“Setting Aside Worry”
On this Thanksgiving Weekend, we should take time to reflect on what it means to be thankful people – thankful for food, for the harvest, for the people who work the land, and for all the other good things in our lives. We join with others in our community and country this weekend to celebrate the abundance in our lives, and as people of faith we give the glory to God – thanking God for the blessing of every good gift.
Consider for a moment… What is the opposite of gratitude or thankfulness? Some might say that gratitude’s opposite is a sense of entitlement, or perhaps jealousy, covetousness, or greed. Although there are many negative attitudes that we might think of as opposite to the thankfulness that we are called to embrace this weekend, the lectionary has set a Gospel text that suggests an alternative.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he encourages his followers not to worry. Could that be the opposite of giving thanks?
Jesus says: “Don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear.” And later he says, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need [these things]… [but] desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
It’s interesting to pause and consider who Jesus was speaking to when he said these words. As part of the collection of wisdom sayings collected from Jesus, there is a good chance to Jesus taught these things many times during his ministry. His disciples remembered his words and passed them on, probably because his teachings had great significance for them.
Remember the situation of the first disciples of Jesus? They were the ones who had dropped their fishing nets to follow him, who had left their homes and families and livelihoods to go out on the road with him.
Don’t worry, Jesus told them. We may not know where our next meal is coming from or where we’re going to sleep tonight, but we can’t get caught up in worrying about it. We have to focus on the ministry that we are called to do day-by-day, and trust that God will provide for our needs. In a very practical sense, this is what it means to have faith.
Towards the end of the first century, Jesus’ teachings would be gathered together into Gospels, and this bit of wisdom made it into Matthew’s telling of the good news of Jesus Christ. The community of Christians that read and reflected on the Gospel weren’t in quite the same situation. Most of them lived with their families in the communities where they were raised. They worked hard and did their best to take care of each other.
But they lived with a certain amount of uncertainty too. They might have worried about illness or injury in a time when medical care was limited. They might have worried about the future of their people in a society still ruled by foreign powers. They might have worried about how to live out their faith in Christ in a context in which persecution and violence were real threats.
And so Jesus told them to stop worrying about themselves… to take their gaze off their own situations, their own struggles, their own concerns… and look at the birds instead. Consider the lilies.
“The birds don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are?”
“The lilies don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth…” but they look amazing! “If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully… won’t God do much more for you, you people of little faith?”
One translation of the text that I read translated that last part as “weak faith” – faith that is not as strong as it should be. But another commentator suggested that “little faith” is a better translation. And it made me think of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed… if we have just a little bit of faith, faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, with God’s help we can do amazing things!
Jesus reminds us that worrying doesn’t do us any good. He says, “Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” Of course we can’t, but we still do it, don’t we?
I came across this little story recently: Death was walking towards a city one morning and a man asked, “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to take 100 people,” Death replied. “That’s horrible!” the man said. “That’s just the way it is,” Death said. “That’s what I do.”
The man hurried to warn everyone he could about Death’s plan. As evening fell the man saw a newspaper that said 1000 had died that day in the city. Just as he arrived at his home he met Death again. “You told me you were going to take 100 people,” the man said. “Why did 1,000 die?” “I kept my word,” Death responded. “I only took 100 people. Worry took the others.”
Worry may actually impact our health… raising our blood pressure or causing us ulcers. And even if it doesn’t literally kill us, it certainly steals away our lives… distracting us from what is good and worthy of thanks, and keeping us occupied with our stressors instead of free to live and enjoy life day-by-day.
As Christians, and as a church, we might consider the fact that worry distracts us from our purpose. As a congregation, if we spend too much effort worrying about how we are going to pay the bills for the church, we may lose sight of our mission to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. As a Christian, if you spend too much time worrying about how well you are doing – whether you have followed the commandments perfectly, then you may forget the most important one to love God and your neighbour. Or as a minister, if I am always worried about how people will respond to what I preach, I will not be free to let God and the scriptures guide me to what I should say in a sermon.
Worry doesn’t help us, and Jesus wants us to be free of worrying so that we can put God’s kingdom and God’s purposes first in our lives. But, of course, we do worry.
Some of us worry about paying the bills. Some of us worry about our children or grandchildren. Some of us worry about our futures – about school, about work, about relationships, about whether we will be a success. Some of us worry about elections and the future of our country. Some of us worry about our church, about THE church, and about the future of Christianity. Some of us worry about getting sick. Some of us worry about aging and infirmity. Most of us worry about the people we love most, and whether their lives will be full, meaningful, purposeful, and happy.
But today, by Jesus, we are invited to set our worries aside and to trust God today and for the future.
Five years ago, Nick and I went on an amazing trip to England and Scotland, and we spent a week on retreat on the Isle of Iona. One of the activities that is traditional on Iona is to go on a walk around the island, a pilgrimage of prayer, singing, and reflection in the beauty of God’s creation. One of the stops on that pilgrimage is at a stone-covered beach on the West coast of the island, looking out towards the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. There are so many stones on the beach that it is difficult to walk across, as your feet keep sinking down into the stones.
On the beach, you are invited to choose a stone and to pray about something that God is calling you to let go of. I am remember doing that carefully, thinking of something in my life at that time that was weighing me down, causing me worry, and keeping me from living fully and thankfully. And then I took the stone and threw it out into the ocean, as far as I could… and I gave that worry to God. I turned, and trudged through the stones on the beach, and continued my pilgrimage… lighter, freer, and more able to give my life day-by-day to God’s purposes and God’s kingdom.
I don’t have a stone-covered beach for you today, or an ocean into which you can toss your worries. But I want to invite you to do something similar today. Inside your bulletin you will find a couple of sticky notes. On one of those notes, I want to invite you to write a word or a phrase about a worry or concern that is weighing you down right now. Instead of being bogged down by it, I want to invite you to give it to God. Offer it up as a prayer, and leave this place no longer encumbered by it.
Let’s take a couple of minutes for quiet reflection, and when you have written your word or phrase, you’re invited to come forward and place it in the offering plate on the Communion table. You might want to fold it in two for your own privacy, or even rip it up as you place it in the plate – another symbolic gesture to remind us that with God’s help, our worries and concerns will no longer have power over us.
Look at the birds, and consider the lilies, and know that you are worth much more than they are to our heavenly Father who loves you.