A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on February 27, 2011
Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34
“Do not worry!” Jesus says. “Do not be anxious!”
To take seriously the words in today’s gospel is an exercise in spiritual discipline that surely challenges us all.
We all probably worry about something, don’t we. Like most parents, I sometimes worry (unnecessarily most of the time) about my kids. But they keep on growing up and maturing and finding their way in life, not because I worry, but usually in spite of it. If it’s not kids, perhaps you worry about something else – or maybe even lots of things.
The biggest worrier in our family is Jakie. He’s our little poodle. He’s just fine until we get in the car to go somewhere, and he must have some leftover memory of his traumatic puppyhood when he was shuffled around between homes for the first couple of years, and getting in a car triggers some kind of anxiety, perhaps that he’s going to yet another new home. So for a few miles, we have to listen to his pitiful little whimper, and try to reassure him that he’s going to be just fine and that we’re still going to be his family.
We human beings find all kinds of things to worry about – some of them based on real threats, others potential, or imagined. We worry about money. We worry about the future. We worry about people. We wonder: Will I ever have enough money to retire? What will happen if I get sick? Or lose my job? Or don’t find a new one? If you’re a teenager, you might worry about fitting in with the crowd you want to be part of, or how to find that special relationship you would like to have with someone. Or whether you will get into the college you want, or how you’ll ever get a job and make enough money to have a decent life.
Many of our worries are calibrated to the stages of life we all go through, and are at least to some degree “normal.” Psychologists tell us that appropriate worry can be beneficial, if it causes us to be more alert to some kind of threat.
“Toxic” worry, on the other hand, can be harmful to one’s emotional and mental health. “…worry hijacks aspects of our emotional circuitry… [and] excess fretting reduces activity in the sympathetic nervous system in response to a threat…” We tend to worry about the things that are unknowns to us. And our minds play games with us, sometimes letting us imagine only the worst possible outcomes to situations that might not ever even arise. And psychologists tell us that “…by consciously trying to be ready for the worst, worriers are actually compromising their body’s ability to react to a truly traumatic event…”
No wonder Jesus said, "Do not worry about your life..."
Worry is very often a counter-productive strategy for our survival and well-being. We get that, and we can all agree that it’s not always good for us! But how can we learn not to worry?
It begins (as always) with looking at things from a different perspective.
As we have been hearing in the Sermon on the Mount these past few weeks, Jesus seems to set an impossibly high bar for us. Not only are we not to commit murder, but we’re not even to be angry! Not only don’t commit adultery, he says, but don’t even look on another person with lust! If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other one also! And on it goes. Now today, we hear him say, “do not worry about your life… [take your example from] the birds of the air [who] neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… and why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field… even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
Jesus uses these images to turn our attention not just to all the worries we have about practical things like food and clothing, but to help us focus on an inner spiritual reality that is going on when we worry. And that inner spiritual reality has to do with who God is for us: Is God God? Or are things God?
Listen again to how he begins this whole discourse. He says:
"No one can serve two masters; for [you] 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.”
And here, wealth is just a metaphor for things. So, there is a fundamental choice for us about whom we will serve. Who or what will be our God? Who or what will we allow to rule our lives? Will it be the source and ground of all being – God? Or will we allow things that are created and contingent, things that are passing away, to rule our hearts and our lives? Learning not to worry, it turns out, starts with imagining ourselves to be loved and cared for by a gracious and loving God – no matter what comes our way.
There’s nothing that sharpens the point on a passage like this better than a natural disaster, in which the basics of life are taken from people: food, clothing, homes, businesses – you name it. That happened this week in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, where a powerful earthquake devastated that city: Loss of lives, loss of property. The Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch also suffered catastrophic damage.
How can we say “don't worry” this week, when so many in that city have been left with limited access to water and food and only the clothes they have on their backs? Where is God’s provision for their needs now?
I listened this week to the conversation among clergy around the world wrestling with this passage over the internet. One pastor from New Zealand quoted another who had said this:
“Jesus is inviting people into God’s realm, where priorities are clear… In God’s community people look out for each other and share what they have; people take what they need and leave some for others. In God’s community, people think about their neighbors, even as they think about themselves. This is where the miracle of God’s care for [us] is discovered.”
The pastor from New Zealand then said this in response:
“When I read that, I thought immediately of the outpouring of love and support and care that we have seen flooding into Christchurch from all around the country. I thought of the unstinting, unceasing work of those involved in the rescue effort, often with no regard for their own situation and the losses they have suffered. I thought of the teams of people from all over the world who have come to give the help they are trained to give. I thought of the students and farmers out shoveling mud and silt, and the packed lunches sent from students [around the country] to feed them. I thought of the stories of neighbors getting together to share food and cooking facilities and whatever else they have.”
Peter Beck, Dean of Christchurch cathedral, said this week, "This [earthquake] is not an act of God - this is the earth, doing what it does. The act of God is how we love each other, how we reach out to one another.”
That is just one little picture of what it looks like when people serve God and not wealth, or simply their own well-being.
Yes, perhaps a natural disaster would force us all into this mode. I do not know. But how can we live this way all the time, such that we have confidence in God’s care and provision for us in and through one another.
I know that my own worries are often directly related to how focused I am on my own needs, and not on others’. But when our focus and attention are on living in God’s realm, that place where we have all we need, because we are there for one another, we find so much less to worry about for ourselves. We live with confidence that our kids will find their way, because it’s not all about us; because there are other people who will come alongside them and be there for them, too. We don’t fret unnecessarily about the future, because we know how much we care about caring for one another, yes, even in the worst of times.
Living with confidence and without anxiety requires an inner spiritual disposition. And it’s a spiritual disposition I find most beautifully expressed in the words of a sixteenth century saint, Ignatius of Loyola. In his Spiritual Exercises, he begins with his First Principle and Foundation, which I’ll leave you with it here this morning:
"Before the world was made we were chosen to live in love in God’s presence by praising, reverencing and serving God in and through creation.
"As everything on the face of the earth exists to help us to do this, we must appreciate and make use of everything that helps, and rid ourselves of anything that is destructive to our living in love in God’s presence.
"Therefore we must be so poised (detached/indifferent) that we do not cling to any created thing as though it were our ultimate good, but remain open to the possibility that love may demand of us poverty rather than riches, sickness rather than health, dishonour rather than honour, a short life rather than a long one, because God alone is our security, refuge and strength.
"We can be so detached from any created thing only if we have a stronger attachment; therefore our one dominating desire and fundamental choice must be to live in love in God’s presence.
“To live in love in God’s presence.” That is the goal of our lives. That is what we seek here in this place week by week as we gather together to lift our hearts in prayer and praise, to hear and receive God’s word, and to take into ourselves God’s very own life.
When we have that, and when we live it out in community with one another, do not worry, because we have all we need.