Isaiah 49:8-16a | Matthew 6:22-34
Sometime, when we’re reading a passage from the Bible and exploring what the text means; we get caught up in the meaty, memorable bits of the text – “consider the lilies of the field”, or, in the Latin, Sicut Lilium, the words emblazoned on the crest of my High School, and miss words which are more bland, less exciting, but which serve to give shape and context and structure and, sometimes, meaning, to those memorable bits.
Reading the gospel today, for instance, we read three times the clear command “do not worry”. Now I doubt that there is a piece of advice which is more often given, more universally accepted as wise, and more completely useless, than those words: “do not worry”.
I mean, can you imagine a circumstance in which you were worried about something, it was nagging on your mind, keeping you awake at night, and then someone comes up to you and says “don’t worry about it”, and you say “gosh! That thought had never occurred to me! I’ll stop worrying right now! Thank you for giving me such good advice”. As if worry was something that we could simply choose to do or to stop doing.
I mean, we all know about useless worry, about that pointless going over and over things that are past and can’t be changed, or things in the present that are beyond our control, or things in the future which might not even ever happen. Of course, there are other things that are within our control, that do need to be thought about and planned for, but we al know what it is to worry, knowing that there is no point in doing so. And that you cannot just stop.
Which is perhaps why Jesus doesn’t just repeat the advice, doesn’t just make a bland “don’t worry, be happy”, but spends a significant time talking about it.
And if you look at the three places in the passage where the words “do not worry” occur, each of them is preceded by the same word or idea: “therefore (I say to you) do not worry”, “therefore do not worry”, “so do not worry”.
Each time the “do not worry” arises, it refers back to the words that have gone before, placing it in the context of a larger argument that Jesus is building up.
The passage opens with “the eye is the lamp of the body” and “no one can serve two masters”. What you look at, what you pay attention to, what you choose to allow to enter your mind, matters – it shapes you, casts light or darkness into you. I’ve preached before, a whole sermon, I think, on this: on the value of your attention, the way it’s the one thing everyone wants from you – the child pulling at your leg, the advertiser catching your eye, the politician with their press release – and how the decision of what you will pay attention to does more to determine what you know and think and feel than anything.
And so it moves quite naturally onto the next phrase: “no one can serve two masters”. Your attention, your focus, your service, cannot ever really be divided. You will choose to act based on the thing that you pay most attention to, the voice or goal or value that you spend your time looking at and thinking about. And so we have Jesus’ first “therefore do not worry” – the reason that this command is so important. The motivation for not worrying that Jesus offers isn’t so that you will feel less stressed, or for the good of your health, but because the things that you choose to worry about – and in the text, he is clearly talking most especially about possessions, wealth, material goods – will become your master. If you spend your life worrying about the material things of life, you have already become their servant.
But life is more than food, the body more than clothing. If we will allow it to be so.
So the first “therefore do not worry” is about why what we worry about matters. But it’s no good just leaving it there. No use, as we all know, just saying “don’t worry about those material things, there are other things much more important”. For though most of us are fortunate enough not to be in such a situation, I’m sure we can all at least imagine, if not remember, how hard it is to take your mid of the quest to meet physical needs when those needs are real and pressing, when there is no money to pay the rent, or the source of the next meal is far from clear.
So the passage moves on to the very well known birds of the air and lilies of the field analogy. And I have to admit that I find this one of the least convincing arguments anywhere in Jesus’ teaching. The birds do not sow or reap, or gather into barns, that’s true. And their heavenly Father feeds them. Well, yes, sometimes. But have a longer than usual drought, or a bad period of frost, and many birds of the air might well be wishing that they had gathered food into a barn, or copied the squirrels in hiding nuts in a hole in a tree (I don’t know if squirrels actually do that, but they do in all the stories). Is Jesus really suggesting that working for what we need – sowing and reaping – or planning for the lean times – gathering into barns – is somehow fruitless worry, or failure to trust?
I suspect Jesus words here have more than a hint of hyperbole about them – that his advice is not to cease doing those things that we do in order to survive, but to recognise that even as we do them, we are still remaining reliant on the God who gives the growth to the seeds we plant; that there are things we need to think about and do to survive, but there are many more things that we worry about which don’t contribute.
Perhaps this is hinted at in Jesus’ question “can any of you, by worrying, add an hour to your life?”. For of course the answer to that question is certainly “yes”, if by worrying you include worrying about whether there is a car coming before you cross the road, or worrying about whether you are eating a balanced diet or drinking too much, or worrying about whether or not the structure you’ve built is strong enough to take your weight, or worrying about the noise coming from your car suspension… Those worries may indeed add many hours to your life, or the lives of others – because they are worries that you can act upon. Perhaps that might even tells us that Jesus isn’t talking about practical, useful, thoughtful worry.
And that thought made me wonder, even as I wrote this sermon, more about this word “worry”. And it turns out that the greek word translated here, merimnao, carries a much more negative connotation than our word ‘worry’. Much more the sense of ‘anxiety’, or even ‘distraction’; ‘to be pulled apart’. “Therefore I say to you, do not be distracted by thinking about what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear”. Because God knows what you need already.
A reading which rather neatly segues into Jesus’ punchline: “Instead, strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness”.
The whole passage suddenly sounds a rather different tone – and my apologies if this is old news to you, but I’ve never seen it this way before. “Be careful where you focus your attention, for you cannot serve both God and the material things of the world. So don’t be distracted by the things you need and the things that you think you need; strive instead for the things of God’s kingdom, for God knows what you need even before you ask for it”
And the completely useless and futile instruction “do not worry”? It changes tone too, for it takes on a positive shape. If you want to stop worrying about stuff you can’t do anything about, the most powerful psychological trick available is to throw your focus, your energy, your concentration, your passion, yourself, into something else.
We no longer read “don’t worry about practical physical needs”, instead we read “don’t be distracted by them. Keep your eyes on the goal, your mind on your calling.”
Strive for the kingdom of God. Work and live to make it more real, more visible, more here. Throw your life, your energy, your effort into doing the work of God’s kingdom that you have been called to – whether that be feeding the hungry, campaigning for justice, educating a new generation, bringing health to the sick, protecting creation, caring for those who are in need, befriending the lonely, creating beauty, giving with generosity, telling the good news, praying for all these things and more – and trust God for the rest.
Now I’m not saying that this is easy advice to follow. It’s not always easy to know our calling in the Kingdom, not always easy to hold on to it.
But at least these words – to me, anyway – make sense. As a goal to strive for, a hope to cling onto. To find the works of the Kingdom that you can do, that you are called to, gifted at, passionate for, and make them your focus.
Don’t be distracted. Strive for the Kingdom.