List of Sermons
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|Easter 4, year A||Sun May 11, 2014|
God, Do You Really Care?
St Peter's Church, Port Royal, Va
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
Proper 13, Year C, RCL
“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.”
“So I turned and gave my heart up to despair.”
Throughout the great sweep of human history, people have puzzled over the same questions that the writer of Ecclesiastes asked over 2000 years ago.
In fact, this teacher might be writing about us, and our own concerns.
Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.
The writer of Ecclesiastes was concerned with how God fit into this despairing way of life. Hadn’t God made a covenant with the people of Israel?
After all, if they kept God’s commandments, then God had promised to bless them, and yet crops failed, disasters took place without God’s intervention and people died early after leading very difficult lives.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, along with the writer of Job, asked the following question.
“God, do You really care?”
“Will you keep your promises to those who keep your commandments?”
These are the questions that we also ask. Here are some examples of what I mean.
Think about parenting. Parents work hard to raise their children, to give them everything they need to go out in the world and to succeed.
But we can all think of stories of young people who die unexpectedly before they even have time to live into their potential. A neighbor lost her son to leukemia when he was only thirteen. She wrote in her book, Dear Brian, Dear God,
“Dear God, Well, you let me down Lord!! You broke your promise to me! I am so angry at you right now!”
“Why, God, why?” “Do you really care?”
All of us have prayed for those among us who are sick.
And we wonder, “God, will you really keep your promises to this person who loves you and has followed you?”
Several years ago, I received the horrible news that my best friend in college had cancer.
She was a devout Catholic, a woman who loved God, a church organist, and a person who had always taken good care of her body. When the diagnosis came, at first she felt betrayed by her body, and by God. How could this be happening to her? She suffered through several years with cancer, and then died.
And I was left on my knees, asking, “Why, God, why?” “ How could you let a person who loved you so much and had so much left to give the world die now?” “Do you really care?”
My mother inherited a piece of her father’s farm. She has loved it, tended it, cared for it.
Now she is 82, and she wonders, “Who will take care of this when I’m gone? “ “Will any of my children ever want to live here?” “Will this property be a burden that they can’t assume?”
She lies awake at night worrying about what will happen to this land when she dies. And I’m willing to bet she wonders, “Why did I, and my parents before me, work so hard to hold onto this land, only to have my children scattered far and wide, and I can’t figure out who to leave this land to, or whether or not to sell it?”
And on her questions go.
Will her father’s legacy be forgotten? Will she be forgotten? These are the same questions that we find in Ecclesiastes.
“God, do you really care?”
Hundreds of years after the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote his book, Jesus weighs in on the question of “God, do you really care?”
Right before the gospel story we heard today, Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid of the various tragedies that will happen to them as his followers.
Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid; you of are of value to God.” Jesus is saying that God really cares for us. All of disciples will be put into difficult situations, but Jesus says to them, “Do not worry.”
And right after the story of the rich fool who stored up his abundance for his own pleasure, Jesus says to his disciples “I tell you, do not worry about your life.”
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you his kingdom.”
Do not worry, be rich toward God, do not be afraid, because God cares for each one of us.
Great words, but how do we experience God’s care for us?
Do not worry, be rich toward God, do not be afraid. The phrase “be rich toward God” occurs in the middle of these three statements because being rich toward God is the key to opening our hearts to God’s care for us.
The story of the rich fool reminds us that if our lives are too full of our own stuff, our possessions, our worries, our anxieties, our despair, our greed, our need for control, then we have no space left in which to receive God’s care for us.
I worked for Mary Washington Hospice for seven years before going to seminary. In that time I met many families and many people who were struggling with this very question. “God do you really care?”
The many different people I visited dealt with that question in various ways. But this person’s story, which I’m sharing with you
with her permission, teaches us about facing change and death without fear and anxiety, while being rich toward God.
This person lived in a very isolated place, and she was caring for her mother, who was bedridden and wasting away.
She was the patient’s only daughter. She was providing this care almost singlehandedly. Many, many families I worked with in this situation were full of worry, fear, and even anger over the situations in which they found themselves.
But this woman was one of the most serene people I have ever met. To her, every day with her mother was a total gift and a joy, and she had no resentment at all about having to organize her entire life around another person’s illness that was completely out of her control. She could feel God’s care for her, and in doing so, could then care for her mother with graciousness and compassion.
Her secret? She began every day in prayer. She placed herself in God’s presence and opened her heart up and waited in silence. To her, this time with God every morning was a total gift and a joy, just to be in God’s presence. She intentionally gave her worries and anxieties to God each day, and then offered herself to God—no words, just her open heart.
Although she did not describe her prayer in this way, the way in which she prayed falls into the category of prayer that we know as contemplative prayer, a way of praying that has fed the hearts and minds of Christians for two thousand years.
This prayer, done over a period of years, creates a deep serenity that puts worry and anxieties away. It is not the only way to pray, of course, but it is a very fruitful way to pray—because it is only in spending time with another that we truly come to know the depth of their care and concern for us.
So spending time with God in prayer gives us the space to feel God’s care for us.
One day when I was visiting this person, she said to me, “Come downstairs, I want to show you something.” So we went down to her basement, and there, leaning against the wall, were two caskets, one for her mother, and one for the daughter.
I remember at the time being totally shocked by the sight of those two caskets. I couldn’t imagine having such a visible reminder of death before me every day.
The daughter had made her own casket. While doing this, she meditated on her own life and her own death.
The casket in her basement is her visible ongoing reminder that God, not she, is in control of both her life and her death and that God will care for her in life and death. Then she is free to care for others.
In contrast, the rich man in the story we heard today could think only of himself, and his own selfish pleasure.
The writer of Ecclesiastes felt only despair.
But this woman, by putting her life into the context of eternity, is rich toward God. She empties herself, and in doing so becomes rich toward God because she makes the space within to feel God’s love and care for her.
Now I am not suggesting that we all go out, build our own caskets and then put them in our basements.
But I think that what we can learn from something from this story.
When we let go of the things that obsess us, we make space in our hearts not only for God, but for one another. We discover a space for God and for others within ourselves that is greater than we had ever dared to imagine or believed was possible
—a place of freedom and joy, a place where God can truly dwell in us and we can feel God’s tender compassion—
God’s kingdom, which it is God’s pleasure to give to us.
So I challenge you this week to examine your lives.
Even if you have major doubts about whether or not God really does care, give some serious thought to what it is that gives you worry and anxiety, and causes you to despair.
I challenge you to take those worries, anxieties, and despair into God’s presence through prayer—to make an appointment each day, write it on your calendar, to go to God and to hand those things over to God.
Give God a chance to care for you. I challenge you to search your hearts, and to open up that space where God wants to dwell. Enter that space, and welcome God in. Be rich toward God, and toward one another.