Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 29, 2019)
“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.”
Did you notice that string of rhetorical questions?
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Yes.
Are you not of more value than [the lilies of the field]? Yes.
And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? No.
And why do you worry about clothing? Yes… I mean, I don’t know. I need clothes!
This the longest Jesus talks about any one emotion. And he’s trying to get at the root of the worrying by asking these questions. Maybe he does this because he realizes that the way he begins, “Do not worry about your life,” is a time-tested way to not get people to stop worrying. Have you ever been told “Oh, don’t worry”? It has the opposite effect!
One of the times I was most nervous in my life was when I went skydiving for my 18th birthday. The group of people jumping that day were climbing up to 14,000 feet in the air in this old, rickety plane that didn’t even have seats. That bothered me for some reason. “Worried” puts it lightly. I was scared to the point of being sick to my stomach. My worries were legitimate: what rational person jumps out of a plane?! I was crouched down on the floor of the plane, probably clutching my knees, and alternating between praying and cursing.
The guy who was jumping with me–you have to go tandem you first time, thank God–asked me, “Are you worried?”
I replied, “Well yeah I’m worried!”.
He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
Jesus’ questions crack through the worry and let it breathe for a minute. Is worrying about survival legitimate? Yes, of course. Our brains are wired to do just that. It’s legitimate to worry about your life, about sustenance and clothes? If you’re poor, which Jesus’ listeners were and his disciples, who had left everything to follow him, certainly were.
But is Jesus taking a stab at worry in a generic sense? Is he “taking the wind out of” the “Whatifs”?
Worrying is definitely a problem because of how much it hinders our lives. The poet W.H. Auden famously called the 20th Century the “Age of Anxiety.” But I was in a book store just last night and came across the latest edition of Newsweek and what was on the cover? “ANXIETY.” Joseph LeDoux, one of the world’s experts on fear, said “Every age thinks it’s the ‘Age of Anxiety.’” The whole article was really fascinating because it seems that anxiety has always been with us as long as we’ve had amygdalas, but it’s taken on a particular “flavor” lately.
We have very real problems on this planet (read climate change). Statistics abound: we’re anxious people. “Many researchers think that the internet and social media have contributed to this trend. The constant access to news… is incredibly stressful and can create a sense of panic.” But the good news in that medical science is on it and there are new treatments for anxiety. There are also a myriad of techniques to help us be present in the moment and stop worrying about the future.
Jesus presents some wisdom here about ways we can put our legion of worries in perspective. “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Well no, that’s true. Worrying won’t lengthen our lives; it can only shorten it, if you think of what high blood pressure does to a body.
With his rhetorical questions he’s getting at the type of worry that impedes the reign, the rule, of God from emerging in our midst. The kind of worrying that causes us to be afraid that there isn’t enough to go around. Because there’s not enough to go around, we worry that we won’t have enough, and we stop trusting that God will provide for us, as God provides for all creation, and we therefore hoard “stuff” at the expense of our neighbors.
It’s interesting that the root of our contemporary English word “worry” basically means “to strangle.” Think of all the ways worrying about wealth strangles the wellbeing of the whole human family. The word Jesus uses here is “Mammon,” which is similar to the way we speak of money as “The Almighty Dollar.” In a sense you could also substitute the word “Stuff.” “You can’t serve both God and stuff,” Jesus effectively says.
Is it legitimate to worry about self-preservation? Is it legitimate to plan for the future? Is it legitimate to ben concerned about our loved ones? Frustratingly, Jesus doesn’t address the practical implications. I kind of wonder what this means for my pensionI don’t think those worries are natural, personally speaking. But how many examples can we come up with of how the anxious pursuit of wealth–our toiling and spinning and gathering into barns and such–ends up standing in the way of God’s will for the world?
Think about the problems spawned by income inequality. The ratio of CEO to worker pay in this country (278:1) while so many people are scrambling to make ends meet? How much does the anxiety-ridden acquisition of wealth guarantee that some will have and some will have not. Not enough healthcare. Not enough education. Not enough access to power. And again, think of what conspicuous consumption is doing to the planet.
Bailey saw this on Twitter this morning, a quote from Henri Nouwen: “One way to pray in a fear filled world is to choose love over anxiety.”
What Jesus says to strive first for God’s reign, God’s way of governing the world, and put our worries about their being enough aside. Be generous now. Seek justice and peace now. Choose love for our neighbor over our anxiety about the future now. Tend to the needs of others now. And let God take care of the rest.
1. Turn to a neighbor and share. What worries do you have? How do those impede your living?
2. What do agree or disagree with in what Jesus said?
3. In what ways do you see the acquisition of wealth impeding God’s rule in our mid
st? Another way of saying that is, how do you see the worries that lead to acquiring things doing damage in the the world around us?
4. What other thoughts or questions were sparked by Bart’s sermon?