Picture This

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Lately I’ve been learning to trust what happens to me when I read the text. That is, I try to notice what feelings, reactions, and emotions the passage stirs in addition to what thoughts it sparks. These more affective responses deserve critical reflection, just as my earlier more cognitive ones do, but I find them reliably more provocative. This week, what struck me — like a 2×4, frankly – was just how hard it is to hear Jesus say, “Do not worry about your life.”

Do not worry?? You’ve got to be kidding. Most days, life feels like one worry strung after another like lights on a morbid Christmas tree. Worries at work (a colleague who’s mad at me). Worries at home (a child struggling at school). Worries about…well, you name it (the economy, the book deadline I’m so far from reaching, the friend whose child was just diagnosed with cancer…). Do you see what I mean?  Worries attend us like bees to honey.

And I don’t think it’s just me. I think we live in an incredibly anxious culture. The evening news certainly depends upon worries at home and abroad to attract viewers. Commercials are constantly inviting us to worry about one more thing — usually about ourselves! — the sponsored product should supposedly solve. More and more houses seem to sport home security signs in their front lawns. And whenever I go to the airport I’m greeted outside by an electronic sign that reads, “See Suspicious Activity — Call 1-800…) and inside by an ominous voice informing me that, “The threat level, as determined by the Office for Homeland Security, is Orange.” (I don’t even know what “orange” is, but I’m betting it’s not good.) And there it is: everywhere you turn, everywhere you look, there are visible reminders of just how much there is to worry about.

So how in the world, then, can Jesus possibly ask us — really, command us! — not to worry?

Wait a second, though. Did you notice that today’s passage doesn’t start with the injunction about worry? No, it’s starts with an assertion that we cannot serve two masters, both God and money. If we try, Jesus says, we’ll end up loving one and hating the other. So what’s the connection? Well, notice that Jesus doesn’t say money is evil, or even bad, just that it makes a poor master. Actually, the word in Greek is kurios, often translated “lord.” The lord is the one who demands and deserves your loyalty, allegiance, and worship. (Which, by the way, explains the courageous and treasonous nature of the earliest Christian confession, “Christ is Lord” in a world where the more expected confession was, “Caesar is Lord.”)

So why can’t we give our allegiance and worship to money? Because to do so is to fall prey to the larger worldview that crowns money lord in the first place: scarcity. Again, the issue isn’t money per se; the problem comes when we make money our god — that thing, as Luther once observed, which we trust for our every good. Once we believe that money can satisfy our deepest needs, then we suddenly discover that we never have enough. Money, after all, is finite. And so once we decide money grants security, then we are ushered immediately into a world of counting, tracking, and stock piling. No wonder we worry – in a world of scarcity, there is simply never enough.

The alternative Jesus invites us to consider is entering into relationship with God, the God who is infinite and whose love for us and all creation is infinite as well. Love operates from a different “economy” than money. I mean, when our second child came along, I didn’t divide my love for our first child between the two, I suddenly had more love, more than I could possibly have imagined before. No doubt you’ve noticed the same thing: how the more love you give away, the more you have. Love — and especially God’s love — cannot be counted, tracked or stockpiled. And when you live in this kind of relationship of love and trust, you’ve entered into the realm of abundance, the world of possibility, the world of contentment. Suddenly, in this world — Jesus calls it the “kingdom of God” — not worrying actually becomes an option.

I know, I know, it’s hard to believe in this world of abundance that Jesus proclaims, this world that invites us to trust God’s faithfulness like a flower does spring or sail upon the currents of God’s love like a bird does the air. This is why, in the end, Jesus dies — not to somehow pay for our sins (there we go tracking and counting again), but because those in power were so invested in the world of scarcity that abundance was down right frightening, even threatening. Scarcity, after all, creates fear, and fear creates devotion to those who will protect you (think “threat level orange” again). Abundance, on the other hand, produces freedom. So rather than imagine Jesus’ world of abundance, and committed to keeping the power they derived from a fear born of scarcity, the rulers of Jesus’ day put him to death (see John 3:17 and following).

But God doesn’t operate from scarcity; God operates out of abundance. So in response to the crucifixion of God’s Son, God does not, in fact, keep track, or look for payment, or hoard power with which to destroy the offenders; instead, God resurrects — which, when you think about it, is the ultimate act of abundance: creating something, once again, out of nothing, drawing light from darkness, giving life to the dead.

This is the world Jesus invites us into: a world of abundance, generosity, and new life. But it is also a world of fragility, trust, and vulnerability. Lilies and birds, after all, can’t defend themselves but must trust God’s providence and love.

Again, I know this is hard. We are, after all, surrounded by countless images of scarcity and fear that seek to cause us to worry. But maybe this is exactly where we start. If we are surrounded by images of scarcity, worry, and fear, then perhaps our task this week and in the weeks to come is to capture thousands of pictures of their opposites: abundance, courage, and trust. So maybe the call to our people this week — by newsletter, email, or in the sermon — is to ask them to bring us the images and pictures of where they have seen God at work caring for the world in a way that helps them relax, breathe, count their blessings, and trust in God’s providence.

And when I say “images and pictures” that’s exactly what I mean. Tell people to share their photos — to go out and snap some this week! — of places of courage, of sites of abundance, of signs of trust. Perhaps these will be pictures of their children and grandchildren, or maybe of someone just doing an honest day’s labor. Maybe they’ll include pictures of groups of friends, or the photos from the incredible and utterly unanticipated — and isn’t that almost always the way abundance is? — peaceful revolution in Egypt. Who knows? I’m confident that we’ll be amazed at the number of places folks see abundance, courage, and trust once we ask them look.

So tell folks to go out and capture these images and pictures…and then send them to you. If you have a projector and screen, perhaps you could show them throughout the worship service this coming Sunday. Or, even simpler, perhaps folks can start bringing these pictures to church and putting them up in the narthex and sanctuary so that over the coming weeks we plaster the walls with the pictures that remind us of abundance, give us courage, and restore our trust.

Picture this, Working Preaching: over the next weeks and months, these images transform our church buildings into veritable sanctuaries of abundance, courage and trust. And gathered in these walls, sent from this place, perhaps we’ll be able to depart worship with greater confidence that we can, in fact, trust the God we know in Jesus and leave worry behind.

Can you picture it, Working Preacher? I can, and it’s an overwhelming site — thank you so much for your part in making it happen!

Yours in Christ,