Don’t worry

“Don’t worry” is a message in the series “Good counsel for a good life,” preached Aug. 11, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; from Luke 12.22-34.

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I find this to be one of the most challenging passages in all of scripture. It’s one that some preachers and commentators approach wearing tap shoes so they can make a pretty show of dancing around it. I hope I am not doing that this morning.

You may have thought that you were challenged by last week’s reading, where Jesus cautioned against greed, and said, “Your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

That’s challenging enough. But in today’s reading he continues meditating on our attitude about what is enough and what brings us true security. He has shown us that neither money nor possessions offer us security. Instead, they provoke the very opposite in us. They inspire insecurity. They inspire fear.

Today he essentially says, as that Bobby McFerrin song has it, “Don’t worry. Be happy.” Well, there’s more to it than that, and that’s where the challenge comes in. We live in a world of much worry and unhappiness. To get to a world of less worry and more happiness, we need a revolution in attitude. We need a complete change of mind. What we need to do, Jesus tells us, is learn to rely on God rather than on our own strength.

It is a learning process – and a long one involving many false steps forward and many tumbles backward. That’s how we learn, though, isn’t it? Through trial and error, mostly through error. It’s often said that success rarely teaches you anything, but mistakes offer major learning opportunities. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had plenty of learning opportunities in my life, and I continue to have them. God can use them all to tutor us to rely on God’s grace instead of our own insight.

I’m not sure I can begin to adequately imagine a state of non-worry. It may be close to what the Hindus and Buddhists call nirvana, which is a state of enlightenment that liberates you from the cares of this world.

Maybe it’s not that the worries of the world go away. Maybe it’s that we simply no longer worry about them. The difference is inside us. It’s not that we cease to care about our troubles or the troubles of others, or that we cease to fight evil and work for good. We still care deeply, and we still battle for God and for good. But we no longer suffer from anxiety about these things. We leave the outcome in God’s hands, confident that God will handle it.

Today’s reading is a continuation of the story we considered last Sunday about the rich fool. He thought the answer to his anxiety was bigger barns for storing his riches. He stored up treasure for himself, but was not rich toward God or neighbor, and he lost it all.

“Therefore,” Jesus begins. That’s the hinge that unites these two sections of scripture. That’s the setup for this lesson. “Therefore,” Jesus tells us, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.”

“Consider the ravens. They neither sow nor reap, yet God feeds them. Consider the lilies. They neither toil nor spin, yet how magnificently they are clothed.

“Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? If you can’t do such a small thing as that, why worry about the bigger things?”

This is hard for us to hear, but it was probably harder for Jesus’ original listeners. Many of them were tenant farmers. They had been forced into debt and then forced off their land by the rich. Now they live day to day, working for a wage so small it could barely feed one person, let alone a family. Their lives are full of anxiety. Some days they simply do not know how they are going to survive.

“Don’t worry,” Jesus tells them. How can they not worry?

I once was acquainted with a woman named Lorenza Smith. She was United Methodist clergy at the time. At her urging, her bishop in Southwest Texas appointed her to minister to homeless people, and so she did for several years, living on the streets as a homeless person.

She says there wasn’t a single moment of a single day that she didn’t think about where she was going to find food and shelter, where she was going to find a restroom, where she was going to get warm or cool off, where she was going to find a comfortable and safe place to sleep, where she was going to find a place where she could just relax and try not to think about things, and so on.

She tried to trust God that everything would be OK, but she could not shake the anxieties of her situation.

You’ve got to care. That’s part of the point Jesus is trying to make. If God takes care of the birds and the flowers, won’t God take care of you, you of so little faith?

Nor can any of us escape the anxieties of our situations. And it’s not escape Jesus is talking about. Not worrying about something won’t make it go away. Jesus is not telling us to cease caring about how things work out. That’s the attitude personified by the character of Alfred E. Neuman of Mad Magazine fame. His motto: “What, me worry?” No, he’s not one to worry about someone else. His is the attitude of the rich fool.

It’s a profoundly comforting thought, but many people don’t accept it. Our national anxiety level approaches the panic point. How do we deal with our anxieties? The leading cause of death of Americans younger than 50 is drug overdose – and two thirds of those deaths are from opioids.

We live in a society that believes there is a pill for every problem – and if there isn’t, there should be. That attitude is encouraged by the drug companies, of course, and by the insurance companies, which will pay billions of dollars for pills but hesitate to cover real remedies.

Speaking of hot, not to mention wet, the weather patterns are weird and unpredictable. Everybody knows that if we don’t change our ways, even worse days are coming because of climate change – but the Alfred E. Neuman in the White House and his shady minions are in full-force denial, for the same reason that the drug and insurance companies push pills. It’s good for their business.

What have we got to be anxious about? We’re in the midst of multiple trade wars that threaten to cripple the world economy, and threats of shooting wars are mounting in multiple hot spots, not to mention the daily carnage of shootings on our city streets.

Opioid addiction typically starts out as a prescription for painkillers after surgery or an accident. Then the painkiller becomes a recreational drug. That’s how we describe it, though there’s nothing recreational about it. The drug is an anxiety suppressant.

Still, polls show that the greatest contributor to our national anxiety index is as old as the hills: We’re worried about paying our bills. That brings us back to the issue of money and possessions.

I read a story the other day about a fellow named Doug Lynam. He grew up in a rich family where money was used to manipulate and hurt others. He tried to escape the clutches of money, first by becoming a Marine, then by becoming a monk. But money woes followed him. After he had served in a Benedictine monastery for 20 years, it went broke. Imagine the irony: You live in voluntary poverty and you still can’t pay your bills!

In his life experiences, Lynam says he learned that selfish materialism is destructive and extreme poverty is painful. He sought a middle way and found a new calling. Now he helps people manage their money so they can afford to retire.

“Building wealth ethically isn’t about being selfish,” he says. “It’s discovering the joy of using money to make the world a better place without compromising your financial future.” ** 

That sounds exactly the opposite of what Jesus says, but I’m not sure it is. Jesus says, “Sell your possessions, and give alms.” He is not – at least not here – telling us to sell everything we have. Rather, he’s telling us to lighten the load of possessions we carry, and to share what we have with those who have less. The goal is not to impoverish everyone but for those of us who have more to live with less so that those with less can have more.

The Apostle Paul traces this attitude back to the formative days of Israel. He points to a scripture that promotes fair balance, so that the one who has much does not have too much, and the one who has little does not have too little. (2 Corinthians 8.15, quoting Exodus 16.18)

The scripture he quotes is from the story of the gathering of manna during Israel’s long wandering in the wilderness. God provided the manna every morning, and families were told to gather as much as they needed, but no more, because any extra would become infested with worms and rot. It’s an experience many people have had with wealth and an abundance of possessions. Get too much, and it rots.

The question is not, “How much do you want?” The question is, “How much do you need?”

I don’t think Jesus is telling us to stop saving for a rainy day or putting some aside for the kids’ (or grandkids’) college fund, or anything like that. He’s saying, don’t be anxious about these things, for anxiety leads to greed, and greed will enslave you. God has set you free, so live in freedom from worry, but don’t be a hoarder. Share generously what you have so that others who don’t have as much will have less to worry about.

Be thankful that you don’t have to be anxious about your next meal, or where you will lay your head at night. Be thankful that you’ve got plenty of clothing already, and you don’t have to spend major amounts of money on fashionable duds because it’s expected of you in your profession or social circle. Be thankful that you have enough, so you needn’t be anxious about how you’ll eat or what you’ll wear tomorrow. Be thankful for what you have, and enjoy the warm feeling such gratitude gives you.

Finally, Jesus says, “Your heavenly Father knows your needs, so strive for God’s kingdom, and your needs will be given to you as well as God’s kingdom.”

Here is key to it all. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

What is God’s kingdom? The gospel of Matthew sometimes calls it “the kingdom of heaven,” and that gives some people the idea that the kingdom is a reward that comes in the afterlife. But Matthew isn’t talking about the next life. He’s talking about this one.

The kingdom of God can also be called the reign of God, the rule of God, the dominion of God. It’s not a geographic location or a place in future time. It’s a way of living where God’s people rely on God’s providence rather than on their own strength. It’s a dominion of love, where human hearts have been liberated by God’s love. And, despite some evidence to the contrary, we believe that the reign of God is growing and will keep growing until God brings it to fullness.

We need a revolution in attitude. We need a complete change of mind. We need to learn to rely on God rather than on our own strength. God can teach us the way. Jesus invites us to place ourselves under God’s liberating rule of love.

Because of God’s liberating rule, you are free not to worry. Because of God’s liberating rule, you are free not to be anxious about your life. Because of God’s liberating rule, you are free to generously share what you have to improve the lives of others. Because of God’s liberating rule, you are free to trust God, not worry, and be happy. So, just do it.

Amen.

** “Building Wealth with a Higher Purpose,” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, July 2019, 10. Ron Lieber, “The Monk Who Left the Monastery to Fix Broken Retirement Plans.” The New York Times, June 9, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/09/your-money/monk-who-fixes-broken-retirement-plans.html. See also douglynam.com.

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