(A sermon preached on Matthew 6:25-34 on 2/27/2011 at All Saints' Episcopal Littleton, NH)
The message “Don’t worry” comes through loud and clear in the reading of this Gospel.
It is a concept that was used a great deal in 20th century culture.
Perhaps its best known incarnation is “Don’t Worry, be Happy.” This was the title and principal lyric of a song by Bobby McFerrin. It was the first a cappella song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, in September of 1988. It was performed at the 1989 Grammy Awards, and the song won the awards for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. The song's title is taken from a famous quote by Meher Baba, the Indian spiritual master, who often used the phrase. In the 1960's, this well used expression by Baba was printed up on inspiration cards and posters of the era: usually accompanied by Baba’s smiling face.
This sparks comparisons with another smiling face, one Alfred E. Newman, whose catch phrase “What, me worry?” first appeared on the cover of Mad Magazine in 1955, a year after Newman’s face first appeared on the cover...although similar images appeared in various places as early as the turn of the century. (More Wikipedia)
The most recent incarnation of “Don’t worry” to gain worldwide popularity is likely “Hakuna matata.” The Swahili phrase is literally translated as "There are no worries," although it is commonly used like the English phrase “No Problem.” It was the 1994 Disney movie “The Lion King” that brought the phrase into common worldwide use. The philosophy, in catchy song form, was advocated by the meerkat Timon and the warthog Pumbaa. They taught the exiled lion cub named Simba that he should forget his troubled past and concentrate only on the present. It is noteworthy to mention that in this incarnation, the phrase was lived out with a complete lack of ambition and responsibility: a good interim philosophy for the lion’s soul that needed healing, but it’s ultimately rejected as the lion goes back to confront his past in the end (assisted by Timon & Pumbaa, who transcend their own philosophy and risk their lives in helping Simba.) The song itself was a huge hit: and the phrase remains in pop culture today in various songs and movies, even as the Final Jeopardy question in a 2007 show: "What is hakuna matata?" (Thank you, Thank you Wikipedia!!!)
Five times in ten verses, Jesus says “Don’t worry” or some variation of it.
6:25: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body.
6:27: Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
6:28: Why do you worry about clothing?
6:31: Therefore do not worry, saying “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or What will we wear?”
6:34: So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.
Worry is something that all human beings have in one-way or another. Financial worries...relationship worries...job worries...health worries...and so on and so on. The things that we worry about range from the trivial to the vital...and the poor and the wealthy all manage to find things to worry about.
It is reassuring to hear Jesus’ words not to worry...and he says it over and over again.
However, Jesus’ message not to worry is framed by the opening three-point argument that must not be ignored.
1) (the theory) No one can serve to masters
you can’t have two bosses...you can’t hold two separate entities in equal stature
2) (the reason why) for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.
Two bosses results in divided loyalty
3) (the reality) You cannot serve God and wealth
This is the surprise to the listener of Jesus. The first two points are common wisdom...expected arguments. The crowd, getting use to Jesus’ rhetoric, might expected something vast like “you can’t serve God and Idols.” Or something challenging to the religious authorities like “you can’t praise God and praise yourself.” Or something even bigger to the political picture like “You can’t serve God and Rome.”
The statement “You cannot serve God and wealth” might seem predictable to us, because many of us know that Jesus spent a great deal of time talking about money. But for the crowds gathered to listen to him back in the first century, Jesus’ statement is an unconventional twist. The popular view was that prosperity was a sign of divine favor. People thought that obtaining wealth was a sign of God’s blessing...and thus those with material wealth must be in “better standing” with God. One could then go as far to justify obtaining wealth and power by saying “if I succeed, it’s because God wants me to.”
Jesus not only rejects this conventional wisdom, but goes farther by saying that many people ultimately attempt to serve wealth instead of God...and by doing so, wealth becomes their God.
The “worries” that follow relate to many of the justifications people may use in deciding to pursue the idol of wealth. Jesus attempts to expose the trap. He lays out the necessities we worry about: food, drink, body (health), clothing...essentials to life. No one would argue that people should have these things.
But Jesus saw the groups that we see today: some people had these things in abundance...some that had “a lot less, but enough”...and others were lacking enough to live.
Common sense would say that a simple shift or two could make things all right for everyone.
But the reality in Jesus’ time, as well as ours, is that the worrying found in all of these groups prevents us from making things right.
It’s obvious why those who lack enough food, drink, health or clothing would worry.
Those with “enough” tend to worry just as much...what happens if they lose their job? What happens if they get ill? What happens if prices keep rising?
Those with abundance, of course, often worry just as much. Some might not have to worry about rising prices, or may be insulated by having health insurance and savings, but manage to worry about other things: their viewed “success.” They make comparisons with their parents, or their neighbors, or what they think that they should have for their efforts. They worry about losing it all, or having enough for their children, or having enough when they’re older.
All this worry over wealth is fueled today by a culture constantly promoting the latest thing, the “objects” of success, and casting dire warnings concerning all of the threats to accrued wealth that are out there: crime, scarcity and uncertainty: which of course encourages hoarding and more worry over wealth..
You cannot serve God and wealth.
Jesus’ creed, if you will allow me that language, is Love God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all of your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s for all of us.
This morning’s message is also for all to hear, but we have to take different things from it.
For those who don’t have what they need to live: “Don’t worry” means that no judgment has been passed...no lesser status has been issued. God has not caused the situation, and Jesus wishes to ease their worry.
For those with enough, but not extra, Jesus’ “Don’t worry” means to avoid the seductive culture reasoning that having more means being loved more. Don’t worry means not resenting what you don’t have (but don’t really need.)
Finally, for those who have abundance, Jesus is suggesting that their worry is misplaced. What those with abundance should be worried about is not more wealth and security, but concern for their neighbors.
Wealth is to be shared as a gift from God, not pursued like it is God.
Ironically, Jesus’ suggestion to the rich young man to sell all that he has and give it all away might be the easiest path for those with abundance. But it’s not the best path for most with wealth...for while a few people might benefit, it wouldn’t change much.
The hard road for those with abundance is using one’s wealth to go against the conventional wisdom that we are all out for ourselves. Our wealth can be used to change the current reality that it’s okay for those to live in abundance while others live in extreme poverty. Our wealth can be used force government, health, and financials systems to reasonably care for all of the people. Our wealth can be used to educate, cure diseases, and provide sustainable systems for all people to have enough.
And where one individual can use her wealth to do a small part, in our communities we can not only effect greater systematic change, but also have the incredible honor to care for each other in the process.
My brothers and sisters, before “Don’t worry, be happy,” “What, me worry” or “Hakuta Matata: there was a Biblical way of saying “Do not worry”:
For if we can do so, there will not only be enough today, but tomorrow we will be closer to God’s vision for the world.