Monday, August 12, 2019

Flowers or Fear: A Sermon Considering the Lilies of the Fields and Birds of the Air

This sermon was preached oN August 11, 2019 at The First Presbyterian Church of Rahway. 

I was running the streets of Baltimore, the city and surrounding suburbs I called home for most of my childhood, when I came to an abrupt stop. It was not from a cramp, despite being on mile three of a four-mile morning run. It was also not because I nearly ran into traffic or a rodent had crossed my path.  Actually, I didn’t encounter a single one the entire time I was in Charm City for Big Tent, a bi-annual Presbyterian Mission and Ministry conference.  

Rather, I stopped because I noticed two florists creating an elaborate bouquet that framed an ordinary park bench just outside the Inner Harbor. The yellow sunflowers, white baby’s breath, and greenery burst with color and formed a long floral train that extended out onto the brick sidewalk. In the center of this brilliant sculpture bursting with life were the engraved words, “Baltimore: The Greatest City in America.” And I had to catch my breath. And I had to ask why the display of hope. The gist of their response, our city has gotten a lot of undeserved and undignified attention from people in places of power and we wanted to combat that narrative with one of beauty and possibility. 

This is gospel, my friends. These floral artists transcended rhetoric laced in anxiety, reclaimed the worth and dignity of their beloved city, and used what they had to actively participate in an alternative story of love and generosity. They even dared others to strive and seek after it, too. As I read through Luke 12 this week, this image of a flower-draped bench ran through my imagination. Yes, they were arranging flowers with a fragrance that overwhelms fear, the essence of Jesus’ words to us this morning.  But before we go any farther, let’s pray.  

I have always loved this passage of Scripture. Mostly because I need it. Worry and anxiety, like for many of you here, hang around me like those summertime gnats you endlessly swat yet make no progress in eliminating. Whether finances or health, the environment or our children’s future, we want to know all well be well and secure. This is partially why we named our oldest daughter Lily, as in “consider the lilies.” The intent was for every time we looked into her eyes, much like when Jesus called the disciples to look at the birds of the air and the flowers of the fields, to be reminded of God’s provision and breathe away angst and fear.  

The gospel lesson for this morning comes to those in need of the same reminder. Jesus is addressing his disciples who lived in the midst of a land occupied by an oppressive Roman Empire. These disciples, most who were first-century Palestinian Jews, knew all-too-well a narrative of scarcity that bread anxiety and fear. Anxious fear snaked throughout the region on roads lined with the crucified, patrolled the land by way of armed Roman soldiers, and funded oppression through unjust tax systems and economic practices. And the temptation of many was to play into the hands of this imperial narrative and quest for self-preservation, often at the expense of their neighbor. In many ways, this is what led to Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. Yet, if we look to the parable that precedes our gospel lesson, Jesus offers a strong warning not to be lured by this imperial greed rooted in angst by building barns to hoard goods. Instead, look to the birds and consider the flowers, stay focused on the alternative Way marked by love and generosity, self-giving, and assurance that you belong to a God who stamped God’s image of beauty and wonder upon you. No empire, ruler, system, failure, dollar, or difference can take that away- never, not ever. This is the essence of Jesus’ words, which have at least three movements we will briefly engage this morning: Worry. Worth. Witness.

First, worry. “Do not worry about your life,” Jesus says.  The translators would have done better to say, “do not be anxious.” Worry is too tame for the message Jesus is elevating as both prophet and preacher, even more so a companion along the Way. Worry is a real thing, yes. I worry about whether I will be able to get my kids to eat a vegetable. Just one. I worry about running out of data on my cell plan. I worry about making it to work in time each morning.  Anxiety, however, comes from a much deeper and debilitating place; anxiety is a bedfellow to fear.  In the NYT bestseller,Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens writes about the experience of Kaya, the protagonist and marginalized young woman growing up in the marshes of North Carolina, “Finally the fear came, from a place deeper than the sea. Fear from knowing she would be alone again. Probably always."  Anxious fear comes from a deep place of bondage, isolates us from community, and lures us into narratives of impossibility and not enough. So Jesus offers a counter-narrative, “do not be afraid, little flock.” Yes, a flock of the faithful; a community where you belong and need not fear daily bread.  This is the picture Luke paints throughout his gospel, as noted by biblical scholar Justo Gonzales, a jubilee church as collection of sinners and saints not bound by fear or scarcity and trusting in the God who sustains their every breath. 

I love how Luke is constantly moving back and forth from old stories to the one presently being told. The word used here for anxiety is the same used when Jesus spoke to Martha. Busy adhering to household tasks a patriarchal culture imposed upon women, her sister, Mary, dared to bust through the social norms and sit at the feet of her Teacher typically reserved for men. In that moment, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Do not be anxious, Martha. You belonghere, in the very place you have wanted to sit but have always been afraid to enter. Come, nobody can take this belonging from you. I imagine Jesus offering Martha a small flower- a lily, maybe- in the face of her fear; a floral witness to her worth in the midst of far too many reasons to be anxious and afraid.  This is the second movement of Jesus’ word to us this morning: do not worry; reclaim your worth.

Friendsmuch like the first century world, worry and anxious fear snakes throughout nations and neighborhoods, even our own, and consumes human dignity and disrupts pursuits of beloved community. This anxious fear makes us wonder if there is any place where we belong or if anyone, let alone God, cares about our existence and daily struggles to survive. We live in a time when rhetoric from people in power aims to make us anxious about neighbors and reduce their worth, including those who courageously seek safety in this nation as they flee violence from another. These same neighbors then live in increased angst about their value, wondering if they will ever know freedom or see their children who have been ripped away at the border. Anxiety is fanned as people of color are blamed for social ills and their worth distorted as our nation's original sin of racism continues to spread. Angst about difference and the loss of power and privilege is even what leads many to take up arms through mass shootings in Dayton, El Paso, churches, schools, garlic festivals, nightclubs, and more. We then become increasingly anxious and wonder if there is any place we can go or send our children safely. And we grieve, as both the church and state are anxious and afraid, so fail to do the real work necessary to protect human worth and make our communities safer. Then there are the cultural narratives of scarcity that tell us we do not have enough, will never be good enough, and have not achieved enough. It is no wonder anxiety and depression continues to affect so many Americans, especially our young people. In my work, I also see this trickle into congregations who are anxious about the changing world and whether they have the relevant resources to make any impact in their community. Yes, institutional and ecclesial depression is a real thing. In the midst of it all, we dare breathe in the good news and life-affirming words of Jesus, do not be anxious or afraid, little flock, you are of great worth,as we look for flowers in the fields, maybe even offering some fresh cut ones of our own to those in need of assurance that they belong and are loved. In this way we banish anxiety and move towards a trust in God’s dreams for a better world that are very much alive- as alive as the birds of the air. This was the work of the Baltimore florists, who knew a different story than what had made headlines, refused to be victimized by anxious fear, and leveraged what they had to celebrate the worth of their city. This sort of work is the hallmark of church. 
Which leads to the final movement, Jesus’ call to work out our witness, “And do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strivefor his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.” Yes, strive after the kingdom of God. Luke uses the word zētēito actively pursue and seek out.It is the same word Jesus will use in the parable of a woman who turns over tables in pursuit of a single lost coin, “she strivesafter it carefully until she finds it.”  Zētēi. Actively pursue it, move beyond the grip of anxiety in a world laden by fear, reclaim the dignity and worth of self and neighbor made in God’s image, and strive towards the kingdom of God already here and still to come- with whatever resources the Spirit has given you. 
Friends, anxious fear is a barricade to God’s generosity, justice, and joy in the Holy Spirit. It can lure us into the lie that the way things are will always be and we are forever alone. We then store up for ourselves whatever we need (or believe) to preserve me and what’s mine, closing us off to our neighbors and opportunities to embody God’s jubilee in the world.  This is true for individuals and congregations. Yet, the audacity of discipleship is to zētēi God’s life-giving dreams for the world God so loves. We actively pursue it until we find it fully awakened in Rahway and Baltimore, El Paso and Dayton, New York and Philadelphia. We do so even though it cost us much, or everything, aware our treasure is stored elsewhere.  
I recently returned from an eight-day venture to the Holy Land with 35 other pastors and ministry leaders. I have often been asked about the sacred sites, my time in Galilee, or touching the Western Wall. What was most striking to me, though, was the abundance of structures and symbols rooted in anxious fear, which has seized this land from the beginnings of human history. Now, thirty-foot walls, lined with video surveillance and snipers, keep Palestinians out of Israeli settlements in Bethlehem and the West Bank and create a 21st-century rendition of apartheid. As you travel throughout the region and touch the wall, while some say it is a security measure, you sense fearful angst. Yet, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, there are stories of those who cast out anxiety and strive after the kingdom of God. There are people like Daoud Nassar at Tent of Nations, whose family lives on land they have owned for well over 100 years. A community of Palestinian Christians, their mantra is, “we refuse to be enemies.” As Israeli settlements continue to suffocate the farm, cut them off from running water, electricity, and access to public roads, fear continues to be the tactic to acquire their property. Yet Daoud Nassar and his family resist through remaining. They refuse to be seized by anxious fear or surrender their worth. One afternoon, Daoud shared a story about how recently, a military raid burned down 250 of their olive trees. They shared the story, not laced in fear but in assurance God would resurrect hope somehow. And God did, through a UK-based Jewish community. Empathizing with the story of suffering evoked by anxious fear, they purchased 250 new olive trees and came to visit and plant them alongside their Christian neighbors. I bought an olive tree that day, too. “We believe in justice,” Daoud said to us. “And we believe we will see the Son of Justice rise again.”  Until then, they strive after, zētēi, God’s kingdom here and still to come, the son of justice peaking over the horizon.  
I believe this is the central call of Jesus’ words to the disciples nearly 2000 years ago. This is the message for us today. In the midst of increasing narratives of anxiety and fear, those that tempt us towards isolation, self-preservation, not having enough, feelings of insignificance, and the othering of our neighbors, dare we strive after an alternative community of inclusion that reclaims the worth of all people, whose value is even greater than the birds of the air and lilies of the fields. Dare we plant olive trees or fashion flowers, whose fruit and fragrance overwhelms fear, whether in Palestinian vineyards or Baltimore park benches or small towns in North Jersey. Yes, flowers or fear is our question of discipleship. This is the question I leave you with, faithful of Rahway: flowers or fear? Assurance or angst? What will you plant as you strive towards the kingdom of God?

A Poetic Benediction

by the thought of it all 
and my call 
so i fear 
and i stall 
to do anything 
pondering everything 
as if the world depended upon me 
it does not 
i hear  
as a whisper 
so clear 
right here 
you cannot carry it all 
that was never my call  
to you  
or anyone other 
find one thing 
that makes your heart sing 
by the love you bring 
where you are 
right here 
in the now 
is how you will find 
you at your best 
and your mind at rest 
from trying to overcome it all 
that was never your call