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.
But I’m still a worrier. I might put on a good exterior show, if you think I am always calm, cool, and collected. But I am worried about matters large and small every day. There was a study that came out at the end of last year that said people who worry a lot might have higher intelligence, and I rejoiced, because it is certainly about the only benefit worrying might produce. Everybody, it seems, worries about something sometime. Are you a worrier? Do you experience stress? How do you cope with it? We’re going through a period of global fear and worry just now, aren’t we? Our minds are filled with images of violence people have been experiencing in the Middle East, in Europe, in Africa. We’ve experienced acts of violence in the US in the past year. At my job in Rochester we had to watch a video about what to do, how to respond, should someone come into the building and start shooting. It is hard not to be afraid, to be worried, and then to let our lives be ruled by our fear and worry.
And in the midst of this, we find this scripture passage from the gospel of Matthew. 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 my other reaction is: 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? Have you seen the news?” A first read 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?
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 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 fear? 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. We do that first. Strive first for God, and God’s way, God’s justice, God’s reign. Strive for God, and we’ll find that we’re too filled up with God’s abundance to be consumed by worry and fear. Strive for God, and when we live a life that is focused on serving others, we won’t find much time left over to worry for ourselves.
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. I’m reminded of the folk parable about heaven and hell. In hell, everyone is given huge amounts of food, but the spoons they are given have such long handles that no one can actually eat. Everyone is miserable. But in heaven, everything is just the same – except that people in heaven are feeding each other, and everyone shares in the feast.
As we draw near to Thanksgiving Day, I am meditating on the verse from 1 John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” We’ve been thinking about being a prayerful people, and giving thanks to God is one of the primary ways we are called to pray. Last week we heard the psalmist say, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” The prayers of the psalmists are filled with praise. We can give thanks more fully when we take all of the stuff that absorbs our minds and hearts, and lay it down at the feet of Jesus, who we follow. In fact, until we do that, lay down our burdens at the feet of Jesus, I’m not sure we can really thank God like we intend to. But when we cast out the fear and anxiety that threatens to overwhelm us, we make room in our lives, in our hearts, in our world for God, and for each other. We make room to be filled up with thanksgiving. We make room to focus first on pursuing God and God’s reign on earth, God’s justice, with our whole being. My beloved: I don’t think Jesus expects us to never have a worry or care. But I do think Jesus challenges us not to be absorbed by our worries and fears, not to be ruled by them. We claim one ruler of our lives only. We can truly serve one ruler only. So let us choose to strive after God. Let us choose to pray for hearts that are learning to cast out fear and instead be filled up with love. And let us give thanks to God, who answers our prayers. Amen.