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Sermon: Another Hour to Worry

November 20, 2009

Matthew 6:25-34

I know that criticizing Jesus in church is somewhat frowned upon, but Jesus gives us bad advice today, and let me tell you why.  Three times in our lesson from Matthew—which is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—three times Jesus says “do not worry.”

Do not worry!  Well, that’s all well and good coming from a guy who apparently didn’t have a spouse, didn’t have children, didn’t have a mortgage and didn’t have a real job.  What’s he got to worry about anyway?  But for the rest of us?  Worry simply comes with the territory.  You can’t be considered a responsible adult unless you worry all the time, right?

Worrying is a very useful activity, especially if you have a tendency toward very low blood pressure.  When you worry, your problems—the things you’re worrying about—get to grow up.  Let’s say, for example, that you hear a strange little noise that sounds as if it is coming from the right front wheel of your car.  You could simply say to yourself, I’ll take the car in to my mechanic and let him look at it.  That would be a mistake.  Instead, you should start to wonder about all the possible things that could be wrong with your car—a flat tire, bad bearings, bad brakes, a small animal could have gotten trapped in your wheel well.  You do that, and your worry meter ticks up a couple of notches.  And then, it would to be to your benefit to start worrying about the potential problems that might be caused by each of those issues.  You’ll have to get a new tire or new brakes or have your bearings repacked.  That will cost money you don’t have at the moment.  Another rise in the worry meter.  Plus, that will mess up your whole day—the car in the shop and taking time off work.  Another uptick of the meter.  Or perhaps—and this is deliciously more gruesome—your brakes could fail when you are coming down 19th Street and you could plunge straight down the hill to your death by sinking in the harbor.  In a matter of a few minutes, you have worried that little noise into a close encounter with death.  Before you know it, you have experienced the joy of redlining your worry meter.

Not only is that fun, it also creates a number of helpful side effects.  If you train yourself to worry enough, you can enjoy the benefits of a quiet house, because while everyone else is sleeping, you’re lying awake in the dark staring up at the ceiling.  If you worry correctly, you can significantly increase your blood pressure.  You can start to lose focus at work or school or during the sermon, and who in the world wants to focus during the sermon?  And if you’re really lucky, you could even worry yourself right into an ulcer.  Plus, if you worry enough, you can even avoid actually doing something about the problem.  That way, the whole cycle just feeds upon itself indefinitely.

So I’d have to say that when Jesus told the crowds “Do not worry,” he was being quite naïve.  He really had an unrealistic picture about how this world of ours operates.  I say, “Go ahead and worry.  You might enjoy it.”

Jesus, however, seems to think that worrying is not helpful.  In particular, Jesus described worry about two essentials of our human life: food and clothing.  He spoke about the birds of the air.  They don’t seem to worry.  They don’t plant crops and then store everything in big grain silos.  The birds seem to do okay.  And he spoke about flowers.  The lilies don’t work hard to make clothes to wear, but they are clothed in natural, beautiful colors.

Jesus said, “Don’t you think you people are more important to God.  If God cares for these plants and animals, won’t God help you to have the things you need to survive?  It is the pagans, those who don’t have faith in a God who is like a parent; they are the ones who strive and stress after food and clothing.  Those who believe that God will care for them will not need to worry about these things.”  So Jesus believes that lack of worry is evidence of confidence in God’s love and care for us.  Okay, maybe.

There is some scriptural basis to this idea that God cares deeply for each part of Creation.  At each step along the way, God paused to examine what had been created and said, “It is good.”  The Psalms affirm with thanksgiving that God provides for us abundantly.  The Old and New Testaments both proclaim that in God’s eyes, we are all creatures of sacred worth.  So we’ll concede that point to Jesus.

Jesus seems to think there are more important things in life than worrying about the essentials of our mere survival.  He seems to think that our lives can reflect deeper values than simply getting by, and that stress over the basics—food, clothing, job and mortgage—can inhibit the quality of our lives and our relationship to God.  He said, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?…Strive first for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”

I’m not quite ready to give the whole argument to Jesus at this point, but maybe he does have something of a point.  I think most of us probably believe that the quality and depth of our relationships—both with God and people—is more important than what we eat and wear.  And we probably would acknowledge that our lives are diminished by giving too many hours at the office or letting our busyness squeeze out time with friends and family, or simply quiet time.  That makes some sense to me.

But Jesus also believes that worry is ineffective.  He said, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”  All right, maybe worry can’t lead to a longer life, but I think I have already effectively demonstrated the positives worry brings to our lives: stress and hypertension, blowing problems up out of proportion, losing sleep, depression, confusion, unfounded fears, panic.  Who couldn’t use more of that?  To be able to worry is one of our most cherished rights as responsible adults, right up there with filling out tax forms and waiting in line at the DMV.  Give me an “amen!”

I can see that the force of my argument is not persuading all of you.  So for those of you who aren’t convinced by my airtight logic, let me at least try to be helpful to you as you try to live your lives in a way that matches with the confidence you have of God’s love and care for you.  I found a website this week called Anxiety Culture: How to Stop Worrying.  It provides a humorous and sarcastic look at our culture of worry.  (It also contains a bit of salty language.)  The site suggests that one of the reasons we worry is that we have been taught that if you are not worrying, you’re not being responsible, and that happiness must be “earned by enduring unpleasantness…“responsible adults” can never endure enough unpleasantness to truly deserve happiness.”

The authors of the web site—like Jesus—categorically reject the idea that worrying serves any purpose at all.  My favorite of their suggestions to help reduce the amount of worrying we do combines worry with another beloved pastime of ours, procrastination.  If you want to stop worrying, but are having a hard time, just put it off.  Prepare a “worry sheet” or notebook, and whenever you begin to worry, write down the subject of your worrying so that you can come back to it later and worry about it then.  This deceptively simple behavior tricks your mind into releasing the worry for the time being, because you have promised your psyche that you can worry about it in the future.  Of course, when you write something down on your worry sheet, you should never look at it again.

There is another thing you can do to reduce your worry.  You can give thanks.  Much of our worry is directly related to our fears of something lacking—time, money, confidence.  I worry because I fear something might be missing in my life.  When I give thanks, I am affirming that something valuable is present in my life.  Give thanks for the abundance of God’s blessings in your life.  Give thanks that you don’t have to worry about drought and blight, that when you go to the store, food will be there.  Give thanks that when you breathe, oxygen is right there at your lips, and it pours into your lungs.  Give thanks that you have friends or relatives that care about you.  Give thanks that you have clothes on your back.  Give thanks that when God created you, God said, “She is good.  He is good.”  Give thanks that God loves you and cares for you.  Give thanks that the very embodiment of God’s love for the world, Jesus Christ, came to live among us, to teach, to heal, to die and to live again.  Give thanks.

I know that a lot of you will be giving thanks this week.  I say, what better time to worry than Thanksgiving Day.  Imagine all the things that could go wrong.  The turkey could be dry.  Aunt Nellie could be late.  One of the forks might have a spot on it.  The Dallas Cowboys might win.

Or, if you really must, take the advice of Jesus instead of your pastor.  Don’t worry.  Simply be grateful for God’s eternal love and care for you and yours.  Rest in the wonder and joy that ultimately, no matter what else happens in this life, God will never, ever release you from the arms of love.

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