Sermon, August 7, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
So last Sunday in the scripture immediately before this passage, it described a man who hoarded his earnings to be well prepared for the future - a future that he didn’t get to enjoy because, according to Jesus’ story, he died that very night.
It was a lesson about security and control. Here we are, faced again with the lesson that humans deny; that we are not in control. We do not have the power to determine our own fate, or that of those we love, no matter how hard we try. In the beginning of our 2-part passage, we see there is no guarantee for what the future holds, not even when we work hard and store up our riches for safe keeping. And so I invited you to contemplate what it means to trust God in the midst of all this uncertainty and insecurity - even though you might look around us and call me insane. How would I expect you to trust God in the midst of random mass shootings, uncooperative cohorts during a pandemic, rising tensions with Russia *and* China, unpredictable economic conditions with shortages on everything from cars to baby formula; and wildfires, droughts, floods and soon, hurricanes raging all around. Are we supposed to expect God to take care of these things? Instead, we try to control them ourselves. In order to be safe, we hoard our resources and invest in security; we make a plan to save ourselves and try to avoid the desperation of others; we build walls to keep others out rather than invitations to bring others in.
This last week, while I was off in Boston visiting family, I had the great luck to sneak in a visit with a friend of mine, Jared, who lives in Jerusalem but was also visiting family in the New England area. Jared was the guide for a 2-week study tour I took in 2013 with my Seminary, Chicago Theological Seminary. We were there to study peace and conflict, and Jared is one of the few Israeli guides that offers guidance not just on the wonders of Israel’s history and archeology and society, but also on how to nurture interfaith relationships, cherish cross-cultural understanding, and work for peace in an area of the world that is the religious cradle for more than the three major sects of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Our tour spent time in Palestine in the Aida refugee camp, in Bethlehem and Nazareth and other areas that are not under Israeli control and protection, and Jared stayed with us through all those tours - although he would switch out his yarmulke for a baseball cap while we were in the Palestinian authority.
Israel was one of my examples of a city working to control its security with everything money can buy. I asked Jared this week his feelings on the tall concrete walls that Israel has constructed wherever there is an Israel border. The walls are placed on the outer rings of the highways that ring many Israeli cities; but for the Palestinians caged for multiple generations in the cramped spaces of refugee buildings, these walls brush up against their sidewalks and streets. On the Palestinian side, these walls are adorned with political graffiti, artistic renderings of their family history and stolen homes, expressions of frustration and solidarity and, occasionally, hope. On the Israeli side, they are just taken for granted, patrolled by the Israel Defense Force. When I asked him about the wall, Jared said, “I’m glad it’s there… but I know what it costs us.”
It wasn’t until years after my tour that Jared shared with me how painful it is to repeatedly observe the living conditions of the Palestinian territory and know, on some level, that he is benefitting from this disparity in resources. You see, as a tour guide, Jared is one of the only Israelis who has ever seen a Palestinian village. Part of the system of walls and checkpoints and Israeli citizenship is that, in order to keep you safe, Israel keeps you locked in. Israelis are not allowed entry into Palestinian territory, and so most Israelis have never seen a Palestinian home with it’s cracked walls and spotty heat, or walked through the broken streets of a Palestinian village that my not have running electricity, or had a real conversation with someone who lives outside the walls - unless it was in the course of business when Palestinians cross into Israel for work. They have no idea what kind of life is on the other side of the wall - Jared is one of the very few who regularly cross the wall for his profession. And these circumstances, with no contact and even the inability to see into each other’s lives from afar, make it easy to foment the kind of prideful antagonism that allows you to view the other as your enemy without being open to engaging them as a potential friend. Jared knows what it costs them. Jared knows the only way to a peaceful Jerusalem is through being open to reconciliation, not security. He knows you have to risk putting yourself in relationship to find understanding, and so he dedicates his life to laying the foundation for peace. He brings groups like ours to engage in dialogue and learning from all the diverse peoples and opinions in the region. He works with youth to give them access to friendships across the barrier wall, hoping that the next generation will choose a different path. Because he knows that we cannot control our security with walls and money.
Try as we might, we humans cannot secure our future. And I won’t stand up here in this pulpit and make promises that God will protect us from pain and suffering; for I cannot preach about a God who plays puppet master with the lives of those whom God loves; I don’t believe God chooses tragedy for one and prosperity for another at whim. Rather, what I believe our scripture tells us is that we are invited to trust God with our journey. We are invited to relax our human tendency to control and be open to where God is moving along the way. We can find more communion with God in our every day lives, but only if we stop worrying about how we get to the destination and focus on the journey.
I mean, just look where God showed up. A month ago we were vandalized, our beautiful statement and hard work besmirched, our beliefs indicted, our church mission defaced. What could we have done to protect our work, to secure our safety, to preserve our integrity? What should we have done!? Who knows - perhaps cameras. fences. and armed patrol keeping an eye on our space.
But look what happened instead. When the horrible happened, we saw God move. We learned how we face adversity; we leaned on our great staff and moderators; we drew together in solidarity. And then, we learned more. We learned that our neighbors cherish our presence - even if they aren’t in the pews. We learned that people will do selfless things just because it’s the right thing to do. We learned that our elected leaders care passionately about the lives of LGBTQIA+ people and stand defiantly in the face of hate. We learned that our protective institutions - the police, the FBI, Homeland Security - still uphold the values and morals of this country - freedom for all in safety. We could not control what happened to our signs, and we may not be able to control what comes our way in the future - but we had the incredible experience of sensing the spirit along the way. We felt God’s presence in our journey.
God’s answer is there’s nothing we can really do to protect oneself, but it’s not about what you can keep. Life is about what happens in the meantime, how we deal with adversity, the silver linings we find along the way.
In our passage today, Jesus says, Don’t be afraid. He advises his followers against worry. And he sets up a contrast between being consumed by earthly cares or living into the kingdom of heaven.
For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
Jesus is pointing out the earthly mindset of scarcity. The world likes to tell us there is never enough, there will never be enough, to keep us operating out of fear and anxiety. We must secure our doors, secure our property, secure our borders, secure our future. Our capitalistic system is created by anxiety, it’s driven by anxiety, and continually rejuvenates our anxiety. Inflation! Gas Prices! Recession! Oh my! We are driven to earn and to hoard by the fear that we’ll never have enough.
And it’s not only money - we have this anxiety in church and many of our other parts of our communal lives. There’s never enough for our anxiety. In church, there’s not enough people in the pews. There’s never enough volunteers. We never have enough people for boards, we never have enough money to be secure, we worry about how to get enough.
I used to worry about this, as an organizer and as a Seminarian. I used to critique every meeting with, ‘well we only got 6 people in attendance’ or ‘I’m not sure we can pull off a big event with only one committee’ or ‘we fell short of our fundraising target.’ But a mentor of mine, a gifted church pastor named Erik, said, it is always enough. Those who are here are who were meant to be here. Those six were who God needed to touch - and who knows who they will impact. Be confident in the power of those who show up, and don’t worry about what’s missing. After all, as Margaret Mead said, never doubt a small group of people can change the world. Rather, we should look for God in the abundance of the relationships we enjoy on the journey. We should look for God in the surprising things we do with just a few people.
If we treasure these things rather than focus on what's missing, we are open to the treasure that is right in front of us. We start to see what is around us as enough. Because God has always been inviting us into a mindset of abundance, rather than the worry of scarcity. Abundance is a constant in the ministry of Jesus. He multiplies the fish to abundance. Whenever he breaks bread, there is abundance. He shifts the focus from what’s missing to what’s possible. Multiplying fish; abundance. Breaking break - abundance. Daily bread - abundance. Do we want to live these lives of hoarding, focusing on what might be missing, or the lives of giving? The answer we give reveals the truth of our hearts - and opens (or closes) us to the blessings God gives.
The less we want to have, the less we need to have. The less we need to have, the less we need to fear. The less we need to fear, the more we know that a life of giving allows us always to live, not on the brink of destruction, but on the brink of blessing.
Fear not. We can be secure that everything that needs to happen, will happen. Our capacity to trust in God can deepen only as other anxieties lessen their grip on our lives. And we can take heart in the experiences we have along the way. There are many things to worry about; but often, when we sit back and relax our worry muscle, things work out. You may not find everything you want, but you find what you need. Abundance rises to the surface. Because it is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom. And God tells us not to be afraid. Let us turn down our anxiety about scarcity, and instead rededicate our mindset to where abundance rises to the surface, and work to encounter God on our journeys. May it be so. Amen.