A New Trip Around the Sun (June 24)
Matthew 6: 19-21, 28-34
A New Trip Around the Sun
So the last few weeks I feel have been a little bit heavy and strong, and so I’m going to try and start today with a little bit of levity. I’m going to bring you some jokes from cards. First we have a birthday card; it’s got the Star Wars kind of look to it, and on the front of the card it says “a long, long time ago… you were born.” Fortunately no one got me the card, at least not yet. I like it though. Next is a Maxine card, that cartoon with the grouchy old lady, and it seems like if you want a laugh you can always turn to Maxine. Her card said “if I could wish for only one thing on your birthday it would be…” and when you open the card and it says “for me to win the lottery.” Last we have Caleb‘s Father’s Day card to me, which was perfect, and read: “I thought you’d enjoy a card from someone who always listened, and never disobeyed…” and you open it and it says “but I have no idea who that would be.” On the back it says “I love listening to your advice. I don’t follow it, but you have a very pleasant speaking voice.”
But with this weekend I have a couple of things that spark a consideration into thinking about the future. There are a few of these days in the year that force you to look to the future. Of course we have the obvious, New Year’s day, where we have resolutions. But there are others too. The religious new year, for us the first Sunday in Advent; or birthdays, or the beginnings of new months, or anniversaries of important events. And for me yesterday was my birthday, and today is the 52nd week I’ve been here; in other words the last Sunday of the first year here. So with these two opportunities so close together, I began to think about what’s in the future; what’s the next trip around the Sun going to look like? And that’s kind of what got me thinking this week: how do we set goals, and what mindset do we have when we set goals?
And when you look to scripture, when it talks about the future, one of the big things it says is do not worry. Goal setting cannot be done, at least Godly goal setting cannot be done, in a state of worry or in a state of fear or in a state of anxiety. It has to be done in a state of anticipation. I will tell you that birthdays, especially if the birthday begins with a 4 or a 8 or 9, can cause a great deal of worry. However, birthdays, I think, can also help with anxiety. There are studies that show that we have less anxiety as we get older, particularly after we move through midlife. I think it ultimately comes down to where your ultimate concern is. What are you ultimately living for; is that ultimate concern, that ultimate thing you’re living for, in this life or in the next?
Living without anxiety may well be the single most difficult to follow command in Scripture. It certainly is one of the most countercultural commands in Scripture. Our society is built to produce anxiety the way a casino was built to keep you inside. Now I know you all are good Methodists, and don’t gamble at all, so I’ll inform you of the research that…the inside of a casino is built to keep you gambling. The ceiling and the floor are designed in such a way, with the ceiling being bland and the floor being extremely loud, to keep your eyes not wanting to go up and not wanting to go down, but to look straight at the games. Further, the casino was not built like a grid that’s easy to follow, but is built with twisting, and turning, and circular paths that are intended to get you lost so you cannot find the entrance again, or at least make it difficult. Therefore you’ll stay can you gamble a little bit more by design of the very environment.
Society is like this with anxiety. Theologian Jacob Myers said on this passage: “At every corner there is some new fear to haunt our dreams and burden our days. To exacerbate the situation, advertisers and news commentators do their best to keep our anxiety levels at code orange so that we will buy the latest gadget, imbibe the newest pharmaceutical wonder drug, or begin that new workout fad with a word like insanity or extreme in the title.”
I think you can add to that the headlines that we share on social media that are click bait: “so and so SLAMS says someone else.” Or “this politician DESTORYS such and such other politic political leader.” Or my favorite from the end of the last administration “Obama FURIOUS over what someone said,” when in reality chances that Obama even heard what so-and-so said are extremely slim. But we have these headlines, and these headlines are meant to cause anxiety in you. They’re meant to get your blood boiling before you even read the article. And then you’ll click the article and they get money. The world is designed to keep us in a constant state of fear. In fact hearing this teaching causes me anxiety because I’m not sure I can honestly say that I follow it. It seems that I plan for the future in a state that Jesus does not want me to plan for the future in.
Some think that Jesus doesn’t want us to plan for the future, and that is incorrect. Jesus wanted us to plan for the future. However he seemed to think that there was a better way to do so then the way that we commonly do it. That’s what this scripture gets to the heart of most of our planning: most of the planning we do for the future deal with what we will wear or what we will eat. And things like that the material things. That’s what we have to change, that’s not what we need to be planning a future around. So what does it look like to do it differently?
For starters it looks like praying at the beginning of making a decision. If you’re like me, I typically will catch myself and will pray as I’m making the decision. But I really should be remembering to pray at the beginning, when I’m entering into making decisions or making goals. So pray prior to beginning, or at least as soon as you remember to do so; that’s the first step.
After that, I remember a couple of people. They were lawyers, at least he was a lawyer, in the small town where I served before this. They were not a member of the Methodist church, but he did host the food pantry free of charge in anyway: no rent, no utilities, no nothing; in the back of his building. He was extremely successful as a lawyer and he was just entering the beginnings of retirement age, and all of a sudden he announced that he was going to retire, and that he and his wife are going to move to Tennessee to be missionaries. To give up their cushy position in Western Kansas and go be missionaries in Tennessee is what it looked like for them. Sometimes setting Godly goals looks like retiring not based on location, but based upon how much good you can do for God in your retirement.
If you’re younger, you can take retiring and substitute with planning. Planning not based upon just what can put you in a better position, but based upon how you can get yourself to better serve God. A tangible way you can check yourself with this is to make sure that the majority of your plans for the upcoming period of time are not financial in nature. Some can be, but the majority of your plans should be about how you can better serve God, or how you can make yourself a better person or have a great relationship with God rather than about the financials. If you focus upon being a better disciple of Jesus Christ, either in your own personal faith or the ways in which you serve the world, financial stuff will take care of itself, and often in unexpected ways.
Elsewhere in Scripture we can look at the passage where Jesus says that those who inherit eternal life are those who “hate this life.” He says that we must hate our life. But I don’t think he means that like we have to be in this terrible situation where we scream, “I hate my life!” That’s not I think what he means; I think what Jesus means is that we need to be in a place where, if needed, we will choose the ethically right thing over what is financially more beneficial. As he put it in this passage, “your heart is where your treasure is.” Which implies that you should place your treasure where you want your heart to be; you should place your treasure where you want your heart to be.
Instead of setting our goals in a state of worry, we must rather set our goals in the state of anticipation; excitedly looking forward to what God will do through us in Christ and excitingly anticipating God showing the path God has for us. If we have that mindset when we set our goals there are a few things we are assured of. First off, our goals will be unified with Gods goals. Secondly those goals will be joy-providing goals. And thirdly God will be with us as we pursue those goals.
When I think about God being with us as we pursue those goals, I think about my son who’s into the stage where he runs to us and wants to be picked up for security. Now I wish we got through that stage before he was 36 pounds, but I will take it. When he gets scared, he wants to be picked up, and when he is held by mom or when is he held by dad in the world is safer. He can face anything. This is the promise that were given: God does not promise financial blessings, God does not promise any easy life, God promises that God will be there; that God will never for sake us or abandon us no matter how bad things get.
Now I recognize that some will have more difficulty setting goals in this way or getting to this place than others. Some will have more difficulty lowering their anxiety in order to set goals then other people. And I understand that. But I want to lay out some strategies that would help. First off, sometimes you just have to “fake it till you make it.” You set small goals and try to get more anxiety free, and you just press on and trust that God can work through imperfect vessels.
Sometimes you need to get help to get in anxiety free, and I understand that. Sometimes God works in us through doctors and medications. I want to make sure to say that too. But one thing you can do is pray to God for help with what is causing your anxiety, AND for help and in handing over what is causing your worry. I’ve done that on multiple occasions. Sometimes that’s what you need. Another thing you can do is take a journal and write down what is worrying you. Write it down on the page. And then you close the journal, and you set it on the bedside table, and you can tell yourself “I am laying this down,” because you are literally laying it down; and that can be surprisingly very, very powerful.
What I’m suggesting that we do is something that is extremely difficult. But as Jesus said, God protects the lilies of the field. And that reminded me of my tree in the backyard of our house when I was young. My parents bought a tree for me, and they planted in the backyard, and the tree grew. Until one summer when a storm came through, and blew a large branch off the much larger tree next to it. And that branch missed the house, but it came over and it took out half of my tree. And my poor little tree stood damaged, but by the next spring there were new branches growing, and God was providing more nutrients and more light and more food for that tree so that it could grow. And by two years later it looked like nothing had happened to that little tree…until that October in 2001; when we had a blizzard that dropped 4+ inches of snow, in October, with leaves still on the tree. And when it was done we went outside and looked, and the entire top of my tree had fallen off. The tree was as good as gone and we knew it, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to tear down this beautiful tree, and so we didn’t. And wouldn’t you know it, the next spring there were branches sprouting off that tree. And by the time we sold the house a few years later, you couldn’t tell it had been damaged.
God watches over the lilies of the field and the trees of the field folks, and that doesn’t mean that bad things will never happen, but it means that God will get us through them and bring us out on the other side. And if God will do it for the trees, then God will do it for us. So let us trust in God and look to the future with hope and anticipation for all God will do in us. Amen.