Sep 3, 2023

3 1-1


A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

Matthew 6:22-35

Before I spend a minute setting up the scripture you are about to hear from Matthew’s gospel, let me just say that it is good to back with you. Even though the second half of my sabbatical unfolded differently than I had planned, the first half was glorious (you’ll be hearing more about that over the course of the next several weeks). And the way I spent the second half—tending to my Dad, getting him moved from South Carolina to Chesterbrook Residences and adjusted to his new digs and getting him connected with new doctors, and packing up his house so that is ready to sell—was important and had blessings of its own. I’m glad the sabbatical afforded me the time off to be able to give that work my full attention—and I am extremely grateful for all of your expressions of support to me and Judith through that time, including the hands-on ways you have assisted in easing my dad’s transition, from helping to furnish his apartment, to providing rides and sodas and snacks. I love and missed you all—and it feels great to be back in this pulpit.

Now on to the scripture. As you listen to the passage Pastor Katie is about to read, you should know that it falls right in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has given his hearers the Beatitudes, the blessed are yous. He’s schooled them in a way of living that goes the extra mile for love’s sake. He’s taught his disciples how to pray, using the words of the Lord’s Prayer. And now Jesus is about to teach them and us something about focusing on—and noticing—what really matters in the midst of life and the worry and anxiety it can bring. One note. When Jesus at the beginning of this passage speaks of a person’s eye being healthy or diseased, know that he is using a metaphor for perception in general. We’ve all known people who can’t see well or at all with their eyes, but they have no trouble seeing with their hearts. Listen now for God’s word to us through the words of Matthew 6:22-35

‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 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? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? 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. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But 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.
What did you notice? As you listened to the scripture just now, what stood out for you, maybe for the first time? What did you notice? It’s a great question to ask. As you moved through yesterday, last week, this past summer, this past year, what was it that stood out for you? What did you notice? is a question of perception and attention. It’s a question of focus. It’s a question that goes to the heart of a spirituality and a spiritual life that, as some of my friends say, is not a theory—it has to be lived.

This past Memorial Day, Judith and I climbed into her trusty red Nissan Rogue and set out on a sabbatical journey that we were both anticipating to be the trip of a lifetime. The day before we’d both been blessed on our way by congregations that love us with lovely liturgies of sending—and here at Immanuel we had an amazing picnic to boot, with barbecue and an ice cream truck. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten as much ice cream as I did that day, thanks to my special Pastor Aaron ice cream bowl. We left our house that next day carrying with us your hopes and prayers some of them literally written out for us on red construction paper in the shape of our SUV and white cut-outs in the shape of the continental U.S. I also carried with me an instruction from my wise spiritual director, not to be concerned with producing writing for people back here to read along the way, but simply to—get this—pay attention to what I noticed.

So Judith and I each committed to putting together a daily noticing journal—just a list of bullet points that we’d compile at the end of the day to record what we’d seen and heard and smelled and tasted and felt. Something about that exercise—that prayer practice, if you will—helped make me more present to my experience, more attuned to what was happening around and within me. I noticed things. Like how crazy it is to travel up 95 to Boston on Memorial Day—and how New Jersey’s rest areas are woefully inadequate to handle crowds. On a whale watching cruise, I noticed the sight and sound of humpbacks breaching off the coast of Gloucester, and how the sea air chilled me to the bone. Wearing shorts and a sweatshirt may not have been the best option. A month later I noticed what 121 degrees felt like in Joshua Tree National Park. I noticed how moved my Mom’s sister-in-law was when my brother and I scattered some of Mom’s ashes in a tidepool off at Two Lights State Park in Portland, and I marveled at the sense of connection we developed with the couple from Pennsylvania that we met after hiking to the top of Watchman in Zion National Park, and the missionaries we had lunch with in Tulsa, and the couple who hosted us at their bed and breakfast in Arizona. I experienced the grandeur of Niagara Falls, I sang along with John Prine music driving with my Dad and brother from Maine to Illinois over the course of several days. The sand hill crane and the butterfly that flitted by when we put the last of Mom’s ashes in the black dirt of the farm where she grew up did not escape my attention. I felt my brother’s embrace, and heard my mom’s cousin Carol talk about how the Carlson boys (her dad and my mom’s dad) married strong women. And the person who married my mother married a strong Carlson woman, too. After driving across a dark-skied Texas Panhandle, I saw a rainbow appear over the Big Texan Steak Ranch. I knew I’d come to the right place.

I hiked at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and at a church in Chimayo, New Mexico I touched healing dirt on the feast day of the Sacred Heart of Jesus—and felt afresh the restoring power of prayer as Judith and I prayed there in the courtyard of that holy place. I found out that people who told me that it would feel like I was on another planet in some parts of Utah were right. While we only walked a small portion of the South Rim, and I knew I was only seeing a fraction of the vast Grand Canyon, I was awed nonetheless. I tasted amazing barbecue not far from the Arch in St. Louis, and had the best red sauce and sopapillas I’ve ever eaten in Santa Fe. I experienced the wonder of Antelope Canyon, led by a wonderful Navajo guide.
I stood at the corner in Winslow, Arizona and watched a Long Train Running while listening to the Doobie Brothers of the same name. I played scrabble, and Eickstaedt family game, with my Dad’s brother and sister in Phoenix. Though I never encountered any bears, thanks be to God beyond stuffed ones, I saw and smelled the pelicans and seals and sea lions in La Jolla, and saw elephant seals slam into each other like sumo wrestlers further up the coast. I stood beside giant sequoias and felt my heart in my throat as later that day I drove our car hurtled down switchbacks from thousands of feet of elevation. I have never been as scared at the wheel of a car as I was then. I could go on and on with a travelogue here, and I’ve only just scratched the surface, but this is a sermon and not a travelogue. The point is, I noticed. I was present—and it was glorious.

Most of you know by now that our grand sabbatical travel plans got interrupted thanks to a health crisis my Dad experienced. Judith and I made it as far as Oregon together, but on July 12th, the anniversary of my ordination, we flew back to the East Coast to take care of my Dad and get him moved from his home in South Carolina up here to Chesterbrook—and we’ve now packed up his house and have it ready to go on the market. So if you’re looking for a vacation home in Columbia, see me.

As John Lennon famously said, Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. Though my noticing bullet point journal kind of went on hiatus when we came back, there’s lots that I’ve noticed in the second half of sabbatical, too. Like all of the offers of love and support that you all extended, and the way Dad’s room at Chesterbook came furnished thanks to stuff you donated. The sabbatical journey continued, just in a different way. That brings me, at long last, to our scripture text for this morning.

When you heard Pastor Katie read that passage from Matthew, I hope you noticed the way it referred to how we see, how we perceive the world. Is our spiritual eye healthy, or diseased? And I hope you also took note of how Jesus told his hearers not to worry about their lives, what they would eat and drink and what they would wear, and he did it by pointing to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

As a recovering worrier who more than occasionally relapses into fretting, I have over the years had my issues with this particular text. I want to say, yeah, yeah, birds of the air, lilies of the field, I’ve got it. But. But you don’t understand the challenges of modern life. You don’t understand all that I have to worry about. And what about people who do go hungry and don’t have enough clothing? To all of my objections, I think the answer comes back, “What do you notice? What have you noticed in the past? Which to some degree comes back to what are looking for? What are you choosing to focus on? Where are you placing your attention? What do you notice and what are you going to do about it? That’s the key.

The spiritual life, when it is more than a theory, is about what we notice—and what we happen to do about it. So Jesus, when confronted with some worriers in the crowd when he preached on that mountain encouraged them to notice certain things. He encouraged them to place their focus in a certain direction. Outside of themselves, by the way.

Like us, his original hearers had plenty of things to stress about, including in their case the threat of not having the basics of food and shelter and clothingnd. And to them he said, “Notice. Do you see those birds over there? They get fed without using farming implements. Do you see those beautiful flowers in that field? They have what they need to wear and they never go the mall.

I’m not going to lie. When my sabbatical travel plans got interrupted, it threw me into a bit of a tailspin. I spent some energy ranting and complaining to a few select people. Not everyone. I felt the weight of disappointment and grief weighing me down. Then I remembered all that I had noticed during the first part of my travels, and I turned my attention to what I was currently noticing, and I remembered what I had noticed about life in the past.

And what I have noticed in thirty-one years of ordained ministry is that every life, absolutely every life, comes with its share of challenges, and that our parents age (unless they don’t, which means you deal with a different sort of loss). I’ve noticed that gratitude is a great antidote to anxiety and bitterness, and that connection is superior to isolation—even when our tendency is to isolate ourselves from God and others, it is important to reach out.

About ten days ago I was down in Columbia working on the unenviable task of cleaning out Mom and Dad’s house for sale and I woke up well before dawn. I couldn’t get back to sleep. I couldn’t. Too many things on the to do list, too many things to worry about. So I went in to the kitchen and I sat down where my Mom used to sit and do her meditation and devotional reading every morning. I prayed. I meditated. Then something led me to open the junk drawer. In the junk drawer I found—should I say noticed?–a pile of index cards with thoughts and sayings and mantras that my mom thought were important. On the top was one that said this:

Everywhere we turn something tries to steal our joy. If I can’t rejoice and be glad today when will I? The joys of life are found in life itself. If an oyster can make a pearl out of an irritating piece of sand, just think what we could do.

I could almost feel Jesus tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Remember what I said about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.” What about the oysters in the sea?

The spiritual life is about what we notice and what we do about it.

Do we notice the person in need and will we help?
Do we notice how the Living Divine has helped us in the past?
Do we notice the grandeur of creation and does it lead us into a sense of awe and wonder?
Do we notice our breath, here and now—our breath, simple as that, our breathing—and do we notice all that we have to be grateful for?

It was noticing that helped me reframe from complaint to gratitude at having the time and space afforded me during sabbatical to help tend to my dad.

Recently I learned about a term called a “glimmer” which is essentially the opposite of a trigger.

Glimmers are those micro-moments in your day that make you feel joy, happiness, peace, or gratitude. Once you train your brain to be on the lookout for glimmers, the more these tiny moments will begin to appear.

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