Reading: Matthew 6: 24-34
A Peanuts cartoon springs to mind when I read the words of Jesus which we shared this morning. Charlie Brown is leaning on a wall, with his friend Linus. Linus says ‘I guess it’s wrong to be always worrying about tomorrow. Maybe we should only think about today.’ Charlie Brown responds, ‘No, that’s giving up…
… I’m still hoping that yesterday will get better.’
You don’t need a Biblical Studies degree to work out the main theme of this section of the Sermon on the Mount. Six times in the space of these 10, 11 verses, variations on the word ‘worry’ appears. There is also a reference to what pagans are ‘concerned’ about, and what we should be ‘concerned’ about. So you won’t be surprised that the topic for this morning is ‘worry.’
However distant we may feel from the events of the Bible, some things about us remain the same. You only have to look at modern advertising to see our concerns are the same. Every day we are bombarded by advertising, all of it telling us our lives are incomplete because we don’t have this…
The vast majority of these advertisements are about what?
How you look, what you can eat, what you can drink and what you can wear. That, and how you can get more money so you can look, eat and drink better and wear better clothes, or how to protect the things you’ve got…
Jesus does not say these things are unimportant. Nor does he suggest we shouldn’t care about them at all. As I said last week, sometimes Christians can lose sight of the fact that God has given us a good world to enjoy. We can become quite anti-stuff.
And yet, as CS Lewis once remarked, in the purest sense of the term, Christianity is the most materialistic religion in the world. Our God likes stuff. He made it. We are physical, as well as spiritual beings. At the centre of our faith is the idea of incarnation. God becomes flesh.
God filled our world with life and beauty in awesome varieties. If you’ve ever looked at marine fish, you’ll see that God fills our world with the most vibrant beauty and colour; often in places where there is no-one apart from God to appreciate it. God likes his world.
Jesus had a reputation for loving a party. He loved eating and drinking. And as for clothes, well, his own can’t have been too bad. At the cross, the soldiers who crucified Jesus thought his tunic was too good to divide up and started gambling for it.
So Jesus doesn’t say these things do not matter, or that we don’t need them. He just says our Heavenly Father knows we need them.
But I tread carefully with this particular passage. As someone who has suffered from, and still wrestles with, anxiety, I am very aware of how these words can be used less than compassionately. You risk leaving people feeling more burdened than when you started. It can leave you with just one more thing to worry about!
Simply being told ‘don’t worry, trust God’ is not always helpful. I find myself thinking ‘what do you think I’m trying to do?’
Equally I find myself asking would Jesus have said these things to those being evicted from camps in Calais, or under siege in Aleppo last week. I’m with the writer Scott McKnight who reckons Jesus would have had different things to say to those in such situations.
Nonetheless, as we noted last week, most of those listening to Jesus on that hillside, earned just about enough to live day by day. They were the ones Jesus warned about storing up treasure in heaven or trying to serve God and money. And what I said about last week’s passage remains as true in this section. If Jesus said that to them, how much more would he say it to us?
Nonetheless, life is full of opportunities to worry. Our word ‘psychiatrist’ comes from the Greek word for ‘life.’ Worry is big part of modern life. They say the more common something is in a society, the more words they’ll have to describe it. For example, it’s said that Eskimos* have more than 50 words for snow.
With that in mind, I had a quick look in my thesaurus. It’s by no means the best thesaurus in the world. It’s the kind you can pick up in a bargain book shop for a few pounds. But even there I found 19 alternative words for anxious, and 28 for worry.
Not all stress is bad. A certain amount can push us to achieve stuff we never thought we could manage. What I am talking about here is the kind of anxiety which sucks the joy out of life.
I imagine even the most laid back of us worry sometimes. Can any of us really say we have gone through the last week, month, or let’s be really optimistic, year without worrying, even just for a moment, about something?
Yet, although we all worry, what we worry about is very individual. I’ve said similar things about temptation and sin. But it’s also true of worry. Ever notice how two people can face the same situation and one be absolutely terrified and the other perfectly calm?
I’m pretty sure that things I worry about, which would keep me awake at night, would not be an issue for some of you. And I’m sure that some of the things you worry about would not bother me one little bit.
Also time can have a big influence on how much we worry and what we worry about. Worries can seem so much bigger at night than they do in the morning. I might lie awake at night wondering how I am ever going to manage to do this, or how I’ll ever be able to do that, then wake up wondering what the fuss was all about. Some adults read diaries they kept as a teenager and laugh at things which worried them.
That tells us something very important. The worry, or calmness with which we face our circumstances, comes not from the circumstances themselves. It’s come from within us. And that is what Jesus is talking about here.
But all worries have something in common. Worry doesn’t solve the problem. I have never yet met anyone who has convinced me that worry works for them. In fact, it gets in the way. Worry is proven to affect our judgment and limit our decision-making ability. Worry has a habit of placing our attention on what is beyond our power and away from what is in our control.
In our more rational moments we know worrying is pretty useless. Our fears are often liars. The biggest troubles we face are often those that never come. Which means we often worry for no good reason. Even if what we fear does happen, will it have helped us to worry about it beforehand? No. We’ll worry about it then too. So we’ll have worried twice, rather than once. Jesus is surely right when he says each day has enough troubles of its own.
Not only can worry be unhelpful. It can be harmful.
There is some dispute over precisely what Jesus says here. Some translations have Jesus speaking about adding to our height. Others, like our church Bibles, have Jesus talk about adding even the shortest amount of time to our life by worrying. Either way, Jesus is right.
Worry will not expand your life. It will shrink it. It’ll cause you to pass up opportunities or close down possibilities you might otherwise have taken.
And worry cannot lengthen your life. But it can shorten it. The worry that wears out the mind, wears out the body along with it. When our mind is stressed or unhappy, this is reflected in the level of tension in our bodies, which in turn may develop into ill health.
Thing is, we know all this. I’m not telling you anything radical or new. Yet, so often, the longest journey is from the head to the heart. We know it, but we find it harder to believe it, to accept it, to live out what we know.
Where does Jesus say this worry comes from?
And how does Jesus recommend that we deal with it?
Well, for Jesus, worry starts in failing to appreciate who God is.
Jesus has a gentle nickname for his disciples which occurs several times in the Gospels, mainly in Matthew. It’s Oligopistoi. Little faiths. Jesus says our worries stem from lacking confidence in God, or awareness of the type of God we have.
Jesus take this a little further towards the end of the reading. ‘Don’t start worrying about where your food, drink and clothing are coming from. The pagans are concerned about that sort of stuff, but your Father knows you need them.’
Jesus says our worries come from not recognising that our God is not like theirs. The pagan gods of the time were impersonal. You never knew where you stood with them. You had to try to persuade them to pay attention to you.
But it’s not just pagans who can have a mixed up idea of what God is like. In his book Things Hidden Richard Rohr writes that for most of human history God has not been a likeable character. When God shows up, even in the Bible, it is not automatically considered good news. That’s why so many big religious experiences begin with the words ‘don’t be afraid!’
The words ‘God is Love’ are amongst the best-loved words in the Bible. But they were amongst the last words of the Bible to be written. It took us that long to get there. It took the guy who wrote it to live to an old age to grasp it.
We might claim to believe that God loves us and is interested in us and in our world. But there is that part of us that thinks ‘that’s too good to be true.’ So we sometimes act as if God winds up the world, sets it going. But after that we’re on our own.
You don’t have to know me that well to discover that delegation is something that doesn’t come easily to me. Not always. There are some things I hate and others I know I’m utterly useless. Stuff like DIY. I can delegate that.
But other stuff I do find hard to delegate. In part I don’t like to impose on others. It’s also partly arrogance. Others might not do it as well as me. What I really mean is that they wouldn’t so it the same way as me.
Anxiety works a bit like that. In worry we’re saying ‘God you’ve told me that you know what I need and I can trust you to take care of it. But I just don’t think you’d do it as well as me. I don’t think you’d do a good enough job.’
Because we are ‘little faiths’, we lose sight of the kind of God we have. We think it’s all down to us and we don’t delegate to God what he has offered and even promised to do. In fact often we’re not delegating to God what only God can do.
But how can we correct it? How does Jesus say we can deal with our worry?
Consider the birds of the air, says Jesus. They do not sow or reap a harvest and store food. Yet your Father takes care of them. Look at the wild flowers and how they grow. They don’t work and make clothes, yet look how beautiful they are. If God looks after birds and flowers, how much more so will he look after you.
What does Jesus mean?
What is he telling us to do?
The word look at the birds is ἐμβλέψατε.
The word for looking at the flowers is καταμάθετε.
These two words don’t just mean have a quick look at. They are both very strong words.
They suggest focussing.
Really look at this.
It’s about looking at them with a view to thinking, what can I learn from that?
Let the birds and the flowers be your teacher, says Jesus.
We might say ‘meditate’ on them.
2016, for me, will go down as the year when I discovered strength that comes from meditation. I’m still taking baby steps, but my general direction is right. I couldn’t let this passage go by without mentioning this, because this passage is THE Bible passage which witnesses to mindfulness and meditation.
Sometimes Christians hear words like meditation and mindfulness and are a little suspicious. It sounds like Eastern Mysticism, Buddhism or something like that. That’s not what I’m talking about.
But it is easy to go through life rather mindlessly. You are in a mad rush to get out in the morning, and barely notice how your coffee tastes. We perform many of the tasks we do each day mindlessly. That’s not saying we’re not thinking. If anything, we can’t stop thinking. We’re turning over stuff we need to do, we’re reliving that argument we had yesterday. We’re just not thinking about what we’re doing now.
We develop thought patterns, which left to themselves are often negative and unhelpful…
…and they go unchallenged.
Mindfulness and meditation is about pausing for a moment, breathing, to break up the mental chatter that is going on in our heads…
… and create space to allow another voice to speak.
One which challenges those thought patterns. One which can bring a sense of perspective and balance to our thinking.
A lot of modern thinking is finally catching up with Jesus on this point. It only took 2000 years.
In her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington, offers an image which really makes sense to me. She talks about ‘the obnoxious roommate in your head.’ She says our worst enemies would not speak to us the way we often speak to ourselves. The obnoxious roommate likes to put us down, to play on our worries and insecurities. The obnoxious roommate needs to be evicted. You wouldn’t live with anyone else who spoke to you like that. She speaks about how by meditating on the words ‘the blessings already are’ and some words from Julian of Norwich… ‘all shall be well and all manner of all things shall be well’ she helps to silence the obnoxious flatmate.
She also refers to work by a neuropsychologist called Dr Rick Hanson. Hanson says ‘the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences. But it’s relatively poor at doing the same thing with positive experiences. To fight this, he explains, we need to install the positive experiences, taking the extra 10, 20 seconds to heighten the installation into the neural structure. In other words we need to take time to wonder at the world around us, feel gratitude for the good in our lives, and overcome our natural bias for focussing on the negative. In order for it to take, to become part of us, we need to slow down and let wonder do its job, at its own pace.
We notice the trials and struggles that come in life more than the good. The good can be drowned out by the next bit of bad news. By pausing, giving thanks or appreciating the good that comes our way, we give it the space to become every bit as much a part of our thinking as the bad.
The same is true of those experiences we’ve had when God has been close to us. Life will try to snatch them away, we need to take time to reflect on the good God has done in our lives, rather than allow it to be washed away. When we do that, we are building something we can turn to, next time anxiety threatens.
Another writer, Malcolm Gladwell, talks about how real insight and even genius comes from the ability to sift through what is front of us, throw out the stuff that’s irrelevant and focus on the important. But we can all do it. It turns out our unconscious mind is better at doing this than our conscious mind.
From a Christian perspective, the purpose of meditation is to allow another voice to speak, to challenge that obnoxious roommate in our head. When we feel all alone, or are tempted to think God doesn’t care about it, the purpose of meditation is to remind that obnoxious roommate that whatever he or she says, we are precious, we are enough. Just like the smallest part of creation, we are held in God’s loving care. We are constantly in God’s mind and we are safe in God’s hands.
Jesus encourages us to fix our attention on the birds and the flowers.
To watch and observe.
To look intently.
To meditate on them.
To pause, slow down, allow our brain to build the structure it needs.
To allow wonder to do its job at its own pace.
To sift through the thoughts that constantly rush round our minds, too see through those fears which lie to us, to see through to the truth about the world we live in and the God who sustains it.
Jesus is not telling us to avoid ordinary, prudent, forward thinking. He is not saying just sit back and wait for God to do anything. One of the ways in which God provides for us is in the skills, talents, abilities we possess. But at the same time we are invited to observe that not everything hinges on us. God never stops working on his care for you.
Consider the birds of the air, says Jesus. No animal works harder than the average sparrow. But their provision is found in partnership with their creator.
Consider the flowers of the field, says Jesus. Solomon was the prime example of the man who had all the world had to offer him and the worldly wisdom to work it to his advantage. Yet, says Jesus, even he couldn’t manage what God achieves for some flowers that are here for a few minutes, before being used as cooking fuel.
In meditation we allow the voice of Spirit to speak to us and say ‘what makes you think that he can do it for flowers and birds, but can’t do it for you, with whom he longs to spend eternity?’
It’s from that understanding that Jesus invites us to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.
In the past I may have looked at that as a kind of ‘put God first, make certain you’re living right, and God will take care of you.’ But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus wanted to them to hear.
We are invited to live in an atmosphere, and awareness, of unremitting love. Of course that will affect how we behave. We will seek God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. But not out of a grudging sense of duty. It begins with an awareness of the kind of abba God we have, who is not only sovereign but invites us to throw the full weight of our anxieties onto him, knowing we are his personal concern.
One last piece of science which backs up what Jesus says. A couple of weeks ago I talked about oxytocin, or the love hormone. Some of you were running around hugging one another, claiming you were topping up your oxytocin. But I talked about how prayer and meditation release oxytocin into our bodies.
In our bodies Oxytocin is in a battle with another hormone. Cortisol. It’s our stress hormone. Oxytocin keeps cortisol in check. Which explains why prayer and meditation can help in the battle against stress and anxiety. But in our bodies we have a chemical example of something the Bible describes – love casting out fear!
Isaiah puts it, ‘you will keep in perfect peace, those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in you. Not that they will be automatically peaceful, but that he will keep them there.
When we set our minds on God, when we meditate on him, we give the Holy Spirit space to speak and breathe peace into us. We give space to allow the voice which tells us to worry to be challenged by the whisper that we are loved.
I say all this,
but admit I don’t find it easy. And I hear you when say I’m too busy. I draw your attention to one last but of wisdom. This time from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. ‘No-one in our time finds it surprising if someone gives careful daily attention to their body, but people would be outraged if they gave the same attention to their soul.’
The journey from head to heart can indeed be slow. It does take time. It does take effort and discipline. It can be very much two steps forward, one step back… on a good day.
But God is patient.
And the journey is worth it.
We will battle with worry and anxiety. Belief may not come easy to us. But there is a difference between stubborn unbelief that insists on going our own way, and refuses to see things differently, and a belief that falters.
I often take heart in the guy who comes to Jesus and says ‘I believe, help my unbelief.’ Because all faith is a journey towards what God wants us to be. And God is more patient with us, than we are with ourselves.
God never promised us a life without trouble. When we commit to following Jesus we will still experience it. After all, we follow a crucified Messiah. But each day will bring enough trouble of its own. But we are invited into relationship with him. If we pause, take time, reflect and meditate on the world around us; if we are prepared to allow the birds and the flowers be our teachers., he can take our sense of helplessness and anxiety and breath a whisper of peace to the obnoxious housemate in your head, reminding us we are held in endless, detailed, loving care of an abba father, whose perfect love can cast our fear.
* https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/there-really-are-50-eskimo-words-for-snow/2013/01/14/e0e3f4e0-59a0-11e2-beee-6e38f5215402_story.html I did check on the use of the word eskimo. I understand it is derogatory in Canada in Greenland, but not elsewhere.