(a sermon for November 19, 2017, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Joel 2:12-17 and Matthew 6:25-34)
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life…”
Don’t you just love that verse? I mean, I think you’ll agree with me when I say that so often Holy Scripture has a way of shaking us out of our complacency and challenging what we’ve always held to be true in this life; there are times that biblical truth can be downright unsettling! But not this time; here we have a simple and powerful affirmation from the mouth of Jesus himself: a sure and certain reminder that we need not ever be concerned about the stuff of life and living, because God will provide all that we need! Whether it’s about what we’ll eat or drink, or our bodies, or our clothing; whatever it is for you, Jesus says, don’t worry, because it’s all good!
Like I said before, I love this verse; it speaks to the bounty of God’s blessing upon all of our lives, and what better time to lift that up than right now as we draw near to our celebration of Thanksgiving Day. There’s a lot of comfort to be found in Jesus’ words; so why is it that even as I hear them today, inside I’m thinking, “Are you kidding? How am I not supposed to worry?”
The fact is, we all have more than enough to worry about, don’t we; worries attend us like bees to honey! There are worries at home and about our loved ones; there are worries at work; these days we have worries about our safety and about the state of the world, worries that are exacerbated just about every time we turn on the news! And then there’s all the rest of those unnamed anxieties that never seem to leave our thoughts. Never mind that truism that states that 40% of the things we worry about never happen, another 30% have to do with things we can’t change anyway, and another 12% have to do with needless fears (I really can’t speak for the math there, but you know what I’m saying!); it just seems as though everywhere we turn in this life, we discover yet another thing to worry about! It ends up being like the old story of one man who said to another, “You know, I’m so worried that if anything happens to me today, it will be two weeks before I can worry about it!”
So in the face of all of that, as wonderful and as inviting as it sounds for Jesus to say to you and to me, “Therefore, don’t worry about your life,” well, that just seems out of step with the kind of lives we lead in this modern age, to say nothing of the anxiety-ridden society of which we’re a part! With all due respect, simply to go through life singing “Hakuna Matata” (which, if you happen to be familiar with the Disney musical “The Lion King,” is that “problem-free philosophy” that means “no worries, for the rest of your days!”) basically means you don’t understand the situation! Bottom line is that there are problems in this world, and in our lives; so there’s plenty of things that give us concern… and we worry!
So all that said, what are we to do with Jesus’ admonition not to worry? Where’s the truth in that word of comfort? Well, I would suggest to you this morning that our answer to that question comes in putting Jesus’ words in their proper context; because, in truth, I don’t think that Jesus is advocating for a “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle, any more than he would want us to spend all of our days whistling, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” There’s more to life than this; and frankly more to following Jesus than this! In fact, if you’re truly paying attention to the whole of Jesus’ teachings you begin to realize that the ability, the grace, not to worry actually comes in everything that Jesus has said before! It’s all right there in one word that began our text for this morning; it’s a word – an adverb – so small and seemingly inconsequential that I’m guessing that most of us didn’t even notice it: “Therefore…”
…as in, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life…”
Remember, you see, that this reading from Matthew’s gospel comes toward the end of his account of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” that very familiar series of verses in which our Savior deals with some of the central and arguably heavier issues of walking in faith: the realities of being salt of the earth and light of the world, and what it means to obey and fulfill the laws of God; about the dicier aspects of dealing with anger, and forgiveness, and love. Interestingly enough, in the verse just prior to what we read this morning there’s even a rather unsettling teaching about… guess what? Money! “No one can serve two masters,” says Jesus, “…you cannot serve God and wealth.” (6:24) This sermon of Jesus, taken as a whole, ends up as no less than a summation of what God expects from his people; and by any standard, it’s a lot! But here’s the thing; it’s right after all of this that Jesus looks to the crowds gathered around him and says to them, and to us, “Therefore… don’t worry about your life.” In other words, quoting the Rev. Neil Chappell here, what’s happened is that “Jesus presents us with this long list of things to do, to follow, to remember and [of course] we worry whether we’re up to challenge.” And this is when Jesus tells us, don’t worry!
To put a finer point on this, I found it particularly interesting this week how Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates this passage. To be clear, this is a paraphrase and not a strict translation; but there’s something about Peterson’s interpretation of this text that makes clear sense about this admonition against worrying. “If you decide for God,” it says, “living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes, or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion… [likewise] has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch?” To put this still another way, in the end it’s not that we don’t worry because God provides; it that because God provides, we don’t worry!
What Jesus reminds here is that when we are in relationship with God, and when God’s presence and guidance and love is at the center of everything we face in this life, we have entered what David Lose refers to as “the realm of abundance, the world of possibility, the world of contentment,” a place – which Jesus calls the “Kingdom of God,” by the way – where “not worrying actually becomes an option!” Consider the birds of the air, or the grass of the field; “are you not of more value than they?” God takes care of them, and so God will take care of you; even you who worries about anything and everything! To quote The Message one more time, “People who don’t know God or the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. [So] steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”
Don’t worry… be happy (Okay, I couldn’t resist!), for if you “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.”
You know, biblically and historically speaking, we really don’t know all that much about the prophet Joel; from whose book our Old Testament reading this morning is drawn. We know that he is named as one of the minor prophets, and that his words possibly date back to the eighth century before the Christian era; beyond that, we know very little… except that Joel was a spokesperson for God in a harrowing time, in the aftermath of a plague of locusts that left the land (and by extension, its people) utterly destroyed. So the setting of the Book of Joel is of one of great calamity, followed by despair and all the deep anxieties that would most certainly come from that. And yet, what does Joel say in the face of such worries? “Do not fear… be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things!”
It’s a beautiful and amazing passage; we read of how God will care for the land and the animals; how God will bring early and abundant rain “for [their] vindication,” and make the threshing floors once again full with the grain of the harvest. “I will repay you,” says the Lord, “for the years that the swarming locust has eaten… you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied.” And perhaps most interesting of all here is that rather than calling the people to remorse or even to repentance, God calls them… to trust in his promise of abundance and to give thanks: “Praise the name of the Lord your God,” he says, “who has dealt wondrously with you.”
This is the beginning of faith, dear friends, and it is the very life to which Jesus calls you and me even now: one of true abundance that can only come from God. Granted, to trust in that kind of promise is a hard thing for us in these times; especially given all the many kinds of scarcity and fear in this world that seek to cause us so much worry. But if we focus on that which is good – acknowledging what God has done and continues to do in this world and in our lives, and living out that abundance – we may well find ourselves ready to heed Jesus’ call to relax, to breathe and to simply trust in God’s everlasting providence.
Well, in just a few days now, most of us will be gathered with some combination of family or friends to engage in that yearly, time-honored ritual of feasting we call Thanksgiving. And in amidst the copious servings of turkey, mashed potato and pumpkin pie I trust that prayers will be said offering up thanks for the many blessings we’ve known in the past year: blessings of life and health and food; of love received and given; of the joys that were embraced and the sorrows that were somehow successfully endured. Wherever we are and whoever we’re with this coming Thursday, we’ll be expressing praise and gratitude to the God “from whom all blessings flow.” And with humility and grace we’ll simply say, “Thank you.”
And so it should be… but might I suggest another prayer as well? It seems to me that this year we’d all do well to pray that in the year to come the Lord might deliver us from fussing… from allowing ourselves to become bothered by all those all-consuming and ultimately debilitating worries that keep us from wholly embracing the abundance of blessings that God has to offer us. I’m reminded here of something the late Henri Nouwen used to say about what it means to truly pray. He used the image of a clenched fist, and explained that if we, after the manner of that closed hand, hold on tightly to those “clammy coins” we insist on keeping – things like hate and bitterness, disappointment and even worry – then you’re never going to be able to open your hand to receive all of the love the Lord wants to give you; to receive, you see, first you have to let go.
And so it is with all the worries that keep us from giving our full attention to what our Lord has to give us in the here and now, and also in the days to come; as the old saying goes, we simply need to “let go, and let God!” Yes, there is true abundance in God, beloved; therefore, let us not be worried, but instead set ourselves to striving first for the kingdom of God… for in doing so, “all these things will be given to you as well.”
Happy Thanksgiving, my dear, dear friends, and may God continue to bless you and yours.
And may our thanks ever and always be unto God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry