The Gospel of Alfred E. Newman Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Senior Pastor Sunshine Cathedral Feb. 27, 2011 In today’s gospel we picked up at the end of a teaching about generosity. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus telling his listeners at in the first four verses of Matthew 6 to be consistently […]
The Gospel of Alfred E. Newman
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Senior Pastor
Sunshine Cathedral Feb. 27, 2011
In today’s gospel we picked up at the end of a teaching about generosity. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus telling his listeners at in the first four verses of Matthew 6 to be consistently generous, and then he returns to that topic in verses 19-24. Verse 24 is where we picked up today which led then into a lesson about the need to avoid worrying.
Why add worry to a lesson about generosity? Jesus seems to think anxiety is what keeps us from doing our best and giving our best and being our best. Our inner Fear-Talk keeps us from shining by keeping us from taking risks. We tell ourselves:
I can’t forgive them for hurting me, they might hurt me again and this time I might not recover.
I can’t offer too much praise, you might get the big head and then think you’re better than me.
I can’t offer an encouraging word, you might take it to heart and then surpass me somehow.
I can’t give my money, I might run out and not have enough for me.
I can’t express hope because I’ll look stupid if my hope doesn’t pay off; what if my hope proves to be false hope…I’m better off just bracing myself for the worst.
You see, whatever I’m not willing to share shows where my fears really are. Whatever I’m holding onto is what I don’t believe there is enough of in the world. I better hoard whatever I have so that I don’t run out, or so the Fear Thoughts argue. But Jesus says, You won’t run out, not of what matters. And people of faith should be the ones to know you can never be separate from your Good because you can never be separate from God, the All Good!
People in various ages have responded to this teaching of Jesus or shared a similar insight of their own.
Methodism’s founder John Wesley said, “to believe in God implies to trust God as our strength…to trust God as our happiness…the only rest for our souls…sufficient to satisfy the desires God has given us.”
Shinto scripture teaches, “My Lord, boundless as the sun and moon lighting heaven and earth; how then can I have concerns about what is to be?”
The Jewish Talmud teaches, “Whoever has bread in their basket and says, ‘What am I going to eat tomorrow?’ only belongs to those who are little in faith.”
The prophet Habakkuk boldly declared, “Even if the fig tree doesn’t blossom and the vines bear no fruit…and the fields yield no grain…still I will rejoice in our God!” (Hab. 3.17-18).
The late educator and motivational writer Leo Buscaglia said, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow; it only saps today of its joy.”
George Bernard Shaw realized, “People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them.”
A Chinese proverb wisely states, “That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change; but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent!”
Catholic theologian Dorothy Day said, “I have learned to live each day as it comes and not to borrow trouble by dreading tomorrow.”
Harold Stephens tells us, “There is a great difference between worry and concern. A worried person sees a problem and a concerned person solves a problem.” Not complaining or fretting, but offering something positive to make it better.
Through prophets and poets, sages and saints, God is telling us again and again that worry does very little for us. It hinders our progress, it robs our energy, it destroys our happiness, and often, it sabotages our success.
We’ve all seen the satirical church sign, “Don’t Let Worry Kill You; Let the Church Help.” Sadly, there is some truth in the parody. While the church should be helping us have faith in ourselves, faith in the infinite possibilities of life, faith in the eternal process of life, it has too often told us we were unworthy of its Sacraments, undeserving of its favor, and that we should be uncertain of our place in a divine Plan. Instead of empowering us to face the challenges of life with grace and hope, institutional religion has burdened us with unnecessary fear and needless regret. Jesus, standing up to such counter-productive religiosity (as he so often did), challenges us to fear less and hope more, to worry less and trust more, and to be more present to the possibilities of this moment than concerned about the potential threats of the future. He’s not quite telling us to don the goofy face of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman with his, “What, me worry?” attitude, but he is telling us to believe in grace equal to every need, to entertain the possibility that not only is God good but God’s goodness can and will sustain us no matter what is happening around us or even to us.
This is not pie in the sky rose colored glasses drivel…Remember, Matthew is writing toward the end of the first century. Jesus was brutally executed more than 5 decades earlier, Paul was executed about 2 decades earlier, the Temple in Jerusalem was completely destroyed about a decade and half earlier. Matthew knows that bad things happen! And yet, after all his people have been through, he still imagines Jesus saying, “Dare to dream of a better experience. Dare to hope that things will get better. Dare to believe that you deserve more than you have so far experienced. Dare to wish for the best and don’t sabotage the possibilities by expecting the worst!”
My grandmother was always very frail, and I always adored her. I was her first and favorite grandchild. We had a special bond. I spent most of my life dreading the day that she would die. Well, she actually lived a fairly long life but not because I dreaded the day of her death. My worry didn’t add years or quality to her life; it just added anxiety and misery to mine. When she died, I was just as sad as I would have been anyway, but unfortunately I had already experienced that sadness to some degree throughout my life. Instead of just enjoying her, I worried about losing her. And that constant worry robbed me of much too much joy.
I knew I was HIV+ for years before I got tested. A lover had died, and it would have been fairly incredible if I had not been positive myself. I so dreaded hearing the words though, because in those days there were no effective treatments. And so I waited 7 years before getting tested and receiving medical treatment. Once I decided to face the fear, to hear the news and respond to it, I actually felt empowered. Worrying about testing positive was MUCH WORSE than testing positive. That isn’t to diminish the heartache of the early AIDS years, and my wish is for every person who is HIV negative to take special care to remain so. But the point is that once I got past my worry I was able to take control of my attitude, my treatment plan, and my life. I’ve now been living well with HIV for 20 years, and 13 of those years pretty fearlessly. I wish the first 7 had been as fearless.
I actually worried that I lacked the wherewithal to go to graduate school. I had been a B student in high school even though I was in the Gifted and Talented program, and the 5 and half years it took me to complete my four year undergraduate degree didn’t suggest that I was a scholar in the making. In fact, while friends were graduating Summa Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, and Cum Laude, I was just graduating Thank you Laude! Well, after that less than stellar academic beginning, I went on to complete my coursework for ordination, and then earned two masters degrees and finally a doctorate. I made all A’s in my doctoral program and I won three seminary awards for my writing, preaching, and arts activities. My worry delayed my progress. I could have accomplished more sooner if not for all the pesky worry!
In all three of these personal stories, my worry was worse than what I was worried about. The problem I could face, could manage, could heal from, could cope with. But worry debilitated me much sooner than was necessary. If I had just trusted the divine Presence in me to sustain me through the difficulties, I would have suffered less pain for less time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Some of your hurts you have cured, and the sharpest you still have survived, but what torments of grief you endured from the evil which never arrived.” Problems we can handle; it’s the worrying about problems that may or may not show up that defeat us prematurely. When real problems occur, we find ourselves to be absolutely heroic; it’s worrying about what could go wrong that keeps us stuck. We can’t keep the birds from flying over head, but we don’t have to let them build nests in our hair!
To restate the first verse of the Gospel lesson today, “No one can serve two masters…you will be devoted to one and not the other. You cannot serve both faith and fear.” You cannot serve both hope and worry. You cannot serve both peace and panic.
You see, worry doesn’t fix problems. Worry doesn’t offer solutions. But worry does make the feared thing more likely. In the oldest drama of our bible, the character Job says, “The thing I feared has come upon me.” What we focus on we will drift toward, attract, or create. And fear is focus. Worry doesn’t make things better; in fact, it almost always makes things worse. Not only will worry make the difficult thing more likely to happen or cause it to happen sooner, but even if the thing itself is inevitable, worry makes us miserable long before there is really a need to be.
And worrying about what could go wrong tomorrow causes us to miss out on what is good right here and right now.
Gandhi said, “There is nothing that wastes the body like worry and one who has any faith in God should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever.” Recalling Wesley’s comment: “To believe in God implies to trust God as our strength…”
You are stronger than you know. You are better than you have believed. And when things are easy and when they are difficult, the love, the hope, the beauty, the strength, and the joy that we name God are always within us, ready to sustain us. We have already been given grace equal to every need. So, let’s try to give up worrying. And as we do, we may just find that in reality, there was far less to worry about than we had imagined. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
I am in God and God is in me.
God is All Good.
God has given me grace equal to every need.
I choose to trust this now.
Thank you God!
And so it is.