“OH, THE THINGS WE WORRY ABOUT!”

MATTHEW 6:25-33

NOVEMBER 22, 2009

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            This coming Thursday may be my favorite day of the year.  We, hopefully, will be spending it with my sister and her family in Centennial, Colorado.  For years, we have taken turns making the trip to Denver, or my sister’s family to Omaha, to celebrate Thanksgiving.  This year it’s our turn to head to Denver, and weather permitting we will leave Wednesday afternoon and return on Saturday ready for the first Sunday in Advent, which happens to be next Sunday.

            I love Thanksgiving Day.  The food.  The football.  The time with family, and I pray you will have a blessed day as well.  Some of us will gather with those we love.  Some of us will gather at a table this year with an empty chair where a loved one should be, but is not.  Some of us may not gather at a table at all.  We will be spending the day by ourselves, but no matter where and how we gather on Thursday, I predict that in the midst of our Thanksgiving observance, someone will worry.  Children will worry that their favorite pie may be in short supply and they will have to eat grandma’s mincemeat pie!   Football fans will worry about whether the TV will be on and tuned to the game.  Serious shoppers will worry about getting to bed on time so they can get an early start on Black Friday.  The bulk of the worrying, however, will be done by those preparing the Thanksgiving meal.  They will worry about the turkey being moist, and the potatoes being lumpy, and where to seat Aunt Bertha.  They want the day to be perfect, so they fret. 

            And maybe they have a reason to fret and worry, because each of us can recall at least one Thanksgiving disaster, the turkey taking too long to cook or family members squabbling.  I remember hearing about the woman who made pumpkin pie and then set it on the shelf to cool.  When she went to serve it, she noticed the cat had swiped it’s paw across the top of the pie for a taste, but because it was the only pumpkin pie she had, and you can’t have Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie, she smoothed the surface of the pie and served it anyway.

            Late that evening, when all the guests had gone home, she went out to the garage and found the family cat lying dead on the garage floor.  Assuming the worst - that the cat had somehow been poisoned by the pie - she called each of her guests and admitted what she had done.  The next morning there was a knock at the door, and there stood a neighbor.  She said, “Say, I didn’t want to disturb you last evening when you had dinner guests, but your cat was hit by a car, so I just laid him on the garage floor for you.  Have you found him yet?” 

            We each have had our Thanksgiving disasters, so some of us this Thursday will fret and worry.  But we will not only worry on Thursday.  Of all the living things God created, human beings seem to be the only ones that worry.  And we worry about everything - gas prices, the stock market, health, taxes, jobs, marriages, parents, children.  You name it and somebody is worrying about it.

            In our text, however, Jesus says not to worry.  As usual, what he says makes sense.  We do worry too much, especially those of us in an affluent society who seem to have less to worry about than so many others in the world.  And the result is a spate of problems we constantly bring on ourselves.

            For example fifty percent more people die from ulcers than murder, and in a book titled Stop Worrying and Get Well[1] the author called attention to the fact that worry causes heart trouble, high blood pressure, some forms of asthma, rheumatism, colds, migraine headaches, and a host of stomach disorders.  The pressures of modern life, and the worries those pressures bring, have a devastating effect on us.  Billions upon billions of dollars are expended every year in treating diseases, both mental and physical, brought on my anxiety and worry.  And we can’t say for sure, but thousands likely go into eternity every year because they have literally, “worried themselves to death.” 

            And some of us have attained a PhD in worry.  The British-born actor David Niven certainly did.  He was a worrier and a nail-biter, and once he received a postcard written by his friend, Noel Coward, who was traveling in Italy.  The card showed a picture of Venus de Milo and said, “You see what will happen if you keep on biting your nails!” 

            This problem, however, is not unique to us.  The crowd that sat listening to Jesus on that Galilean hillside must have had a similar problem or Jesus would not have addressed it, and he addresses three specific worries.

            First, he addresses worries about the necessities of life.  “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink ...”  Then he addresses issues about the quality of life - “or about what your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing”  Finally, he addresses worries about the length of life - “And can anyone one of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  Those three things, the necessities of life, the length of life, the quality of life are all things we tend to worry about, and according to Jesus these three things are not worthy of worry.   According to Jesus worry is irreverent, irrelevant, and irresponsible.  It’s irreverent because it fails to recognize the God who gives and sustains life, it is irrelevant because it does not change things, and it is irresponsible because worry burns up needless psychic energy. 

            Of course, if you are anything like me, you may be thinking, “Really Jesus?  Really?”  By that I mean, we can all point to times when birds did not get enough to eat and times when lilies did not bloom and blossom.  Droughts and other catastrophes cut short the lives of both birds and flowers as well as humans who trust in God, so was Jesus being a little Pollyannish here?  Is he wearing rose-colored glasses?  Well, let me say a couple of things about that.

            First, we need to remember the original context.  Jesus’ closest disciples had abandoned their vocations in order to be with him full-time.  They were to learn from him, and share his work in announcing the Kingdom of God.  As a result, they became as dependent upon God’s providential care as the birds and the flowers.  So, this part of the Sermon of the Mount was directed as much to his disciples as to the crowd.  Jesus was saying to Peter, James, John and the rest, “Don’t worry about these everyday issues.  Have faith in me.  Have faith in God.  Your needs will be met.”

            Second, we need to read Jesus’ words here more as poetry than prose.  By that I mean, of all the passages in the Bible about trust in God, this is probably the most beloved.  Jesus’ words here move us much more than Paul’s straightforward advice in Philippians 4:6, even though they address the same subjects: worry and trust.  Remember Paul’s words?  “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  Compare that to Jesus’ word pictures, “Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.”  That’s poetic language and poetic logic is very different than prosaic logic.  In poetic logic it is irrelevant that some birds starve and some lilies fail to mature.  The poetic picture Jesus paints draws our attention to a calmer vision of God’s bountiful care in the natural world.  That is what is important.  Because God cares for us, because God is looking out for us, because we are not alone in life, we can relax and not worry.

            Of course, it takes a leap of faith not to worry about tomorrow, and that’s our problem.   In fact, Jesus sums up the problem of worry in one little phrase: “you of little faith.”  Listen to his words once again, “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you - you of little faith?”  That’s the nub of the issue, a lack of faith and I think that’s what he is driving at here. He’s not saying we should not be concerned about tomorrow or plan for tomorrow.  He’s not saying that we should be totally unconcerned about what kind of life we and our families have.  He just does not want us to come to the place where we begin to think that we are in this all by ourselves.  He wants to remind us that whatever we face God cares about us, our struggles, and that God will be with us.  God cares for birds and flowers and God really cares about us, and for that we can be greatly thankful.

            The original Pilgrims understood that more than most.  You remember the story.  In 1620 a boatload of 110 people left Holland for the New World and freedom.  Forty-four of them were religious, so they were referred to as the “saints.”  The other sixty-six were not religious at all, so they were called the “strangers,” and together these saints and strangers made the difficult sixty-five day voyage across the Atlantic, and only one of them died en route.

            Once they arrived in the New World, however, living proved to be more difficult than the trip across the Atlantic.  The first winter was hard, the snow was heavy, and by the time spring arrived, more than sixty of their number had died.  Over the next few months, through their own perseverance, along with friendship from the Native Americans, their crops flourished, and they were able to store enough food for the coming winter.  In mid-October of 1621, Governor William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving to be shared with the Native Americans.  For three days they sang and celebrated and thanked God for the blessings they had received. 

            Imagine that!  After a rugged, two month trip, and a brutal winter that killed half their group, they celebrated and thanked God for their blessings.  And the next year, when the harvest wasn’t nearly so plentiful, and they had to share their short supply of food with newly arriving Pilgrims, they thanked God again.  And the third year, when the sun and drought scorched their crops, they gathered the community on November 29, 1623 for another day of thanksgiving and praise.

            You see, Thanksgiving has never been about wealth or health or comfort or prosperity.  It has always been about thanking God for being there, for seeing us through the good times and the bad times.  Though the Pilgrims had difficult lives, they never lost sight of the God who loved them and traveled with them to a new land.  They never worried about God’s caring for them.  They knew they were more important to God than the birds of the air or the lilies of the field. 

            Let me tell you about a contemporary of the Pilgrims.  He was a Lutheran pastor in Germany.  His name was Martin Rinkart.  As the only pastor of Eilenburg, Germany, Rinkart conducted 4,500 funerals in one year, 1637, the result of famine, pestilence and the Thirty Years War.  Sometimes he officiated at the burials of fifty people in a single day.  One of the people he buried was his own wife.  So, in light of all this hardship, what was the only hymn that Pastor Martin Rinkart ever had published?  This is the first stanza:

 

            Now we thank all our God,

            with heart and hands and voices.

            Who wondrous things has done,

            in whom this world rejoices;

            who from our mothers’ arms

            has blessed us on our way

            with countless gifts of love,

            and still is ours today.[2]

 

            I hope this Thursday when we sit at the Thanksgiving table that we will remember this:  Don’t worry. Don’t ever worry about God’s care for you!  The God of creation will never leave you.  And that’s a promise.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

           



[1] Edward Podolsky, M.D. Stop Worrying and Get Well (New York: Benard Ackerman Inc., 1944.    

[2] “Now We Thank All Our God,” words by Martin Rinkart, 1636, translated by Catherine Winkworth, 1858, in the public domain.