Matthew 6:19-34 | Philippians 4:1-9
I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, said Mark Twain, but most of them never happened.
There are few words of advice as universally recognized as wise, and so commonly ignored, as those of Jesus in our gospel reading today: “I tell you; do not worry”.
I don’t know about you, but there is almost nothing I find more annoying and frustrating that being told not to worry. My first reaction, of course, is denial: “I’m not worrying, I’m planning”, but I soon find myself getting defensive: “If I don’t worry about this, who will?”. I’m sure that when Jesus spoke these words in the sermon on the mount, he created the same sort of reactions in the crowd; parents saying to themselves “its alright for him to say ‘don’t worry about food and drink’, he doesn’t have children to feed”, or “don’t worry about your life, he says, but he’s not waiting for test results, or living with the reality of an aging body”.
And of course, we have plenty of things in life that we seem to need to worry about: our health, and that of our families; our children and grandchildren; the apparent meltdown of the global economic system. Jesus’ advice to ‘consider the lilies’ or ‘look at the birds of the air’ just seems naïve; we can’t grow petals for clothes, fly to work, or eat worms for lunch. Like most advice, ‘do not worry’ is a lot easier to give than it is to take. And yet, there is something wrong with our worries. Not so much with worry itself, but with the way we worry, and the things we choose to worry about.
As Mark Twain realized, we worry needlessly – we worry about things that may never come about. Seneca, a Roman philosopher of the time of Jesus, wrote similar words to his friend: “There are more things, Lucilius, that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”. Or Thomas Jefferson “How much pain they have cost us, the evils which have never happened.”.
And so in the sermon on the mount, in our gospel reading today, Jesus did not just say ‘do not worry’. He gave some much more specific advice: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”.
The thing about worry is that it controls the most precious commodity that we possess: our attention. Our attention is the thing we possess that is most in demand; whether by family, employers, advertisers, or politicians. In the world of fifteen minutes of fame, of the twenty four hour news cycle, getting and holding attention is the measure of success. In the internet world, amazingly sophisticated tools exist just to measure people’s attention; how long they spend looking at what content on your website; which links catch your notice, what you skim past without a pause.
It is a truism of the world today that we are living in an age of information overload. We have access to so much information; on our bookshelves, through the television, on the internet, we are bombarded with advertising, presented with so many life-options; the most important day-to-day decisions that we take are what we choose to pay attention to. Because where we spend that precious commodity of our attention determines what goes in; and what goes in, shapes what comes out.
Even in a pre-information age, Jesus understood this. From our reading today – “no one can serve two masters… therefore I tell you, do not worry”. Worry dictates to us what we will pay attention to, and what we spend our attention on is our master.
Six years ago, Steve Jobs, who had just developed the cancer that finally claimed his life this week, spoke of the attention focusing effect that the disease had on his life.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.
But I suspect I’m preaching, as it were, to the choir; we all want to worry less, but it just doesn’t seem to work. Why is that? Trying to tell yourself not to worry is like trying to tell a two year old not to touch something. At best you get a few seconds of obedience; at worst you get a tantrum or outright rebellion. And every parent learns, most of us the hard way, that just repeating ‘no, no, no’ every few seconds is ineffective, if not downright counterproductive.
If you want to get a small child not to touch something, you don’t tell them ‘no’. You distract them with a different ‘yes’.
And so it is with Jesus’ words. He does not stop at ‘do not worry’; he offers an alternative. He doesn’t just say “don’t waste your attention on these matters” – he goes on “focus instead on this”.
“Strive first for the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness”. We often see (and sing) that as ‘seek ye first’, but I think strive says it better; we aren’t called to look for the kingdom so much as to work at it, to busy ourselves with it. To pay attention to it.
I’m not sure if Jesus, saying “and all these things will be given to you as well” meant that if we strive for the kingdom we will have everything we want, or even everything we need. But I suspect at very least he meant that if we pay attention to the needs of the kingdom, we will have the blessing of not having time or energy to worry about all the other things.
In the letter to the Philippians, we find similar advice: whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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 about these things.
If we want to stop worrying about things that might never happen, and, for that matter, to stop worrying about things that will; if we want to choose our master, to be ruled by the kingdom of heaven and not the kingdom of our own needs, the kingdom of advertising, the kingdom of the world grasping after our attention; then think on what is good and just and honourable; and strive for the kingdom of God.
Nothing we can do will so empower us to respond to Jesus’ words “do not worry” than this; to seek out, and focus our minds and eyes and hearts and effort and prayers and money, on all that is good – to stand alongside those who strive to bring justice into a world of inequality; to work to bring love to people and places which know rejection and contempt; to celebrate with those who know joy in the birth of a child, in the making of beauty, in a job well done.
Nothing will drive our cares and worries from us faster than to see the deep, wide need in God’s world, and to put ourselves to work in doing something about it.
Nothing will take our attention off the things we need and want more effectively than recommitting ourselves to meeting the needs of others.
Strive first for the kingdom of God is not a piece of abstract religious philosophy; it is a creed to live by. It is to wake each morning and, as you make your cup of coffee, to ask yourself: what can I do today to make the Kingdom of God more real? What good can I work, what love can I show, what injustice can I do something about? Who could I call with words of comfort or encouragement, what offer of help might I make to someone in need?
And to end the day knowing that, though you might have only made a small difference, you have made a difference.
The, perhaps, the old saying will be true of us:
Blessed is the person who is too busy to worry in the daytime and too sleepy to worry at night.