A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
February 3, 2019
Our passage today comes from the middle of a big section of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s gospel. It almost feels like Jesus set up a chalkboard and said “class is in session” and then lectured for 4 days.
I’m sure there were breaks. But no wonder the crowd we heard about last week was so hungry. This sermon was a …. l o n g ….. one.
It makes it difficult to preach just one section of his teaching, because it is all connected. What he says here about worry is a part of his teaching people the Lord’s Prayer and it is followed by teaching people not to judge. As we work through this section in Matthew’s gospel, I hope you can hold it all together, as one connected message, and not just aphorisms you can pull out when they are convenient.
And this particular passage has a lot of verses people like to throw around.
where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Do not worry about your life….
Consider the lilies of the field….
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well….
So many things to cross stitch on a pillow!
I’m reading a book right now (the Overstory by Richard Powers) where one of the characters said she chose this passage to memorize in Sunday School because she had a Sunday School teacher who liked to critiicze her for not working very hard, for not planning ahead well. She memorized this verse out of spite.
“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.”
As I’ve been thinking about this text for a couple of weeks, I’ve noticed, more than I usually might, how many people worry and turn worrying into a full time job. As we continue, I want to differentiate between the worry that we’ll be talking about, and the medical diagnosis of anxiety.
People use the words “worrying” and “anxiety” interchangeably, but they are not the same. See a good article here to explain the difference). And if you have anxiety, medical care and counseling can be a real help. Worry can lead to problem solving. Anxiety does not. Worry tends to be a short term event, brought on by the situation at hand. Anxiety stays with you, moving its focus from issue to issue. It may start with anxiety about our job and transfer to being about our kids or health.
So if you suffer from anxiety, I am not, and Jesus is not, telling you to ignore it. Care from a doctor or counselor can help.
It is expected for us to worry about the problems that present themselves in our lives. And Jesus doesn’t tell us to ignore what is going on around us. We stay engaged and we work to change the things that are troubling.
Sometimes we worry about things that aren’t going to happen, or that might possibly happen in 100 years, maybe, if absolutely everything goes wrong. We hear one story on the news and then, all of a sudden, we’re fretting about an alligator invasion of Idaho. (I tried hard to find an illustration that wouldn’t stress out the worriers in the pews. I promise there is no pending alligator invasion of Idaho).
In my experience, worry that’s based on fear can initially function to keep me safe. It can lead us to be responsible, to work for change, to wear our seatbelts. It’s when our worry turns to fretting, focusing our energy on only how we can keep our own selves safe, rich, fed, surrounded by the things we think will save us—that’s when Jesus speaks against worry.
And in Jesus’ illustration, when people are worried about what they’ll eat, he points out that the birds don’t stockpile food, that God takes care of them. God does take care of them, but not by delivering food to their nests every day while they sit there watching TV. God feeds the birds by filling trees with berries, by putting worms in the soil for them to discover, by creating insects for them to catch.
The birds still have work to do.
When Jesus tells people not to worry, he doesn’t promise that everything will turn out perfectly either. There are risks to the birds when they are out gathering the food God has provided. Risks like predators— bigger birds, cats, airplanes. Risks like injury or hurricane.
Worry can’t save us from all risk or danger.
Worry can keep us from experiencing life, however.
I think I’ve shared this story before, but when I was in first grade, my family drove from Spokane, WA to San Diego, CA to visit family. While much of my childhood is lost to the fog of history, I remember amazing details of this trip. In San Diego, my family went on a day trip to Tijuana, on the border with Mexico. I’m sure they had a delightful day there.
I, however, threw a fit and refused to go.
They were unable to convince me or physically place me in a car for the trip, so my grandmother and I spent the day in my aunt and uncle’s house. I had a boring day. Me and grandma in an empty house. They had a fabulous day. I knew they would. But I still couldn’t bring myself to go somewhere I thought would be dangerous. Had I even heard of Mexican jails at age 7?
Ever since that experience, I have continued to struggle with my worry of leaving home to travel. Sometimes I win. Sometimes my worry wins, and I lose. When I think of all the people I’ve met on my travels, and the beautiful places I’ve seen, and the way my understanding of the world has broadened, I’m thankful for the times I haven’t let my worry drive the bus.
‘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?’
Thinking about worry reminds me of my first class at seminary. Learning Greek. If there’s a group of people who have issues with overactive worrying, it’s adult humans in graduate school, humans who used to think they were competent and maybe even successful people, learning dead languages.
One of my favorite humans is my Greek teacher Beth Johnson. She would routinely tell us, as we freaked out about learning new vocabulary and how to decline verbs written in a different alphabet to “let the evil of the day be sufficient thereunto” (or something like that). The King James translation of Matt 6:34 is
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
She had to say it to us so often that we put it on our class’s t-shirt.
So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Sometimes I still hear her voice in my head reminding me to leave tomorrow’s worry for tomorrow. And I’m grateful for the reminder.
I am generally a person who doesn’t struggle too much with worry, other than my 7 year old fear of Mexican jails. And so I was pretty excited to be able to preach a sermon for the rest of you, one where I would be able to wag my finger at you and tell you to calm down already and everything’s fine and look at the lilies of the field—they aren’t in my office complaining about things.
And then I caught up to my thoughts one afternoon this week and realized I was writing a eulogy in my head. For someone who has not died. For someone who likely will live for a good long while still. (It’s nobody that you know, so stop looking around the room for likely candidates).
As I realized what I was doing, I realized I had really borrowed from future worries and given them space in my head now. And that sadly, I had to preach to myself today.
Sometimes, we even borrow worry from the past. We spend our thoughts and energy revisiting things that have already happened, worrying about what we said or did, wondering how it would have gone had we done things differently, said things differently.
Jesus tells us, ‘And can any of you, by worrying, add a single hour to your span of life?’
(The answer, by the way is “no”. You can’t add a single hour to the span of your life.)
At the start, remember how I said Matthew’s gospel is written with much of Jesus’ teaching being connected to each other? This story is connected to the Feeding of the 5,000, which we heard about last week, which makes worry a stewardship issue. Do we have enough to take care of everyone? When we borrow worry from the future, it is harder for us to steward our time, energy, money, resources for today. If my thoughts are only on how I might be destitute in 50 years, what opportunities will I miss out on to live my life as it happens today, to help people who need my help today?
Mother Theresa is quoted as saying, “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”
Worry is a prayer issue, which is what Jesus had talked about right before this passage. If my prayers are filled with future worries that haven’t happened yet, how will I hear what God wants to say to me about today?
Worry is a community issue, which is what Jesus talks about after this passage. If I start worrying about my neighbor’s future, that’s when I start judging someone else for making different decisions than I would make.
So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
This week, I invite you to join me in paying attention to how often we leave the present moment in order to put our thoughts, prayers, and energy toward a point in time that doesn’t exist. The past is good for remembering our good memories, and learning from the bad ones. The future is worthy of our best dreams and hopes.
The present is the only place we can actually live.
Sometimes we put all of our hopes and dreams for our lives only in the future. And while some of that planning is fine, if we only plan for the future, we may miss the chance to live our dreams now. As the prophet Dave Matthews sings, “The future is no place to place your better days”.
Take the trip this year.
Talk to the people you love today.
Use the good china now.
Whatever you find you’ve loaned to the future you, ask for it back. Future you doesn’t need it.
Last week, after my meeting in Dallas, I met up with a good friend from college. We hadn’t spent time together in a long while, and we drove to San Antonio to see our kids, who are both students at our college. Along the way we talked and talked, catching up on stories we’d missed from each other’s pasts, and on hopes for the future.
But it was a very ‘present moment’ trip. We didn’t make lots of plans ahead of time for where we would stay, where we would eat, or what we would do. I hoped we could see some other friends from college. I wanted to eat tacos. I looked forward to seeing Elliott and meeting her daughter, who I haven’t seen since she was little. But we took each day as it came, making decisions in the moment.
A number of friends offered us places to stay.
A number of friends were able to drop their regularly scheduled lives to visit with us.
We had more people to see, more places to stay, more tacos to eat, and more things to do than this quick trip allowed, but it was such a gift to receive hospitality of others, to share meals with friends, to be with our kids, to reconnect with each other.
Bil Keane, the Family Circus cartoonist is quoted as saying “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”