Sunday, September 18, 2011

Striving me crazy

“Communities of joy in a world of economic anxiety”
Luke 12:22-34

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In all the troubles of the world today,
in all the seemingly insolvable problems facing the human race—
terrorism, war, oppressive dictators,
health crises, hunger, poverty, global market collapse,
climate change, ethnic and religious violence, and on and on—
I wonder if at the bottom of it all,
feeding all these global catastrophes,
like taproots that feed a towering tree,
is a deep human anxiety rooted in economics.

Yes. I think we grossly underestimate the role
that economic anxiety plays
in feeding these intractable problems of the world.

I actually think there’s biblical evidence to support my wondering.
Some scholars, who count these things,
claim there is more scripture devoted to economic matters,
than on any other subject. Period.
Not strictly about money.
But about wealth, poverty, possessions, wages, tithing,
labor, economic justice, generosity, hoarding, etc.
The Spirit of God who inspired these words
apparently thought we needed to hear them a lot,
apparently thought this subject applied to all areas of life.

Jesus, more than anyone, talked about economics.
At least half his parables were about that.
And much of the rest of his ministry—
from the widow who gave her last penny,
to the rich young ruler who didn’t let go of his wealth,
to his lessons on taxes, debt, investment, generosity,
and more.

I think today’s Gospel reading,
might be considered Jesus’ most important, and core teaching,
on how he desires his followers to think, feel, and act economically.

Luke 12, as well as its counterpart in Matthew 6, says,
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”
And he goes on with the examples of ravens and lilies and grass,
saying that God cares about, watches over, feeds, clothes,
and provides for the smallest things in creation.
How much more, his human creation.
Therefore, do not strive for these things—
food, drink, clothing, wealth, material and economic security.
The nations of the world strive for these things,
and look how messed up they’ve gotten from all their striving.
But you, “strive for the kingdom of God,
and these things will be given to you as well.”
In other words, rather than strive for economic and material security,
strive for the kingdom,
and economic necessities will find their proper place.

Striving for things of secondary importance,
only produces anxiety,
the kind of anxiety we see in “the nations of the world”
to use Jesus’ words.

When I expend all my energy
striving for things of secondary importance,
it renders me off-balance.
It “strives me crazy.”
It “strives me” toward actions, and attitudes, and beliefs, and words,
that heighten my anxiety,
that raise my defensiveness,
that reinforce my self-protective posture in the world,
that make me suspicious and aggressive and even violent
toward others.
It works directly against the purposes of the kingdom of God,
the kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy.
It’s this all-out striving for the secondary,
and neglecting the primary,
that’s . . . striving me crazy.

Even in much simpler and slower times,
like first-century Palestine,
Jesus knew what misplaced striving would do to people’s souls.
He asked, “Can any of you by worrying
add a single hour to your span of life?”
His rhetorical question, obviously, is answered with a “no.”
He might even by implying that worry could subtract an hour.

So invest in what comes first, Jesus said.
“Sell your possessions, give alms.
Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out,
an unfailing treasure in heaven,
where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This is a repeated emphasis by Jesus, and by the rest of scripture.
We are to redirect our energy, away from the temporal, and earthly,
and toward the eternal, and heavenly.
This idea is not, as some suggest,
meant as an escape from the unpleasant realities of this life.
Focusing on the kingdom of God and its priorities,
is not so we take our focus off this earth.
It is so we can live on this earth in the way God intended,
with freedom, with joy, with compassion,
and with generous abandon.

The intention of God for creation is shalom—
peace and harmony and beauty and wholeness.
But the anxiety that results in
striving for earthly wealth, possessions, and power,
destroys shalom—
replaces it with power-grabbing, one-upmanship,
deceit, greed, violence.
Striving for the secondary,
doesn’t just distract us from primary kingdom values,
it is anti-kingdom.

Mennonite World Conference, some years ago,
came up with seven shared convictions,
that every member of the World Conference—
Anabaptist-related groups all over the world,
from all cultures and language groups—
agreed together are the core convictions of our faith.

Just seven short statements,
and one of them speaks directly to this issue, I think.
Here’s what it says:
“The spirit of Jesus empowers us to trust God in all areas of life,
so we become peacemakers who renounce violence,
love our enemies,
seek justice,
and share our possessions with those in need.”

This is fundamentally an issue about trust.
Anxiety over our personal, physical, and economic needs
is not just an emotion.
If it’s only an emotion,
the opposite of anxiety is calm.

But anxiety, as Jesus used the word, is a frame of mind.
It’s a mindset.
And as such, the opposite of anxiety is trust.
As our shared conviction statement says,
when the Spirit of Jesus empowers us to trust God in all of life,
we become peacemakers who renounce violence,
we become people who love enemies and seek justice,
we become people who rather than grasp their possessions,
or worry if there’s enough,
share their possessions freely and joyfully.
When we trust,
we put away the anxious striving that gets us off-balance.
When we trust,
there is no need to take up arms.
No need to run roughshod over others to get what we want,
or even to keep what we have.
No need to stay awake at night worrying over our 401K.
No need to walk through life,
with our fists clenched,
with our arms crossed,
with our hands securely in our pockets.
Those are the bodily postures of economic anxiety.
Protecting what I have,
against any unwanted intrusion,
against any threat to my stuff.

Those who live in trust can walk through life differently.
The bodily posture of trust is arms wide open.
Trust is a posture of openness, of hospitality, of vulnerability.

This goes against the “nations of the world” as Jesus pointed out.
In stark contrast to Jesus’ followers,
in stark contrast to those who strive for the kingdom,
the so-called “nations” teach us to keep our hands in our pockets.
To guard what we have. To ward off pick-pocketers.
To be reserved, to hold back, to hide.
It’s an inhospitable posture.
It’s an anxious gesture.
And “the nations” teach us the posture of fisted-hands.
Arms raised to either shield us from a blow,
or to strike out ourselves,
anxiously waiting the next attack.

You can see how this anxiety that flares up
if we’re afraid we don’t have enough, or
if we’re afraid someone might take what is ours, or
if we’re afraid our security is crumbling around us,
you can see how this anxiety expresses itself
in other areas of life.
It’s hard to deny.
There is a direct relationship,
between economic anxiety, greed, or protectionism,
and the kind of violence and national self-centeredness
that plagues the nations of this world,
and shows up in all sorts of brokenness and catastrophe.

Individually, corporately, and nationally,
we have come to see it as normal,
to be poised in a posture of fisted-hands,
crossed arms, or hands-in-the-pocket.
We live our lives in that posture, metaphorically.

How might we live differently as disciples of Jesus,
how might the whole world be different,
if we held the posture of arms spread wide!
Arms that communicate warmth and invitation,
that my first concern is not to guard my personal space,
but to open myself to that which is beyond me...
to you, to my friends, to the stranger,
to my enemies, to God.

To stand with arms spread wide
is to make a profound theological statement.
It is to say that I don’t belong first of all to myself.
I belong to God.
Everything I am, everything I have, belongs to God,
who is the source of everything worthwhile.
It is to say, “I trust God.”
It is what it means to have faith.

It’s difficult for me to understand how persons of faith in God,
persons who trust God,
can justify killing another person,
in order to protect my personal property
or defend my personal well-being.
I know the ethical questions get sticky,
when it comes to defending the well-being of others,
especially those who are most vulnerable and helpless.

But it’s still worth pondering the question,
can any act of violence
ever be defined as an act of trust in God?

People of God at Park View Mennonite—
We are called to be a people of arms wide open.
We are called to be a community of hospitality,
of receptivity, of vulnerability, of freedom,
and thus . . . a community of joy.
How many people do you know who you could describe as
full of joy and full of anxiety?
The two don’t go together.

I know that I need, for my human well-being,
to be around people of open arms.
Because my default posture is not arms wide open.
I am not, by nature, as perhaps some persons are,
a joyfully open, unreserved, and risk-taking free spirit.
I am by nature cautious, risk-assessing, deliberate.
I can easily keep my hands in my pockets.
So I realize, for my own spiritual good,
I need to be immersed in a community defined by its open arms.
Open-armed living is contagious.

Now . . . that’s not to say I should have no boundaries.
Being healthy means being clear about appropriate boundaries.
We don’t stand wide open to anyone or anything
that encroaches on us.
That’s why Jesus told his disciples as he sent them out,
“be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.”

But, even though sometimes drawing back is the right move,
our default posture as a community,
our characteristic posture,
the posture that give us our reputation in the world,
is that of arms open wide.

God calls us, the church,
to be communities of joy,
in a world full of communities of anxiety,
That is our political posture in the world.

Remember how I used the word “political” last Sunday?
Today I mean it the same way.
It’s the way we are structured,
the way we are positioned,
the way we are postured to live with each other,
in relation to the world.

It is the church’s political calling to be a community of joy,
as a healing antidote in a world of anxiety.

Which brings us back to our own denomination’s
political manifesto,
which, as I said last Sunday,
has been our official vision statement for the last 16 years,
called, “Vision: Healing and Hope.”

It’s as relevant today as it ever has been—
this profoundly political vision statement,
that we are to be communities of grace, joy, and peace.
Last Sunday we reflected on our call as communities of grace,
this week communities of joy,
next Sunday, communities of peace.

So let us again recite this statement together.
Like any good political body,
at a political rally,
we ought to frequently recite our political manifesto.
You know, in a way, worship is a kind of political rally.
It’s where we get reminded of who we are,
as a people of God,
as a society of the kingdom.
It’s where God’s story intersects our story.
It’s where we get clear again about where we stand.
It’s where we lay out our platform.

So let’s recite it together, from the print either in your order of service,
or on the cover of the bulletin.
“God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and,
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
to grow as communities of grace, joy, and peace,
so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.”

It is my hope and my prayer
that we will learn how to live as communities of joy
in a world of economic anxiety,
and all kinds of other anxieties.

It is my hope and my prayer
that we will stop letting our anxieties “strive us crazy”
and instead, will focus all our striving toward the reign of God,
and toward God’s purposes in this world.

That we will strive first, or seek first, the kingdom of God,
and the righteousness of God,
and let “all these things” be added unto us,
in God’s time, in God’s way, according to God’s desire.

I invite us to a time of prayer, with a sung response.
Turn to HWB #324, Seek ye first the kingdom of God.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,
and all these things shall be added unto you, Alleluia.”

Lord, we come to you with our cares and anxieties.
We are uncertain about our economic future.
We are concerned—no, worried—that the world is changing fast,
that the comforts and securities we’ve gotten used to
may not always be available in the future.
Help us hear, anew, these words of Jesus.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,
and all these things shall be added unto you, Alleluia.”

Some of us facing retirement in the next few years,
are watching our savings shrink and cost of living go up.
Some of us now in college
are watching our debt increase, and the job market dry up.
Help us hear, anew, these words of Jesus.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,
and all these things shall be added unto you, Alleluia.”

Some of us in business have seen our earnings plummet,
and made painful choices to lay off employees, or sell off assets.
Some of us are right now unemployed,
or inadequately employed.
Help us hear, anew, these words of Jesus.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,
and all these things shall be added unto you, Alleluia.”

Some of us are rethinking how generous we can be
to our neighbors, to our community, to our church.
Some of us are fearful that what we have now
may soon be taken from us,
and are closing our fists, holding on more tightly.
Help us hear, anew, these words of Jesus.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,
and all these things shall be added unto you, Alleluia.”

Some of us are worried about our physical security,
in a world of terrorism and war and greed.
Some are worried about our national borders,
are fearful of the strangers and aliens among us.
We see people around us as potential threats,
before we see them as potential friends.
Help us hear, anew, these words of Jesus.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,
and all these things shall be added unto you, Alleluia.”

Lord, we are people with many worries, many anxieties.
Work in us, we pray.
Help us remember who we are.
Help us remember we are your people.
That we belong to the God who feeds the ravens,
and who clothes the lilies.
That what we have is not our own,
but belongs entirely to you.
And is shared with us,
to use for your purposes in the world.
Help us now, and always,
to hear these words of Jesus ringing in our ears:
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,
and all these things shall be added unto you, Alleluia.
Alleluia . . . alleluia . . . ”

—Phil Kniss, September 18, 2011

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