Second Sunday before Lent
Genesis 1.1-2.3, Matthew 6.25-34
Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not worry”.
I wonder how you feel when people say that to you. “Don’t worry” trips very easily off the tongue. “Don’t worry – I’m sure you’ll find another job soon. Don’t worry – the medical tests will probably come back clear. Don’t worry – something will turn up.” Well, perhaps it will, but the person who tells you that doesn’t know the future any more than you do, and being told not to worry can just add insult to injury.
We often tell people not to worry simply because we don’t want to watch them worrying.
We feel uncomfortable because we can’t do anything to help. But they may have perfectly good reasons to worry. The medical tests might not be fine. The longed for job might not materialise. Things might not work out. I am sure we have all been affected this week by the news reports of the earthquake in New Zealand – some of you may have relatives or friends there. We have seen people keeping vigil near the collapsed buildings where their loved ones are buried, waiting for news, listening for cries, anxiously dialling mobile phones in the hopes of an answer, or just a ringtone to guide the rescuers to the right spot. Who would dare to say to those people “Don’t worry”? Of course they are worried. They are desperate with fear. Who are we to tell them that they shouldn’t be?
Today’s Gospel reading then, might seem very inappropriate. Jesus says to his disciples, “Don’t worry”. Isn’t this just the same kind of trite reassurance which irritates us so much in other contexts? But before we shut the Bible in disgust, I’d like to suggest that we look a little more closely, because if we do we might find that Jesus is saying more than we first think here. There are a couple of things I’d like us to notice, things that we might otherwise miss, which make a big difference to how we understand his words.
The first thing is that, actually Jesus doesn’t say ”don’t worry” at all. It’s a rather misleading translation. What do you think of when you hear the word “worry”? Probably the emotion of anxiety – that knot in the pit of your stomach that won’t go away. But the word Jesus uses isn’t really about emotion, about what we feel; it’s about what we do. It comes from a root which means “to be pulled apart, divided, distracted”. It is about where we put our attention, where we direct our focus. Older translations sometimes say, “take no thought for,” or “take no care for” and that is probably more accurate. Jesus isn’t telling us how to feel, and he’s certainly not making light of our fears. We can’t stop the emotion of worry just by telling ourselves not to be anxious. What matters, though, is what we do about it, and that brings me to the second thing I’d like us to notice.
Because Jesus doesn’t stop at the words “don’t worry” – however we translate it. He actually says, “Don’t worry about....your life, your food, your clothes.” He isn’t saying that worrying is wrong. He isn’t suggesting that we should drift through life shrugging our shoulders and saying “Que sera, sera – whatever will be, will be.” Jesus wasn’t like that himself; he was a man who cared passionately, worked passionately, gave himself unstintingly to the things he felt were important – and he calls us to do the same. If we live lives that are worth living we are bound to find ourselves caring, working and perhaps worrying sometimes too. The question is what should we be working at, caring, and worrying about? Should the focus be on own lives, our possessions? Is that where we should put our energy? We are surrounded by messages which tell us just that; if you don’t help yourself, no one else will help you, it’s all down to you to elbow your way to the top of the heap; only when you get there will you really feel secure. Look after number one. But Jesus warns us against that assumption.
The Bible has no problem with material things in themselves. In our first reading we heard the story of God creating the world. It is a world full of riches. And every time God looks at what he’s made he cries out with delight – “it’s good!” God likes the stuff he’s made, and he wants us to enjoy it too. Matter matters. But the Bible warns us again and again that we shouldn’t expect our possessions to do more than they are capable of. However hard we work, however much stuff we accumulate, we can’t control everything that happens around us. It doesn’t matter how rich or clever we are, our possessions will never be able to protect us completely against the sorrows of life. The grandeur of the Creation story reminds us of where we really stand in the order of things; beloved creatures, but not gods, given power, but nowhere near all-powerful. If anything, modern scientific discoveries have made that even more obvious than it was to our ancestors. We look up at the night sky and we know how tiny we are in comparison to its vastness, how powerless we are in the face of its might.
If we expect our possessions to protect us and keep us safe – if we focus on these, worry about these – we are wasting our energy, because they will never be up to the task.
So if we aren’t to focus on material possessions, directing our attention to them, what should we worry about? The kingdom of God and his righteousness, says Jesus. Justice, compassion, generosity, love. The hallmarks of the kingdom are things which draw us away from an anxious obsession with ourselves, and open our eyes to one another and to God. They are the things which tend to get elbowed out first when we are under pressure. They feel like luxuries we can’t afford, but actually it is these things which will bring us the security we really crave and need. They will bring us into right relationship with God and his creation.
When trouble strikes it is the loving friendships we have built that matter most to us. If we asked the people of Christ Church New Zealand what they would rather have restored to them, their property or the people they have lost there would be no contest. Money matters – for building structures that withstand quakes, and for the rebuilding that will need to happen in the future, but people matter more. It is the loss of their loved ones which hurts most, and it is the care which is shared among those who survive which will enable them to pull through. Money can’t buy us immortality, invulnerability or freedom from sorrow; it is the loving networks we establish which are our true protection and support in times of disaster.
That is true of our human relationships, and it is even more true of our relationship with God. Our hands will never be big enough to hold onto the things which life throws at us. We might be better at sowing and reaping and spinning than the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, but we are just as dependent on God as they are in the end and it is only when we know that, when we can relax into hands which are infinite and will never let us fall that we can really feel safe. This does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen, but that we know that whatever happens can’t ultimately destroy us. When we have that sort of security we can face anything.
There is a story which is told of a general who led his army on an attack of an enemy village. When the battle was over he sent out his scouts to round up the villagers that remained. They came back and told him that everyone had fled in terror, all except for one man, the local priest, who was quietly at work in his church.
“Take me to him,” ordered the general, furious at the thought that this man seemed so unconcerned by the might of his troops, unimpressed by his own power.
They went to the church, and there was the priest, sitting and reading, as if there was nothing at all to bother him.
The general summoned him to stand before him. How can you look so calm?” He shouted at the priest. “Don’t you know that you are looking at a man who could run you through with his sword without batting an eyelid?”
“Oh yes,” said the priest, I am well aware of that, but don’t you know that you are looking at a man who could be run through without batting an eyelid.”
The general looked at him in astonishment, bowed low to him, and left.
I’m not sure I could ever be quite that calm in the face of death, but I would like to feel that I am moving in the right direction to find that sort of courage. The world is a precarious place, as well as a glorious one. We are very small, despite all our pretensions to be otherwise, and faced with an almost infinite sea of possible troubles, the vast majority of which we can do nothing about at all. The resilience we need to cope with them can’t ultimately be found in possessions, even if we had a world of wealth to protect us. It is found when we learn to trust in God’s promise that he will never fail or forsake us, and concentrate our energies not on ourselves but on building a world where everyone can know what it is to be loved.