March 2nd, 2011
by the Rev. Dr. Kristin Johnston Largen
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life….But strive first for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness.”
Have you ever had anyone say to you: “Don’t worry—I’m sure everything will be fine.” Have you ever said that to someone else? Your friend tells you that she got an abnormal test result back from the doctor; and you say, “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s nothing.” Your brother tells you that his son lost his job last week, and is worried about finding another one; and you say, “Don’t worry—I’m sure he’ll find something else soon.” Your daughter comes home and tells you she is worried about a friend at school who seems depressed; and you say, “Don’t worry, sweetheart—she probably was just having a bad day.”
I hate to admit it, but I’ve done that. And it is not just because I am a relentless optimistic, who believes in looking on the bright side of life; but, if I am honest, I must concede that it is also because telling someone, “don’t worry—it’s nothing,” is a way to get out of any further responsibility.
If my friend isn’t worried about her medical procedure, then I don’t have to be worried, either—and I don’t need to offer to accompany her to the hospital for further testing. If my brother isn’t worried about his son, then I don’t have to be worried, either—and I don’t have to make a few phone calls, to see if I can call in some favors, and get my nephew an interview. And, if my daughter isn’t worried about her friend, then I don’t have to be either—and I don’t have to consider calling the girl’s mother, or having her over to our house after school. If everything is fine, then we can all just go on with our lives and our schedules and our days as usual—no “worries” to make demands on us.
Now, I may not know exactly what Jesus intended with this statement—I never assume I know exactly what Jesus intended with any of his statements—but I am fairly confident that he did not intend the words “don’t worry” to be a “one-size fits all” panacea, which then could be draped over any situation like a thick blanket to smother any hint of concern, fear, or apprehension. Thus I am fairly confident that in this statement Jesus is not telling us that we shouldn’t give thought, time and attention to those in need: no one “worried” more than Jesus, especially about the outcast, the excluded, the lost and the lonely—about you and me, that is; and so we really miss the mark here if we use the injunction not to worry, as an excuse not to care.
Instead of “worry,” then, I think a better translation for μεριμνᾶτε, the Greek verb used here, is “have anxiety,” such that we hear Jesus saying to us, “Do not have anxiety about your life.” This is something different indeed.
Both Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich have a great deal to say about anxiety, especially in the face of our finitude, and the related fears of meaninglessness, condemnation and alienation. Both recognized the deep, penetrating hold that anxiety can have over us, which is why Niebuhr called anxiety “the internal precondition of sin,” and the “internal description of the state of temptation.” What he meant by that, is to say that the anxious situation of unease, insecurity and self-doubt in which we find ourselves inherently leads us to turn from God as our source of security, safety and identity, in favor of shoring up our egos ourselves, with power, prestige, fame, and wealth.
This why it is not incidental, I think, that this passage about “anxiety” comes immediately following the warning that it is impossible to serve two masters. Material goods are one of the most obvious ways in which people try to secure themselves—storing up riches and building bigger barns; but, of course, as we know, in the attempt to devote oneself to wealth and God the former always usurps the latter and gains the upper hand, quietly but inexorably shuttling God off to the side.
But given that I am preaching in this context, I feel it is important to remind ourselves that it is not only money that we use to quell our anxieties, and make us feel important, successful, and meaningful. For example, in the coming months and years you future public minsters will ask and respond multiple times to questions like: So, where is your first call? How many services do you have on Sunday? How big is your camp, your youth group? How many members in your congregation? Bigger is better, right? And trust me, academics have our own ways of shoring up our egos: So, where did you go to graduate school? Where are you teaching now? What have you published lately? No one likes feeling anxious, and so we seek to secure ourselves by whatever means are available at our disposal.
Niebuhr has this fabulous image with which he defines very vividly the anxious state in which we live: Anxiety, he says, “is the condition of the sailor, climbing the mast, with the abyss of the waves beneath him and the ‘crow’s nest’ above him. He is anxious about both the end toward which he strives and the abyss of nothingness into which he may fall.” Anxiety about our past—guilt, shame, regret; and anxiety about our future—uncertainty, discouragement, doubts; and here we are, today, standing in the middle.
For me, then, one thing Jesus’ words suggest to us is a renewed commitment to let go of the past, to leave tomorrow for tomorrow, and live in the present. This is what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, describes as the practice of mindfulness—keeping one’s mind focused on the present moment. This present moment is where Christ is coming to us; this present moment is where Christ is calling to us; this present moment is where Christ is living in us and with us—right now.
In talking about mindfulness, Hahn cites a story Tolstoy told, a story about an emperor on the quest for an answer to three questions: What is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? And, What is the most important thing to do at all times? The moral of the story is that the most important time is always right now; the present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with right now, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? And the most important thing to do is to attend to that person whom you are with right now, because who knows if you will have that chance again. This sounds like a glimpse of the kingdom of God to me.
I’d like to leave you with one of the best examples of this “present-living mindfulness” that I have heard in quite some time. It came from a current student, one of our interns; and it came out of a short conversation I was having with her before her endorsement interview. I was asking her how she was feeling about it—and undoubtedly, at some point in the course of the conversation I said to her, “Don’t worry; everything will be fine”—and I still remember her answer. She said something along the lines of, “You know, I’m not worried about it. Seminary has been such a gift that even if this is as far as I get, I am so grateful for the time I have had here, and I am happy to have had this opportunity.” What a word of gospel that was to me, who often has anxiety about the future, and forgets to be grateful for where I am today, and all God is doing for me right now.
The fact is, none of us will ever be perfectly free from anxiety—even Niebuhr, in his comments on these very verses from Matthew, concedes that “no life, even the most saintly, perfectly conforms to the injunction not to be anxious.” Yet, at the same time, Jesus does enjoin us to perfect trust in God: to dare to place our whole lives in God’s hands; to risk believing in God’s promises; and to live boldly, confident in God’s presence.
What we discover in this radical act of faith, is that the fruit of this trust is not only contentment, but joy—a joy that Tillich described as “the emotional expression of the courageous Yes to one’s own true being.” Yes to God; Yes to who God is calling us to be; Yes to life, and life abundant—right here and now. Thanks be to God. AMEN