Note: Melissa is our most brilliant Director of Christian Education at St. Paul's. She preached this sermon last Sunday. I can't wait for you to enjoy it, too.
Melissa Brandes, M.Div.
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
May 25, 2008
Matthew 6: 24-34
A few months ago I learned that my camp would be offering a “Wilderness Leadership Training Backpacking Trip” this May, and I immediately signed up for it. I have worked at camp for seven years now, and I have seen my friends go off for a week of backpacking or canoeing or kayaking with a group of kids…and then come back a week later exhausted and filthy with lots of great stories about their experiences. And, while I had been camping before, I had never been backpacking—never been out on the trail in the wilderness for a week. I was dying to know what it was like, and a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. That’s why I had never volunteered to lead a trip myself. I would have no clue what I was doing, and I wasn’t really sure I would make it. So, when I saw this opportunity to go on a trip and learn how to lead in the wilderness, I couldn’t wait!
There were six of us on the trip: two leaders—Kent, who some of you met when he preached and told stories here, and my friend Lindsay who has lead at least 20 trips for camp over the last six years—and three participants: my friends Dan and Karen who had also led trips for camp, and me. The sixth participant was, of course, Jonah the spaniel, Kent’s faithful dog. As soon as I arrived at camp, I realized that I was the only one on the trip who had never done this before. Even the dog knew more than I did, and had his own pack.
I began to feel a bit self-conscious. What if I did something wrong? What if I looked stupid? What if I really couldn’t keep up physically? There were so many things that came as second nature to my friends that I had all sorts of questions about.
The first day was fine…well except for the pain in my shoulders from the backpack, and the need to hike a mile further than we had expected to find an unoccupied campsite, which also required us to make a frigid stream crossing without the aid of a bridge…or a log…or rocks, and then a night on the very hard wooden floor of a lean-to where the temperatures must have dipped below freezing. I didn’t sleep all night, and in the morning, had another frigid stream crossing to look forward to. I was beginning to wonder why people did this by choice as recreation.
Day two saw my uncertainty and self-consciousness increase. I felt as if everyone was watching my every step and judging whether I was doing things right or wrong. Even the dog kept coming to the back of the line to check on me. And then they asked me to lead for awhile, which I know is what you do with the slowest hikers to keep the group together and not let anyone lag behind. “I’m too slow,” I thought, “And they want to see if I can read the map and know where I’m going. I’m going to get us lost.” I felt completely inadequate. And now, being in the front of the line, they could really all watch me. We hiked over ten miles that day, at the end of which I was exhausted. I could hardly lift my legs and I felt clumsy—like I would trip and fall with each step. And, I was lagging behind again. Everyone else seemed just fine—and I was about to collapse. I was physically tired, and mentally beating myself up because I couldn’t go further and faster.
When we finally made it to the campsite, Kent said, “Wow, that was some beautiful country today, wasn’t it?” And the others agreed. I thought to myself, “What country? I didn’t see anything but my feet.” I had hiked through 10 miles of one of the most beautiful parts of the Adirondack Park and hadn’t seen any of it. I was preoccupied by my worry. I was literally worried about my life--what I would eat and what I would drink (whether I would cook the ramen correctly or instead blow up the stove…whether I would purify the water, or instead give everyone dysentery from giardia) and I was worried about my body—what I would wear (Did I bring the right clothes? Did I bring enough clothes? Would I freeze or overheat? Should I have packed a bikini instead of long underwear? Would my body give out before we made it to camp?). Plus I was worried about a whole host of other things. I was, in fact, so worried about being the weakest or doing something wrong that I couldn’t experience the trout lilies which were in bloom with their green and purple mottled leaves and bright yellow flowers—and I couldn’t consider the haunting song of the loons on the lake. I became blind and deaf in my preoccupation with worry.
After the trip, a friend shared some words of wisdom with me. He said, “Be open to experience life.” I think that it is worry that keeps us from being open to experience life. Most of the time, we worry in anticipation. We worry about what might be coming. I was worried about the impending judgment of my friends that would surely come when we reached the next campsite…or while hiking the next day. We worry in anticipation of “bad” things. We worry that pain and loss is coming, tomorrow. The anxiety we feel is a natural reaction. Not one of us wants to feel pain, or to be lonely. We worry because what might be coming will hurt. We fear being open to experience the painful things, and so close ourselves off from experiencing the pleasurable things as well. We cut ourselves off from fully embracing the joys of today. We allow ourselves to get so caught up in what tomorrow might feel like that we walk right by the lilies and the birds, which are the very things that will sustain us tomorrow.
But it’s hard not to worry. If you are anything like me, you worry about tomorrow all the time. My tomorrows are uncertain. They are full of questions about career, and home, and relationships, and identity. All around the edges the fear of failure and loneliness creeps in. I worry because I’m not sure what to do with tomorrow. I know many of you also worry about tomorrow and what might be lost because of an economy that’s in bad shape, or because of sickness and disease.
The thing about tomorrow is that it will come. No one can stop it from coming. Worrying won’t keep it from dawning. We have little control over tomorrow, BUT we DO have control over today. We have the power to fully experience today—to stop and take a deep breath and look around—to spend time with each other and get to know each other better—to appreciate the people and things in our lives that are truly important to us. We have a choice. We have the power to decide to be open to fully experience all the lilies of the field and all the birds of the air in our lives.
“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
And today’s joys—today’s hopes—today’s faith—today’s love—these are the gifts that we have to share with each other and to treasure in our hearts. These full and joyous experiences are what will burn within us when tomorrow does come, no matter what it brings.
Because, “[m]y friends, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make this earthly pilgrimage with us. So be swift to love and make haste to do kindness.” Do it today.