The Rule of Threes

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
Rector

December 05, 2018

A priest, a rabbi, and a minster walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey, what is this, a joke?” I am sure as soon as you heard me say, “A priest, a rabbi, and a minster,” you all knew a joke was coming.

There are so many jokes that start like that, though many are not, shall we say, pulpit worthy.

But this joke also employs what comedians call the Rule of Three. It is surprising how many jokes follow the structure of using sets threes to set up punchlines. But, actually, this is a tried and true formula for public speaking and all manner of writing.

There are any number of examples I could cite:

•  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

•  I came, I saw, I conquered

•  Tom, Dick and Harry

If you think about it, this rule makes perfect sense. Three is the smallest number to set forth a pattern, a thesis or the expectation of an event or outcome. Four or more items would be tedious and superfluous. Three is just right, much like the Three Bears.

It seems that Jesus even knew this rule. Today we hear him warn us to be on guard that our hearts aren’t burdened with dissipation, drunkenness and the worries of this world. He lists three ways our hearts can be burdened.

It doesn’t sound like a joke, of course, but in a way it has a spiritual punchline. Jesus is speaking about the coming of the kingdom of God. He speaks seriously and with great import as he describes the events that will precede his return.

He then exhorts us to be ready and instructs us not to allow our hearts to be weighed down. But what we don’t perceive is how his three examples of burdens would have caught his original hearers by surprise and thus highlighting Jesus’ call to be prepared.

Jesus begins by warning against being burdened by dissipation and drunkenness.

The people who first heard Jesus say these words were peasants, subsistence laborers who had very little expendable income. The likelihood that any of them had means to be burdened by excessive alcohol use is very low. So Jesus’ audience were likely expecting that Jesus was preaching against the rich and the powerful.

But Jesus used the Rule of Three to catch them off guard. They were likely expecting some other sins of the the rich and powerful like gluttony. But Jesus tells them to not be burdened by the worries of this world.

If there is one thing that his audience carried as a burden it was the worries of this world. What would they eat? What would they wear? How would they pay their debts? There’s the spiritual punchline.

They may never had have to be concerned about dissipation or drunkenness but worrying about survival was a very real burden for all of them.

These words of Jesus this morning from the Gospel of Luke echo very clearly Jesus’ words from the Sermon in the Mount in Matthew. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offer us the beautiful image of the lillies of the field and how God provides for them.

He sums up that insight by saying,

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.

Worry is dangerous because it is insidious and it is so easy to be swept into its wake. It distracts us from our hope that God is our Provider and Sustainer.

We believe in God’s Providence. Remember that providence and provide are basically the same word.

Years ago I read a quote by the Roman Catholic saint, Luigi Guanella. He said, “I worry until midnight and from then on I let God worry.”

Worry brings anxiety, agitation, and pain. It robs us of serenity, rest and comfort. It can be just as damaging to the soul as dissipation and drunkenness.

Worry is just as often a state of our spirit as it is a state of our mind. I can offer you three antidotes, though:  gratitude, helping and movement.

It is nearly impossible to be worried and grateful at the same moment.

Instead of rehearsing all that could go wrong, try remembering all that has gone well, all the ways God has blessed us to this day.

If there is an opposite of worrying it is likely giving thanks. Helping others is always a great distraction for what we cannot control in our own lives. It takes our minds off of our concerns and lifts our spirits as well as those we serve.

It teaches us that we can be vessels of God’s grace and renews our spirits with that grace.

Move, exercise in whatever way you can, and preferably outdoors. It is amazing to me how what seems so oppressive in my office or at home seems so much more manageable when the sky is above me and the horizons are further away. It reminds me that my challenges are not so big after all and surely not too big for God.

Gratitude, helping and movement. There you go. Three antidotes for worry. The rule of three again.

Gratitude, helping and movement are all good for our bodies, minds and spirits.