"God, The Ultimate Safety Net"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – February 27, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 131; Matthew 6:25-34


    This morning we are going to be looking at the Gospel of Matthew and discuss a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  One of the consistent themes of Jesus’ teaching was how his listeners could live spiritual lives while remaining intimately connected to the material world.  Even for the most sophisticated spiritually-minded people, remaining fully alive in both worlds is a constant tug of war.

    I suspect that one of the more frightening lessons of Jesus concerning this struggle is when he said, “Go through the narrow gate, because the gate to hell is wide and the road that leads to it is easy.  There are many people that travel it.  The gate to life, however, is narrow and the way that leads to it is challenging.  There are only a few people who ever find it.”  (Matt. 7:13f)    He also taught, “What good will it do, if you gain control over the entire world and in the process lose your life?”  (Matt. 16:26)  

    What do we think Jesus’ intent was with these lessons?  Was he praising the world of spirit and condemning our material world?  The answer has to be no.  After all, we all know the passage in Genesis where God looked at all that he had made and found that it was very good.  Jesus wanted his listeners to be wise in their understanding of both worlds because either world can enslave us. 

    We remember well the episode when Jesus praised the wisdom of the servant who invested five talents and doubled them.  With today’s valuations, ten talents of gold would be equal to fifteen million dollars. 

    What Jesus was teaching in our lesson this morning had little to do with the value of either world.  We often become so preoccupied with the distinctions of the two worlds that we neglect the message of our lesson.  Jesus was concerned about one thing -- the role that worry plays in either world.

    People can become a slave to the world of spirit by worrying about whether or not they are saved.  Some Christians make a big deal about this issue as though we have to earn God’s love by something we do or believe.  Such an assumption does not leave much room for considering God’s unconditional love for each of us.  

    People can also become a slave to worry when it comes to their material lives by dwelling on such questions as: “Is my job secure?  Whatever will happen to us if we lose our home to foreclosure?  Will my retirement account be enough to live on?”  People can become so concerned about such things that they do not take time to enjoy either their relationship with God or their experiences in the material world. 

    As you may recall, Jesus was also dealing with the topic of worry while using the Parable of the Talents.  Remember what happened to the servant who was given one talent?  He was so filled with worry about what his master might do if he lost it, that he buried it.

    Here is the thrust of our lesson for today: Jesus said, “Do not be worried about anything.  Can any of you live a little longer by worrying about it?   God knows your needs.  Look at the birds and how God takes care of them.”

    Yes, God provides for the birds, but God does not throw bird seed into their nests.  This was an insightful illustration because birds do not fly around worrying about their lives.  They just deal with whatever their environment presents to them.  Jesus knew, however, that his listeners were the ones filled with worries.

    If we are not careful, worry can become an energy pattern that enhances every illness; it can block our ability to experience love coming from others including love coming from God. Worry turns us into our own worst enemies.  We withdraw into misery because our fears have replaced God with intense feelings that have the power to chase smiles from our faces.

    Once when Lois and I were flying to Arizona, a woman and her young daughter sat across the aisle from us.  We learned that this was their first flight.  The mother was extremely anxious and she could not pretend otherwise.

    As the aircraft lifted into air, the mother began to white-knuckle both of her armrests. Her face revealed her inner world that “We are all going to die!” as she listened to the strange noise coming from the landing gear being folded under the fuselage.  The daughter, who was unaware of her mother’s fears said, “Mommy, look at how tiny everything is!”  Mommy did not look.  Only the little girl was thrilled with the adventure and joy of having the new experience of flying. 

    As some of you know, Monday was my driving test through the streets of Hamilton. Beside me was the gentleman from the Transport Control Department who was going to judge me by how well I performed.  Had I been worried about that moment?  Absolutely!    

    I knew I could drive the car, but I began to think of what our lives would be like if I failed.  It would mean that for another month, other people would have to shuttle us back and forth to church on Sundays as well as other places where buses do not go. 

    Then there were the tedious regulations that the TCD officials look for, that are completely foreign to me.  For example, each time I approached a traffic light that was red, I had to remember to pull up on the emergency brake.  I had to have knowledge of the 138 traffic signs Bermuda has posted.  I had to interpret accurately the meaning of all the lines painted by the curbs and all over the streets, many of which had faded.

    However, once I realized what I was doing to myself with such thoughts, I walked out on our patio in the evening and said out loud, “God, I am letting go of the outcome of this driving test, and I will face peacefully whatever happens.  It will not be the end of my world if I need to be retested.”  That night I slept very well.  The next day, I got behind the wheel and passed the test. 

    What may give us great comfort is the discovery that Jesus was caught in the same vice that squeezes the rest of us.   Frequently, even he forgot that God was the ultimate safety net when his world was not the way he wanted it.  During one episode Jesus was so frustrated with his listeners that he said, “How ignorant you people are!  How long must I stay with you?  How long must I put up with you?”  (Mark 9:19) 

    There was another occasion when his sermon was so difficult to understand that scores of his followers walked away from him, just like some people can do today when they disagree with what is coming from their pulpit. After experiencing such abandonment, Jesus turned to his chosen disciples and asked, “And what about you?  Are you going to leave me as well?”  (John 6:66f)

    I suspect that the granddaddy of all examples is when Jesus completely lost it emotionally.  He was so angry with the religious bureaucrats of his day that he delivered blistering verbal attacks to the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.  These judgments were so plentiful that Matthew devoted the entire 23rd chapter of his Gospel to this tirade.

    Even though Jesus instructed his followers never to judge other people, even he found this skill of spirit elusive.  Jesus knew that it is far better to know about our potential for living in the Kingdom of God, even though we fail to do so repeatedly, than to live in ignorance of its existence. 

    Jesus was not worried about how many times we miss the mark.  He was concerned that we might get to the point where we fail to trust God any more.  When we learn to let go of worries generated from living in our world, we are free to enjoy the ride caused by whatever comes. It was the wonder of her new experience that caused the little girl on the airplane to say, “Mommy, look at how tiny everything is.” 

    Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow because tomorrow will create enough worries of its own.  There is no need to add to the troubles each day brings.”  He knew there would be geo-political troubles with Rome.  He knew there would be challenges with higher taxes.  He understood that the ethnic preferences of his people would continue to generate interracial tensions with the Romans and Samaritans.  Jesus realized that the Jewish religion had become so legalistic that the average person had lost touch with any substantive experience of God’s love.

    All of us are confronted with each newspaper we pick up and with each newscast we experience with scores of issues that can stir the coals that easily evoke our fears.  We can also be dealing with very personal issues that have us so preoccupied that we forget that God is our ultimate safety net.    

    Once I visited a woman in the hospital whose cancer had metastasized to most of her internal organs.  She was in her 80s and knew that the time she had left in her physical form was very limited.  She had been spending hours rehearsing her life in her mind.

    As I sat down beside her she asked, “Dick, what is going to happen to me when I die?  I have not always been a good girl.  I have not been very loving toward people who have irritated me. I’ve not been as active in church as I should have been.  I don’t think I’m going to make it to Heaven.”  I put my finger over her lips and said, “Stop, just stop!” 

    I said to her, “I want you to know that I love you very much and I don’t care where you’ve been, what you’ve done or how you have treated people.  If I feel this way about you, how much more intense will God’s love be for you?”   Then I said, “When it is my time to leave my body, I will come to wherever you are.  Do you know what I’ll find?  I will find that you have perfectly adjusted to your new environment.  You will see.  I guess you’ll just have to trust God more than your thoughts of how badly you believe you have failed.”  God is our ultimate safety net!

    While watching the news on Friday, I thought about this sermon and more particularly the question Jesus asked his listeners, “Can any of you live a bit longer by worrying about it?” We have no crystal ball.  We do not know what the next day will bring.   Jesus made no promises about the quality of our experiences in this world.

    Lois and I listened to the story about the Amish family in Dublin, Kentucky.  A husband, wife, three children and an eleven-year old niece were caught in a flash flood.  Their horse and buggy were immediately swamped by rapids and all four children were swept away. That morning those parents experienced the children sitting around their breakfast table and by the afternoon all they had left were memories of them. 

    Such things happen out of no where and for no reason whether in Dublin, Kentucky or in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Even Jesus was greeted with God’s silence when he said, “If it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” After he asked that, Jesus looked up and saw the serpentine line of torches winding its way up the path where his arrest would happen.  

    The message of our lesson for this Sunday is very clear -- Do not sabotage your life by worry.  Learn to live the adventure life can be by remembering that God is the ultimate safety net for every one of us even when death is  the result.  During the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Do not be worried and upset, believe in God and believe also in me.”  It is best if we joyfully experience this world and all that it has to offer while trusting in our minds, hearts and spirits that God will always be there as our ultimate safety net.