Sunday, November 18, 2018
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 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? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
I hate airports and it has nothing to do with my fear of flying. I hate airports because of what happens as you wait to fly. I’m not referring to being herded like cattle or those people who always refuse to wait for their section to be called or those folks whose cell phones seems to be extensions of their heads. What really drives me to distraction are the ubiquitous televisions with their speakers embedded in the ceiling so that no matter where you are, you cannot escape the talking heads of cable news. So there I sit, already nervous about getting on a plane, while plastic-looking people remind me of all that has gone wrong in the world that day – including, one time, an airline disaster!
A wise critic once observed that cable news is designed for people addicted to anger and fear. They sell dread, innuendo, and suspicion. But TV is a business, and so they wouldn’t peddle those things if we didn’t gobble them up like a Thanksgiving feast.
Of course, there are real reasons for us to be afraid. We live in a beautiful but broken world. The murderous violence in houses of worship and nightclubs and concerts is so stark in part because it reminds us of what we all know to be true: that life is fleeting. Life ends and sometimes not in the way we would hope. And so we embark upon elaborate journeys of denial. We look for someone, anyone to save us from our fears. We want to believe that they actually can. And cynical politicians and giant corporations and power-hungry religious institutions rush into that place of fear and tell us that they can save us. They know we are afraid and they use it against us.
A therapist once told me that I was addicted to fear. I was shocked by that opinion because fear is the one thing I have spent my life trying to avoid at all costs - or so I thought. But over time I came to see the truth of what he said - that being afraid somehow made me feel more alive. It was an occupation, an adrenaline buzz, a lover, an addiction. But it was also exhausting and debilitating, like some dread disease.
The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, former senior minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, likes to say that the theme of the entire Bible can be boiled down to these two words: “Fear not!” And if that is true, and if we are on some level addicted to fear, then the call to “Fear not!” is perhaps the most countercultural command in the Bible.
“Fear not!” Jesus repeats this mantra in the Gospel lesson today, but with different words. This passage is taken from the so-called Sermon on the Mount, a collection of some of the best-known sayings of Jesus. Today we heard Pastor Alison read: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
The larger context of this passage is about a proper perspective on money. And if there is anything that we are truly afraid of, it is the lack of money. That is an old, old human concern, and the folks who heard Jesus preach that day knew a lot more about that concern than we do.
Assuming that those who heard Jesus speak were a representative sampling of the society at large, then 2-3% of them would have been aristocrats, people of Greek or Roman background, family connections, old money. For them, Jesus’s instruction not to worry about food and clothing would have been easy enough. They never did. --Then there were the tax collectors and the major landowners, 12-14 % of the population. They worked hard, but they always had plenty to eat. --Then there were the priests and the scribes. They may not have been as rich as the others, but this 4-5% always had full bellies, plus they wore the most beautiful clothes of all. --But everyone else, a full 78% of the general populace, was really poor. And of the poor, there were levels of poverty. The destitute – not the people at the bottom of the barrel but the people under the barrel were the beggars and disabled and prostitutes who were always only a few days away from starvation.
And so there they sat, mostly poor, listening, hoping, longing for words that would relieve their fears of economic insecurity. They knew Jesus sometimes talked about money, but on this day, there was no zealot’s talk of economic revolution. Instead, Jesus simply said: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Well, yes Jesus, but if you don’t have those things, you can’t live! -- What kind of thing was that to say to poor and frightened people? Why couldn’t Jesus have said something inspiring about God rescuing us from our fears? Isn’t that what we all want. But the Gospel doesn’t promise us rescue. Instead it promises us salvation. And there is a significant difference between the two. Salvation is often not about a change of circumstance, but a of perspective – in biblical language, being born again.
Jesus asked the people that day: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of your life?” That’s a question we all should answer, every day. And then to try to help them move away from worry as a default mode, Jesus talked about flowers and birds. He reminded the people that God loves them more than these. But that alone is not the truth that saves us. Our salvation is found in remembering howbirds and flowers experience the world. These beautiful creations experience the world in the only way they can: in the present moment – not tomorrow or next week or next year, but right here, right now. Jesus was teaching the supremacy and glory and blessing of the present.
And then as if to underscore the supremacy of the present, he concludes with these practical words: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” In other words, be present now.
I wish I were better at that. How I struggle to even relax into this moment without thinking of what comes next in the service and what I need to do tomorrow and how we will meet our stewardship goal. Worrying about what has not yet happened is my addiction, and the root of most of my fear.
Jesus wasn’t preaching the Gospel according to Bobby McFerrin that day: “Don’t worry, be happy!” How cruel that would have been to those who first heard it; those who had no idea if there would be food for tomorrow. How cruel that message would be to those of us living in the forward shadows of terror and racism and hatred and climate upheaval. Jesus never said: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Jesus said: “Don’t worry, be present.”
Be present. Consider in this moment how good it is. We are here together. We are alive. We know the warmth of human touch. We can ponder beauty and wonder and mystery and awe. We are able to reach out and help others. That makes this present moment an incredible gift. And for that gift, may the Lord make us truly thankful.