Friday, October 17, 2014

Worrying About Worrying

Sermon preached October 12, 2014

Texts: Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

            Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
            Don’t worry, be happy – is this the heart of the Christian message?  Can we boil down Christian faith to the power of positive thinking?  Is Christian faith all about the “law of attraction” - the belief that "like attracts like" and that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts, one can bring about positive or negative results?
            “Don’t worry about anything.”  “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  There it is, right in one of today’s Scripture readings.  Accentuate the positive.  Don’t worry about anything.
            Then we read the parable Jesus tells, and it gives us everything to worry about.  “The kingdom of God may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”  The story goes that the king sent slaves out with invitations, but there was no response.  He sent others out, but again, the invited guests refused.  Some made light of the invitation.  Others, for quite unknown reasons, took the reminder badly.  They mistreated the slaves, even killing a few.  The king responds with rage and with force.  He sends troops out to destroy the town of those who killed his slaves.  This is pretty grim stuff.  It also has a bit of the theater of the absurd to it.  I would think it would be better not to be invited to any party thrown by the king.
            Anyway, having wiped out the first set of guests, but still having all this food prepared, the king sends slaves out with another message for another audience – and how excited do you think those slaves were to go?  The new audience is anyone who will listen, and they are invited to the wedding banquet.  The slaves do their job well.  The banquet hall is full.
            So there is a happy ending – don’t worry about all that sorry stuff earlier.  Be happy that there is now a banquet.  The story has one more twist.  Someone in the banquet hall is not dressed properly.  The king spies him and has him removed, bound hand and foot – “thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  I told you, it would be better not to ever be on this king’s guest list.
            Don’t worry?  What if you get this invitation, but treat it too lightly, or misunderstand the invitation and become kind of hostile about it?  Bad news for you.  Or what if you arrive at the wedding, but somehow missed the memo about the dress code, maybe because, after all, you just got the invitation?  Bad news for you.  What in this story can be compared to the kingdom of God?  Is God like this king, a king perhaps with some anger issues?  Better watch out, then!  Don’t worry?! Maybe worrying is something like not being properly dressed at the wedding.  Now I have to worry about worrying?
            How in the world do we reconcile these two dramatically different Scripture readings for today?
            Let me suggest that if we are trying to make God like the king in the story Jesus tells, we are missing the point.  The story is about decisions and about the consequences of decisions.  Those first invited to the wedding banquet miss it all because they ignore the invitation, or are too busy to respond, or even get peeved for being interrupted in their lives.  Some just plain react badly.  Their actions have consequences.  Their actions enrage the king who responds with fury.  The king’s response has consequences.  He wipes out many of the invited guests, but he is left with all this food.  He has to extend the invitation to others.  This has consequences, good consequences for these newly invited guests - yet not for all of them.  One has arrived without his wedding coat, and that has consequences.  The king throws him out.
            Actions have consequences, sometimes even irrevocable consequences.  I have been thinking about the incident in Superior now a couple weeks old.  Five young people, ages 17 and 20 decide to steal money from another twenty-year-old, someone who apparently sold marijuana.  A 17 year-old young woman, a straight-A student according to her attorney, is the driver and she sets the 20 year-old drug dealer up.  A gun is used in the robbery attempt, and it discharges during a struggle, killing the 20 year-old being robbed.
            Decisions have consequences, sometimes irrevocable consequences that have the feel of outer darkness to them.  Selling drugs is no reason to be killed.  At the same time, selling drugs tends to put one in more contact with people who use violence.  I am not blaming the victim here.  He did not in any way “deserve” what happened to him.  The likelihood of something bad happening to him increased when he decided to sell drugs.  The five charged with his murder have irrevocably changed their lives and the lives of their families, and the lives of the family of the man they killed.  Outer darkness.
            Thankfully, most of us don’t have to deal with murders in our family.  For, us, too, though, decisions have consequences – some good, some not so good, some may even have the feel of outer darkness.  Cruel words spoken leave scars, even when forgiveness if offered.  Decisions at one point in life limit some possibilities in the future, though they may open up other possibilities in the future.
            Attuning to the kingdom of God, God’s dream for our lives and our world, means recognizing the seriousness of our decisions, and it means trying to figure out where we are being invited into something new and joyful.
            That is pretty weighty stuff, the stuff of a lot of anxiety and worry, but there is another dimension to consider.  All our deciding occurs within a wider ecology of grace.  Jesus tells a story that gets our attention about the consequences of decisions and about paying attention to invitations.  The story ends pretty sadly, one person thrown into the outer darkness.  But this can’t be the end of the story, at least not for our lives.  Listen to these words from Psalm 139: Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
            In the ecology of grace, there really is no such place as the outer darkness, or at least there is no such place of outer darkness that is beyond the reach of God’s grace.  Decisions matter.  Their consequences are irrevocable.  Yet in grace, God never gives up on us.  God is always inviting us again into newness of life.  God invites us to weave the consequences of our decisions in the direction of new life.  For those five young people, nothing they do will ever bring back the young man they were responsible for killing.  They will have to live with this the rest of their lives.  Grace is the opportunity to move forward to make the best out of tragedy, to turn lives around, to do the good that might be possible.  Even such outer darkness is not without the presence of God, is outside the ecology of grace.
            The same is true for each of us.  We have made decisions.  They have consequences – some beautiful, some maybe more brutal.  We’ve missed the invitation to live differently, distracted by other things in our lives.  We have not developed the gifts that are within us, arriving sort of undressed for the occasions life offers.  God does not give up on us.  New invitations will arrive, new opportunities for growth, for love, for doing justice, for kindness and compassion.
            We live in an ecology of grace, and when we pay attention to that, a different life is possible – a life of rejoicing, of gentleness, of prayer, of cultivating peacefulness in our lives and in our world.  Decisions have consequences, and we need to take that seriously, but when we also know that God works in our lives, whispers in our souls, offers new beginnings, we don’t have to live in a constant state of anxiety that we will find ourselves cast into some place outside God’s ecology of grace.  Our lives need not be marred by constant worry.
            Living out of grace is not a straight line, a one-way escalator up.  There will be hiccups and failures along the way.  We will grumble instead of rejoice.  We will be harsh instead of gentle.  We will do things that don’t lead to peace.  What we cannot do, is put ourselves outside the ecology of grace.  We can be inattentive to it.  We can mess it up.  There is deep sadness in that, and people may be hurt by our inattentiveness to goodness, but God will not give up on us.
            Bishop Bruce Ough, the United Methodist bishop for Minnesota and the Dakotas tells the story of James Forbes.  James Forbes was the pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, a very prominent church in the United States.  Forbes was a prominent preacher.  Anyway, because of his skills and his fame, Forbes was often invited to speak, and often found himself on airplanes.  As is often the case, he was asked three basic airplane questions – Where are you from?  Why are you traveling – business of pleasure?  What do you do?  Forbes said he became a little tired to the kind of conversation stopper telling people he was a pastor caused.  My experience is that when I tell people I am a pastor I often get conversations about people’s church experience – here’s what I like about my church, here’s why I don’t go to church anymore, would you do this if you were a pastor, and do you think we are living in the end times.  Anyway, Forbes wanted to think of something else.  He prayed and pondered, and was inspired to offer a new way to describe his work.  Excited, when he flew next he waited for the question.  Where are you from?  Why are you traveling?  What do you do?  Raise the dead.  Forbes said this was a conversation stopper, too, but it was at least more interesting.

            We live in an ecology of grace where God continues to work in our lives to raise us from the dead, to love us into life.  That work of God, that invitation from God never goes away, no matter what decisions we have made in the past.  We can always start now to pay attention to new ways of thinking, to live in more life-giving ways.  We can be part of God’s loving others into life.  The decisions we make matter, and the decision to pay more attention to God’s Spirit and to live differently in the ecology of grace matters.  But there is no place where our decisions can take us that moves us outside that ecology of grace.  About that, we never have to worry.  Amen.

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