Sermon on the Mount: What Not to Wear
My mother will tell you that in some ways, I’ve been a worrier since I was a little girl. When I started kindergarten, I went through a stretch where I kept asking my mother “what if” questions about starting school. What if I couldn’t find my bus? What if I got locked in the bathroom and no one heard me calling for help getting out? What if no one was home when I got off the bus? What if the teacher didn’t show up? What if I wore a dress on a day I was supposed to wear pants for gym? What if I didn’t have my money for milk? These were apparently serious concerns on my 5 year old mind, and my mother did her best to help me relax, to know that I would be safe and that someone would be there who could help me no matter what I encountered. I don’t even remember having all these questions myself, so she must have done a good job in calming my anxieties. Everybody, it seems, worries about something sometime. Are you a worrier? Do you experience stress? How do you cope with it?
I’ve told you before that I am working hard to be a healthier person. One of the many reasons for this is that I find that the stress and worry I experience in my life shows up in my physical health sometimes. I have a family history of high blood pressure, for example, and I need to be careful to manage the stress in my life in healthy ways, so that my blood pressure is better controlled. When I’m not managing my stress, sometimes I can actually feel my blood pressure rising, or I find myself clenching my jaw while I’m sleeping. I think that one of the reasons people become addicted to things like alcohol or smoking or caffeine is because we use these things as a way to manage our stress, our worries.
What is it, exactly, that we’re all so worried about? I went through a country music phase when I was in high school that may or may not have been related to my crush on a handsome young man from Texas who listened to nothing but country music. One of my favorite country songs has stayed with me through the years is called, “I’m in a Hurry,” recorded by Alabama. The chorus goes, “I’m in a hurry to get things done. Oh I rush and rush until life’s no fun. All I really gotta do is live and die, but I’m in a hurry and don’t know why.” For me, at least, a big source of stress comes from my endless to-do list. Sometimes, instead of daydreaming, I find my mind running through the endless cycle of what needs to be done next. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think about is the list of things I have to accomplish in the day. For many people who experience insomnia, thinking about everything that has to be done the next day is a big source of sleeplessness. And neck-and-neck with worries about to-do lists are peoples’ worries about money. How much we have, how much we need or want, and the gap in between those figures. We worry a lot about having enough, it seems: time and money.
Today, as we continue reading through the Sermon on the Mount, we hit a passage that is probably familiar to you. It’s a passage we characterize as being about “worry,” although there’s certainly a lot packed into this text. In this chapter, Jesus has just talked about giving alms, praying, and fasting, followed up by saying that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And then Jesus starts with today’s passage. He says that one cannot serve both God and wealth. This statement is a springboard for Jesus to speak about worry. Don’t worry, Jesus says, about what to eat, or drink, or wear. Life is more than these things. The birds of the air don’t work or worry, and have plenty to eat, and we are more valuable than birds. And the lilies are clothed with great beauty, but they only last a little while. Won’t God take even greater care of us? So why worry? God knows what we need. So strive for the Kingdom of God, not these other things, Jesus concludes. Strive to live righteously, and everything else will come as well.
In some ways I love this passage – it is beautiful, comforting. But I have to share with you my other reaction: Is Jesus serious? How can he be? Most of the time when reading the gospels, I’m struck by the deep wisdom of Jesus. By his perceptiveness, his way of seeing right to the heart of the matter. By the way he makes things so clear. It is one of the many reasons I choose to follow Jesus – his ability to trim away all the meaningless stuff and get to the core in a world that so needs that, when my life so needs that. But then sometimes there’s a passage of Jesus’ teaching that comes along like this one and my reaction is, “Yeah, but Jesus…,” “Jesus, you’re pretty naïve, idealistic, you really don’t understand how stressful my life is.” “Yeah, but easier said than done Jesus. Have you seen my to-do list?” It’s hard to picture Jesus keeping an appointment calendar, Jesus with a to-do list. A quick assessment of this passage tells us that Jesus says we’re not supposed to worry. And perhaps some of you are like me, then, walking away from the passage worried that we worry too much.
As usual, when we really examine the text, Jesus says something much more compelling than “Don’t worry.” He doesn’t offer easy platitudes – this isn’t “hakuna matata” or “don’t worry, be happy.” Jesus is tying his words about worry back to his opening comments in this passage today about having more than one master. We can tell this because of how this section about not worrying starts. In our New Revised Standard Version bibles, we just get “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.” But the original Greek is even more specific. It says, “Because of this I tell you do not worry.” So the whole section reads: “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. Because of this I tell you do not worry.” So, in context, what does this passage mean for us, that because of not being able to serve two masters, Jesus tells us not to worry?
You know when Pastor Aaron talks about those mysterious two people in the whole room who might actually care what the original Greek says? I’ll confess to being one of those two people, one of those nerdy language geeks – I love finding out what the Greek says, and seeing if it helps me understand. When Jesus talks about worry, the word used is merimnate, which means more literally to “be preoccupied with or be absorbed by.” (1) When Jesus speaks of worry, he’s speaking of something that preoccupies us, absorbs our attention, takes our effort and energy and heart’s direction. In fact, in this way, Jesus is equating worry to something that’s very close to idolatry. Idolatry is when we take anything that is other than God, and give it the place of God in our lives. All through the scriptures, idolatry is one of the things that God most deplores about our human behavior. Again and again, we’re putting something else in a more important place than we put God. Worried? Preoccupied? Absorbed? Not only is your stress hard on you, it’s also putting your very soul at risk, because your worry is just another form of making idols. That’s why Jesus talks about worry and serving more than one master. If we don’t want to end up serving a master other than God, we must stop worrying, stop being absorbed by and preoccupied by things that aren’t God.
Instead of being naïve, Jesus is, of course, being extremely wise. He calls our worry out for what it is – a way of distancing ourselves from God and God’s plan for our lives. We’ve been studying John Wesley in a book study this summer. We’ve learned about his Explanatory Notes on the whole bible. On this passage, Wesley writes: “Does not every [one] see, that [one] cannot comfortably serve both [God and wealth]? That to trim between God and the world is the sure way to be disappointed in both, and to have no rest either in one or the other? How uncomfortable a condition must he be in, who, having the fear but not the love of God, -- who, serving [God], but not with all his heart, -- has only the toils and not the joys of religion? He has religion enough to make him miserable, but not enough to make him happy: His religion will not let him enjoy the world, and the world will not let him enjoy God. So that, by halting between both, he loses both; and has no peace either in God or the world.” Wesley knew that by trying to strive for what’s important in worldly terms at the same time we strive spiritually would only make us miserable in the world and miserable in our relationship with God. We worry because we’re striving for the wrong things, or striving, at the least, in the wrong order.
So what do we do? How do we change? How do we give up this striving, our obsessive anxiety, our stress, our worry, our preoccupation with so much that has nothing to do with God, faith, discipleship, ministry? How can we just “not worry” like Jesus says? He gives us the answer: We still strive, we’re still preoccupied, we’re still consumed – but all that energy is given to striving for the kingdom of God. And we’re able to do that when we recognize that our lives are covered already by God’s love. Our lives are given value already by God who created us, and if this God who created us even gives value to birds and lilies and grass in the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow, how can we doubt the value given to us? We’re precious to God, of such value to God. The value we get elsewhere isn’t real. The things we worry about only define us if we let them define us. But if we choose otherwise, if we strive after God’s kingdom instead, we’ll find our real value as children of God.
Does seeking God’s kingdom free us from worry? Does seeking God’s kingdom clothe us and feed us? Maybe not in the ways we’d expect. But I think striving for God’s kingdom ultimately turns our view from ourselves out to the world God has created. So striving for the kingdom lead us to feed others, to clothe others, to fill others. If the whole world strives after God first, I think we’ll find that Jesus is right – all the rest is added to us as well. We struggle to exist in a world that is full of worry, ever torn, as John Wesley described, between more than one master, never being satisfied by either. But our lives, individually and together can be so much more than we sometimes settle for. Strive first for God, God’s kingdom, God’s justice. If we do that together, God promises that the rest will come to us as a gift to God’s beloved children.
What’s on your mind? What’s preoccupying you? “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 God 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? But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Amen.