This is Our Story, This is Our Song: Summer Sermon Series 2018 (week one)
129. That is the number of e-mails I returned to find this week in my church e-mail inbox. Full disclosure. I have not read them all. Not even close in fact, since I was only in the office one day. Alongside the “snail mail” and other notes on my desk, I had quite a bit stack up while I was gone. It wasn’t all together surprising, in fact the number of e-mails was less than I feared it might be. And here I thought it would be an easy time to get away. It seems that business is even true in the summertime, a season when deceptively we tend to think there is less to do. And yet, whether it’s ongoing work or planning a family trip or just figuring out when you can mow your yard in between rain drops, there seems to be just as much “stuff” in our lives to contend with. As I took a quick survey of the tasks at hand, I realized quickly that I needed to develop some sort of plan of attack if I was to accomplish anything. I remembered the all-to-true cliched question: How do you eat an elephant? (one bite at a time).
Toward the end of his sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives similar advice. In previous verses (going back to chapter 5), Jesus has given his followers a primer for what it means to be a disciple, from caring for others to how to pray. Here, though, he provides some tactile instructions relating to their relationship with gaining and spending money. The disciples around him, and perhaps their culture in general too, seemed to be in a tizzy with worry. The details of logistics and genuine practical concerns consumed them. It makes sense. They left their livelihoods to follow this curious man, all that they had known and all that provided them security. But Jesus tells them not to worry. Just sit back, and “God will provide.” Taken at just face value, it seems to imply that we have no real responsibility for caring for the basic needs of ourselves or others. That seems to be a dangerous theological approach to living, and on that poses serious ethical questions of entitlement and leads us to a prosperity gospel in which those with enough faith get taken care of, and even are emboldened to ask for ludicrous things like like $54 million dollar jets; while those who struggling are categorized as simply not having enough faith, or worse, being loved less by God. That type of thinking seems pretty contradictory to the gospel message, the “good news” of our Lord and Savior, both in the 1st century and today.
Perhaps, then, we might look at this teaching from Christ as having another angle; similar to other parables and metaphors, it uses language that is more poetry than prose. As writer Douglas R. A. Hare notes:
“The birds of heaven” and “the lilies of the field” become larger than life. They are not models to be imitated but powerful symbols of God’s providential care . . .The rhetorical development of these symbols draws our attention away from our frantic pursuit of the necessities of life to a calmer vision of God’s bountiful care in the natural world[i].
Such a focus might redirect our attention away from those things that keep us spinning toward a renewed understanding of an ever-present God who is engaged and active in our world. It is God stepping in to the most anxious moments in our life with a reassurance that it is going to be ok, because God’s got us in all of this, and through Jesus we are able to again see the big picture of what God has in mind for the world – namely, love and care for all of God’s creation.
Just over a week ago I had the amazing opportunity to attend an ecumenical preaching conference known as the Festival of Homiletics. This year it was held in Washington, D.C., and continued its tradition of bringing some of the best preachers and theologians of the Christian faith for inspiring sermons and reflections on the craft of preaching. As I have described it to some of you, it’s having those names on the spines of the books on my theological shelf come to life: Walter Brueggemann, Otis Moss, III, Anna Carter Florence, Richard Rohr, Diana Butler Bass, and more. They were inspiring and challenging and uplifting to more than 1500 of us preachers who gathered to consider how we might better proclaim the good news each week from the pulpit and in our lives as well. In addition to the Festival, another event happened in D.C. that week. On Thursday evening, I attended a worship service and prayer vigil with the Reclaiming Jesus movement. In association with the Sojourners, 23 elders from various denominations of the Christian faith gathered this Lent and reflected on the state of Christianity in our country and world. Through study, prayer, and conversation, they noted this:
We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.
It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35)[ii].
In response to the worry, and toil, and spinning of our world, these 23 elders put forth an incredible statement with 6 essential assertions of what it means to claim Jesus Christ as Lord. You can read the full statement, which is subtitled “A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” at http://www.ReclaimingJesus.org. But here is a brief summary of its main confessions of faith:
- WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26).
- WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28).
- WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46)
- WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives.
- WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination.
- WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18)[iii]
It is a powerful statement of faith. It was even more incredible to hear so many leaders in the Christian faith speak to these statements, from Bishop Michael Curry (yes, the one who preached at the royal wedding) to Tony Campolo to the legendary James Forbes and more. As they spoke about each of these statements, a common theme emerged – this is what it means to say Jesus Christ is Lord. The biblical references from both the Old and New Testaments were rich, and the energy in the packed National City Church was brimming. As we professed our faith in word and song, at one point the more than 1,000 who were gathered joined in unison to repeat “Jesus Christ is Lord!” The crowd was diverse. It was far more than just us preacher folks, and included young and old, male and female, different cultural and social backgrounds, and many different denominations. I truly felt like I was in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses. That evening I was tremendously moved by the Spirit and incredibly aware of God’s presence that I couldn’t help but be re-energized for the work of a calling to ministry to proclaim such good news; and at the same time truly humbled by the enormity of the task and terrified I might not be able to do it, to do God, justice.
As I read the passage from Matthew upon my return, I wonder if that is the feeling the disciples might have had during the Sermon on the Mount. They had been given a high calling, an exciting one, and then suddenly be swept up in the worry that you might not be able to handle it. Then, the many practical reasons this is all going to blow up in your face start to come. How will you eat? What will you wear? What will people think about you if you just start talking all the time about Jesus? Perhaps the disciples are also struck by the enormity of the task Jesus is presenting – spreading the good news of God’s love in revolutionary ways is HUGE. It is not something accomplished in one day. Or one lifetime. Or even twenty centuries. It is ongoing work, and such important work that it is bound to make faithful disciples worry if we are doing enough. To this, Jesus speaks words of calm, akin to his popular refrain, “Peace, be still.” Stop putting your energy into worry and toil, Jesus says, and instead focus on the one who has provided everything and still cares for you. Instead of just plowing through a to-do list of tasks, seek something else first – the kingdom of God. For followers of Jesus, that is the first bite we should take of the elephant of discipleship.
This is a simple instruction worth remembering. It might have even reminded those who were Jewish of the central prayer and instruction God gave to the people Israel as recorded in Deuteronomy 6, verses 4 and 5. It is known as the Shema, which means hearing or obeying, and reminds the people that the most important thing they can do as God’s own is to remember that God is God alone, and that we are to love God with all we’ve got. In fact, this is the call Jesus will refer to later in the gospel as the most important commandment. But he also echoes it, I think, in this portion of the sermon on the mount, particularly in verse 33 when followers are instructed to first seek the kingdom of God. Both of these, along with countless other reminders in Scripture, remind us that if we are to call ourselves children of God, and if we are to claim that we follow Jesus, we need to put first things first. And what comes first needs to be God.
In Deuteronomy, the people are instructed to repeat the shema, sharing them with children at home and away, and binding them literally to themselves, lest they forget their importance. I think one of the ways we as people of faith live into this instruction to carry our faith with us is through song. More than perhaps any other experience or practice of faith, music seems to stay with me. It gets stuck in my head and is what I can return to when things are tough. As the chorus from Blessed Assurance goes, “this is my story; this is my song!” The hymns and songs of our faith help proclaim our story, God’s story, in ways that stick with us and inspire us to lead compelling lives of faith that matter. Over the next two months, we will connect one or more of these great hymns to the stories of Scripture and learn a bit more about their background in the process.
This week is one of our most literal connections, with the popular hymn “Seek Ye First,” which directly quotes Matthew 6:33 from the King James Version. It was written by Karen Lafferty in the early 1970s. Shortly before then, Karen was putting her music degree to use as an entertainer in a nightclub in New Orleans. A friend came to visit her and reminded her of the importance of the Christian faith in which she had been raised, one she had paid less attention to in her search for herself as a young adult. Something shifted within her, and she moved to California and soon became involved with a community of young musicians at Calvary Chapel. What is now a major Christian music label, Maranatha! Music, was just getting its start in very informal ways, as this group tried to figure out how to serve God through music. One evening, after a Bible study on Matthew 6, Karen was struck by verse 33 and followed the trend of other musicians at the time by setting it to music, complete with an Alleluia descant[iv]. It became one of the hit songs on Maranatha! Music’s first album, Praise 1, with additional related verses from Scripture added at later dates. It continues to be in the majority of hymnals today and is one of the most well known modern songs of praise in the Christian faith[v]. While Lafferty’s ministry of music continued, as she now serves in mission with music internationally, this is considered her “one-hit-wonder.” The words, by design, are simple and reflective, almost a prayerful singing of the biblical text, but I believe the combination with the tune also captures the essence of the passage, a calming reassurance of God’s presence, and a commitment we each make as singers to put God first. As we proclaim our faith in song today, I invite you to consider this a prayer and an offering to God, and hope that this will be a song to carry you this week as you seek to follow Christ by putting God first. Together, let us claim God’s story, our story, in song:
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
June 3, 2018
[i] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for teaching and preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993), 74.
[iii] Read the full statement and accompanying information at www.reclaimingjesus.org
[iv] To hear Karen’s description of this story, check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7p9UN7DAmV4, accessed 6/2/18.
[v] Additional descriptions of the hymn’s history can be found here: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-seek-ye-first and here: https://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-1990/seek-ye-first-interview-karen-lafferty. Both accessed 6/2/18.