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February 27, 2011
02-27-2011 SermonIn 1989 Bobbie McFerrin recorded the hit song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The song won a Grammy for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
Ain’t got no place to lay your head. Somebody came and took your bed.
Don’t worry. Be happy.
Ain’t got no cash. Ain’t got no style. Ain’t got no gal to make you smile.
Don’t worry. Be happy.
The landlord say your rent is late. He may have to litigate.
Don’t worry. Be happy.
Well, this morning we heard Jesus say repeatedly, “don’t worry.” Don’t make a big fuss over what you’ll eat, or drink, or wear. Don’t get all worked up over what may or may not happen tomorrow.
After several Sunday sermons traversing the rough terrain of the Sermon on the Mount, we’re probably ready to take a breather, lie on our backs, and just watch the birds of the air and consider the lilies of the field. In one sense, Jesus suggests we do just that. But along with these calming images of birds and lilies, Jesus includes a command that is every bit as daunting as his command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. “I tell you, do not worry about your life…” Is he kidding?
Of course, we do worry about all sorts of things. We worry about our retirement fund. We worry whether we can pay the mortgage on the house or pay for our children’s college educations. A single glance at the daily newspaper headlines sets in motion a plethora of worries—working people losing their jobs, their savings, and their homes; schools closing for lack of funds; teachers, firefighters, and police being laid off; libraries shortening their hours or closing; veterans homeless on the streets in unprecedented numbers; state and local governments facing bankruptcy. For these reasons and others, we hear these words of Jesus with puzzlement and fascination. Jesus lets loose a verbal riff on the futility of worry, but we sense there’s more to his song than “don’t worry, be happy.”
Surely Jesus isn’t advocating the cessation of all worry as an end in itself. It’s hard to imagine blissing out as the goal of Christian discipleship. Some of us can remember the Indian mystic and sage Baba Meher, whose philosophy of “Don’t worry, be happy” inspired McFerrin’s hit song. Today there’s no lack of meditations, medications and relaxation techniques aimed at reducing stress. Certainly everyone can benefit from legitimate means for easing stress. But if blotting out worry is the goal of life, shortcuts are readily available. Centuries ago, in his Confessions, Augustine wrote about an experience that caused him to rethink Jesus’ command. Augustine set out through hard work to become wealthy and powerful enough to attain a worry-free life. Then one day he encountered a drunkard on the street and he realized the man had accomplished that very goal in a bottle. Jesus did tell us not to worry about our life, but surely the erasure of worry was neither the core of his message nor intended as an end in itself.
And neither is the center of Jesus’ sermon a call to have more faith. He’s not grabbing us by the collar and chastising us for being worrywarts instead of trusting in God’s providential care. Jesus does call for greater trust in providence, but in a poetic, not a literal, way. God is not an ATM machine where if you put in enough faith out comes material blessings to meet our every need.
In fact, if we take Jesus’ sermon on worry literally, we can take it apart intellectually. It’s simply not true to say that all birds are adequately fed and that all lilies reach their fullest beauty. Droughts and other catastrophes cut short the lives of both birds and flowers, as well as of humans who trust in God. There are legions of faithful Christians who have given their all for God and God’s kingdom, but who continue to suffer deprivations of all sorts. Yes, there’s a call here for a deeper trust in God and a more resolute faith, but that’s still not at the heart of Jesus’ message.
So what is? Actually, Jesus tips his hand in the first verse of today’s reading. He identifies his primary concern right up front: Idolatry. “You can’t serve two masters…You can’t serve both God and money. Therefore,” he continues, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, drink and wear.” So you see, his comments about worry are just a footnote to his main thesis, which is: We have to choose what Master we will serve. Most of the worries of life are the natural consequence of idolatry. If money, wealth, or material possessions take first place in our lives, we will constantly be fretting over how to get more, how to secure what we have, how to protect our own.
Gregory of Nyssa, an early church father, commented on the section in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Gregory understood that phrase to refer to all those critical necessities of daily life: food, drink and clothing. But Gregory lamented that many of his parishioners sought to go beyond what they needed to all the things they wanted. In effect we ask for daily bread, but hoard and consume more than our fair share. We ask for basic shelter, but we buy grander houses than we need, which, too often, cost more than we can really afford. Gregory observed a frantic desperation to achieve and acquire that not only left people anxious but also blinded them to the needs around them. Money, someone said, is a useful servant, but it’s a cruel master. It spoils each day with worry, and makes us anxious about tomorrow.
This week I read about a man named Scott Harrison. At age 28, Harrison had become a successful businessman in New York, having gained all the trappings of success. Then one day he found himself preoccupied with a question: What would the opposite of my life look like? He asked himself: How would my life be different if, instead of striving always to get more, I focused on giving more. Instead of using my wealth to eat at the best restaurants, stock my wine closet and buy expensive designer clothes, what if I used my wealth to benefit others? Instead of applying my business acumen and marketing skills to feather my own nest, what if I used these skills to help the most needy? As a result of these questions, he established a charity which is dedicated to providing safe water for those who don’t have access to it.
In a similar way, Jesus asks us what our lives would look like if we truly worshipped God instead of money. It’s instructive to note that in Matthew’s Gospel the things Jesus asks us not to worry about for ourselves —food, drink and clothing—are the very criteria upon which our lives will ultimately be judged. Not by how much of these things we secured for ourselves, but did we give them to others: “I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me.
Friends, worry itself is not the issue. The issue is that when money is our first love, we are naturally anxious about many things. Jesus shows us another way, an opposite way. He invites his disciples to relax, to be not so preoccupied with getting, so that we can respond to God’s giving.
In a nutshell, Jesus’ Sermon on worry comes down to this: Seek first the compassionate, just and peaceful world that is God’s will for the earth, and as for all these other matters? Don’t worry. Be happy.