“Don’t Worry About It!”

Scripture:  Matthew 6:24-34 

Don’t Worry

I want to begin the sermon with a challenge for all of you, and my challenge is this:  Don’t think of an elephant.  Whatever you do, for the next 15 seconds, do not think of an elephant. 

Alright.  How did you all do with that challenge?  Raise your hand if you failed and thought of an elephant.  [Pause for hands – most will raise hands]  I thought that might happen.

Well, maybe you will do better on this next challenge:  Do not worry.  Don’t think about all of the things that you have to do tomorrow, deadlines that are approaching, how little money you have in your bank account.  Just don’t worry about it.

How did you do?  If you’re like most people, hearing the words “do not worry” actually makes you worry more.  As you think about not worrying, you might bring to mind all of the many things you have to worry about.  “Well, I wasn’t worried, but now that you mention it…”  And suddenly, we don’t just feel anxious, but we feel anxious about our anxiety.

Lots To Worry About

Yet, this is precisely what Jesus teaches us in today’s passage.  “Don’t worry about anything.  Food?  Water?  Clothing?  Don’t worry about anything – essential or not.”

My initial reaction to the passage is to think that Jesus comes across as at least a little bit naïve about the realities that we face. Surely, he can’t be serious?  How are we supposed to just dismiss our anxieties and worries?  Too often, life feels like one worry strung after another – like lights on a morbid Christmas tree.  We have worries at work, worries at home, we even have worries at Church.  And we worry about... well, you named a number of things during the Children’s Moment that bring you worry in your lives.  I recently heard it said that, “Worries attend to us like bees to honey.”[1]

And anxiety doesn’t affect our lives only as individuals.  Anxiety is a part of our collective consciousness, as well, and has become a central piece of our culture.  The evening news reels us in by telling us what we should be afraid of, and why. In our neighborhoods, we encounter an ever-increasing number of houses with home security signs in their front yards.  At the airport, we are greeted by an automated voice that tells us to report any suspicious activity or unattended bags to the nearest TSA agent.            

Even our financial markets are based on consumer anxiety.  Advertisements are constantly inviting us to worry about one more thing, and offering the prescription to that problem for their current “low, low price.”  Commercials for Allstate Insurance even go one step further, by personifying “Mayhem” and presenting all of the various bad things that might happen to you, your home, and your loved ones if you don’t buy their insurance – “I’m a torrential downpour, and I love open sunroofs.”  Each commercial ends with the words, “Mayhem is everywhere.  Are you in good hands?”  Everywhere you turn, everywhere you look, there are visible reminders of just how much there is to worry about.

So, how can we, in the midst of our anxiety-riddled world, receive Jesus’ commandment not to worry?

God & Mammon

First of all, though we often get hung up on Jesus’ words about worry, that’s not where Jesus starts from.  It is no coincidence that Jesus begins this section of the Sermon on the Mount with the assertion that we cannot simultaneously serve two masters, that is, God and mammon – generally translated as “money” or “wealth.”  If we try to serve two masters, Jesus says, we will wind up loving one and hating the other.  Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say that money is inherently evil, or even bad; he just says that it makes a poor master.  Money isn’t bad, by definition, so long as it is kept in perspective and our priorities remain intact – it is necessary and can be beneficial, so long as it doesn’t wield power over us.

When he tells us not to worry, Jesus is speaking out against the un-checked human desire for control and comfort.  Because that’s where all of our worries and anxieties begin, isn’t it?  We start out by making sure that our needs are met for today – after all, that is a responsible thing to do.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t work hard for what you have” or encourage his listeners toward a life of passivity, waiting for God’s blessings to shower down – in fact, he seems to be speaking out of the assumption that his audience is doing their best and working to get by.

And then we start to think about all of the what if’s and yeah, but’s that inevitably occupy our consciousness.  What if something happens in the future that keeps me from being able to provide?  What if I get sick or injured?  Yeah, I might be doing just fine today, but I’d really like to be doing even better tomorrow.  Yeah, I know that Jesus tells us God will provide, but I still should probably have a plan – just in case. 

And slowly but surely, we find our minds and hearts preoccupied with trying to predict what sorts of problems the future might possibly hold and make a plan for every contingency we can imagine.  And, before we know it, we are not paying any attention to what God is doing in our lives or doing our part to participate actively in the Kingdom of God.  We are just passive believers – with one foot in the Kingdom and one in the world.

Living In The Present

The main problem with worry – even when we justify our worries under the pretense of caring for ourselves and our families – comes when our future preparations get in the way of living in the present moment.  Even the best of our intentions become a problem when they cross the line and become our master.

In his sermon on this passage, John Wesley wrote:

Above all, do not make the care of future things a pretense for neglecting present duty… [People] say, and perhaps actually think, that they would serve God now if they did not fear losing their bread [for tomorrow].  They would prepare for eternity, but they are afraid of wanting the necessities of life.

He goes on, responding to Jesus’ call for his followers to worry about tomorrow’s problems when tomorrow comes, rather than worry about them today.  Wesley writes:

Be it your earnest care to improve the present hour.  This is your own; and it is your all.  The past is nothing, as though it had never been.  The future is nothing to you[, either].  It is not yours; perhaps it never will be.  Therefore, live to-day: Lose not an hour: Use this moment; for it is your portion.[2]

Today, we have a saying that refers to this same idea.  It’s a bit cheesy, but it also contains great wisdom:  “Today is a gift – that’s why they call it the present.”  Every moment that we live is a gift from God – but if we spend it lingering on the past or worrying about the future, we are missing the opportunity to truly experience and enjoy the blessings of the present.

When I think of a biblical example of living in the present moment, I am reminded of an incident recounted in Luke’s gospel.  As Jesus and the disciples were traveling, Jesus:

...entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  (Luke 10:38-42)

How often do we find ourselves playing the role of Martha, preoccupied with having everything to “perfectly” and according to plan that we forget to be present in the moment? We can only wonder how often we miss the opportunity to commune with God because we are so caught up in worrying about so many things in life that should be secondary. 

Changing Our Priorities

In our passage from The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ is calling each of us to give up our dis-ordered priorities, our need to feel like we are in control, and our shouldering of impossible responsibility for how our lives unfold.  Instead of constant worry, he is inviting us into God’s realm, where priorities are clear.  The focus in God’s realm isn’t about how many toys we have, how we prepare for the future, how big or small our paychecks are…  The focus is on where our hearts are. 

Our participation in the Kingdom of God is not about having or acquiring things, with their built-in obsolescence, but instead it is about God and God’s vision for all of creation.  This all reflects back to Jesus’ words that we encountered last week – “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”  If we seek God’s will in our lives, though it might be momentarily uncomfortable as we take a leap of faith, we will find our ultimate trust to be in God rather than money, or material things, or approval from others.  Instead, our trust will be in God and God’s kingdom, where the needs of all people are met.

Let us continue to choose – moment by moment, day by day, decision by decision – to seek first and foremost the Kingdom of God.  Let us live out the change that we want to see in our world – a world centered in trust rather than worry, in faith rather than stress.  As our needs are met and exceeded, let us also take what we have received and use it to meet the needs of others.

When Jesus says, “Do not worry,” let us respond not with “what if” or “yeah, but” – instead, let us simply say, “Amen.”

[1] From David Lose, “Picture This,” Dear Working Preacher.  Accessed at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1522

[2] John Wesley, Sermon #9: “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount,” accessed at http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/29/