Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
September 16, 2016
Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; Matthew 6:25-34
Today’s New Testament reading is taken from the Gospel of Matthew. Our verses are found within a longer dialogue of Jesus which begins with the beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:9-10). The beatitudes are followed by a series of instructions, “You are the light of the world, . . . let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14-16). Then there is guidance on prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. All this is followed by the command of Jesus, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where month and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourself treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20). Jesus says in the last verse before today’s Scripture reading, “You cannot serve both God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).
“Therefore,” Jesus continues in Matthew, Chapter 6 verses 25-34:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
This is the word of God.
Awhile back, in mid-July 2001, I packed up my maroon Geo Prizm and drove from the West Coast to New Jersey. My plan was to arrive at my destination, a small-East-Coast-college town, two days before my summer Greek-language course began. It was a difficult move. I was ambivalent about attending seminary, and I certainly wasn’t excited at all about leaving Chico, California: a bike and pedestrian friendly town filled with coffee shops and used bookstores and with a large central greenspace, Bidwell Park (the park, by the way, is named after a Presbyterian and the first person to lead an overland group of permanent settlers to California from the United States). About the only time I used my car in Chico was to get to the colleges where I enjoyed teaching history or to drive up into the Sierra Nevada’s on hot summer days to go fly fishing for trout while wading into the refreshing waters of cool mountain streams.
I arrived on the East Coast after four long days on the road. I remember walking into the dormitory and seeing people playing golf in the hallway; the dimpled white ball was bouncing off walls and doors as my new dormmates practiced their putting. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m thirty-three and about to move into a building where most of the other residents are in their late teens or very early twenties, about the age of most of my students during the past six years of teaching. I’m tired, and I’m in New Jersey. Do I really want to be here?” I was feeling so down that I came close to turning around and driving back to California that same day, but my car had problems on that morning of the last leg of my journey. The radiator had boiled over, and I did not think I could make it out of the Garden State without breaking down on the turnpike. Like John Bidwell at the end of his 1841 journey, I would be staying at my destination for a while – whether I liked it or not.
What I did not understand, until much later, was that I was experiencing a sense of grief. When we think of grief (at least this was the case for me at the time), we usually associate it with death. The grief that fills us at the time of a loved-one’s death is, to say the least, profound. The grief felt when a parent; a spouse; a loved one; a sibling; or God-forbid, a child dies is agonizing and intense and can be all consuming.
Grief can be triggered, though, by many other life events: a health issue that forces us to change how we live, a diagnosis that requires us to face our own mortality, to dropping one’s child off at college, or a move across town or across the country, or the loss of a job, the death of a cherished pet, or the end of a relationship – even the retirement of a beloved pastor – and the list is almost endless.
It’s not just past losses that generate feelings of grief, but we also grieve the future that will not be: the family nights together that won’t happen again, the career goals that will not be achieved, realizing one will never have children to see off to school, the conversations that will not be had, the empty bed and the touch of a soulmate that will not be felt again, inside jokes and laughter that will not be shared, the meetings with a trusted spiritual advisor that will not take place, sermons that will not be heard.
Someone said to me after a funeral, “Each funeral is every funeral.” All these past and present and future griefs mix and swirl together.
At times, some of the words from Ecclesiastes sound like at curse, “moreover [God] has put a sense of past and future into their minds” (3:11).
We all experience grief differently. Not all experiences generate the same feelings of loss. We all deal with grief in different ways, some ways are healthier than others. My family of origin likes the “for-everything-there-is-a-season method.” “There’s nothing you can do about it; just move on.” “We’ve had the funeral (or the farewell party), might as well just get on with life.” “I’m really not sad anymore.” “I’ve dealt with it; there’s nothing more to talk about.” This, of course, is denial of one’s feelings. While Ecclesiastes does say, “for everything there is a season,” (3:1) that doesn’t mean it is wrong or bad to remember all times under heaven, and to acknowledge that grief never fully goes away.
Shortly after my mom died, Jane took me out for lunch at Nancy’s Bagels (You all remember Jane, don’t you?), and she shared a story about her own father’s death. She said that some months – or maybe it was a year – after he died, she was in a grocery store and saw a display of his favorite candy, and she just, right there, started crying, weeping in the middle of the store, filled with a flood of memories and emotions.
For us, maybe it is when we hear a hymn in church, or a specific song comes on the radio, or when we walk into a particular room of our home, or watch a rerun of a favorite movie, or sense a specific smell, or look at an old photograph – months, years, or even many decades after a loss – that the memories and feelings unexpectedly wash over us. There may be a particular time to weep and a time to laugh and a time to mourn and a time to dance, but every time is the right time to acknowledge and accept how we are feeling in the moment.
If we do not deal honestly with our grief and sadness, these feelings manifest in different ways: a shortened temper; a lack of trust in others; arguing over, what would otherwise be, silly things; a loss of motivation; snarky asides; a need for more control; a drifting away from community; and fear – fear. C.S. Lewis wrote the book A Grief Observed in response to the death of his spouse, Helen. In the first sentence of that book, Lewis comments, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” (Lewis 1963, 7).
It is important to find healthy ways to deal with grief. Our own Mid-Kentucky Presbytery understands the importance for congregations in transition to deal with their own sense of loss. The presbytery sets as its number one goal, the critical goal for a congregation in transition, as the need to, “work through the grief/relief process which usually follows the loss of a minister.” The number one goal. This is such a significant objective for the transition process because doing so helps create a healthy atmosphere for the next installed pastor.
It is also helpful for our individual lives. I’m continually reminded of Marcus’s 2017 Song of Thanksgiving. Our community is like a safe swimming pool where we train before diving into rough ocean waters. If we learn healthy ways of dealing with grief here, we can better let our light shine before others in our extended families, with other friends, in classrooms, and at work.
Dealing with our grief also helps us to be less fearful about the future of our congregation. In our Matthew text, Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ’Who will be our next pastor?’ or ’What will we drink?’ or ’Will our membership grow?’ or ’What will we wear?’” (In case you missed it, I added a few lines to that verse.) After telling us what we should not do, Jesus reminds us what we are called to do, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Recently we’ve been talking about the need to be welcoming so that we can grow, and this is important. It is important to create a welcoming place, Moses tells us in Leviticus, “you shall love the alien as yourself” (19:33-34). In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Paul writes in Romans, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13).
We are called to be welcoming, and we have some growing edges in that area, but the goal is not to be welcoming for welcoming’s sake or even to be welcoming so we will increase our membership numbers; the primary goal is to strive first for the reign of God in our community and on earth.
Now, there are many ways we could make people feel more welcome in our congregation. I was preaching in a church about ninety minutes from Louisville. They too are in a time between installed pastors. As their PNC searches for a new minister, they are considering calling a pastor from a different denomination. We Presbyterians are in what is called “full communion” with several other denominations. That means, in part, that a minister in one denomination may serve as the pastor in a congregation of another denomination. This Presbyterian church where I was preaching is thinking of calling a pastor from the Reformed Church in America (the RCA). In the RCA, I was told, pastors may choose to either serve congregations that ordain women to leadership roles or congregations that won’t elect women to session. And there are also Presbyterians who don’t feel welcome in a church where a woman is the pastor. I’m sure, without a doubt, that some people may not feel welcome to even walk through our front doors because we have a sign out front declaring, “Black Lives Matter.” Some may feel unwelcome in a congregation where members put their bodies in a protective line between gun-carrying white supremacists and people peacefully demonstrating against the ICE policy of separating children from their parents, and where “Grannies Respond” by traveling to the US-Mexican border to protest the same “sad!” federal policies. Other people may feel uncomfortable in a congregation that gathers to march in the Kentuckian Pride Fest Parade or supports a woman’s right to make health decisions about her own body.
Some potential visitors might say, “I don’t feel welcome in a ‘political church.’ I just want to know about Jesus.”
I was at a presbytery meeting a couple of years ago when the sale of a Presbyterian church in Louisville was being discussed. The purchaser was a so-called evangelical conservative congregation. Some members of presbytery were asking if we should sell the property to a denomination that had such different views than the PC(USA). The pastor of the church interested in buying the property stood up and said, “We just want to love God and tell people about Jesus. We are not a political church.”
I didn’t understand that perspective because Jesus and his early followers were some of the most political people who have ever lived. At the time of Emperor Augustus, the Roman ruler at the time Jesus was born, this emperor, who was also given the title “Savior,” began distributing free grain to the people of Rome, free bread from the imperial stores (Horsley 2003, 24). When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35) that is, in part, a political statement, a political challenge. One of the earliest affirmations of faith of the New Testament – “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3) – was stated at a time when emperors were claiming divinity for themselves, so calling Jesus “Lord” was a profoundly political statement. When Jesus ate with tax collectors, overturned tables in the Temple, and called religious leaders, “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34) these were political acts. Sometimes, and certainly in the case of Jesus, acts which strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness have profound consequences.
Two thousand years before a Nike anniversary add, Jesus called his followers do what was right even at the risk of their own security, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). Our Presbyterian forbears considered this idea so important, so critical to who we are as followers of this first-century Jewish teacher from Palestine, that they wrote it into their governing documents, and it is now part of our “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” – part of our denomination’s constitution. Here we affirm, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life” (BOO, F-1.0301).
We are called not to worry but to, “strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.” Now, not worrying about the future does not mean not planning for the future. I like to plan. Ask other members of the PNC. By our second meeting, I had compiled a forty-point checklist for our work. I like to make lists, and there are few things that give me greater joy in life then checking completed tasks off a list. It is important to plan about programs, and staffing, and budgets, and structures, but we should not be hurried along by anxiety and fear about the future. Our planning is secondary to what God calls us to do today and every day, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). During times of grief and transition we need to strive to be extra kind, and as Paul instructs in Colossians, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion” (3:12), and we need to be patient with one another – and we need to be patient with ourselves – we need to walk the extra mile seeking to be a community of love, to understand that while the rough comment or the harsh act may be directed at me, it might also be displaced grief and sadness. Finding healthy responses to our feelings takes time, and, as we know from Jesus – our rabbi, our pastor – positive behavior needs to be modeled. For us in the pews, it’s like practicing a golf putt, we won’t make the perfect shot every time, but we continue striving to, “live out [God’s] love and grace with one another and the world” (CHPC Mission Statement).
All the while, we need to continue doing justice, growing in knowledge of God and of ourselves, and increasing our commitment to “the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness” even if it makes some visitors feel uncomfortable, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable, and even at the risk of our own existence.
“God is love” (1 John 4:16). “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before God.” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
Know always that no matter what we are going through in our personal lives or what we are experiencing in our communities, God’s love has always been, is now, and will always be; God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Now, remembering the refreshing waters of our baptism, I invite you to stand in body or in spirit, as you are able, and join me in our Affirmation of Faith:
The Church is the body of Christ.
Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body.
The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world.
The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ,
God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things.
The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.
The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the
dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good
news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.
Book of Order 2017-2019 <http://oga.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/book-of-order2017- electronic.pdf>. Accessed September 6, 2018.
Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker. Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for
Crucifixion and Empire. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.
Chapman, William E. History and Theology in the Book of Order: Blood on Every Page. Louisville: Witherspoon
HarperCollins Study Bible, NRSV Translation. 1993.
Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed. Greenwich, Connecticut: Seabury Press, 1963.
Phillips, William Bud. Pastoral Transitions: From Endings to New Beginnings. New York: Alban Institute Press,
Smithstein, Samantha. “Grief and Fear: Maybe Grief Doesn’t Just Feel Like Fear, Maybe it is Fear.”
Accessed September 6, 2018.
“Transitional Pastor Agreement, Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky.” Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church, 2017.
Westberg, Granger E. Good Grief: A Constructive Approach to the Problem of Loss. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.