Monday, October 24, 2016

October 23, 2016 Your Life Has A Purpose

How many of you remember your search for a vocation?  Some of you are now in the process of deciding what to do with your life, while other of us are further down the road from that experience.  I sympathize with young people today, and the much-increased pressure that seems to be on them now to find a plan and purpose for their lives.  There is so much pressure to do well academically, to gain admission to a good school, and to earn scholarships to pay for what is becoming an incredibly expensive endeavor.

When I began high school it was required that I declare a major.  Not having much of an understanding at that time of what a major was – outside of a military officer – I began to research various vocations, finally settling on that of a civil engineer.  I’m not sure why civil engineering appealed to me, but it did.  Funny thing about engineering, however; you need to be really good at math, which I was not, and am not.  My entire high school class schedule was predicated on the idea that I would be an engineer – four entire years of classes laid out in front of me.  And the first semester I failed Algebra.  What do you do for the remaining three and a half years of studying to be an engineer when you can’t pass Algebra?  I thought about a number of vocations, with becoming a teacher very high on my list, and I was very close to going in that direction.  I’ve done a little teaching on the side over the years and really enjoy it, but there was always a pull toward ministry, and in spite of my looking to go in other directions a few times over the years ministry has always kept a strong hold on me, and I understand that is my purpose in life.

Purpose is what I want to speak to this morning.  Last week I began a new series of messages under the theme of Your Life.  Last week was Your Life Matters; this week is Your Life Has A Purpose.  The final two messages will be Your Life Has A Future, and Your Life Is A Gift.  For the final message in the series, Your Life Is A Gift, I would like to hear from you.  If there is a person in your life who has been a gift to you, would you mind sharing with me about the manner in which they have blessed your life?  You can call me, text me, send a tweet, Facebook message – any way in which you would like to communicate.  I will certainly respect any desire you might have to keep the other person’s identity a secret, if that is your wish.

Our text for this morning is from Acts 9:1-16, which you will recognize as the story of the conversion of Saul, later to be known as Paul.  In this text there are a number of lessons we can learn about purpose, a few of which we will have the time to consider this morning.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.  He went to the high priest
and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.
“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.
Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus.
For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem.
14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.
16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

1.  The difference between a general purpose and a specific purpose.
One of the most common questions I have been asked throughout my years of ministry is a variation of this one – how do I know God’s purpose/plan for my life?  That’s a big question, and one that is not easy to answer.  I would begin by making a distinction between what I call a general and a specific purpose.  A general purpose is one that is the same for all followers of Jesus; indeed, it is the same for all of God’s children, and it is this – we are called to love God, to love others, and to serve God and others.  A specific purpose is one that applies to your life in how you will live out that general purpose.  So while we all share the same general purpose, the way in which that purpose manifests itself in a specific way is different for everyone.  A specific purpose can be reflected in the vocation in which we work, where we will live, the way in which we use our talents and abilities, and even the person whom we marry.  Most people, when asking about their purpose in life are asking about how they can discover their specific purpose.  That is a much harder question to answer.  If, however, you were to ask me how to discover your specific purpose I would tell you something along these lines – don’t worry too much about it.  Allow it to unfold.  Your instincts and passions will certainly lead you to a particular vocation in life, and there may well be several types of vocations that can fulfill your purpose.  Your specific purpose, in God’s view, is not as important as your general purpose.  That is not to say that your specific purpose is not important, because it is, but too often we think far more about our specific rather than our general purpose.  We put so much energy into our specific purpose, and often think more of our specific purpose than our general purpose.  In terms of what God wants us to do with our lives, I would say I believe he is far more concerned with our general purpose than our specific purpose.  Personally, I believe there are many, many good and useful ways for us to live out a specific purpose for our lives, and I believe that God may not worry as much about the details of our specific purpose as we do.  God, I believe, is more concerned that we live out our general purpose, and because I believe this I would say that we must remember that our specific purpose always serves the general purpose.

2.  Our general purpose can be very disruptive to our life.
When I told my mom, the summer after I graduated from high school, of my belief that God was calling me into ministry, the first thing she told me was this – just remember, there is no shame in ever leaving the ministry.  That was the first thing she said; wasn’t that a strange thing to say!  But, in fact, it really wasn’t, because sometimes it has been incredibly difficult, and there has been more than one time that I prayed – and prayed hard – that God would release me from my call and lead me into something else.

    One of the lessons to learn from our Scripture text this week is to find that our purpose can be very disruptive to our carefully structured lives.  In verse 16 of the text God says to Ananias, in speaking of Saul, I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.  Saul, later to be known as Paul, had his life incredibly disrupted by his purpose.  Paul was becoming the guy for the religious establishment.  He was on an upward trajectory in terms of vocation and career, had the outward trappings of success, he was most likely one of the “go-to” guys when anyone had a question or an important task, and then suddenly everything changed.

I have several minister friends who are former atheists.  Talk about a disruption to life!  To travel from disbelief to belief and into ministry!  Sometimes God can really disrupt our lives, and it can certainly happen when he calls us to our purpose.  Paul’s life changed dramatically, very dramatically, and he was never the same.  The change certainly wasn’t easy, it wasn’t more comfortable, and it wasn’t more successful by any outward measure.  But it was his purpose.

I believe that Paul’s experience ought to remind us that we can easily fall prey to the belief that, individually or as a congregation, any movement other than upward, toward some outward measure of success, must be perceived as failure.  Sometimes, the discovery and the living of our purpose can lead to what is perceived as a downward trajectory.  This is certainly what happened to Paul, as he moved from his former life to his new life, upon discovering his purpose.  Paul went from a position of power and privilege to a point where, at the end, he was in prison in Rome, awaiting his execution.  There were many, no doubt, who perceived Paul as a failure, but he was not, because he followed God’s purpose for his life.  It was the same with Moses as well.  Moses had wealth, he had power, and he was a prince of Egypt.  Moses had everything, but in discovering his purpose, he lost what people would have most envied about his life.  The lesson is this – embracing a spiritual purpose in life may alter – and alter very dramatically – our career path, our comfort, and our very carefully ordered life.

So, be careful about praying to discover your purpose, because your purpose is about more than finding a job that leads to success, achievement, and comfort.  Discovering your purpose might lead to a very big disruption in your life.

3.  Don’t measure your ultimate purpose in life by your vocation.
Most of the time, when we ask the question what am I to do with my life we are really talking about what vocation we should pursue.  And that’s not a small question.  A lot of time, effort, and expense is invested in the search for, and entrance into, our vocations.  Just don’t base your entire life upon your vocation, because your life is more than the sum of your vocation and the accomplishments you achieve in your chosen vocation.

Reading through the New Testament you will find, among the many interesting facts about Paul’s life, this very intriguing one – there are only two mentions of his vocation in all the writing either by him or about him.  Isn’t that amazing?  Only two.  Do you remember what Paul did for a living?  He was a tent-maker, but almost nothing is said of this in all of what we learn about Paul from the New Testament.

We often measure our worth by our vocation, and our vocational success in life.  If you are judged successful by some kind of outward measure, and have a corresponding financial success, it’s tends to be easier to find a greater sense of self-worth.  And if you are in a vocation where you can earn a great deal of not only fortune but also fame or notoriety, well, then, you must really be a valuable person.

Society assign a relative value to every choice, we make, and that certainly is true of the vocations in which we work.  Consider teaching, for instance.  We love, in our society, to talk about the importance of being a teacher.  And it is a very important and worthy vocation, in spite of the fact that we don’t assign it much monetary worth.  In fact, the vocations in which some of the deepest meaning is found are generally the ones with the smallest amount of financial reward.  If a young person announces they want to be a teacher we praise that choice, especially if they choose to serve in an urban setting where it is difficult to attract teachers.  When someone announces they will become a doctor, and that after completing their training they will travel to a third or fourth world country to provide medical care for the poorest of the poor, we praise that choice.  And while most people would like to earn a lot of money, we don’t praise the pursuit of money in and of itself to the extent that we praise the pursuit of service.  If, however, a person desires to earn a great deal of money so that they can then give that money away to worthy causes, we praise that goal.

Remember, please, that your life is more than your vocation.  Your life, and mine, is really about love and service, and we are all called to both love and service.  Within the Christian faith we have this idea we call the priesthood of all believers.  The priesthood of all believers, among other things that it emphasizes, says that all of us, regardless of our vocation, have a calling upon us from God.  And that calling tells us that our vocation is not the great measurement of our life, but our vocation can be a tool to be used for the work of our ultimate, spiritual purpose in life, that is, our general purpose.  A spiritual purpose can bring meaning to any vocation, even if it is a vocation we might otherwise see as not fulfilling, or glamorous, or adventurous, or financially rewarding, but in the use of our spiritual purpose, it can be a great tool for God’s kingdom. 

In 1980 I had moved to Dothan, Alabama and taken a job in a manufacturing plant owned by the Hedstrom company.  Hedstrom is a manufacturer of swing sets, children’s furniture, and bicycles and tricycles.  I worked on the tricycle line, where I had really hoped to become a test driver, but my legs were too long to fit under the handlebars.  I didn’t like my job, or working in that facility.  I punched the time clock at 5:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday, which was very hard for me, not being a morning person.  I spent many ten and twelve-hour days carrying tricycle parts to the tables of those who packed them into boxes.  I spent about thirteen months working there, and when I left in order to return to seminary I was very relieved.  Looking back on that time, however, I find that in some ways, I miss that job.  From the distance of the now three-plus decades I am able to see the ways in which God was able to use me in that position, in ways that are different from, and even beyond, some of the ways in which he is able to use me as a minister.  When I was working in that job I believed it was a dead-end job that had no meaning.  Now, however, I understand that it wasn’t the job that mattered, but the way in which God used it in relation to my life purpose, and that adds a great deal of meaning to what I had previously viewed as meaningless.

Your life has a purpose.  It might not always be as obvious as you might like, and it is certainly larger than just your vocation.  God is intent on using you not only to fulfill your purpose, but his as well.  His larger purpose is the one that matters most, so be certain to let him work through you as he works to accomplish not only your purpose, but his.

Monday, October 17, 2016

October 16, 1016 Your Life Matters

Today we begin a four-week series of messages titled Your Life.  This morning’s message is Your Life Matters.  The next three weeks are Your Life Has A Purpose, Your Life Has A Future, and Your Life Is A Gift.

Finish this sentence for me, if you will –
Sticks and stones will break my bones…
…but names will never hurt me.

Allow me to ask this question – who came up with that saying?  Really.  Words can never hurt me?  Yes, they can, and they do.  They hurt terribly, and we have all been hurt by the words of others, and we all have probably hurt someone with our words.  Words can leave emotional, spiritual, and psychological scars that follow us throughout our lives.  Think for a moment not only about the names you have heard others call you, but about the names you might have cast at others.  We’ve all done it, haven’t we?  We are in the midst of a national conversation about the language we use in reference to others.  If we can call it a conversation, that is, as we seem mostly to have shouting matches these days.

This morning I will read a passage that features a character who no doubt heard his share of names, but at the end of the passage Jesus offers him a name that tells him that his life matters.

Our Scripture text is Luke 19:1-10 –

1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.
A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.
He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus would have heard a lot of names cast his way, among them cheat, crook, thief, traitor, and names about his stature, or lack thereof.  What names have you heard over the years?  I’ve had some nicknames over the years, and to be honest I didn’t like them very much, because a nickname is a way in which others can define us in a very narrow way, and it is often a way that is negative.  Being called names is just one manifestation of what makes us feel insignificant, and that cause us to wonder, does my life matter?  There are many ways in which people’s lives are devalued, and they are made to feel as if they do not matter.

Everyone asks that question at some point in their life – does my life matter – and most of us ask it multiple times over the years.  Everyone wonders.  It is one of the most basic, existential questions we ask.

There are two categories that we speak to when we talk about how our lives matter –

1.  The need to know that my life matters.
Perhaps you saw this brief letter in the Sentinel-News on Wednesday, which carried the headline Disappointed in ResponseShame on a few churches in this area.  It became known that a woman in Shelbyville returned home after being away six months to find her husband gone, no food, her dog locked up in the house, the water cut off, the next day and old eviction notice on table.  Several area churches and agencies were contacted.  Who responded?  Operation Care & Salvation Army.  Not one “church.”  Easy to be a Christian when you don’t have to do anything, I suppose…   

My first reaction was to run through several retorts in my mind, but then I realized that this letter was more than a complaint; it was a presentation of the question, does this woman’s life matter?
Zacchaeus, like anyone else, no doubt asked that question.  And on this particular day he raced to see Jesus as he came through Jericho.  And, perhaps, he raced to see him because he hoped to receive the notice and the attention of Jesus.

I can picture Zacchaeus in my mind, pushing his way through the crowd, trying so hard to get to a place where he could see Jesus, and we all know how hard it can be to move quickly through a crowd.  As we try to move quickly through a crowd it often seems as though the crowd works against us and we fall further behind, and there is a sense of disappointment or even panic as we realize we might not get to where we are trying to go.  Zacchaeus’ pushing through the crowd was symbolic of his desire to be noticed, to not only see Jesus but to be seen by him, and as he pushed through the crowd his efforts were really emblematic of his great desire to know that he mattered to someone.  He probably didn’t matter to anyone in the crowd, but he could hope that he mattered to Jesus.  And out of the crowd, Jesus did notice him. 

Luke notes that Jesus saw Zacchaeus.  He looked up and saw him in the tree.  Imagine how Zacchaeus must have felt.  Out of this large crowd all jockeying for a position to see Jesus and the one person to whom Jesus speaks is Zacchaeus!  I’ve been noticed!  I’m not invisible!  What a moment that must have been for him.  Someone who not only wanted to see Jesus but certainly wanted to be seen by Jesus as well, and in that moment Zacchaeus represents us all, as we all want to know that our life matters, to someone.  At that moment, Zacchaeus knew that his life mattered.

Everyone of us, at some point, wants to call out, does my life matter?  Does anyone know of my existence?  Does anyone know of my troubles?  Will someone notice me?  God is a God who takes notice.  Jesus says that even the hairs on our heads are numbered (Luke 12:7).  That makes me feel greatly relieved!  Does it you?

2.  The need of others to know that their life matters.
My mom told me many years ago that good pastoral care makes up for a lot of bad sermons, but no amount of good sermons can make up for bad pastoral care.  She was exactly right, because people want to know that they matter.  This is where churches most often let people down, in failing to communicate that they matter.  How many of us have been there?  Probably most of us, at some point.

This is one of the reasons why I am very excited about the potential for the Stephen Ministry in our church, because it extends, as we have said, the caring capacity of our church, which is incredibly important.  Laine is doing such an incredible job of leading us through the training and the information is so good and so helpful.

Because I need to know that my life matters, and you need to know that your life matters, it should cause us to realize, oh, I need to remind others that their lives matter; I need to let them know they matter to God, and they matter to me.  It’s not just me that needs to know this.  It’s not just you that needs to know this.  It’s everyone, so we must be free in sharing that encouraging word.  We must communicate to people that they are a precious, loved creation of God, and anyone who tries to claim otherwise is just flat wrong, and when we hear language that diminishes the life and value of another it is incumbent upon us to refute and rebuke such claims!

Now, allow me to add a few further points –

1.  Jesus did not require Zacchaeus to change before he would go to his home and visit with him. 
It’s a beautiful part of the scene when Jesus says he will go to the home of Zacchaeus.  Jesus even says that he must go.  Jesus is very emphatic about going to Zacchaeus’ home.  He did not say, Zacchaeus, you need to quit that job of yours, get a better set of acquaintances, and start behaving more respectably before I will come to your home and associate with you.  Obviously, by the example of Jesus, we must accept people where they are and for who they are, but do we ever communicate they must change before they will matter to us? 

I fear that sometimes that is exactly what we communicate.  Sometimes, and perhaps we don’t even realize we are doing so, we communicate to people that they do not, or will not, matter to us unless they change their lives to become more acceptable to us.  But people do not have to please us or work to become acceptable to us; they only need to be acceptable to God and, the truth is, all people are acceptable to God.  We, however, are the ones who often add all manner of provisions and requirements that must be met before we find some people to be acceptable enough that we will associate with them.

Notice that as soon as Jesus makes the announcement and heads off to the home of Zacchaeus, out come the grumblers.  He has gone to be the guest of a sinner, they say.  Let me ask this – what version of that phrase do we use today?  Do we ever say something similar?  Perhaps our version is, you need to think more about your reputation, aren’t you concerned about it?  Don’t you worry about what people will think of you?  Aren’t your worried their influence will rub off on you?  You can do better than that.  You need to be careful about your associations.  Whatever our version of he has gone to be the guest of a sinner is, let’s not use it.  Let’s make sure we are absolutely done with it, and let’s not be afraid to associate with those who need our acceptance and love.

2.  Followers of Jesus should never diminish the lives of others.
When I first wrote that phrase in my notes I wrote followers of Jesus do not diminish the lives of others.  I scratched out do not and exchanged it for should never.  I did so out of the recognition that we sometimes do diminish the lives of others.

As I worked on this message, it did not occur to me until late in the week that I should address the politics that now exist around any statement about lives that matter.  When the Black Lives Matter movement began some months ago it set off a great deal of discussion about what lives matter.  In response to the Black Lives Matter movement other movements sprung up.  Many emphasized that All Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter, and on and on.  Certainly, all lives matter, but to name one particular group as being lives that matter does not in any way diminish or overlook the lives of any other group.  We are too quick to believe that by raising up one group we diminish other groups, which is not at all a reality.  Sometimes it becomes necessary to recognize that there are groups of people who have suffered so much, who have been mistreated for generations, and have faced relentless prejudice, that we need to say, specifically, that their lives matter.

That is what Jesus did.  By going to the home of Zacchaeus he said that tax collectors mattered.  It didn’t mean other lives didn’t matter, but this tax collector, despised and ostracized by so many, needed to be spoken of specifically.  Similarly, when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-38) he was making a statement that the lives of women mattered.  When a woman was caught in adultery and brought before Jesus, with a crowd eager to stone her, Jesus told her accusers if any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her (John 8:7), again affirming that the lives of women matter.  When he told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) he was making a statement that Samaritan lives mattered.  In a time when those who suffered from leprosy were cast out of society, Jesus touched the diseased bodies (Luke 5:12-13, and in doing so demonstrated that their lives mattered.  Sometimes you simply must say that specific lives mattered.

3. Who are the Zaccheus’ of today that need to know their lives matter?
When Jesus responds to Zacchaeus in such a welcoming way he threatens his own standing with the people, because immediately, as I have already observed, people began to mutter, he has gone to be the guest of a sinner (verse 7).  All of us, I’m going to assume, have at some point in life pulled back from someone who needed us, and we pulled back because of the disapproval – or fear of disapproval – of other people.  We begin to hear the mutterings of disapproval and, out of fear of the opinions of others, we step back.  Jesus, however, did not.  In fact, Jesus never pulled back because of the disapproval of others, and that is a powerful lesson for all of us.

The other day I was in Louisville and stopped to get some lunch.  I was sitting at my table, looking over my draft of this message, and across from me was a mom with three young children.  I don’t know what the topic of their conversation was, but one of her children, a girl about four years old, responded very loudly to something that was said in the conversation, and this is the statement she made – nobody’s better than anybody, and nobody’s worser than anybody.  I wanted to lean over and ask will you run for office some day?  You’ve already got a pretty good campaign slogan.

Nobody’s better than anybody, and nobody’s worser than anybody!  That’s some really great theology, isn’t it?  It certainly reflects that attitude of Jesus!  The truth is, everyone is a precious creation and child of God.  No one is better than anybody, and nobody’s worser than anybody.  The life of every person matters although, tragically, we live in a world that does not demonstrate this attitude.  We live in a world where some people are treated as though they are better or worser, but the example of Jesus shows us this should never be so.

Zacchaeus was treated as though he was worser, but he wasn’t.  Notice that in verse 9 Jesus says this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  That’s the name Jesus used for Zachaeus.  While others labeled him a thief, a crook, a cheat, or a traitor, Jesus called him a son of Abraham, meaning that Zacchaeus is family.  What a powerful moment this must have been for Zacchaeus. 

Who should we embrace and call family?  Who needs to hear that their lives matter?  Just as we matter to God, so do all others, and we must make this very clear.  Amen!

Monday, October 10, 2016

October 9, 2016 Do Not Worry About Tomorrow

I am grateful to be back this morning, after some time away.  I appreciate Jordan and David leading worship last Sunday, and it was a bit adventurous after Jordan being in the hospital most of last Saturday night with Lilly’s injury.  So allow me to begin by thanking our church staff, who work so hard to minister to and lead this congregation.  Much of the work of a church staff is not seen, it does not conform to regular and scheduled hours, and it is often stressful and, at times, discouraging.  Thank you for praying for us and encouraging us, and please continue to do so.

When I have a Sunday away I look forward to attending church.  I enjoyed sitting in the next to the last row in a church last week, and as I sat there a lot of thoughts and questions entered my mind as I got to be an observer for a change.  A number of questions went through my mind, among them these two questions – if I were sitting out in the congregation every week, what would I want to hear, and, perhaps more importantly, what would I need to hear?

Those questions got me to thinking quite a bit about my upcoming messages.  I have not been preaching in a series for several months, which is unusual for me.  Instead, I have loosely followed a theme – connections – until I felt led to go in another direction.  In recent weeks I was beginning to wonder why I had not yet felt compelled to go in any particular direction, other than from week to week.  I finally felt that prompting in recent days.

Beginning next week we will enter a four-week series I have titled Your Life.  The four messages will be –

Your Life Matters
Your Life Has A Purpose
Your Life Has A Future
Your Life Is A Gift

Now, to this morning’s message – Do Not Worry About Tomorrow.  Um, yeah, right. 

Today’s Scripture text is a familiar passage, which I turn to every few years, and the verses lead to the final verse, verse 34, which is what I want to focus on this morning.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?
26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.
29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.
30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’
32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

The genesis for this message came from some words of a friend of mine, who in recent months has said time and again that take no thought for the morrow (he likes to use the King James Version) may be the most important of all the words of Jesus.  Each time I’ve heard my friend make the statement about the importance of those words I’ve bristled a bit, because I do such a lousy job of living out those words that I’d prefer to ignore them. After months of hearing him make that claim I finally felt moved to preach on those words because, for one reason, it requires me to work out in greater detail what I think about them and how I apply – or should apply – them to my own life.  And, to respond to my friend, I don’t know that I would list these words as the most important of Jesus’ sayings, but I would put them in the top 10, and maybe top 5.

Now, I want you to notice something very important about this passage, and I’ll give you a hint about what it is – it’s in the title of this message.  What does Jesus tell us not to worry about?  Tomorrow.  He does not say do not worry about today.  Have you ever noticed that?  I believe Jesus acknowledges, when he says to not worry about tomorrow, that there are many matters in life that provide genuine cause for worry and anxiety.  Jesus is not saying that we either should not or do not worry; he is recognizing the reality of our worry about many matters in life, but tells us that we should not put upon ourselves more worry that we need or can manage.

So, what I am not going to do is to offer a three or four step plan that guarantees you will never again worry.  That is patently unrealistic.  Instead, I will speak more to what I would call worry management, and I will break down this verse into three categories to which I will speak – Attitude, Control, and Life View.

1.  Attitude.
Most everyone falls into one of three categories when it comes to attitude – an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist.  A realist is someone who lives in between an optimist and a pessimist.  And in each of those categories there are subcategories.  Under pessimist you can be a grouch, a whiner, a complainer, or general irritant.  Under optimist you can be unrealistic, na├»ve, or oblivious.

At the Salt & Light Festival two weeks ago, after our band finished playing, a gentleman came to speak with me and gave me this wristband that I have worn since then.  It says Live Joyfully.  I like that message, and I wear it to remind me that I cannot always control my circumstances – or many things in life, and we’ll talk about control in a moment – but I can control my attitude.

I believe this is one of the foundational principles Jesus is speaking of in this passage – attitude.  Don’t be controlled by fear, don’t be controlled by anxiety, don’t allow your circumstances to determine your attitude, he is saying.  But how often do we do just that?  How many times do we get up in the morning, ready for the day, ready to take on the world, ready to conquer the world, and the moment you step get in the car someone cuts you off and in just a moment you go from a positive, uplifting attitude, to wanting to commit an act of road rage?  It doesn’t take much to change our attitude, does it?  But Jesus is telling us that we must control our attitude.  Attitude is one of the few things over which we have control, which leads to our second point –

2.  Control.
I really love the Serenity Prayer.  For years I had a medallion on my keychain that had the prayer etched on it.  It belonged to my father and several years ago I passed it on to Nick.  You know that prayer, I’m sure. Written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, sometime in the early 1930s, it says – God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.  Simple and to the point, it offers us some important truths.  It tells us, for one, that not everything is within our control.  In fact, we all understand that a great deal of life is not under our control, and that is one of the reasons why we experience so much worry and anxiety, isn’t it? 

To some extent, every one of us is a control freak.  Do you agree?  If you don’t agree, you’re most likely a real control freak, because they are usually in denial.  In fact, I’ll go off script here a bit, against my better judgment.  I can be such a control freak that…do I really want to say this?  Well, now that you’re wondering what I’m going to say I guess I should go ahead and continue!  I have to place the towels in our linen closet a particular way.  I have been very proud in recent days that I have not rearranged the manner in which Tanya placed the towels in that closet.  Don’t look in her direction, because I haven’t even admitted this to her!  Are any of you that much of a control freak?  Thank you to the few who are willing to cautiously raise their hands – it’s good to know I’m not alone! 

All of us want to control our surroundings, our circumstances, our life events, and almost every other facet of life.  And don’t feel there is anything wrong with you for wanting to be in control because it is one of the most natural states of being among humanity.  But here’s the problem – we aren’t able to control much of what happens to us in life.  We can control some things, to a certain extent, such as our health and the date at which we retire.  Somewhat.  But we can’t control every aspect.  We have no power over market downturns that wreck a retirement plan or portfolio, we have no control over the downsizing or closing of the company for which we work and the impact it has on our retirement planning.  We can work hard to care for our health so that we can live as long and healthy as possible, but we cannot control the distracted, texting driver coming our direction that looks down and drifts into our lane of traffic or the unwelcome news that a doctor shares about test results. 

Jesus spoke to an audience of people who had very little control over their lives.  They struggled mightily for their daily existence.  Their life span was not very long.  Almost half of children did not live to 10 years old.  To make it to my age would be quite an accomplishment.  They did not have time or resources to take vacations or to enjoy even a few luxuries.  They had no real conveniences in life.  No cell phones, no internet, no satellite TV, and no 24-hour news channels. They had no control over their political destiny, as Rome controlled everything. They did not have the opportunity to elect their leaders.  Okay, maybe they were better off in that respect.  They were people who had little choice but to endure what life brought to them, and what life brought to them was hardship, struggle, and difficulty.  They had many reasons to be bitter, they had many reasons to be discouraged, but in the words of Jesus they found hope.  God was concerned, Jesus said, about their daily needs, such as food and clothing.  While many people believed their lives had little or no meaning and that their lives mattered little, Jesus told them their lives did matter and their lives had meaning.  We grow up with the idea that we are valuable and that are lives matter and that we can accomplish great things.  Not the people in Jesus’ day.  They had little, if any, hope.  But Jesus gave them hope!  They did not have to be defeatist in their attitude and they did not have to be pessimistic about their future because they had hope.

3.  Life View.
I am the king of worry.  It would surprise me if anyone could outdo me when it comes to worry.  Too often, I find myself thinking more about problems than possibilities in life, which keeps me stuck in a short-term view of life.

If you can dream of and believe in a present and a future that has meaning and purpose, you can take the longer view of life.  If you see no real future, and certainly if you have no hope of anything after this life, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to escape a defeatist view of life.  If you think this is all there is, you are more likely to pursue a life of self-indulgence and self-satisfaction.  You’ll live in the moment – rock and roll every night and party every day, as the song goes.  That should not be the mantra of our lives!  Neither should sayings such as you only go around once in life so grab all the gusto you can!  That leads to a shallow and self-indulgent life that is of little or no benefit to anyone else.  Faith always, always, takes the long view of life, the eternal view.

So there you have it – worry management.  Are we going to worry about tomorrow?  Yes, we probably are!  But will we be trapped and controlled and ultimately defeated by that worry?  No!  Allow the power of God to free you from the prison of worry and anxiety!