Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 26, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I went to the barber shop last week (don’t I look nice?) and as I was waiting, I picked up a Men’s Health magazine off the table in the lobby. As I flipped through the magazine, I couldn’t help but notice that every other article was, in one way or another, about anxiety. There were at least four articles in this one issue that either mentioned anxiety in the title or had it as part of the story. I looked at the cover to see if it was a special issue dealing with anxiety, but no – the cover described stories about getting ripped abs and tips on enhancing your (ahem) romantic life and so on. In other words, it was a typical men’s health magazine. How interesting, I thought, that anxiety would keep showing up in these articles!
Well, I tossed the magazine back on the table. I still hadn’t been called back, so I pulled out my phone. And, I kid you not, the first thing to pop up in my Facebook feed was an article entitled, “Millennials: The Most Anxious Generation.” People often joke about the supposedly pampered lives of the millennial generation, but the article pointed to some very real challenges causing this widespread anxiety, including what they called “ambition addiction,” as well as a constantly changing political and economic climate, and the non-stop demands and pressures of a technology-based lifestyle.
Anxiety is a big issue in our time for all kinds of people, and the suggestions in these articles were all good: cutting back on caffeine, getting more exercise and more sleep, cutting back on screen time, and so on. All good ideas! In some cases anxiety might even need to be treated with prescription medications or counseling.
That’s all fine and good, but as I was thinking about this widespread anxiety in our culture today, I could help but remember something St. Augustine wrote all the way back in the fourth century. He wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”
The disciples’ hearts were restless. Their hearts were troubled. They were anxious. Jesus had told them that he would be leaving them soon. He had told them that he would soon endure suffering and death, and on the third day rise again. This was all so confusing to them. It was certainly anxiety-inducing news! In our gospel reading for today we hear Jesus addressing their restless, troubled hearts. We hear him addressing their anxiety. We hear Jesus give them promises and resources for dealing with this anxiety.
First Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with them.” Jesus is responding to Judas (not that Judas – different one), who asked Jesus how he would make himself known to them and not to the world. Jesus responds by saying he will make himself known to them through the word. Those who love him will keep his word, Jesus says. and in so doing they will know the love of the Father. Those who love Jesus will hold his word close, they will learn from it and cherish it, and in so doing Christ will make his home with them.
Jesus goes on to say that he will make himself known to them through the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in his name. This Holy Spirit will teach them everything, and remind them of all that he has said.
And through both Word and Spirit, Jesus says, his disciples will know peace. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus tells them, “my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
This peace Jesus promises is not the absence of conflict or challenges. Jesus told them that in this life they would have many trials. He told them there would be crosses to carry. This peace is not about the absence of those things, it is instead about a presence – it is about his presence. The biblical concept of peace, of shalom, refers to the sense of wholeness that comes from being in right relationship with God. It is the peace of a contented heart which has found its rest in God.
As many of you have heard by now, our friend Oscar Bakke died on Monday. Pastor Stroud made it out to the hospital to be with some of Oscar’s family who had gathered to be with him. He shared a word of scripture and a time of prayer with them. Oscar opened his eyes long enough to signal that he knew who was there and what was going on. Death is always scary. Death is always sad. But through Word and Spirit there was also a peace there in that hospital room. I could still hear that peace in Oscar’s daughter’s voice over the phone later that night. Oscar died just a half-hour after Pastor Stroud left. Through Word and Spirit, our brother Oscar died in peace. (Thank you, Mark, for your ministry.)
My friends, Word and Spirit are not just given to us to have a blessed death. They are given that we would have a blessed life! They are the means through which Jesus gives us his presence and his peace throughout our lives. The problem is that we keep looking for this peace in all the wrong places.
One of the best books I have read in recent years is by the Episcopal theologian David Zahl. The title is “Seculosity,” which is a word he made up to try to capture the idea that while participation in church life is in steep and steady decline in the United States, people are actually more religious than ever – they have just transferred those religious impulses to secular life. The subtitle of the book fleshes this out a bit more: “How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It.” Over and over again with brilliant cultural insights Zahl shows how people are seeking validation and self-worth and community and meaning in all these important but ultimately insufficient pursuits. Citing some of the important work done by Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Righteous Mind” he writes of how people have infused these pursuits with a religious-like fervor and zeal in a vain attempt at self-justification. And where is it all leading? To anxiety. To restless, troubled hearts.
Zahl is quick to note that Christians are not immune from “seculosity.” We are not immune to the urge to seek self-justification and meaning and, ultimately peace, in the wrong places. Zahl writes about how he himself, a son of Episcopal clergy, a son of the church, a theologian of the church, is prone to doing so, and as I read his book there were plenty of times when I was wondering how he got inside my head, because I do the exact same things myself.
And where does this “seculosity” lead us? What happens when we make career and parenting and technology and food and politics and romance our new religion? We get men’s health magazines filled with articles about anxiety. We get a generation of young people who are being diagnosed with debilitating, clinical anxiety at double the rate of baby boomers.
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” There are a number of helpful ways to alleviate anxiety, including prescription medication and counseling, and no Christian should ever be embarrassed or ashamed about getting the help they need. But our restless hearts will only ever find the real peace we long for when they rest in God – and our hearts rest in God through Word and Spirit.
“Those who love me will keep my word,” Jesus says, “And my Father will love them and we will make our home with them.” Sometimes I fear that Lutheran Christians are more interested in platitudes and slogans than they are in keeping the word – which is ironic, since Martin Luther was the one who risked being burned at the stake to get the Bible into the hands of everyday people. And so one of the real highlights of this program year for me has been the Bible Project, the Bible study we’ve been doing in which we have surveyed the entire Bible. We’re finishing up this week. It has been successful not only in the number of people who have participated (averaging 15-20 on Tuesday nights!) but also in how we have seen how all the books of the Bible, all the Biblical writers, all of whom wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, work together to proclaim Christ and guide us in our life in him. It has opened up so much to those who have been part of it – including the teacher! – and I think it has whet the appetite of those who have participated to go even deeper into the scriptures. We’ve seen how deep that well goes and we want more! We have seen how God makes his home with us as we keep his word!
Deep and regular Bible study is an essential way of keeping the word, and I hope even more people get involved in Bible study next program year, but Word and Spirit are also at work here, in our worship. Here in worship we find a peace that comes to us not by our striving or by our efforts but is instead given to us as a gift. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus says. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Through the word of forgiveness, through the word of proclamation, through the visible word of the sacrament, Jesus comes to give us his peace. In and through the gathered community of Christ, our Lord Jesus makes his home among us. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus promised!
I know that many of you have hearts that are troubled and afraid. I know that many of you are anxious at times. Sometimes I am too. But today through Word and Spirit our Lord Jesus gives us a peace that the world cannot give us. Today through Word and Spirit he renews us in his forgiveness, so that we might live in his shalom, with that sense of wholeness that comes from living in right relationship with God. Today through Word and Spirit our Lord Jesus gives us peace in the midst of the difficulties we face. Today, through Word and Spirit Christ says to us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Through this Word and Spirit, our Lord Jesus comes to us, so that our restless hearts would find rest in him.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church