ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH FEBRUARY 26, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
SERMON ON THE MOUNT: FAITH
Matthew 5:8; 6:25 – 34; 7:7 – 11 & 15 – 19
Today we’re getting a jump start on a series of sermons for Lent based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew known as “The Sermon on the Mount”. I’ve gone through the SM to find common themes. We begin with faith. The word faith is used in various ways – most often describes belief or trust; sometimes we use these words interchangeably but they are different. A man fell off a cliff, grabbing a limb part way down. Hoping another hiker was nearby, he called out, “Is anyone there? Can you hear me?” “I am here. I am the Lord. Do you believe in me?” “Yes, Lord, I do believe, but I can’t hang on much longer.” “If you really believe, I will save you. Trust me. Let go of the branch.” There was a pause and the man said, “Lord, I’d trust you more if you’d send a rescue team.” Frequently we declare our faith by saying The Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…” but if a motion were made at a congregational meeting to step out in faith by taking a 50 million dollar mortgage and trust that God will provide, our belief in an almighty God may not falter but our trust might. Today we’re talking about faith – not abstract belief or intellectual assent but a deep conviction of trust or confidence in God.
The Beatitude that spoke to me most about faith was, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (5:8) At first glance, purity of heart doesn’t seem to have much to do with faith. The pure of heart are people without guile or ugliness of spirit; people who want, see and think the best of others. People who are holy. Purity consists of a singleness of heart and mind. Pure people desire one thing; they’re true to one thing; they trust in one thing. Because of their simplicity of faith, the pure in heart let go of the branch quite easily. When they ask, seek and knock, they have no doubt that their loving, heavenly Father will quickly open the door, eager for them to receive, find and enter. Later in the Sermon, Jesus warns against being corrupted by false teachers, saying “You will know them by their fruit” (7: 16). We can identify the pure of heart in part by their faith and holiness. After a violent storm, a large, stately tree was found lying across the pathway in a park. Nothing but a splintered stump was left. Closer examination showed it was rotten at the core because thousands of tiny insects had eaten away at its heart. If it had been healthy, the storm wouldn’t have destroyed it. Life is filled with many storms – job loss and poverty, illness and suffering, worries about our children, violence – any number of things threaten to take us down. If we’re pure in heart and trust in God our core is strong and can withstand the onslaughts of life, if not, our trust in God is eroded to the point that life’s threats easily overwhelm us. So the fruit we bear – which we call faith, the ability to fully and calmly trust in God, begins within our hearts. I don’t know about you, but if how we handle life’s storms in an indication of our spirit, then my heart needs a little work.
No doubt the most famous words about faith within Jesus’ sermon are his comments on anxiety. “…do not worry… Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air….Are you not of more value than they? Can worry add a single hour to your life? Consider the lilies of the field…will God not much more clothe you? Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough…” (6: 25 – 34) I’ll be the first to confess I’m a worrier. I worry about the future and the past. I worry if I’ve hurt someone or made a bad choice. I worry about my kids, my mother and my husband. I worry about the well-being of my flock and the future of our congregation. I worry that I’ll let someone down. Sometimes at night I wake up for no good reason. When it becomes apparent I’m not going back to sleep, I think, “Hey why waste good time, I could lie here and worry! And then I often do.” I resonate with Michel de Montaigne who said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune, most of which never happened.”
It’s said that 40% of what we worry about will never happen; 30% of what we worry about is in the past and can’t be changed; 12% are criticisms which are mostly untrue; 10% are health issues which get worse with stress. That leaves 8% of legitimate worries. Of those, we control only a small portion. Anxiety is the opposite of trust. The beginning of anxiety is the end of faith. The two cannot exist together. Anxiety is the anticipation of disaster, defeat and failure. The anxious person dwells on shame and misfortune. Anxiety robs us of life’s pleasure and joy.
We’re all familiar with worry, but how do we stop worrying? How do we turn worry into trust? Jesus had some wise advice. First of all we need to look at God’s track record. He feeds the birds and adorns the flowers. God cares for the smallest and the most temporal of things. Reminding ourselves of God’s character by looking at the many natural reminders around us is one step in quieting our worry.
Secondly, consider God’s love for you. How much value do you think God places on you? Each one of us is much more important to God, much more beloved by God, than we know. Would God die to save us if we were irrelevant to him? Because of God’s nature and God’s love for us, we can trust God with the people and situations that are most precious to us. We can be assured that if they’re important to us, they’re more important to God. It is a cliché to say “Let go and let God” but it’s a cliché because it holds a valuable if difficult truth. All of us know what it is to give a concern over to God, to put it in the hands of Jesus and most of us know that it’s not long before we’re taking it back again. You may want to develop the practice of one family who, when they were worried about something, they’d write it on a paper, pray and give it to God, then they’d place it in a box on a very high shelf. The rule was that if they began to worry again, they’d have to get a chair, take down the box and sort through all the papers to find the one they were obsessing about; then they’d do the whole ritual again. The thought of climbing the chair and searching for the paper made leaving it in the hands of their loving heavenly Father much more attractive. And as the Scots say, “What may be, may not be.”
Third, Jesus asks us to reflect on what worrying is getting us? Worry gives us a false sense of control. When we worry we feel like we’re doing something to address the situation. Not only does worry not add to our lives in any way, it has a strong capacity to shorten them. When it comes to stress we need to be able to sort out what we can control from what we can’t. We can take care of our bodies, but we can’t keep ourselves from dying. We can treat an illness but we can’t make the treatment work. We can love and set boundaries for our children but we can’t make their decisions for them. We can contribute well at work, but we can’t make our boss appreciate us. If we feel unappreciated, we can look for another job. By doing the things we’re able to do, we work with God, but we must never be so arrogant as to think we can do God’s work.
Fourth, we can live in the present moment. Too often we’re dwelling on the past or planning the future, we’re fretting or anxious, we’re kicking ourselves or trying to control what will be. But right now, in this present moment, at least most of the time, things are good and we’re safe. The past can’t hurt us, unless we let it. And the future isn’t ours to know. But right now, I can be peaceful and calm, I can dwell in God’s love, I can be grateful. There is a lovely meditation that goes, “Breathing I calm myself, breathing out I smile. Living in the present moment, it is a wonderful moment.”
Finally Jesus tells us to “Strive first for the kingdom of Godand hisrighteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (vs. 33) Well, what does that mean? It means that our task is to do our best, to do all we can in making God’s “kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven”. Instead of worrying, we need to focus on doing all we can to love our neighbour, to seek justice, to be merciful and forgiving and to live as people redeemed by Christ. It means put God before everything else. It means we spend our time in worship, reading scripture, praying, serving and enjoying and we let God take care of the rest. What does that look like? George Muller Massena, one of Napoleon’s generals, suddenly appeared with 18,000 soldiers before an Austrian town which had no means of defending itself. The town council met, certain that capitulation was the only answer. The old dean of the church reminded the council that it was Easter, and begged them to hold services as usual and to leave the trouble in God’s hands. They followed his advice. The dean went to the church and rang the bells to announce the service. The French soldiers heard the church bells ring and concluded that the Austrian army had come to rescue the town. They broke camp, and before the bells had ceased ringing, they vanished. Because Christ lives, every day is Easter. Faith focuses on celebrating that fact and trusts our trouble are in God’s hands. By faith we believe in an Almighty God; in faith, let’s trust our Almighty God to heal our past and to bring “good things” into our future. In the meantime, he is Emmanuel, God with us, walking with us now and in every moment.