Sermon for 25 May ’08
A young lad once said to me he wanted to be a Uniting Church minister when he grows up. I was delighted, and asked him why—he said that Uniting Church ministers get to go on planes all the time, and he wanted to do that too, just like me.
In the interests of honesty and transparency, I had to tell him that most ministers don’t get to fly too often.
I’ve flown a bit as a minister, though not as much now as I used to. Some years ago though, I found myself sitting on the tarmac in Sydney, waiting to come home after a meeting. I was used to flying. But suddenly, I felt very, very anxious. I started to feel panicky about flying.
I decided to pray. I cried out to God from the depths, Help me! Stop me from feeling this way! It didn’t work. I felt just as anxious. I berated myself, telling myself very sensibly that I’d flown dozens of times before and survived. I felt just as anxious.
I wondered if I should get off the plane. Then, I decided on another approach. Instead of praying to God to help me stop feeling panicky, instead of reminding myself that the statistics were very much on my side, I would do something very simple. I praised God for giving human beings such skill and knowledge that we can make things that can fly in the air. I praised God for making such ingenious beings. I thanked God for what God had done.
And my anxiety left me.
It all depended on what I was looking at. When I was looking at myself, I was afraid. I was powerless to help myself.
Looking at God was a different issue. Lifting my eyes to God enabled me to rejoice. I was in exactly the same situation—on the tarmac at Sydney Airport about to take off. My situation hadn’t changed, but who I was looking at had.
Looking at myself was like looking down; looking at God like looking up. I suppose it’s a bit like whether you’re a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person.
Jesus says, ‘Look around you! Consider the lilies! See the beauty of creation! And consider this: You are worth much, much more. Don’t look at the difficulties; look at what God can do, remember what God has done.’
Jesus must have been generally a happy person, don’t you think? I expect it was because he looked to his Father God at every moment of his life. He believed that God is good.
Sometimes, we Christians doubt that God is good. I was a chaplain at NCYC—the National Christian Youth Convention—in 1991. I recall a young man who came to see me. He was anxious. The thing was, he enjoyed nothing better than to swim a few laps of the pool after work. And that worried him.
He’d been taught that Christians should be telling others about Jesus whenever they could. When he swam, he was alone, and not witnessing about his faith. He felt guilty.
I first suggested that he should pray as he was swimming. That was no good. I then realised that he was an introvert. He needed time alone to recharge, and swimming gave him that time. I suggested this to him, and put it to him that having this alone time was actually making him a better follower of Jesus Christ.
It didn’t work. He went away worried.
…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Worry is counter-productive. It’s said that the average person’s anxieties can be broken up like this:
40%—things that will never happen
30%—things about the past that can’t be changed
12%—things about criticism by others, mostly untrue
10%—about health, which gets worse with stress
8%—about real problems that will be faced
Worrying is useless—we don’t even worry about useful things. Yet not worrying is terrifying. It’s terrifying not to worry. Not worrying means resting totally in God’s grace. Not worrying means trusting the unseen God. Not worrying means letting go of our normal securities. Sometimes, we want to worry. It gives us the illusion that we are in control. But let’s face it—if we can control something, there’s no need to worry. And if we can’t control something, there’s no point in worrying—we need to pray instead.
We still need to plan. I’ve heard preachers suggest that we shouldn’t have insurance, that having insurance reveals a lack of faith and a heart of anxiety. Let’s be clear: ‘not worrying’ doesn’t mean not having life assurance or house insurance. It means what it says—not worrying about these things. Plan for the future, pray about the future, work for a better future, don’t worry about it.
We can worry about our life together as a church. Are numbers going up? Are our services entertaining? Are we relevant?
Questions like these are the wrong questions. They are wrong because they focus on ourselves, as I was doing on the plane. We still need to plan. Right now, we’re starting the process of setting goals and making strategic plans. The Navigation and Ministry Development Teams are meeting straight after worship. We’re not doing that out of worry about the future, or our performance. We’re doing it to help us to keep our eyes on the vision that the living God is giving us.
When we worry about being a good church, we can ask other wrong questions. Is God pleased with us? Is God judging us? These are like the questions the reluctant swimmer had. They have a real air of anxiety about them. But Jesus says,
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?
It’s hard not to worry sometimes. But we don’t have to approach God with anxiety; we are worth everything to God.
We’re looking at strategies as a body of Christ; we might need strategies just for ourselves too. Let me offer one. If you’re as old or older than I am, you may remember the name J Arthur Rank. He ran the Odeon cinema chain in Britain, and owned a number of film studios in London.
J Arthur Rank was a Christian, a Methodist in fact. He had a way of dealing with worry—he would write them all down on a piece of paper and put them aside for Wednesday. Wednesday was his day to worry. On Wednesday, he’d take out the pieces of paper one by one and read them. More often than not—in fact, much more often than not—there would be nothing to worry about by the time Wednesday came. It would have fixed itself, or Rank would have quietly attended to it without worry and anxiety. Perhaps we should have a worry day!
I read during the week of another man, a carpenter. He’d been employed to help someone restore an old farmhouse. He’d had just finished a rough first day on the job. A flat tyre made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw failed and now his ancient ute refused to start.
While his employer drove him home, he sat in stony silence. On arriving, he invited his new boss in to meet his family. As they walked toward the front door, the carpenter paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands. When he opened the door, he underwent an amazing transformation. His face was wreathed in smiles, and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.
Afterwards, he walked his employer to the car. They passed the tree and curiosity got the better of his boss. He asked the carpenter about what he had seen him do earlier.
“Oh, that’s my trouble tree,” the carpenter replied. “I know I can’t help having troubles on the job, but troubles don’t belong in the house with my wife and children. So I just hang them up on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning I pick them up again.”
“Funny thing is,” he smiled, “when I come out in the morning to pick ’em up, there aren’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before”.
Your heavenly Father knows what you need. So 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. Amen.