The Sunday Sermon: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 27, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 6:25-31a
What is Right in Front of Us
Two readings this morning. The first from our holy scripture, the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
Read Matthew 6:25-34 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
And the second reading of a Zen Buddhist wisdom tale entitled The Wild Strawberry:
A man traveling through the mountains suddenly found himself being chased by a huge hungry tiger. He ran and he ran until he came to the edge of cliff. There, with nowhere else to go, he caught hold of a thick vine and swung himself over the edge. Above him, the tiger growled. Below him he heard a sound, and looked down to see another tiger waiting for him at the bottom of the vine. Two mice, a white mouse and black mouse, scrambled out from the cliff side and began to gnaw at the vine. The traveler could see they were quickly eating through it. Then in front of him on the cliff side a delicious smell caught his attention. A luscious wild strawberry! Holding onto the vine with one hand, he reached and picked the berry with the other. Ahh … how delicious! (“The Wild Strawberry,” Zen)
Both of those should be familiar, you’ve heard them before in this room. And as with any good scripture reading or any worthy “koan” there is more than one way to interpret and understand its meaning. Wisdom tales such as this one wouldn’t have stood the test of time otherwise, and scripture lessons such as Matthew 6 wouldn’t come around every three years for renewed investigation and discernment. These two readings are similar in at least this way: They both encourage us, even implore us, to find that which is good, that which is nourishing, that which is important right in front of us, in the “here and now.”
Matthew, first book in the New Testament, chapter six, verse 25. Of all the passages in the Bible about trust in God, this is probably the most beloved. The most beloved and the most puzzling. Its power is related to its poetic and straightforward character, and its limitations from its seemingly irresponsible and lazy call to life. It’s not true even that all birds are fed and all lilies reach their fullest beauty, let alone all humans. It is not the case that invariably all things necessary to life are added to those who “seek first the kingdom of God,” and careful planning can avoid disasters, natural and self-inflicted. But this teaching is not first and foremost about our predicament. It is about God’s promise.
In our frenzy to provide ourselves with so much in excess of our basic needs, in our frenzy to “eat our captives food,” we have fallen out of touch with the true breath of life. From our insatiable desire to acquire and hoard “our stuff,” and then depend on that “stuff” to make us happy, in our insistence on living in God’s world on our terms, the way to the tree of life has (as we are told in Genesis right at the beginning of our story) been secured by fierce protectors bearing flaming swords. How do we get through, get back, let go, breathe deep, live?
I’ll tell you how. Actually, Matthew tells us how this morning: Live in the moment. Live in the now. Don’t store up treasures and certainly don’t rely on them to make you happy. Don’t worry about what has been and don’t worry about tomorrow. That’s all. And if that still sounds impossible, let me share an example of living in the now that I experienced this summer. A very personal story that helped me and that I offer to you (Let’s see if I can do this …)
When I got home a few hours after the worship service on July 23rd last month, Sam and Gabe and I headed up to Chicago for one of DePaul University’s Premiere Sessions, that’s the Freshman orientation experience at the school. Sam is an incoming Freshman at the University. Drop-off day is this coming Saturday. (Later than most other colleges, but still too soon for at least two of us.) The Session was two days, Monday and Tuesday, with the new students separating from family early on, seminars for parents both days while students attended their own, Sam and others staying in a dorm Monday night. But we had meals together – dinner Monday night and breakfast and lunch Tuesday. Katie and Annie couldn’t go because of a rehearsal schedule they had here, and Gabe started out with us, but the seminars became less than attractive after the first five minutes of the first session, so he found places to hang out in the Student Center and slept in at the hotel he and I had on Tuesday morning.
In any case, I found myself attending the parent seminars alone with about eighty or ninety other parents, all equally “alone” it seemed, steeped in their own thoughts and concerns, their own memories and questions. You see, in one way or another, we were all remembering every single day we could from the past eighteen or nineteen years: cribs and changing tables, train sets and tele-tubbies, soccer games and science projects, middle school and .., well, middle school, high school dances and drivers licenses and laying awake at night until we heard the door open and close, saw the hall lights turned off, and heard the heavy footfalls on the stairs leading to a safe bedroom.
We were dong all that and, we were simultaneously all worrying about every day we could imagine for the next four or five years: Balanced meals and clean laundry, roommates and dorm-life, getting to classes on time and public transportation, class registration and tuition payments and lying awake at night not hearing doors open and close, but trusting that they would be somewhere, and that lights somewhere would be turned out and warm beds would be close.
In short, we were all sitting their “alone” with each other remembering the past and worrying about the future.
So, at dinnertime on Monday evening, having gathered up Gabe from one of the student lounges, we meet Sam at the entrance to the cafeteria, checked through, got our food and sat down. He talked about what he’d been doing and I shared some of what I’d learned: Did he know that the washers and dryers were free? (Well, they were paid for with dorm costs, but no quarters would be needed.) Did they tell him that meal plan money could roll over quarter to quarter, but not year to year? Had he heard the UPass cards worked on all public transportation in the city, buses as well as the “El?” He was nodding at me, but I didn’t feel like he was really paying attention, looking around as he was at the food lines, the other incoming freshman, and his own tray. He’s nervous and worried, I thought. I’ll stop rambling on.
After we finished eating, I gave him a hug and Gabe and I headed out to get back to our hotel as he joined up with his group to head to their next activity and then to the dorms where they’d be paired up and shown a room.
The next morning, as Gabe slept on, I headed out alone, walking the eight blocks or so to campus to meet Sam for breakfast. As we sat together for this meal, after I asked him how the night before went and he shared more than I thought he would, I told him I was going to be sitting in on some financial management sessions and we’d be choosing a payment plan to pay for all this, a plan that would include disbursement of the loan he’d taken out. And I informed him that I was going to a housing session that would give us some clarity about move-in day on September 2nd and the kinds of things he may want to pack and move in with.
As I looked up at him, I again saw that he was looking around the cafeteria at people and processes, and I got a little snippy. “Hey, we have this morning and early afternoon to be sure we’re ready for the next four years,” I said. “You have some good sessions for the morning?”
He looked at me for, what I thought, was the first time that morning. “Yea,” he said, “we do.” And looking back down at his tray, he said, “I’m going to get more bacon.”
And as he stood up to go the shortest bacon line, it hit me: He wasn’t anxious about the next four years, and he wasn’t pining away for the past eighteen. He was allowing the day’s worries to be sufficient for the day. Most immediately bacon, apparently, but the cafeteria – how to get around in it, how others were getting things done, what food was in each line, how to navigate the beverage station, which table allowed the best access to all. He wasn’t “absent” at all, he was profoundly present. Just not present in the past or the future I wanted him to be aware of. He was present in the present.
I took that example into my own morning that Tuesday, deciding to pay attention to what was right in front of me instead of what was behind or in front of me. I found myself much less anxious about tuition payments and housing assignments. I felt more in touch with the parents, talking with a few, and I heard the presenters more clearly, asking more of my own questions. That’s the truth. I made a conscious decision to be “in the now.”
In the Buddhist faith, the tradition from which the second reading I shared comes to us, it is most often called “mindfulness.” In our traditional Christian symbols and language this process of development and growth in the present, this journey in the “now,” is called “sanctification.” It is part of God’s creative action in the world as it is “right now.” And we sanctify our lives, we nurture ourselves, and others, as we live out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, to have trust in what is right here, right in front of us, right now. A sanctified, mindful, and purposeful life is a powerful influence, not just for ourselves, but for others (Sam brought me into the “now” of July 24th). And it comes mostly from not doing anything, at least nothing “frantic,” nothing worrisome. It comes mostly from slowing down, and letting go, and giving up, and giving over; from living life and not just waiting for life to happen; from noticing and getting in touch with the mystery of life, which is – as much as anything else is – that which we call God. The right here, right now.
I know, even my own example is romantic. Sam was certainly thinking about the future, a bit anxious about what’s next, of course. The tigers don’t go away, our past and our present, below and above us. The mice don’t stop gnawing, time doesn’t stop. But if, and when, we are able to control time and not be controlled by it, we find the holy, the sacred, and the divine not in some far off, hoped for, time of life, but rather right here and now, and right in front of us.
Seek first the kingdom of God, the world of God’s creation, on God’s terms. Our reward is a little bit of heaven on earth. However brief, however fleeting, a glimpse of what ought to be always.
Ahh, the life that’s right in front of us … how delicious! Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / August 27, 2017