|Edvard Munch, "Anxiety"|
I am a world-class worrier. I’m fairly certain that if there were some sort of worrying competition, I would at least place, I’m that good. In fact, I don’t just worry when things are going badly or there are frightening threats on the horizon, I worry when things seem to be going too well – because that is just a set up for disaster, it says so right in the worry manual, the handbook for perfect anxiety.
For someone prone to worry, tonight’s text is not terribly good news. First, because it’s nice that God cares about the flowers and birds and all, but what about the 1000 Libyans who brutally lost their lives these past two weeks, crying out for freedom? What about Iraqi children and Haitian families and the neighbor who lost her house in a fire and the friend who cannot, no matter what it seems, find a job?
So for a world-class worrier, this text is cold comfort. It raises more questions than it answers. You can’t fool us, Jesus. There’s a lot to worry about. And despite the promise that God will care for us, God doesn’t seem to be wrapping up these loose ends any time soon.
The second reason this text is not great news for a world-class worrier is that it makes you start to worry about how much you’re worrying. It makes you question your faith, and not in a good way. By telling you you shouldn’t worry, it gives you more to worry about. Why can’t I just “let go and let God?” What’s wrong with my faith? Would God take care of me more if I backed off? If I just tried harder not to worry so much, would that make me more secure, less afraid? And so, without realizing it or meaning to, you’ve let anxiety take the reigns again.
On the flip side, it’s a beautiful passage. Really poetic and lovely. And if it didn’t need to mean something to my daily life or the really messed up world we live in, I would like it very much. So, there’s that.
It does make a few interesting observations about worry.
Certainly, I do realize that by worrying I cannot add one cubit to my life span – whatever a cubit is – one second, hour, moment. In fact, if studies are to be believed, I actually can take time off my life by worrying. Time with elevated heart rate and increased blood pressure and heightened fight or flight response and it all takes a toll on your longevity. (So, there’s something else to be worried about).
The other thing it points out is that worrying is necessarily future-oriented. We worry about what is going to happen. We live in today – with enough troubles of its own, but we worry about tomorrow. We worry what the test results will show or what the teacher will say or what will happen when the last of the money runs out. We worry about what we will do, and what they will say, and how we will survive whatever crisis looms on the horizon.
In fact, we miss a whole lot of the present by living in the future, and not in a pleasant dreamy way, but in a wholly worrisome way. And when the future becomes the present many of the things we worried about ahead of time never come to pass, or we find ourselves coping with what in advance had seemed insurmountable.
So truly, tomorrow will bring worries of its own and today has enough trouble of its own and there is no need to go borrowing more, and I do appreciate the text for at least acknowledging that, and not pretending today is all rosy and tomorrow only hunky-dory.
It’s interesting that these two pericopes – that is what we call little units of scripture that contain a complete thought – that both of these pericopes, the one about money and the one about worry - are together for today’s reading. It’s the “therefore”: when we read these together we can see, as my dad used to say “what the therefore is there for” – For this reason, because of what I have just said, having heard this, don’t be anxious. Don’t be anxious!
Don’t be anxious about your life, because you can’t serve God and wealth. You can’t be ruled by money and by God, so don’t be worried. Pick your lord. And you couldn’t find two more different.
Let’s just take a moment to remind ourselves where we stand when we read this text. We are, yes, STILL in the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve already concluded that the point of the whole lengthy sermon is to talk about what this kingdom of God life looks like when it is lived out. We’ve seen that it means people are upheld and respected, mutual love and support is the way people relate, what it means that God is God and we are God’s people in concrete, visible ways.
And Jesus is still going on. He has covered relationship with God, with others, has addressed conflict and division, divorce and arguments and all these other real life experiences, and given a pretty compelling picture of what it looks like when the love-driven life of God in Christ is the life-blood of your own life and relationships. So now we come to anxiety. And money.
Money and worry. It would be ludicrous not to worry, especially about money. In a world of insurance and accidents and investments and retirement and unforeseen circumstances and medical conditions and rising college tuition and passenger side air bags and long-term care facilities, and not leaving baggage unattended, and home security systems and supplemental insurance, telling people not to worry, and particularly to not worry about money, is just about the dumbest advice you can give.
But it depends, I suppose, on which system you choose to live in, which master you’ve chosen, back in the last pericope. Instead of being defined by a system of anxiety and accumulation, we are invited to be defined by rest, beauty, cooperation and interconnectedness, each having what each needs to thrive – no more and no less. We’re invited to live from the kingdom of God.
In a few weeks we’re going on an all-church retreat that is focused on Sabbath. And Sabbath itself, as we will talk about then, is a form of resistance. A powerful form of resistance. It is, in fact, what this very passage is talking about. Truly resting, as God rested, is to live in opposition to a system designed around anxiety. A system that doesn’t rest. A system of 24/7 business and commerce where you are defined by your trading power and your net worth and your ability to consume and spend. Where participation means economic involvement, spending power.
Sabbath is resistance to this culture; it is the ridiculous notion that you are free to stop doing. That your person and your time is valuable without producing or selling or proving or buying a thing. It is a wildly alternative mindset, a dramatically different form of living, a completely other system. A system of wholeness and abundance, where participation means connecting and caring, relationships and creativity, honest grief and wholehearted laughter.
It means, like birds and flowers, living out your essential you-ness and trusting that it is part of a greater whole. And you may not see the whole picture or even yet recognize what song or scent you contribute to the world, but you are part of it all anyway. It means your life and existence does not depend solely on yourself or your striving. You cannot ultimately make or break it.
There are incredible gifts within the fabric of this life that we skim right by because we’re so caught up on preserving our own lives or promoting our own agendas that we miss the bird and the flowers and each other and the gifts we’ve been given and the invitations extended to us right here and now to give the same gifts to others. We’re so worried. So anxious. So fearful.
But Sabbath counters this. It says, I am going to stop for a day. I am going to step off the crazy moving sidewalk and sit down and be here, right here, right now and not be driven by anxiety and worry, not think that I am personally so integral to the world moving forward that it can’t get along without me.
My God is not money, not accumulation and consumption, my God is the one who worked hard to make the world and then looked around and declared it good and flopped down for a nice long nap. A day to rest. To let it all germinate. To take pleasure in the goodness of what God made, the ongoing life of it, to smell those lilies and listen to those birds sing, to relax and enjoy it.
And my God is also the one who was born into all the anxious, worried, fearful moments in life and shared them with us to remind us that God is God and we are not alone.
So when we rest, we trust. We trust in God. That despite what we see on the news and on the CT scan and on the bank statement that God IS in control in some way. That God IS loving. That God is God and we are not alone.
Jesus is always encouraging us to live like the kingdom of God is now, is here, live like it in the face of its absence, in opposition to those who would preach and live otherwise.
Jesus is saying through all of this, in multiple ways,
Don’t participate blindly in the systems that dehumanize and threaten people, in systems that tell you you never have enough and you must always be about stockpiling and insuring and protecting.
Instead, live from abundance and joy, live freely and love fully, be generous and authentic and leave tomorrow in the future. Today has enough adventure of its own. Today is where you are, and where God is, and where life really happens, after all.
This is not something that can be done alone, this not worrying thing, this not worshiping money thing, this living in today thing. For human beings to be true human beings, like bird are birds and flowers are flowers and God is God, we must live interdependently, connected, supporting one another. We can’t NOT worry alone. We choose not to worry together.
Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness – live out God’s justice and care for common humanity and creation, bind up the brokenhearted and look after the poor and love one another and let go of anger and be about the business of God in the world- and all these things, food, clothing, basic needs, will be covered.
If we’re all caring for each other we are all cared for. If we are all sharing what we have with others we are all shared with. There’s enough to go around, and in God’s kingdom all have what they need. The kingdom of God takes the future of God’s promise and invites us to live it now, and in living it now, we are reminded of the future that is promised.
In the midst of a crisis, and all on my own, I could spin into a fantastic worrying vortex of death. I need to be connected to other people who remind me of the truth, who keep me grounded in today and help me avoid obsessing over the million possibilities of what might be that threaten to strangle me. I need to see myself not as a sole individual in the world, but as a part of the Body of Christ, just one little part and I can faithfully do my part but the whole body will care for one another, the whole body belongs to the God of past, present and future.
And by the way, this isn’t about not feeling worried when the late notice or the lump appears. This isn’t about fixing your feelings. It is about together choosing to live in an alternative system, a kingdom reality. It’s about not letting worry or anxiety rule us or tell us how we are to live.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again: we remind each other of the truth, with our words and our actions, our money and our mouth, our shared struggles and joys. We continue to tell each other who we are, and who God is, and which system, which kingdom, which reality, we are going to live from, and how we see that kingdom unfolding in the world.
Together we can live out faith, which is to say, we’ll practice trust in God. Together. And trust is a powerful anxiety reliever. Worry paralyzes us, and prevents us from really living. But trust sets us free to participate joyfully in the life of God. And we can be a people who practice trust.
“I have calmed and quieted my soul,” says the Psalmist, “like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore.”