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Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ.
Do not worry. I feel like that’s the message I’ve always heard Jesus preaching in this text from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s right on the cover of our bulletin- “Do not worry.” It’s that little phrase that gets stuck in our heads and we think- how can we not worry?
Worry comes each day, especially as we have people in our lives whom we love. Relationships cause worry. People have told me, “You don’t know worry until you have kids.” Our baby’s not quite here yet, but we’ve spent plenty of time worrying already. Doctor’s appointments, all the things that can cause problems, what to buy, and whether we’ll cut it as parents all provide plenty to worry about.
In relationships, we have responsibilities, and sometimes, they are just too much for us. We know we can’t protect, provide, or even love enough. Inevitably, something goes wrong. Our kid will bump her head. Jobs will change and we’ll need to move. Anger and frustration lead to hasty words. Plenty of ways to mess up means plenty of reasons to worry.
We worry because things are so uncertain in this life. As much as we try to control our circumstances, build a good life, and work hard for financial stability, we are just never sure what might happen. Many people in these last years have lost jobs they thought were secure, and homes they thought they could afford. Illness and death come unexpectedly and affect both relationships and finances.
We worry because this life matters. Tomorrow matters. Each person and creature and all creation matters. What we do matters. Each decision we make affects not only us, but also other people. Planning for the future is important! So what is all this from the Sermon on the Mount about? Why would Jesus tell us not to worry or to plan?
As I prepared my sermon this week, one little word struck me. A word I don’t think I’ve ever noticed being there before. The word is “Therefore.” In Greek, it’s a whole phrase: a more word for word translation of the Greek is “On account of this, I say to you-.” If you want to be really cool and learn a new Greek phrase- it’s ——.
What this English word or Greek phrase led me to discover is that this whole familiar bit about not worrying and looking at the birds and the lilies doesn’t just stand on its own, but has to do with what Jesus has been talking about. What Jesus has been talking about is money, wealth, and possessions.
We don’t get all of his previous speech, so here’s some highlights. Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where most and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” (Matt 6:19-20a); and “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt 6:24b)
Directly after that last verse, Jesus continues, “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.” (Matt 6:25) Money, wealth, and possessions are easily lost. They also take our energy and loyalty away from God. So, money and the goods it can buy are not so important to Jesus. Jesus advises us that those things are not worth worrying about.
Jesus continues, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” I don’t suppose Jesus ever studied modern psychology. If he had, surely he would be familiar with concepts such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and would know that people need their most basic needs satisfied- like safety, shelter, and food, before they are able to attend to higher needs- like love, compassion, and spirituality.
Jesus turns our modern theories upside down. He insists that disciples must first seek the kingdom of God, and not worry about all the things of life. The kingdom of God has different priorities than the kingdoms of our culture and our self-interest. Those latter kingdoms tell us to take care of our own needs, or our family’s needs, before worrying about helping anyone else. They rationalize this argument by saying we need to take care of ourselves first so that we don’t become people who are in need ourselves. In contrast, the kingdom of God includes disciples who have left their families and their jobs to follow Jesus in giving their lives away for the sake of the world.
Jesus is about the business of helping disciples reorient their lives and concerns. Jesus doesn’t tell us not to worry in general, but not to worry about claiming and protecting the things of life. Food, drink, and clothing are necessities of life, but they are not gods from whom we receive life. Centering our lives around attaining and amassing them does not give wholeness of life, but only wasted worry.
Think of your past week. What took up most of your time and energy? What worries woke you up in the middle of the night? If you’re like me, it’s been family, health, the unknown future, money, bills, work, taxes, and that darn dog who thinks he needs to alert me to other creatures awake at 2am outside our door. Sometimes I’ve thought and prayed for those in need, both in this community and around the world. But it’s been food, drink, and clothing that remain major concerns for me. It’s not a matter of finding enough to eat, but getting the right things to eat. It’s figuring out what clothes are appropriate for what functions, and right now, figuring out what’s going to fit, and how few maternity clothes I really have to buy. So often I’ve head radio and tv shows that glorify the challenge of living frugally, with super coupon-clipper heros, who get everything everyone else wants, but at a cheaper price. These worries and heros point to what we find most important.
We uncover a lot about a congregation when we look for evidence about what is being strived after. We might look at the church budget and see how much money is being used to serve neighbors and the world, and how much goes to other “things.” We might check out the calendar to see where the congregation’s time is being spent. We might track the use of the building to see how the community is being served. We might ask worshippers how they see themselves continuing God’s work Monday-Friday.
I’ll let you consider your church on your own, and I’ll make it easy on us and tell you a story about another church. When Pastor Jeff and I are in Fargo for visits, meetings, or appointments, Pastor Jeff often plays noon basketball with a group of pastors, youth workers, professors, and other folks who can stand the company of those types of people. On certain days, they play at a church that has a gym.
This week, Pastor Jeff walked in to find three men arguing. The man with the complaint was in charge of the church finances and property. The other two were familiar with the church, but weren’t actually members or staff any longer. This one man was yelling at the two about how they shouldn’t be allowed to play basketball in the gym anymore. Earlier that week, someone was showering after basketball and somehow managed to bang a chip off the bathroom sink. The culprit had brought the chip up to the church office and explained the accident. The two men thought it seemed like an innocent accident, which could easily be fixed by having the chip reattached to the sink. Sure, there might be a little line around it, and it wouldn’t look perfect anymore, but it would still work just fine. But the one man thought the whole sink would have to be trashed and a new one purchased for upwards of $500, and since he was in charge of the budget, he knew that would put even more strain on their finances, and therefore, this whole basketball thing would just have to stop. It is just too costly and dangerous for the building. The two men tried to get the one to understand that this noon ball is an important ministry, a time when folks can burn off some energy, and share some concerns and prayers about their own lives. But sometimes it’s difficult to see the ministry for the dollar signs.
I think it’s pretty easy to write the angry man’s concerns off as an overreaction. It’s easy because it’s not my church, or my budget. But I’m sure we can all think of ways that finances or people’s status as givers have affected how decisions about ministry are made.
Jesus has a promise to comfort those of us who are prone to worry, to care about food, drink, and clothing, or who appreciate budgets and hard work a bit too much. He says, “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things… all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6:32b, 33b)
That’s an amazing promise- everything we need is a gift from God. It’s also a sharp reminder that puts us in our place- we’re not the ones who create and sustain life. That’s God’s job. God is the one who gives us- and the sparrows and the lilies- life, and who keeps our lives each day. God is the only one who will be able to give us eternal life after we die. No matter how hard we work, or how hard we worry, we can’t create all these things, we can’t create life, from nothing. It all comes from God, who is happy to give us what we need.
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