certain of God’s presence. Mom told us before she died how much she loved the name Olivia, so we named her that. And we gave her a middle name to express exactly what we were feeling at that moment: Hope.
I cannot promise you that you won’t experience pain or that there won’t be times in your life when the darkness almost engulfs you. I’d be a fraud if I did. But I can promise you that even in the darkest days God is with you. In fact, Matthew wants you to know this without a shadow of a doubt. In the opening scene of his gospel, we are told that Jesus would be called Emmanuel, God with us. And Jesus’ very last words in Matthew are these: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
“Don’t worry about your life,” Jesus says. “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of your life? Strive first for God’s kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” God will be with you.
There will be times in this life when the darkness will be unbearable and you will doubt that God cares for you. God may not miraculously “fix” your problems—like letting you win the lottery during times of financial distress—but God will be present. My prayer is that during those times you will see a license plate or hear a baby’s cry or experience something else that will remind you that Jesus is present and fill you with trust and hope. In those moments—in those epiphanies—may the light of Christ break in to your life and take you back to the realization that no matter how dark it seems, Jesus is with you. Always. And that God cares immensely for you, more than you will ever know. Amen.