“Is That All There Is?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 13, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25 & 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
My wife gave me an Apple Watch for Valentine’s Day this year and it is pretty cool gadget. As if having a phone in my pocket was not enough of a technological leash, now everything that happens on my phone happens on my wrist. I can make and receive phone calls; read and respond to text messages; check the weather or sports scores; browse through photos and even unlock my other Apple products by holding my watch close to them. It’s all very cool, especially for someone who grew up watching Dick Tracey. On a more practical level, the watch tracks my activity, heart rate, counts my steps each day, and even reminds me to stand up if I’ve been sitting too long.
In an update about a month ago, a new application was added to the watch called “Breathe.” Every hour, the watch buzzes and encourages me to breath for a full minute. But these aren’t just regular breaths. On the face of the watch this little digital flower expands and contracts about ten times a minute, and when I match my breathing to its movement, the breaths are very, very deep. At first I just ignored the alert. Who has time to stop and breath for a minute? When I tried it for the first time, I felt silly…and a little light-headed. But now I do it every few hours, when I have time, and while I can’t say that it has made me feel any better or worse, it is a nice break from the speed of the day.
The medical folks at Harvard University link stress with heart disease, high blood pressure, a greater susceptibility to colds, and an increased risk of anxiety and depression. One way to combat daily stress and its terrible side-effects was developed in 1970 by Dr. Herbert Benson, called the relaxation response. The relaxation response is a state of profound rest that can be achieved through meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, or deep breathing. Deep breathing is particularly helpful because it allows oxygen to soak all the way through the lungs and then all the way through the body. A greater concentration of oxygen throughout the body slows your heartbeat and lowers or stabilizes your blood pressure. Dr. Benson also found that if you are concentrating on your breathing—in and out, in and out—you are likely to disengage from the distracting thoughts that stressed you out in the first place.
So that’s your medical advice for today: breathe. It’s been a stressful week, a stressful year, for many in our community and beyond. And I’m not just talking about politics, though that certainly hasn’t helped any. I’m thinking this morning of the family of a church in New Jersey where I served during seminary whose young son was recently diagnosed with leukemia. I’m thinking this morning about the elderly couple who asked for my prayers this week because their pensions are gone due to irresponsible investing and neither is able to work. I’m thinking this morning of my predecessor, Dr. Jerry Hilton, who was hospitalized last week with breathing problems, only to find out that he has a severe autoimmune disease that took a bout with pneumonia to diagnose. I’m thinking this morning of teachers, minimum-wage workers, small business owners, and anyone else who faces an uphill battle just to survive doing what they have been called to do. If there has ever been a time when the whole world needed to stop and take a collective deep breath, it is right now.
But since I am your pastor and not your doctor, I should perhaps give you some spiritual advice today, too. And it goes a little like this: breathe. In and out, in and out. Unfortunately, we’re not a people who like to stop and breathe. There is a mentality among many people of faith that we are immune to the stressors of the world. My father-in-law summarizes it as, “Too blessed to be stressed,” and it is the belief that because one follows Jesus Christ, prays, reads the Bible, and serves those in need, there is no time to be stressed…or sick…or depressed…or anxious. But that just isn’t the case. You know it and I know it. Faith may be a shield against the powers of evil and darkness, but it doesn’t always protect us from hateful comments, anxiety about finances or health, insults or persecution. If anything, faith actually makes us more sensitive to the problems of the world, the injustices and the pain. We know that God wants this world to be a place of justice, of great love and mercy, and that Jesus came to show us the way. But we also know that in many place throughout the world, justice, love and mercy are seldom found. It is hard for people of faith to stop and breathe when there is so much work to be done.
The Scriptures of our faith are not always helpful with this, either. We have a perfect example of this today from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. As I said last week, the Thessalonians were very worried about the second coming of Christ. They were so worried, in fact, that they pretty much just sat around, doing nothing, so that they wouldn’t miss Christ’s return. This was extremely problematic to Paul. He was their pastor and the founder of their church, and he saw their idleness as the death of the church. If the Thessalonians just sat around all day, gazing up into the sky, who would evangelize the neighborhood? If the Thessalonians laid around all day, waiting for Christ to return, who would feed the hungry and clothe the naked? Who is going to preach the Word? Who will lead worship? Who will teach the faith to the children?
Paul says, “…keep away from believes who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.” Paul also says, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” For Paul, idleness is an enemy of the Gospel. The Gospel is about God’s kingdom on earth. In order to bring God’s kingdom to earth, believers must be ready to work. They must be ready to worship constantly, pray without ceasing, and strive for holiness. Believers must work constantly to make sure no one goes hungry, no one goes naked, no one goes without a place to live. The Great Commandment is the marching orders for anyone who confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord: go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Faith is active, it is about work, about working in God’s name for God’s kingdom on earth. But I think we need to ask an important question today: Is that all there is? Is constant work the good news of Gospel? Is our faith in Jesus Christ about movement and exhaustion and stress, or is there something more?
The world we live in is frenetic, fast and energetic and sometimes completely uncontrollable. We live in this frenetic world and I think we impose that pace and energy on our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. For example, we treat the Church as if it is a business that must produce good returns for its investors by having the newest products and the most users. We imagine that faith is a product to be bought and sold, and we work really hard to make it attractive to the broadest audience. At times we think that streamlining is the key to success, edging out anyone or anything that does not uniformly align with our beliefs and ideas. We think that if we don’t do this mission, or serve this community, or support this cause, or speak out for this person or this group, or stand for this or for that, that the whole house of cards will collapse. And above all of this, we think that the rise and fall of faith, the success or the death of the Church, depends solely on our ability to fill pews and programs, as if the God who created the heavens and the earth has nothing to do with it.
That is a tremendous amount of stress to take onto ourselves, and a tremendous amount of work that will lead only to exhausted and burned-out disciples. And neither the Gospel of Jesus Christ nor the Christian tradition sanction this type of living. There is more to Christian living than work. Take for example what Jesus said to his disciples in the Sermon on The Mount. He said, “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.” Jesus is helping us to do two things here. First, he his helping us to remember that the mechanics of the world, the change in seasons, the growth of everything, is under God’s control. Second, he is helping us, giving us permission, to take a moment to notice the beauty of creation. He also 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?” Again, Jesus is pointing us to the power of God to feed and protect all things, but also to the fact that a part of faithful living is stopping to smell the roses. Jesus wraps these together by saying, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
I am here to tell you today that part of striving for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness is taking time to just be, to just be present in the world, and to soak in the great beauty of God’s creation…to take a moment to just breathe. It’s OK. It’s OK to step away from the pace of your life, the demands of your job, and the hectic-ness of your family to breathe in deeply the Spirit of God. It is OK to take a moment to admire the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, giving thanks that if God cares so deeply for them, God deeply cares for you as well. It is OK to take time to enjoy the life God has given you, and to wonder about the power of rivers, the permanence of the mountains, and the brilliance of a full moon. It is OK to meditate on God’s grace without trying to explain it, to delight in the brilliance of God’s design and the mystery of it all. It is OK to admire God’s finishing touches on everything: the wide bands of orange, pink, and purple at sunset; the crisp cool of natural springs; the never-ending prairies and deserts; the crunch of an apple. It is OK to sit by yourself, listen to your favorite album or read your favorite book or doing absolutely nothing, without a single feeling of guilt.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, given the current state of the world and the fact that all of us could use a good, deep breath, I believe the good news of the Gospel today is that God is in control, and we can, even if it is only for a minute, just be. Paul is not wrong in urging us all to work and witness for the good of God’s kingdom; God is in fact depending on us, daily, to messengers of the gospel of grace. But that is not all there is. We are called in baptism to fill the empty cups of those in need, but we can only do so when our cups are full. Our God created all things at the beginning, and promises us through the prophet Isaiah that a new creation is in the works. In this new creation there will be no more crying, no more violence, no more destruction on the face of the earth; the wolf and the lamb will feed together and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. This work is God’s work, not ours. Our chief and primary work as people of faith is to worship God and enjoy God forever; the missions and the ministry and all the doing comes from that. When God calls us to take part in this new creation—and God will call each one of us—we must be ready, and we will be ready if we take time, to tend to the soul, and breathe.
So, as Wendell Berry once said, take time today or tomorrow or this week to do something that doesn’t compute: take all that you have and give it to the poor; love someone that doesn’t deserve it; ask questions that have no answers; plant sequoias; invest in the millennium; laugh; be like the fox that makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction; love the Lord; practice resurrection. In these things, that have no cords or internet connection, you will be nourished and ready for whatever God has in store. Unplug, turn off, step away, and go to a quiet place with Jesus and rest for a while. He’s there waiting for you. Amen.