Worries


A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 27, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 49:8-16a, Psalm 131, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, and Matthew 6:24-34.

In the late 1980’s, and especially after the Tom Cruise movie, “Cocktail,” almost everywhere you went, you would hear the Bobby McFerrin song, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy……

McFerrin got the phrase from a poster he saw that had popularized the teachings of an Indian mystic, Meher Baba, who was especially popular in this country through the 1960’s and 70’s. McFerrin got the words from a poster, but he could have just as easily gotten them from today’s Gospel.

The words, “Don’t worry, be happy” also went right along with some of the excesses and superlatives that were so much a part of the 1980’s. Big hair, shouldered sport coats and jackets, big cars, and big credit card bills were the thing. I remember hearing thoughts in church and by cultural commentators pointing out that it was just this kind of sentiment of “don’t worry, be happy,” that contributed to self-centeredness and all kinds of worse problems. It was easy for me to agree with those who criticized the idea of not worrying, and just being happy. I was in seminary in part of those years and took EVERYTHING seriously. I was too busy trying to be righteous to think much about being happy, and I was far too anxious about everything to even begin to understand that simply little phrase, “don’t worry.” And yet, we meet that sentiment head-on in Jesus’ words.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear… look at the birds… consider the lilies…do not worry”…. Again he says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Jesus is talking about trust in God. He’s talking about practical living, but he’s also simply telling a very basic truth, too, isn’t he? All the careful investing in the stock market over the years…. And look what happened in just a few months. One can invest time and energy and teaching and faith in children, and yet, they can very well make their own decisions about which way to go, what to do, even which god to follow. And one can invest one’s heart and soul into another person, only to lose that person whether through death, or divorce, or distance. We can hope and plan and pray and work our way into the future, but when it comes right down to it, we don’t own the future. We have only THIS day.

The old Robert Burns poem talked about it so well, in which Burns notices the scurrying of a little mouse. He observes the mouse’s hurrying, the mouse’s desperation in stealing a little something to eat here and there, the mouse’s little house all falling apart, and then notices

But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leaves us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

And yet, Jesus DOES promise joy. He promises joy not in success, or health, or in finding love in this life, or in answered prayers, but joy in what he calls the “kingdom of God.” And whenever he talks about God’s kingdom, Jesus is careful not to talk about it in terms way off and distant, but in terms that are immediate, intimate, and close-by. The kingdom of God is in your midst, he says. The kingdom of God is upon you. And in today’s Gospel, I think Jesus is giving us an important key to the kingdom, the key of trust.

It’s easy to say, “have faith,” and “trust,” but it’s hard to do. Even as a child, I used to worry about all kinds of things I had no control over whatsoever. Some of that continues into today, but when I’m occasionally sane (or even slightly faithful) I can laugh at myself, give thanks for the moment, and remember to trust God. But I think this “trusting in God” involves faith, and it seems to involve at least three types of faith. For trust to build, it seems like there needs to be faith in God. But there also needs to be a measure of faith in other people. And then, there’s the hardest of all, there trusting in God also involves our having a little faith in ourselves.

We talk about having faith in God, but how often do we really pray to God? I don’t mean the kind of prayer that presents God with a little box and then gets mad when God doesn’t fill the box with what I’ve imagined. It’s more mysterious than that. I might feel like I need a car to get to work. One kind of prayer might really spell it out, “God, please give me a green Porche with leather interior.” I might pray with all my might, but will probably be disappointed at the result of the prayer. I could get angry at God, use this as a simple proof that God doesn’t exist, and do what I need to do to buy my own green Porche. But perhaps a more faithful prayer might involve my praying to God for an answer to my transportation problem. I would not just mention this while walking down the street. But I would commit to praying about it. I would pray to God for an answer to my transportation problem every morning for several weeks, or maybe for a month or two. [When have we ever prayed like that for anything?]. God might answer that prayer, but it might involve a friend or neighbor suggesting we carpool. Or it might involve looking more closely at public transportation. Or it might be the nudge I need to look for other work. Or, there might even be what feels like a miracle, with a friend mentioning that her mother is looking for someone to give a decent car to—it’s no Porche—but it runs, and she’d like it to go to a good home. Who knows, but trusting in God, having faith in God, includes our having the faith to pray for God’s will.

The second kind of faith is faith in other people. Let’s look at my “car problem” again. In addition to praying to God, perhaps I might mention my need for new transportation to a friend or a coworker. Granted, this risks me looking needy. It risks me showing others that I might not have my life together as well as I might have liked to portray it. But it opens me up to other people—many of whom also might even have a relationship with God through which God is also trying to work. Having faith in other people might involve our asking for help, asking for advice, asking for guidance.

And finally, all of this trusting in God through faith takes a little bit of what is obvious, but so often overlooked. It takes a certain amount of faith in myself. There have been other times that God has brought me through difficult situations, and so I recall those, and remember that God has made me strong and alive. I can make choices. I have agency. I have skills, though some might need to be developed more consciously. Having faith in myself doesn’t mean getting all puffed up in a Stuart Smalley kind of way, looking in the mirror and saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me.” Having faith in myself means taking stock, being honest, but still at the end of the day and its beginning, remembering that I’m a child of God. It means remembering words like those of Jesus that remind, “You are of great value . . . Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

The kingdom of God is a place of faith. Yes, faith in God, but also faith in others (who are God’s children) and faith in ourselves, God’s child.

The Collect of the Day, the prayer that begin this Mass is one that perhaps we, who have a tendency to worry, should all memorize:

Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

It’s a prayer that sustains, and reminds, and encourages. It says, “trust in God. Have faith.”

May God’s Spirit be so alive in us as to chase always all worry and fill us with love. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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