Listen to the sermon from February 27, 2011, “Worry 101,” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 27, 2011
Psalm 131; Isaiah 49:8-16a; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” – Psalm 19:14
“How do you stay so calm?” I’ve been asked that a few times along the way. Truth is, it’s just an appearance, y’all. The smooth surface of a churning pond. My inner world is chaos just like yours. I think of the time my friend Dave Buck and I were asked to step in for the childcare workers who failed to show at an annual meeting of the Baptist Convention of New York. They led us to a small room where a gang of kids – looked like a thousand but were about thirty – were running amok. Shouting, screaming, laughing, wrestling, competing for the few toys that were available. Dave stepped boldly into their midst and announced, “It’s time to shift into a contemplative mode.” It didn’t work. These were young Baptists.
My inner world can be like that room of screaming children. A busy mind, a restless spirit, high control needs, and lots to worry about from the situation in the Middle East to what I should wear to the meeting tomorrow – sometimes there’s so much going on in there I feel like I’m in the middle of Grand Central Station at rush hour. The people who guard my heart try to reassure me: “Calm down. It’s okay. Don’t worry.” It doesn’t work.
What’s the first thing you feel when somebody tells you not to worry? More worried, am I right? So what is Jesus thinking in our gospel today when he tells his disciples “Don’t worry about your life?” (Matt 6:25)? The Greek word is actually yuch, from which we get our word “psyche” and the many psych-compounds. It means “soul, emotion, heart, mind, will, the embodied conscious self, life.” So, don’t worry about any of that.
Really, Jesus, is that it? A simple imperative “Don’t worry?” Is that like “love your enemies,” “forgive those who trespass against you,” or “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me?” How can he say that as if worry were something we can switch on and off like rebooting a computer jammed by too much multitasking? Especially where it comes to our heart and soul?
He says it, of course, because we do worry and Jesus cares. We worry about things global and local, gigantic and infinitesimal. We worry in a spiraling intensity until anxiety becomes our norm and peace of mind the rare occasional moment. We get to the point where we worry about what we may be forgetting to worry about.
All this worry has its affects. Here’s one list I found online:
difficulty swallowing, dizziness, dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, fatigue, headaches, inability to concentrate, irritability, muscle aches, muscle tension, nausea, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, perspiration, trembling and twitching, weight gain, or weight loss. Also: suppression of the immune system, diabetes, digestive disorders, short-term memory loss, coronary artery disease, stroke, and heart attack, not to mention a variety of mental illnesses, damage to relationships, and bad decisions based on fear.
It’s enough to make you worry about worrying and want to stop it, but how do we quit being terrorists of our own souls?
Jesus tells us to “consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.” Well, that puts us in our place, doesn’t it? God cares for us more than these, but still, that’s the company we keep. We belong among all the other frail, mortal things. Hasn’t Jesus seen all the dead birds and withered lilies? But this puts our worries in their place, too. Take a look at that list I asked you to write. How significant are all of those on a grand scale? How will that list sound to you a year from now? What can you do about them, and what’s keeping you from doing it? And, is anything on that list too big for God to handle?
Worry is about worst case thinking. We imagine all the bad things that might happen and experience them all beforehand. But what if you imagined all the possible good outcomes that might happen to those worries on your list?
Worry is about misplaced priorities. What does your list tell you about your deepest values and priorities? Which God are you serving after all?
Jesus knows in that time and our own there are lots of people who have reason to worry about what they will eat and what they will wear. We see them here on Thursday nights and on every busy corner in our city. In the gospels Jesus frequently urges his disciples to help them, envisioning a community and society where people take care of each other, especially the “least of these.” Here in Matthew these are plural subjects and verbs. In these parts we would say, “Y’all don’t worry.” And if all us who follow Jesus in these parts were to take his calling seriously, maybe people in our city and state and nation and world wouldn’t need to worry about these things. We are supposed to be God’s answer to the worries of the world: hunger, clothing, shelter, freedom from violence, justice, creation care.
Most of all, worry is about control. Truth is, we don’t have much. Look over your list again. How much of it can you do anything about? And how will worrying help?
God alone has ultimate control. Jesus’ entire teaching about worry here is based on his belief that there is only one true God; that is, only one God who can be trusted and so only God worth serving. Most of our worry stems from our allegiance to other values and purposes – second rate gods, Jesus would suggest. They are bound to let you down.
You let fine dining and fancy fashion or any form of “mammon” become your focus, you will always be worried. anWmm (“mamona”) is an Aramaic word that means “wealth, riches, greed, possessions.” Jesus personalizes it as if it were the name of a pagan deity who rivals God for people’s loyalty and affection, and I guess that was true in his time. In our time, we might include all the rival idols that get our attention and addiction but give us too little comfort and no end of anxiety. We confuse the means for the ends, the tools for living and serving with the life itself. So we pour our souls into soulless stuff. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” That is to say: “Your treasure is what you worry about most.” Or take it in a diagnostic direction: “What you worry about most is your god.” What does your list tell you about that?
Finally for Jesus, worry is about faith and focus. If you serve God first of all and above all, everything else takes its right place: your possessions, your relationships, your family, your institutions, all those other things you love, even yourself. And if you forget about yourself and focus on serving God, your worry will dissolve like a block of ice in warm water.
I’m not being a romantic dreamer here. I’m not in denial either. Here’s the way it is. Life is difficult. We all have some ordeals to pass through and none of us will escape the mortal passage from this life. It is what it is. But Jesus calls us to faith in a God who is in control, faith in a God who is with us, faith in a God who loves your soul more than anything else in this beautiful creation, a God who is with you through every trial and invites you through every trial to find the best: life, relationship, community, a just society. God promises ultimately to bring these about, using our help! Do you trust God, or not? What does your worry list tell you about that?
So when my inner world gets wild as a small room of noisy children, I try to refocus on the God who is with me. By worship, prayer, meditation, reflection, by exercise, rest, conversation, service, by laughter, love, forgiveness, and grace – I try to “let go and let God.”
The Christian and Jewish mystics speak of “detachment” – called “non-attachment” in Eastern religions – as a means of overcoming anxiety-based living. Modern twelve step groups call it “detaching from outcomes.” To us over-responsible anxious types with control needs far exceeding what we can possibly control, detachment sounds like indifference, passivity, even apathy. But that’s not what it is. Detachment means you still care, you still act, you do everything you can do. But you don’t try to do what you can’t do, or take responsibility for what you can’t control, and you leave the outcome to God. That’s what “let go and let God” means. After you have done your part, you trust God to know best with the rest. Finally, it’s all in God’s hands anyway, and I’m glad I don’t have to be responsible for this mess, aren’t you? I’m not big enough, smart enough, or strong enough. But God is. God is! Thanks be to God!
I’m tempted to say, “so don’t worry,” but I know how that will make you feel. So let’s take five minutes today to sit with our worry list and lay it before God who is here with us, and just breathe. Perhaps by faith we can find that “peace which passes understanding” God offers us in Christ….
Writes Walter Breuggemann:
The world is God’s, and it will not fall apart. The new age that the Lord has begun cannot be driven out or held back. The church need not live out of fear as though the gospel were not true. It is destined to live toward freedom, toward the pain of the world, toward the hurt of the world, toward the joy of the world – the pain and hurt that the world does not understand and the joy that the world does not anticipate…. Jesus reminded the church that we are able to risk much because we are safe.
Amen. May we pray?
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
We worry about so many things, O God. Many of them don’t really matter. Most of them aren’t within our control. We worry as if you didn’t believe a thing you have told us: that you are a good God; that you love us and watch over us and have a place prepared for us; that you have called us to get over ourselves and help you build a new creation. Give us the faith to trust in you. Give us your peace.
O (people), hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore. (Psa 131).
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.