Sermon: Don’t Worry

Sunday 18 November 2018
Thanksgiving on the Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Pentecost

Matthew 6:25-33

We are right on the edge of the holiday season. Four days from today we celebrate Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving is closely followed by the high holy days of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. And from then it’s only 28 shopping days left until Christmas. The decorations have been up since the moment Halloween was over. The sales are on. We have gifts to buy, parties to plan, travel arrangements to make, cards to write. It’s time to hustle, hustle hustle ourselves into a holiday spirit.

And in the middle of all of that Jesus says, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear.” Well that’s easy for Jesus to say. He never had to shop for Christmas gifts, did he? He never had to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner. Don’t worry, Jesus says. What on earth does he mean?

The Greek word is μεριμνᾶτε. It has a range of meanings. In a positive sense, it can mean to care for or to be concerned about something. But in a more negative sense, the sense that Jesus seems to intend here, it means to have anxiety, to be distressed, or to be unduly worried. In turn, anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. More technically, anxiety is a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.

We have an awful lot of things to be worried about in our world. We might be worried about our job, or getting a job, or losing a job. We might be worried about our retirement, our investments, our debts. We might be worried about bills or medical expenses. We might worry about our popularity, our reputation, whether people will like us or not. We might be worried about our kids, about their future. Or we might be worried about our parents, about their future. We might have worries that are related to how our families interact. We might be worried about a medical condition or an addiction, whether it be our own or someone else’s. We might worry about dangers out in the world, the possibility of being a victim of theft, or assault, or some other attack. We might be worried about how we perform, about giving a presentation of some kind or passing a test. We might have anxiety around being in crowds, or being alone, or doing something new. We might worry about the great issues of our time, about politics, or the economy, displaced people, social justice, the environment, or war.

What is it that Jesus is telling us not to worry about? On the one hand, it seems like some pretty basic things. Don’t worry about your life. Don’t worry about what you will eat. Don’t worry about your body. Don’t worry about what you will wear. These seem like basic needs, food and clothing. These are things that  we need, things that we require for our very survival. How could we not worry about whether or not we, and our families are going to have enough food to eat? How could we not worry about whether our children will have clothes to keep them warm in the cold? Wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to worry about such things? Wouldn’t it be reckless to leave such things to chance?

But on the other hand, Jesus does compare the worry over clothes to the splendor of King Solomon, well known as the wealthiest of Israelite kings. And he does talk about the worry for food in terms of storing up food in barns. Perhaps Jesus is talking about a kind of worry that goes beyond the worry over basic needs. Perhaps Jesus is talking about the kind of worry that leaves us yearning after more and more.

Eugene Peterson seems to think so. He translates this passage this way:

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

Because the truth is, even if something is worth worrying about, worrying about it is rarely worth it. Has anyone ever grown even an inch by worrying about it? No.

Worry often leaves us paralyzed. We become less able to deal with the things we are worried about simply because we are worrying about them.

You know that I’m working on a dissertation right now. I’ve been working on it for the last several years. And, let me tell you, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about it. Do I really have anything new or worthwhile to say? Am I a good enough researcher or writer to pull this off? Do I have the mind for it? Do I need to reframe the project? Maybe it’s too specific and I need to widen my scope, take a broader view of the subject? Maybe it’s too broad and I need to narrow down on one thing and focus there? Will I even be able to read enough books and papers to feel like I have a full understanding of the topic and what other scholars have said? Will I go through all this work and then end up looking foolish? Maybe it would be better just to quit and spend my time on something else, something more practical. Am I determined enough to complete this project? Am I smart enough? Am I good enough?

And of course when I’m thinking like that, am I able to get anything done? No. I can’t. When I’m thinking like that I’m paralyzed. I lose energy for anything except the worry itself.

In our Dissertation Proposal Seminar, we were assigned a book by Anne Lamott. In it, she tells this story:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’1

That can help with worry. In fact, it’s almost exactly what Jesus says in the verse that comes right after the passage we read today. “Stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Today’s worry is enough for today. Just take it one thing at a time. Just take it bird by bird.

Sometimes it can help just to speak your worries. Don’t let them keep spinning around and gaining speed inside you. Tell them to someone. Tell them to God. Speak them out loud. Write them down. Make a list. Then it’s easier to stop worrying, because you’ve got the list to do the worrying for you.

And there’s another practice that is an excellent antidote to worry: the practice of gratitude. It’s easy to get stuck thinking over and over about all of the things that aren’t going right, all of the things that need fixing. Taking a moment to stop, and to think about all of the blessings in your life, it makes a huge difference. It puts our worries into perspective.

It’s a practice we do every night as a family around our dinner table. Every evening we check in with each other. What is one important thing that happened today and what feelings did you have about it. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s a bad thing. Either way, we acknowledge our feelings about it. But then, no matter how we’re feeling that day, we all say something that we’re grateful for. And you know what, it makes a difference. It makes a difference to stop and give thanks. Be when I stop and realize all of the many blessings that I have in my life, it makes the things I worry about seem so much smaller.

So I encourage you to make a practice of being grateful. Even if you don’t choose to do it every day, maybe once in a while. We do have that holiday coming up, you know. Thanks-giving, I think it’s called. It might be a good opportunity to give thanks. And so I don’t leave you unprepared, I’m going to give you a chance to practice right now. I’m going to invite you to turn to the person next to you and just share one thing that you’re grateful for, one thing you’d like to give thanks for.

———

Let me close this morning with a poem by Mary Oliver, titled simply “I Worried”:

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.


1 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Kindle ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), 18.

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