04 August 2013

Weighed Down With Worry

Luke 12:22-31 (12:13-21)

11th Sunday after Pentecost/ 4th August 2013

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry….” About your life.  About food.  About clothes.  Do not worry, Jesus says. 

 You’re probably saying to yourself: Easier said than done.  You’re probably also reluctant to admit this, but my guess is you’re thinking it. And then comes the guilt, because you know you worry, worry too much, and now you’re feeling judged by Jesus. That never feels good.

But come on, Jesus. Really? Don’t worry? Are you really human?  Don’t you know what it’s like for us?  Don’t you know how complicated and scary the world can be?  How is this even possible?  Don’t you know that we worry all the time and there’s always one more person, one more news story, one more experience that tells us there’s still more to worry about, that we ought to be worried?  Don’t you know that we worry – we’re told we’re supposed to worry – about our safety, about security; we worry about our health, worry about losing our health, we worry about test results; we worry about money, not having enough, of never having enough; we worry about our family, our loved ones, our friends; we worry about our enemies and our foes; we worry about work, about finding a job, starting a new job, keeping a job; we worry about our problems, both small and big ones, the pressures that weigh us down and give us headaches and keep us awake at 3 a.m.; we worry about threats and potential threats; we worry about tomorrow, about the future; we worry about climate change; we worry about all the things we hear on the news, and we worry about when the next natural disaster will strike, the next shooting, the next outbreak of war and violence?  Don’t you know that we worry all the time, Jesus?  And we worry about the meaning of our lives, whether or not our lives have purpose and direction. We worry about our faith, whether we have any left or just enough to be in your good graces.  We worry about your church, what it will look like, will we recognize it years from now, will it survive, will our children have faith? Sometimes we wonder if you’re really there, if you really understand what it’s like to be human: fallen, broken, frightened human beings in an enormously vast cosmos?  Not to worry?  And speaking of the cosmos, one day the sun is going to burn itself out. What then? What then?

            Worry fills our lives these days. It’s all around us. There are even some who take a strange comfort in worrying.  It’s what they do.  It’s how they fill the time.  It’s a way to cover over the anxiety that is actually underneath the worry, things that are too painful to acknowledge.  We know, rationally, that most of the things we worry about will never happen.  You know that, right? They just won’t. They’re fictive imaginings of an anxious mind looking for control.  In this sense, the things we worry about are irrational, subrational, but that doesn’t meant they don’t get the best of us.  We might claim to be very rational creatures, but it’s the irrational things that are often driving our lives and our choices.  So what are we to do?

            Bobby McFerrin came up with one antidote to worry.  You probably remember his Billboard Hot 100 hit from 1988, the a cappella song, “Don’t worry,” he sang, “Be Happy,” sung to a kind of a carefree, Jamaican island rhythm.  It’s a fun tune. You can’t help but feel happy singing along.  But what happens when the song ends?  McFerrin is actually quoting the Indian mystic Meher Baba (1894-1969) who believed he was an avatar, God in human form. He often said, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” when he cabled his followers in the West.

            The imperative “be happy” isn’t an antidote for worry; in fact, it could make matters worse.  It doesn’t give us a reason for happiness.  It’s not grounded in anything.  It doesn’t take seriously what is being felt and experienced in the moment.

            You might say that Jesus, too, is offering an imperative, a command.  “Do not worry.”  And it is a command, a strong command. What’s the difference?  It has nothing to do with being happy.  Happiness is not the antidote.  Jesus suggests that something else has already been given to us; the antidote to worry is already here for us and it’s also coming, at the same time. But is Jesus right? Can we trust him? You have to answer that yourself.

            So what’s Jesus saying here?  Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.  First, this message is not directed at those who are struggling to survive, people without food, clothing, or shelter. This message is directed at people who already have food and clothing, but want more and are anxious about obtaining it.  Life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  When Jesus says do not worry about your life, life here, psyche, can be translated, “soul,” “one’s whole being,” the totality of your intrapsychic life. He’s talking about a disposition or attitude of soul and the soul has no reason to worry.

            How can he say that?  Just open your eyes, he says. Consider!  See!

            At this point Jesus uses a rhetorical strategy that was prevalent in Judaism at this time, it’s found all over the Bible actually.  It’s called qal wahoner, meaning from light to heavy or less to great.[1] It’s used to make an argument. It’s a debate strategy. If something is true at a lower level, then it has to be even truer at a greater level. 

            Consider the ravens, Jesus said, “they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse or born, and yet God feeds them.”  Yay, Ravens!  God is on the side of the ravens!  Now, you might think: okay, God cares for the birds. That’s nice.  But—and folks in Baltimore probably don’t want to hear this—what’s often overlooked here is that within Judaism ravens were considered unclean animals.  Leviticus is very clear: “These you shall regard as detestable among the birds.  They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the buzzard, …every raven of every kind…” (Lev. 11:13-15).  (Sorry, Ravens fans.  Just quoting scripture.) What does Jesus say here, though? This is the radical part.  If God provides for those detestable, abominable ravens, Jesus says, “Of how much more value are you than the birds!”  From lesser to greater.

            Jesus continues.  “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  Of course not.  Why worry about the things you have no control over?  Worry is an ineffective means of improving or changing our lives.  It’s just not productive.

            Consider the lilies.  The birds do not worry about food. The flowers don’t worry about being clothed with beauty because they are already beautiful.  They neither toil nor spin.  They are what they are without any striving.  In Jesus’ day and before there was no greater wealth or beauty or glory imaginable than King Solomon’s.  Yet, the flowers of the field exceed Solomon’s glory.  If God clothes the grass of the field with flowers, countless wildflowers, “how much more will he clothe you…”! From lesser to greater.

            So stop striving for these things, Jesus says.  Stop grasping for these things.   Stop the constant worrying.  “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry….”

            Now, you might be wondering why Jesus says, “Therefore.”  It points us to look at what comes before, because the larger context of this text begins at verse 13, in which Jesus offers the Parable of the Rich Fool.  Jesus is warning here against greed.  Greed is about grasping.  “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).  And so Jesus tells the story of the rich fool who didn’t have a place large enough to store all of his stuff, so he tore down what he had to build larger barns to store more stuff and then trusted in his stuff to give him plenty of happiness in the future, assuming that all his stuff was safely hoarded and secure. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20-21).

            This, then, is the context for Jesus’ teaching on worry.  The word for worry here means to be lifted up and raised in the air, flitting about, not grounded, it means to be anxious, it means to be in a constant state of anxiety.  It’s directly related to the anxiety around not having enough.

            It’s remarkable, if you think about it, we’re among the wealthiest people in the history of the world, living in one of the wealthiest nations the world has ever known.  And yet we are living in a culture driven by a sense of scarcity.  It’s everywhere, this “never enough” obsession:  never good enough, perfect enough, thin enough, rich enough, powerful enough, successful enough, smart enough, certain enough, safe enough, extraordinary enough.[2]  Scarcity.  The word comes from the Old Norman French scars, meaning “restricted in quantity.”  “Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack.  Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking.  We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.”[3] 

            Brené Brown is a sociologist at the University of Texas.  Her research is confirming what many theologians have said for years, it’s very destructive living with a sense of scarcity, especially when it’s not really true.  In fact, her data is showing that “worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress.”  The world has never been an easy place, but what Brown is finding in her analysis of our society, including numerous interviews with people, is that the “past decade has been traumatic for so many people that it’s made changes in our culture.  From 9/11, multiple wars, and the recession, to catastrophic natural disasters and the increase in random violence and school shootings, we’ve survived and are surviving events that have torn at our sense of safety with such force that we’ve experienced them as trauma even”—and this is significant (!)—even “if we weren’t directly involved.”[4]  As psychologists know, you can still be traumatized even if you’re not directly impacted by a traumatic event.  The sense of anxiety is also fueled by 24-hour news channels that always giving us something more to worry about.  And so the sense of anxiety and scarcity builds and builds and reaches a critical mass and people start to make decisions and make choices based on the perception of scarcity.  People make choices and decisions from within their anxiety, caught up in worry. Anxiety drives our decisions, our reactions, our choices.

            Stop striving for more.  God knows what you need.  Don’t worry.  Robert Frost (1874-1963) once said, “The reason why worry kills more people than work is because more people worry than work.” 

            If you want to strive for something, if you want a job to do, if you want something to focus your anxiety on and allay your fears, then “strive for God’s kingdom,” Jesus says, “and these things”—meaning life, food, clothing, everything else—“will be given to you as well.” 

            According to Jesus, the antidote to worry is the kingdom.  The kingdom is the core message of Jesus’ preaching.  Now, it’s natural to be anxious and to worry.  But Jesus wants us to direct our attention away from what we think we don’t have (scarcity) to what we already do have, which is God’s kingdom that is and is still coming, and then he reminds us and calls us to rest and trust in God’s providential care for all of creation, from the detestable ravens, to the lilies of the field, to every human being created in God’s image. For we are, as the psalmist said, the apple of God’s eye (Psalm 17:8).  Jesus is drawing us out away from anxious obsessions toward God’s faithfulness and invites us to act from within that sense of trust.  To be caught up in a constant state of anxiety and worry is lack of faith; in other words it’s a sign that we’re not fully resting in God’s goodness.  I don’t think Jesus says this to judge us—nor do I say this in judgment—Jesus isn’t trying to make our lives more difficult, but wants to show us a still more excellent way.

            Seek God’s kingdom. Strive after the kingdom.  Try putting your energy and resources and time and even your anxieties into kingdom work.  Where is the kingdom?  Open your eyes!  Consider!  See, it’s all around you!  The kingdom is not “up there,”  “not in some heaven light-years away.”[5] It’s here.  It’s now. And it’s coming; its on the way.  And what is kingdom work?  
  • Works of mercy.
  • Works of peace.
  • Works of restorative justice.  
  • Suffering for the things that really matter. 
  • Works of reconciliation.
  • Works of redemption.
  • Works of radical, irrational generosity, of sharing – not grasping and grabbing, but giving joyfully because there’s more than enough to go around. 
  • Works of struggle and liberation on behalf of those who are poor, weak, and hungry, and naked, and alone, and scared, without voice, without power, without influence. 
  • Works of wholeness and healing for all God’s children (of all ages),
  • children who don’t know yet that they’re worth more than the birds, who don’t know yet they are beloved children of God.
  • Works of joy.  Works of faith. Works of hope. Works of love. 
This—and more—is what we’re called to strive after.  When we confess to one another or to the wider world that we are followers of Jesus Christ, we are saying that this is our work too, at home, at work, at play, at church.  This is our work. This is who we are. Can we accept this?  Or is this all easier said than done?

            Well, if we still have the need to worry over something, if we can’t break the habit, then let the church worry over the things that matter, the kingdom and the coming of the kingdom. This, Jesus said, is the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:46). For where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also (Luke 12:34).

[1] The first of rabbi Hillel’s (c.110 BC – 10 AD) rules of exegesis.
[3] Brown, 26.  Emphasis added.
[4] Brown, 27.
[5] From Marty Haugen’s hymn “Gather Us In.” Sing the Faith (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2003).

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