STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 20, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship Habakkuk 2: 20
God is in his holy temple;
Let all the earth be silent before him
Hymn: How Great Thou Art
Prayer of Adoration and Confession:
Sovereign God, you are the King of kings and the Lord of lords. You rule over all that exists.
Everything belongs to you and you tend it with love.
You are absolute peace, like nothing the world has ever known.
Even when we fail you with our pride, judgements, violence and sin, you use all things to unfold your great, eternal plan.
You use all things for our good.
You use all things to your glory.
We confess that we do not fully trust you.
We desire many things: nice homes, fine furniture, good clothing, better cars. Most of these needs have grown into wants. We look to our own devices to get them, instead of receiving what you choose to give us.
We have many fears.
We worry for our lives, for our loved ones, about our homes, our money, our provisions.
We look into the future and imagine horrible things.
We worry you’ll abandon us.
Forgive us of this great insult.
Give us your peace and give us freedom from anxiety.
Let us trust you and rest in you, knowing that you love us with an everlasting love, shown in the saving work of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Help us to rejoice that you will not leave us or forsake us.
We ask that as we worship, you would flood our hearts with thanksgiving and praise for you. Amen.
Assurance Psalm 62: 7 & 8
My help and glory are in God
—granite-strength and safe-harbor-God—
So trust him absolutely, people;
lay your lives on the line for him.
God is a safe place to be.
Prayer for Illumination:
Lord, shine your light through your Word, into our minds and hearts, so that we may trust you in all things. Amen.
1 Peter 1: 3 – 5
Matthew 6: 25 – 34
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” NRSV
“If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” The Message
Message: What can you do?
For many months we’ve been living with a deadly virus. It’s been an anxious time. CoVid has affected every part of our lives. Work. Shopping. Politics. Church. It’s brought out whole new levels of anxiety. Anxiety is disabling and it has spiked considerably in the last few months. The uncertainty of these times creates fear and worry. We’re worried about contracting the virus or spreading it without knowing. Everyone who sneezes is a threat. We’re worried about the secondary health problems it can trigger, like heart disease. We experience stress around finances, work, marital tensions, shopping, socializing, our children and our parents. Physical distancing, wearing a mask, washing our hands, not touching our face all add to our unease. A crowd freaks us out but isolation is unbearable. We worry about a vaccine – will it come? Will it be properly tested? Will it work? Then, there’s death: we imagine ourselves on a ventilator with our lives hanging in the balance. Or worse, grieving someone we love. Even going to worship is taxing. Since we view church as our refuge in an insane world, we desperately want church to be staid and steady. We’re anxious because we feel unsafe and insecure. Life has become frail and unstable. Nothing is normal anymore. But, what can you do?
Slight or all-consuming anxiety impacts our lives. There are different levels of anxiety, some are mild, and some are full blown disorders. Anxiety isn’t something we turn on and off like a light switch. It overwhelms us and takes over. Anxiety emerges because we’re fearful and we’re fearful when we can’t control our situation. In a paradoxical way, a panic attack can be a way of disengaging ourselves from what’s happening, thus giving us a small degree of control. Worry usually eases when we start to face our challenges – people diagnosed with cancer nearly always feel less anxious once their treatment plan is in place. None-the-less, an anxiety disorder is a serious illness which hits us and every part of our lives. People don’t wish, fake, or bring on an anxiety attack. It overtakes them. Telling someone who is anxious to relax is like telling someone with epilepsy to get a grip on their seizures. Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life”.
While this is a hard saying to fulfill, it helps to put it in perspective, as Jesus did. There is more to life than our physical bodies with their temporal needs. We are not physical bodies that contain a spirit, we are spiritual beings united to a body. The body will not last, but the spirit has eternal potential. God is both our creator and the source of our life. We have not made ourselves and we do not sustain ourselves. Life is God’s gift. Our lives, both spiritually and physically are God’s responsibility. Our body is more precious to our Creator than the food we put in it and the clothes we put on it. And our spirit is more precious than our bodies. If God loves us enough to care for our our spirits, won’t he take care of our physical needs as well? But the opposite is also true. If God cares for our physical needs, won’t he care of our spiritual self? Jesus asks us to study the birds of the air. Birds don’t farm. They don’t plow fields or reap harvests or use barns for storage. Yet, God feeds them. How does God do this? Not by stretching out his divine arm and popping berries in their beaks, but by providing the food from nature and granting them God-given instincts. The wild-flowers do even less – they don’t grow and pick cotton, they don’t spin, weave or sew and yet they are amazingly beautiful in their natural “garments’. How? Because God implants particular DNA in them, and he provides sun, soil and rain to nourish them. So, if God is concerned for the transient aspects of creation, won’t he be more concerned for us? We may not have a handle on every situation, but we can still be at ease because God has his hand on us.
Yet, if this is true, why do people go hungry or naked? There are some Christians who say that if something bad is happening to you, it’s because God is punishing you. Of course, if something bad happens to them, it’s because I’m so valuable to the kingdom God has allowed Satan to try me, knowing my faith is so strong I’ll come out victorious. So, moving away from self-righteousness and the pretense that we understand the mind of God, why do people go hungry or naked? Why doesn’t God provide food and clothing? The answer is: he does. We know our planet has enough resources to feed everyone if the wealthy lived more simply and there was a more even distribution of goods. If people are hungry or naked, we need to look at humanity’s greed, rather than accuse God of a lack of love. In Matthew 25, Jesus reminds us that our care of others is so important that it is equal to our care of him. Secondly, God provides the raw materials, but we are still required to do our part. In 1853, Hudson Taylor set out on his first mission trip. When a violent storm arose on the Welsh coast, he thought it would show a lack of faith and be dishonouring of God to wear a lifejacket. Later he reflected, “The use of means ought not to lessen our faith in God and our faith in God should not stop us from using whatever means he gives us to fulfill his purposes.” Just as the birds of the air gather what they need, so we are commissioned to work for our living, using the means God gives us.
Still, the fact remains that sparrows do fall, pandemics assault us, and trouble finds us. Jesus had trouble. Paul had trouble. Every Christian who has walked the Earth has had trouble of one sort or another. Jesus is quite clear here and in other scriptures that there will be trouble. We can’t control trouble, but we can respond to it differently. RISK (trouble) = HAZARD (danger) – MITIGATION (safety measures). During this pandemic we’ve operated with a different formula RISK = HAZARD x FEAR. We lessen our fear by sorting out what God controls, what we can control and what cannot control.
God controls our eternal salvation. He preserves our spirits. He controls the unfolding of history. He controls the culmination of all events that lie in the future. As Peter states, “By [God’s] great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1: 3 – 5). Christians may fear many things, but there is no reason for us to fear death, whether by cancer, CoVid or being hit by a bus. Life and death are God’s domain. Trusting that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” Romans 14:8) will lessen anxiety.
During this pandemic, there are many things the average person has no control over: where it started, who gets it, how many will suffer, whether we are in lock-down or not, the development of a vaccine. A pandemic just happens, what can you do? We can only accept that we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic that will eventually run its course. Letting go and agreeing that “it is what it is”, and getting on with life, lessens anxiety.
Still, that’s a good question: what can you do? Well, we have control over our own actions. We can follow the advice of the medical professionals. We can love people who may be fearful and struggling. We can do what we can to lessen the danger (masks, distance, hand wash, etc). We can think of the needs of others as we have with our food drives, mask making and donations. Doing the simple things we can do lessens anxiety. We can’t control everything because not everything is ours to control, but we do have control over some things which together, add up. We can only do those things.
So, Jesus directs us, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for the future. Joseph saved Egypt with divine foresight and a good plan. He did what he could. We need to do what we can. What is not helpful is imagining future scenarios. When I was 9, the teacher let me stay and clean the blackboard. I used the brush and the shammy from another classroom; it looked good. The teacher disappeared for over an hour. I got bored and decided to write on the chalkboard, figuring I could clean it again. When I went to get the shammy, the room was locked. My teacher was livid. She told me to go home and she’d deal with me tomorrow. That night, I imagined a thousand different punishments and a million harsh words. I begged my mom to let me stay home. I went to school expecting the worst, but when I arrived the blackboard was clean, the teacher was in a great mood, and it was never mentioned again. We can waste a lot of energy and make ourselves ill worrying about things that may not happen. Worrying about things we can’t control. Worrying about things that may happen tomorrow, but we can’t address today. Instead of worrying Jesus asks us to “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now”. We are to keep our eyes on God, participate in God’s kingdom, trust in God’s love and justice, and live in the moment. In most moments, we’re safe. Even in the middle of a pandemic, this moment is a good one.
The same is true of congregations. These are anxious times. Without being able to meet, many churches have experienced a lack of funds. We wonder if people will return as we re-open or if “pajama church” is here to stay. We hear of congregations closing. Apart from the pandemic, we witness growing hostility towards the Church, a lack of belief in the existence of God and mockery over our belief in the resurrection of Jesus. What can we do? We can trust in God, do the things we can, let go of what we can’t do and enjoy the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the fellowship we have in the Holy Spirit.
Anxiety, striving after earthly things, failing to trust and rest in God’s care and grace – these are things the world does. As Christians, we’re called to be different. The more we can let go, have trust in God, the more we’re liberated to live our best, abundant life. Jesus tells us “Do not worry about your life” not because he’s impatient with our fearfulness or tired of our anxiety, but because he wants us to live fully and freely – he seeks our best and he offers us his best. One day a man met a homeless man and said, “God give you a good day’. The poor man replied, “I’ve never had a bad one.” The stranger said, “God give you a happy life.” The beggar replied, “I am never unhappy.” The man asked, “What do you mean?” The other replied, “When it’s sunny, I thank God. When it’s rainy, I thank God. When I have plenty, I thank God. When I’m hungry, I thank God. When I’m healthy, I thank God. When I’m ill, I thank God. And since my will aligns with God’s will, whatever pleases him, pleases me. The man was shocked, “Who are you? The fellow said, “I’m the child of a King.” “Really, where’s this kingdom?”. The beggar said, “In my heart”. Do not be anxious. Whatever happens, you are the child of the King.
God you are our rock and shield, all we are comes from you and all we will be is in your hands. We surrender ourselves to you. May we live for your glory. Amen.
Hymn: My hope is built on nothing less
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession:
Wow! Lord we have so much for which to be thankful.
We thank you that in the midst of a pandemic, you have preserved our lives and the lives of those we love.
We thank you that we’re able to worship together – some in person and some from home – what a joy it is to be together in your presence.
We thank you for our brothers and sisters in Christ, for the congregation of St. Stephen’s, for all who share our joys and sorrows. For those who know our story and love us regardless. For those who bear our burdens with us. For those we work beside to further your kingdom and show your love.
We thank you for the people who have gone before us. For their faithfulness to you. For their willingness to work and give to this church. For the myriad of things they did, many of which are long forgotten, in service to you. We thank you for every child who has come through our doors. May they be blessed with the joy of faith in you. We thank you for the ministers who have guided us, built up our faith, fostered our gifts, shared in our healing, and spoke your word. We thank you for each one we have known and loved. You have given us treasures beyond our own understanding or appreciation.
We thank you that you have a plan for our congregations welfare. You are creating with us a future filled with hope. We pray that in the coming years we may build on the legacy of those who established this congregation. Make us a beacon in our community. Give us love for our neighbours. Make us creative and energetic in our worship and in our outreach. Help us to be a church that’s known for believing in and following Christ in ways that are refreshingly surprising to those who don’t know you. Give us flexibility. Give us faith. Give us harmony. Sustain us that we may still be a witness to Christ in this city in another 56 years. Show us how to become that church.
We pray today for those we know who are in need:
We also pause to name before you those who are on our hearts:
We pray for our world in need of transformation, yet so lost as to how to create it. People are so angry and frantic, so hard and self-righteous. Show them the way of Christ.
Help us to be models of forgiveness and mercy in our broken world. May we honour one another and provide for those with needs. Make us generous. Help us to live in peace. May we seek your kingdom on earth and your righteousness.
We pray through Jesus who taught us to say,
The Lord’s Prayer
Invitation to Mission
We go from here trusting God,
We go from here resting in the peace and salvation of Jesus Christ. Amen.