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Sermon: Today’s Trouble

February 27, 2011

Matthew 6:24-34

What are some of the things we have worried about over the last 50 years that never came to pass?  There was a great fear that Communism would sweep over the face of the earth like a giant red tsunami, or that the United States and the Soviet Union would destroy the earth in a nuclear apocalypse.  Neither came to pass.  Do you remember Y2K, the computer bug that was supposed to bring civilization to a grinding halt?  Never happened.  Sadaam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction?  Not real.  Do you remember the bird flu pandemic that was to make the plague seem like the sniffles?  Under control.  A lot of these events caused many of us angst and sleepless nights.  Many things plague our spirits, but relatively few of them actually come to pass.

Certainly, there are real disasters—earthquake, riot, disease, loss of employment, hunger, death.  These things are real.  They happen.  That last one—death—will get all of us in the end.  There are concrete things we can do to prepare for or respond to those events.  And beside all the concrete, helpful things we can do, such as preparing an earthquake kit, eating right and exercising, seeking support from others, beside all the concrete, helpful things we can do, there is also worrying.  We can worry.  Oh and we do.  I believe that Americans have perfected the art of worrying.  We do it often and well.  All that worry increases our levels of stress and anxiety, and wastes an enormous amount of energy.  Yet we do it all the same.  And for what?  I have a good friend who says, “I’d be happy to worry if it would do any good.”  But what good does it do?  Jesus said, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

Please understand that there is a difference between preparation and other positive action, and worrying.  Getting up off the couch to go for a walk can do wonders for my heart.  Sitting on the couch and worrying about my heart may very well kill me.  Turning my cell phone off while I am driving will increase my chances of being safe on the freeway.  Worrying about the other terrible drivers out there while I chat away to my wife on my cell phone could kill me.

Jesus, however, did not begin his discussion about worry by promising to teach his disciples to be healthy, wealthy and wise.  He began the discussion by talking about servanthood.  He said, “You can’t serve two masters.  You can’t serve both God and wealth.”  For Jesus, being worry-free is not simply a way to a better life.  Excessive worry is a sign that I am serving the wrong master.

The disciples of Jesus and other First Century Palestinians may have had less complicated lives than we do.  There were no automobile repairs and registrations to worry about.  They did not worry about health insurance.  Revolution in Libya never crossed their minds.  The Romans never asked them to vote on measures that might affect the tax rate.  The people of Jesus’ time had more basic, fundamental concerns.  Hunger was a real issue for most people, especially in bad crop years.  They did not have closets full of clothes so they could wear something new every day.  One good outer garment might have been enough.  Food and clothing were real needs for Jesus’ disciples, and they were life-and-death issues.  So let’s be clear that Jesus wasn’t just warning his followers against excessive shoe shopping.  He told them not to worry about whether or not they would have enough food or clothing to survive.  It is hard for us to understand, because we just don’t worry about that.

Jesus used two well known examples: the birds and the lilies.  The birds aren’t farmers, and they don’t build barns in which to store their produce.  The lilies don’t stay up late into the night spinning their own yard.  Yet somehow, the birds find food and the lilies—well, look how beautiful they are.  You are more valuable to God than birds or lilies are.  Don’t worry about your wealth.  For Jesus’ disciples, this meant stores of food and good clothes as well as money.

The ungodly strive for that wealth, but that is because their god is the god of wealth.  And frankly, the issue isn’t simply wealth.  We worry about all sorts of things like security and health and the future.  There are lots of gods to serve, and they give us plenty of reasons for worry.  But your God is the God of heaven, so you should strive for God’s kingdom.  And the God of heaven knows you need food for your body and clothes to protect you from the elements.  If you serve God, trust God to give you what you need.

The reality in this world is that many birds of the air are out-competed by siblings in the nest, and they die very young.  Other birds are snatched up by hawks that need their own bellies to be full.  Some lilies are trampled underfoot before they mature or are eaten up by a beast of the field that needs its own belly to be full.  Not every creature—including human beings—thrives.  Some young Palestinian who overheard Jesus that day might have herself succumbed to starvation.  Jesus certainly cannot be offering us care free and perfect lives.  Some people will not get what they need.  About 25,000 people die each day from hungerSixteen thousand of those are children. To explain that theologically, we might explain those deaths as a result of human sin or apathy.  It is said that there is enough food in this world to feed all 6 billion plus human beings.

Jesus can’t be suggesting that we take a Pollyanna approach, that if we simply think positively that life will always be one big party.  That’s not reality.  Jesus is telling us, however, that we only have so much energy in our human souls, and that if we use that energy pursuing the god of wealth, we will not have vital energy to serve our Creator.  “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.”  It is for Jesus a question of loyalties.  If you are worrying about wealth, then it is a sign that your loyalties lie with wealth.

Jesus in his own life put his trust in God’s providence, and he told his disciples to do the same.  When Jesus sent his disciples out on a missionary journey, he said to them, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff” (Matthew 10:9-10).  Jesus instructed them to trust in God’s care by relying on the generosity of strangers.  That trust, as opposed to worry, was a sign that they served God and not wealth.  We might say that worry and trust are opposites.

It is very easy for someone in good health—such as a preacher—to say to someone in the hospital, “Don’t worry; trust God.”  It is very easy for someone with a solid job to say to someone who is unemployed, “Don’t worry; trust God.”  It is very easy for me to say to myself when I am lying awake worrying about money, “Don’t worry; trust God.”  It’s just not that easy.  I don’t expect any of us to leave here after this brilliant sermon, go home and have a worry-free week.  Worry is hard wired into us.  Like anything else, learning to reduce worry requires effort, practice and self-awareness.  It means that I talk to myself in positive ways, and I talk to God.  It also means that I make a conscious choice to serve God.  According to the wisdom of Jesus, if I am truly serving God, then I cannot be serving wealth.

If I want to reduce the worry in my life, I have to make some choices.  I have to choose to serve one God.  Jesus chose to serve the God who knows what we need.  Jesus chose to serve the God that cares about the creatures God created.  Jesus chose to serve the God who loved us first.  Jesus chose to serve the God who took a risk for us, who came to us in the flesh.  In serving that God, Jesus learned that he did not need to worry.  And anyway, who by worrying can add a single hour to their span of life?

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