Some churches have outdoor signs with those changeable sign boards that can be used to announce the coming week’s sermon title (as though that will draw the crowds in) or to advertise church events or share inspirational messages. But those sign boards are also a good opportunity for bloopers. One sign read: “Don’t let worry kill you – let the church help.”
Our scripture this morning addresses worry. Jesus said a lot of hard things, a lot of deep things, and – let’s be honest – a lot of weird things. “Love your enemies.” “Turn the other cheek.” “It is harder for a rich person to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” “If you save your life you will lose it and if you lose your life you will find it.” These are some of the more notable of the odd things Jesus said.
But this one would also have to be among the stranger things Jesus’ said: don’t worry. Don’t worry? Are you kidding me?
Worry comes pretty naturally to a lot of folks, and let’s face it: we have had a lot of practice. There is a cartoon that shows a guy sitting up in bed, scribbling on a note pad while he talks on the phone. He says, “When I have trouble sleeping at night, I find it’s sometimes helpful to jot down my anxieties.” Then you notice the walls of his bedroom and they are just plastered with sticky notes listing all kinds of anxieties - war, recession, killer bees, hair loss, radon gas, on and on.
If we were to make a list, we could probably take most of the morning jotting down reasons for worry. Just among my circle of family and friends and acquaintances, I can count unemployment, bad mortgages, struggling children, aging parents in poor health, cancer treatments, divorce, mental illness, student loans, inscrutable teachers, maddening neighbors, balky vehicles, and workplace problems. We worry about our classes, about housing arrangements. We worry about what other people think. We could add to our list items ranging from icy roads to environmental disaster, from influenza to terrorism and climate change. Not to mention the emotional state of the Cyclones and how they will do in the Big 12 tournament.
It seems like we are just wired for worry. And contemporary logic would seem to suggest that if you’re not worrying, then you must not be paying attention. A news report this past week told us that terrorists in Somalia are encouraging like-minded people to attack shopping malls in North America. I’m not sure what we are supposed to do about this, except that we are supposed to worry. You turn on TV and there is breaking news. It seems urgent. It seems scary. Never mind that they have been talking about the same breaking news all day long; it is designed to grab our attention. Breaking news usually means bad that we should worry about. Worry is a strategy for TV ratings.
Worry can influence every part of our lives, even the fairly mundane things. We worry whether we really did turn the iron off or lock the door. We worry over whether our kids will have the good sense to wear a warm coat and gloves and a hat when it is 10 below outside.
And as much as anything, we worry about the future. Students worry whether they will be able to get a decent job. Families worry over whether they can pay the bills. Adults worry over whether their retirement nest egg will be sufficient. And churches worry. A lot of churches look at their demographics, look at the saints who are providing a lot of the financial support and leadership, and wonder what kind of shape they will be in a few years down the road.
We’ve all got reasons for worry, and most of us are pretty good at it. But Jesus comes along and says, “Do not worry about your life.”
It sounds ridiculous. What do you mean, don’t worry? How can we not worry?
Right up front, we need to say is that there is no way we are going to be worry-free. The apostle Paul once said that he was “harassed at every turn — conflicts on the outside, fears within.” (2 Corinthians 7:5) Sounds like worry to me. And he admitted that he worried about “all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:28) St. Makarios of Egypt, a 4th century monastic, was brutally realistic about it: “I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety . . . Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety.”
OK, everyday worries are always going to be around. We will always have concerns over any number of things. But Jesus’ familiar words strike a chord deep within us:
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... Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father 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? …
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you…
Therefore do not worry... But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
It is beautiful language, to be sure, but it is a lot more than that. Jesus is speaking of a different way of living, a way of living that we long for. We are not meant to live surrounded by worry and anxiety; we are meant to live with the certainty of God’s care and provision.
Do we give ourselves over to worry, or do we trust in God’s love and faithfulness, even in the hard times? Do we become paralyzed by anxiety, or do we put our cares and concerns in the perspective of God’s goodness and grace? At the root of it all, are we “worried about our lives,” as Jesus puts it, or are we able to trust in God’s providence?
Now, as I considered this passage this past week, I have to admit I was not in a very good frame of mind. You might be surprised to hear that this passage of scripture just made me mad.
Here’s the deal: Jesus casts the birds as examples for us. As our moral exemplars, if you will, just living their lives, going about their business, unconcerned about where their next meal is coming from. The birds have the right attitude, says Jesus. Just trust in me, trust in God, and quit worrying.
I had always read this scripture and thought of the birds as God’s sweet, beautiful, trusting creatures. You might think of cute little birds flying around with Bambi in a Disney movie. You might think of the bluebird of happiness. You might think of colorful finches or that beautiful red cardinal in the backyard against a backdrop of snow.
In the last couple of weeks, that is not what has come to mind for me when I have thought of birds. I don’t know if you have noticed, but birds have been taking over the church yard this winter, and it isn’t pretty. Let’s just say that I have had to take my car to the car wash a couple of times on account of the birds. But the parking lot in back is nothing compared to the front of the church.
Has anybody been out in the front yard lately? The sidewalk under the big oak tree is just disgusting. I have never seen a sidewalk so thoroughly covered by bird droppings. It is everywhere. What we needed was a power washer, but it is hard to do that when it is 5 degrees outside. So I was actually happy for the snow this week, just so that the bird dukie would get covered up. My hope, my prayer, was that somehow with the snow, the snow blower would clean up the bird droppings on the sidewalk along with the snow – and to a large extent, it did. Thank God for the snow.
So, I am not happy with birds right now, and I read this scripture where Jesus offers the birds to us as an example. I’ll be honest: I didn’t want to hear it. But upon further review, maybe it reads even better when you are mad at the birds. It is one thing to think that God provides for those cute, frolicking, beautiful birds out there. But apparently, God also provides for those punk birds out there, those thoughtless, destructive, disgusting jerks.
Which means that God’s care and provision is not something we earn, it is not dependent on how good we are. If God cares for the birds of the air – and even for the angry birds of the oak tree – then how much more does God care for us?
Now, you might read this passage of scripture and think that it really doesn’t have that much to offer to us. We have all kinds of worries, but most of us are not worried about what we are going to eat or what we are going to wear. These are not our concerns. I mean, we might have a hard time deciding where to go out to eat, or we might worry about having an unhealthy diet, but we don’t worry about having food to eat. We might worry about making the right wardrobe choices, but we don’t worry about having clothes to wear. These are not our big concerns.
Well, in Jesus’ day, these were the big worries. These were the top concerns. Most of the population lived at a bare subsistence level. Having clothes to wear and food to eat could be a struggle. What Jesus is addressing here is our deepest concerns.
Jesus says, “God gave us life, so surely we can trust God for the smaller things. God cares for the birds and plants and flowers, so surely God cares for us that much more. Our worrying does no one any good – it does not change things. Don’t fret about the past or obsess about the future over which you have no control. God knows your needs and God cares for you. Learn to trust in God. Learn to live in the present moment.”
Now we do need to understand what Jesus is not saying. He is not simply saying “Don’t worry, be happy.” He isn’t asking us to gloss over the pain in life. And while the birds or the flowers might serve as object lessons, he is not saying we are to actually be like the birds. We are not asked to quit working. He spoke to those who sowed and reaped and toiled and spun, and he didn’t ask his followers to stop doing those things.
And it is not that Jesus is anti-planning. Bill Malone died this past week. The funeral will be tomorrow. We knew and loved Bill as a longtime member and a wonderful, thoughtful, funny, encouraging guy. Way back while Bill was still a student, he was the first City Planning Director for the City of Ames. Bill was all about planning. Well, Jesus is not against planning. Jesus also told the parable of the wise bridesmaids who planned ahead. In the middle of an Iowa winter, it is a good idea to have some forethought about what we wear. What Jesus is asking his followers to understand is that their lives are not based on the things we have or the plans we make, important as they may be, but our lives are built on the bedrock of God’s providential care. What we are to stay away from is the fearful worrying that can just sap the life from us.
And in any event, all of our worrying does no one any good. Jesus says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Worry is misplaced energy. It is unproductive. It can be debilitating. We can become paralyzed with worry and fear. Most of the things we worry about are things over which we have absolutely no control. If we could do something, we would do it and then we wouldn’t have to worry about it. But we worry about:
- decisions someone else has to make
- an action someone else might take
- medical conditions we cannot control
- future problems that may or may not come our way
- whether it will rain or snow and mess up our plans
Don’t worry, says Jesus, but focus on loving God and loving others, focus on following Jesus, and these other things will take care of themselves.
Julian of Norwich was a 14th century English mystic. Of all people, she had reason to worry. She lived during the Black Death that killed 75 million people in medieval Europe. (And you thought you had it bad.) Many people interpreted the plague as divine punishment, but not Julian. She believed that God loved every person and that God would redeem every tear.
In her book of visions called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, the first book published in the English language written by a woman, Julian wrote one of the best-known sentences in all of Christian history that is also the perfect antidote to worry.
Julian concluded that she was wrong to worry about the sins and sorrows of life. Jesus told her that these trials and tribulations were simply a part of our human story. And she said that in God’s love and providence, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
And it will. Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Amen.