February 21, 2020
(revised from November 22, 2009)
The summer before my Junior year in college, I got hit with the worst stomach virus I have ever had or heard tell of. Three days of throwing up everything. I was a few hours away from having to go into the hospital when I was finally able to keep some water down. And then some juice. And then a cracker or two.
It took weeks before I was eating normal food again. And even when I went back to school in the fall, my stomach was not a happy camper. I basically lived with constant nausea. Some days were worse than others, but it was never good.
I made frequent trips to the campus medical center. I was on a first name basis with my pharmacist. I had a scope stuck down my throat and into my stomach to take pictures. I gave up caffeine—including chocolate—for several months. I drank this absolutely horrible seaweed drink. Nothing worked.
Finally, the wise doctor at the student medical center explained something to me. We all have one of our bodily systems that reacts to stress. For some people, their muscles ache. Some people have skin break-outs. Some people get migraines. He personally was sick to his stomach his entire medical school career. So, instead of prescribing another medicine, he taught me relaxation techniques.
“Who of you by worrying,” asks Jesus, “can add a single hour to your life?”
It is estimated that up to 90% of symptoms reported to doctors are at least partially stress-related. You probably know the litany. Stress can cause diabetes, heart disease, hair loss, depression, obesity, anxiety disorder, ulcers . . . I could go on, but it’s not a happy list.
“I tell you,” says Jesus, “do not worry about your life.”
Actually, he says, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life.”
Just a quick note here about reading the Bible—free advice from your pastor: The original texts of scripture do not include chapters and verses, let alone section headings. Sometimes those later editorial insertions effect the way we read the Bible—separating things that really are connected. So any time you see the word “therefore,” pay attention.
It’s like if you were to walk into the middle of a conversation and someone was saying, “therefore,” or more likely, “and so,” you would know you had missed something.
“And so I flew to Barbados and got my tongue pierced.” What? Wait. Back up. Why did you get your tongue pierced? In Barbados?
You should think the same thing when the verse you read in the Bible starts with “therefore.” “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”
What? Wait. Back up. Why should they not worry? The people listening to Jesus are mostly Galilean peasants. Their children are sick. Their crops are failing. Their clothes are practically rags. And the Romans keep ratcheting up the taxes. Why should they not worry?
Why should we not worry? We have deadlines looming. We have aches and pains and doctors’ appointments. We need to do our dishes and our laundry and our taxes.
“Therefore,” Jesus tells us, “do not worry.”
Wait. Back up. Why should we not worry?
Because, says Jesus, you cannot serve two masters; you cannot serve both God and money.
Now, we need to understand that Jesus’ telling the disciples they cannot do something here is notlike when I would tell my children, “you cannot have both a brownie and a cookie.” Because, trust me, they were perfectly capable of eating a brownie and a cookie. Or two or three.
“You cannot serve both God and money.”
This is like when I realized I could not go on a retreat in Wisconsin July 10-20 and be here in Lawrence to help Jasmine with a baby that is due July 10. I actually cannot do both. It’s not that doing both is a bad idea. Or that other people will frown on me doing both. It’s that it is physically impossible for me to be in Wisconsin and Lawrence at the same time.
You cannot serve both God and money, Jesus tells us. It’s not that it’s a bad idea. It’s not that doing it will make Jesus sad. It’s just that it’s impossible. You can’t. So why stress yourself out by trying?
Several years ago, I was privileged to worship with the Indian Methodist congregation here in town. Like us, they have a time for sharing joys and concerns. One man stood up and said: “I lost a one hundred-dollar bill this week. At first I was really upset, but then I just tried to calm down and turn it over to the Lord. I managed to pay my bills without it, and I’d just like us to pray that whoever found that hundred-dollar bill really needed it.”
You cannot serve both God and money. You can only focus on—you can only prioritize—one of those things.
Therefore, do not worry. Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will wear. Do not worry about tomorrow.
When Jesus tells us not to worry, he is not telling us to be carefree—to not care about things. He is saying that we must be very careful what we choose to care about. Because if we choose to serve money, we cannot also serve God.
Jesus’ command–Do not worry—is not a call for a carefree life. It is a call for a careful life. A call for us to commit to living our lives according to Christ’s example. A call for us to commit ourselves to Kingdom principles of peace and justice and love. And a promise that if we focus our life energy Godward—if we seek first God’s kingdom–we will be fed. We will be clothed.
You cannot serve both God and money. Not to say that you cannot have money and serve God. But if the money disappears, where do you direct your energy? Do you worry or do you trust?
Do you stress out or do you pray?
The answer is easy if you’re taking a multiple choice test. But of course, we’re not taking a test. We’re living a life. And in real life, serving God is a difficult choice to make. Do not worry is a difficult commandment to follow. Seeking first God’s kingdom of peace and justice is a difficult path to walk.
Jesus’ saying “Don’t worry” feels a little like when someone says, “Don’t think about a purple rhinoceros.” And of course then all you can think of is a purple rhinoceros.
When Jesus says, “Don’t worry,” we immediately think about all the things we are worried about. And the more we think about how we should not worry, the longer our list of worries gets. “Don’t worry” definitely falls into the category of “easier said than done.”
Fortunately, we have some instructions here beyond “Don’t worry.” We have the teaching that we cannot serve God and money, which is helpful. Jesus also says, “Look at the birds of the air.” He says, “See how the flowers of the field grow.”
So how do we not worry? We can consider God’s creation—the birds of the air, the lilies of the field. The natural world provides sign after sign of God’s presence and provision. Think about the cactus and camels and tarantulas that thrive in dry desert conditions. And mangrove trees that are able to survive in salty swamps where their roots spread out to shelter small fish, lizards and amphibians. Did you know that dung beetles can save farmers millions of dollars by rolling up and burying their little dung balls?
So how do we not worry? Consider the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the camels of the desert, the mangrove trees of the swamp, the dung beetles of the farms. Consider the beauty and functionality of God’s creation; and remember that you are part of that creation—beautiful and cared for.
How do we not worry? Jesus also says to “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.” Focus less on ourselves and more on God. Focus less on the messes, the pain, the frustrations of the world and more on God.
One step away from worry towards seeking God’s kingdom is to change the questions we ask ourselves. Instead of “What do I need to do?” we can ask “What is God doing?” Look for the stories of grace, love, and justice in the world.
In 2015, Jocelyn Mendoza and Leslie Herrera, two undocumented trans women, started a beauty co-op in New York City. The goal of this co-op is to provide a positive work environment and financial empowerment for its members, who are mostly trans people of color.
This winter, dozens of people in Lawrence have worked together to open and provide volunteers for TWO emergency winter shelters so that people without houses in our community don’t have to sleep outside in freezing temperatures. Many more people are coming together to figure out how to create a community where people won’t need emergency shelters in the future.
This past week at Goshen college, a friend of mine, Regina Shands Stoltzfus, got to have a public discussion with criminal justice scholar Michelle Alexander, talking about important issues of racial justice and restorative justice. There was a packed house full of people—many of them young adults–eager to better understand and work against racist structures in our society.
Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.
In Philippians (4:8), Paul puts it another way: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think aboutthese things.”
“Therefore, do not worry about your life.”
Because we can’t serve God and money.
Because we can consider the dung beetles of the fields.
Because we can look for God’s work in our midst.
When Jesus says, “do not worry about your life,” he is not denying the problems and troubles of this world. He is simply acknowledging that we can release our stress, our worry about these troubles, and rest in God.
This is not a call to be carefree, but to be carefull. Full of care for our lives, the lives of those around us, the life of our world. And full of the knowledge of God’s deep and abiding care for us.