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What me? worry?

Based on a sermon given Feb 23, 2014 Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel ‘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?…indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things…’.

Worrying is something I do well, especially at 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning. There are a host of things that can crowd my mind that I need to be anxious about on any given night – and I’m probably not alone in this. The world we live in gives us lots to lose sleep over, what with climate change and wars going on, debts and health issues, relationships that are not doing so well and expectations from co workers and family and friends. Our minds are full of things to be troubled about. So, to simply have Jesus tell us not to worry seems a bit of a stretch for us.

And then there are all those things that Jesus tells us to consider doing. Teachings about wealth and where our security lies, concerns about riches, camels and needles, about loving enemies, and forgiving seventy times seven, and prayer and simple living. The list goes on and on. As Mennonites we pride ourselves on taking Jesus seriously (humbly of course) but along with taking seriously is a good dose of guilt for not doing all those things we should be doing as Jesus people. Easy enough for Jesus to say don’t worry – he didn’t have all these added responsibilities that we have!

But there is also wondering how Jesus made out with his own advice. As you read the gospels, you soon see that Jesus life must have been very stressful. Morning till night he has people crowding around him, expecting him to heal them and feed them and take care of them, clamouring for his attention. It seems the only time he has alone is early in the mornings when he is able to sneak off by himself to pray. It makes you wonder if it was because he just couldn’t sleep either. That’s a lot of weight to carry and expectations to be responsible for. Nevertheless, this is what Jesus told his friends and they remembered and wrote down for us: “Don’t worry.”

As we think about what it looks like to deal with worry, we have different models and approaches in the world around us. There is the ‘Alfred E Neuman’ model of ‘what me? worry?’ slogans. There’s Bobby McFerrin’s advice: just ‘don’t worry, be happy’. And at the other end of the spectrum we have Edvard Munch’s take on the world and his [in]famous ‘The scream’: ‘Munch was inspired by a sunset stroll along a path running over an Oslo fjord where he could hear howls coming from both the asylum where his sister was incarcerated and an abattoir where animals were being slaughtered. In that moment, he recounted, “I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”’ (1) Lots to worry about for him and his understanding of the world, which was formed by the image of a wrathful God punishing the world with hellfire and brimstone.

Many of us live in between the ‘don’t worry, be happy’ of a catchy earworm and at the other end, the horrors of a world in the grip of a perpetual scream. What worries us or causes us distress can be seen as having its source in the idea of scarcity. Lynn Twit writes “For me and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep”. The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…”(2)

Into this mix we come as ones who take Jesus seriously and want to consider his alternative understanding of the world. What Jesus offers us is a way to think about what is and whose we are. The opposite of ‘never enough’ isn’t abundance or ‘more than you can imagine’. Rather it is enough. The opposite of scarcity is enough. Enough for today. Enough for me and for us. Enough to go around. In this context Jesus says ‘don’t worry about your life. Don’t be afraid for there is enough.’

In fact, “instead of hoarding money, give it away. Instead of worrying about yourself, care for others. Beyond all your prudent planning for the cares of life, abandon yourself to a (loving) God who is all-powerful and intimately personal. After you’ve hedged every bet and calculated every contingency, enjoy the beauty of the morning birdsong and the glory of a field of flowers. Having fretted over a life of worries, whether artificial or genuine, consider an act of faith. Live like what you believe is actually true. After you’ve run yourself ragged like a godless “pagan” (12:30), says Jesus, rest in the knowledge of a benevolent Being.” (3)

However, even with this understanding, what we know is that the world is full of uncertainty. This is a given that Jesus also recognizes and understands. And yet God is still God. We believe that there is a God who is on our side and who is longing for new life to emerge in the midst of those things that are also real. We are a people who live ‘as if’ the resurrection is real. This doesn’t mean we are making it up, but rather our understanding of reality is stretched to include the reality of resurrection and hope. And I think it is in this way that we can take Jesus seriously when Jesus invites us to another way of imagining the world around us.

‘Despite the strangeness, bitterness, incompleteness of this present life, human beings frequently do not give way to despair. In the human heart there is something that corresponds to the convictions expressed so powerfully by…Julian of Norwich that in the end ‘all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. I believe that this intuition of hope is a significant and essential aspect of what it is to be human. It is not just a survival technique for whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up, but it is an encounter with the reality within which we live. (4)

So, when Jesus says ‘don’t worry about your life’ he puts it into the context that ‘your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. (Therefore) strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ It isn’t just an admonition to get rid of worry by simply stopping it, by getting over it. Rather Jesus invites us to use the same fervour and passion and energy that our worrying engages to imagine God’s intentions for us and the world around us. Rather than striving and worrying about these things, strive and struggle and make every effort to yearn for God’s justice and shalom. All that useless energy that goes into worrying – use it for good.

There is one final piece in this word from Jesus. We know that Jesus lives in the real world and understands humanness and so this scripture has an interesting admonition as it ends: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. This is almost the opposite of what we might expect. We almost expect Jesus to tell us that tomorrow is going to be great – don’t worry about a thing because it will all work out well. It’s all under control. But rather he says leave that for another day. Jesus is a realist. He is able to challenge his followers to trust their loving God with all their hearts and at the same time say that life is difficult. Jesus invites a complete and transforming trust in a gracious, giving God and yet doesn’t deny that the world we live in brings many challenges.

St. Makarios of Egypt, a 5th century church father puts it this way: “I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety… Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety.” (5)

So I’d suggest that there is hope for us relentless worriers. We long to trust God with all we have and maybe someday we’ll be better at it, but in the meantime, while we are on the journey, we can trust that we will be given allowance for letting our worrying humanness still rattle around in our minds. Our goal however is to live into the words Julian of Norwich wrote:

“God made us, God loves us and God preserves us. God’s goodness comes down to us to meet our humblest needs. It gives life to our souls and makes them live and grow in grace and virtue. It is near in nature and swift in grace, for it is the same grace which our souls seek and always will.” (6)

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scream

2. Daring Greatly, Brene Brown pp.25-26

3. http://www.fbcgriffin.org/a-thoughtful-faith-4/Dr Hardee

4. John Polkinghorne, ‘The God of hope and the end of the world’ p. 31

5. http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20110221JJ.shtml

6. http://theologicalhorizons.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/JULIAN-Vintage-fall2012.pdf