“Do not worry about your life.” I read somewhere this week that the effect of hearing these words, “Do not worry,” is like that old psychology experiment where they would say, “Don’t think about an elephant.” And of course, we all immediately conjure the image of an elephant in our minds.
When we hear the words, “Do not worry… about your life… what you will eat or drink… about your body… what you will wear…,” many of us reflexively hold more tightly to our worries. Being told not to worry does not seem to cause us to not worry. Instead it often makes us feel annoyed. “Who are you to tell me not to worry?” “Easy for you to say, ‘Don’t worry’. You don’t know what I’ve got to deal with!” When we’re feeling anxious, being told not to be anxious doesn’t seem to help. It doesn’t help because we’re hanging on to our anxiety for all we’re worth; we can’t imagine letting go of it.
Which is kind of the point of Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is pointing out to us the nature of our commitments, and he is holding out to us the possibility of an alternative commitment.
The verse that comes just before what Harry read for us today is this: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
This provides the interpretive clue to the alternatives that Jesus is setting out for us in this teaching. And I don’t want us to get distracted by the issue of wealth just yet; that will have you clutching tighter to your purses and wallets! Here the issue is not so much how much money you have—it’s not about wealth and poverty—but about what you rely on, what you rely on to keep you safe, what you rely on to save you.
I started talking last week about the social teaching of Jesus. There, the subject was divorce, and the importance of not treating other people as commodities.
This is a continuation of that theme. Jesus is trying to get us to imagine a different way of being in the world. Last week he used the example of a little child, of being like a little child, without worries, without striving, without trying always to get ahead. What Jesus is saying is that our way of looking at our own lives, and at people around us, and at the world—that our way of looking at these things is all wrong.
That’s all he’s saying—that our way of looking at ourselves, others, and the world is all wrong.
Our way of looking at these things is all wrong when we think in terms of self-reliance. This is why Jesus is always on about wealth: because wealth is our key tool, it’s what we use to try to achieve self-reliance. So, in this sense, the problem is not money in and of itself; the problem is our desire for self-reliance. So perhaps you can relax your grip on your wallets and purses a little. The desire for self-reliance is a problem because it cuts us off from our fundamental relationships: our relationships with one another and with God.
The desire for self-reliance turns every other person, and in fact every other creature and life-form, into our competition. Competition for the limited and finite resources available. Self-reliance leads us to accumulate and to hoard. It virtually guarantees inequality, because the logic of it is that I need to have more than you, so that when the chips are down, I will have a chance to survive, even as you are swallowed up.
It’s like that bad joke about two of you being chased by a bear, and you don’t need to be able to outrun the bear, you just need to be able to outrun the other guy. That’s the logic of self-reliance—it’s doing what we need to do to survive. As Jesus helps us to see, self-reliance is built upon the sacrifice of those who are less successful.
And lest we think that Jesus is just teaching some lofty spiritual ideas here, let’s remember that all of the evidence suggests that Jesus was teaching and ministering in the context of real poverty. He was most likely poor himself, raised in a small village. He ministered to people who knew real hunger and hardship, people who lived on the margins of their society.
He healed people who had illnesses that led to them being shunned by their neighbors; he touched people that nobody wanted to touch. Jesus called fishermen and tax collectors, two groups of people who were caught up in a rapidly changing economic system, as the Jewish homeland was being incorporated into the economy of the Roman empire. Traditional, village-based occupations and livelihoods were being displaced by transnational ways of making money, like long-distance trade and tax collecting.
Jesus saw firsthand the implications of self-reliance and competition and the erosion of social relationships. His teaching spoke directly to his first century world, just as it speaks directly to our twenty-first century world.
But it’s not only our social relationships that suffer when we buy into the doctrine of self-reliance, but also our relationship with God. What’s at stake for Jesus in this is that our belief in self-reliance involves a denial of our true nature. We were not made for competition and isolation. We were made for relationship with one another and with God.
We were set within a whole web of life, and we are meant to take our place within it, to our delight, to the delight of other creatures, and to God’s delight.
Like the example of the child last week, in this teaching Jesus holds out the examples of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Like the birds and the flowers, we are meant to know our place in the scheme of things, and to delight in it. We’re meant to know ourselves as dependent, and as interdependent, and we are meant to turn in gratitude towards our Maker, and towards one another.
This is a big shift: from us trying to be masters of the universe to recognizing that there is one Master of the Universe and it’s not us, it’s God. What we’re promised is that as we release our tight grasp on things, we will be given what we need. And so will everyone else.
What Jesus is calling us to is a radical trust, a willingness to accept that we may not know what is best, for ourselves or for others, but that God does.
This is not a blind trust, of just saying, “Don’t worry, be happy,” and everything will all work out. The birds still search for food, and the flowers still turn toward the sun—they are not completely passive. But they are trusting, that there will be enough.
This is the kind of trust that Jesus calls us to: a trust that God is real, and that God loves you and values you beyond measure, that God watches over you, and will not let you stumble or fall. That God weeps with us, and rejoices with us, and is always with us. That God gives us what we need.
Jesus’ suffering and death on a cross show the depth of God’s identification with the poor, the excluded and all those who suffer. God’s raising of Jesus from the dead is God’s seal, God’s confirmation, God’s vindication of all that Jesus had been teaching: that the ways of self-reliance and competition don’t have the last word, but that love does.
God’s raising of Jesus from the dead is the ultimate sign of the trustworthiness of God.
In our lives, often God gives us what we need through other people. Loving God and loving one another are connected. That’s what becomes more possible as we loosen our grip on our habits of self-reliance.
So what do we do with our worries? Well, Jesus invites us to stop striving, and to start trusting, and promises that we will receive all we need. It’s that simple: we just have to change our whole lives, and the way we live in the world!
So how do we do that? Well, I’m speaking to you as someone who has not done this anywhere near completely: I have accumulated wealth; I have savings for my retirement; I own a home and a car; I have numerous possessions, including every product Apple has ever made. But this much I know: as I have continued to pray, as I have continued to walk the walk of trying to be a disciple of Jesus, as I have sought the light of God’s guidance in my life, I have experienced a slow—perhaps too slow—but steady conversion to the way of thinking that Jesus shows us.
Do I need to give away all my wealth to be close to God and to my neighbor? Well, I can imagine that that might be the case. So far, on my slow and steady journey of discipleship, that has not yet been revealed to me with undeniable clarity, but it may yet be. I suspect that what is more important perhaps than giving away my stuff, is my willingness to give away my stuff if that is what I am called to do. What is important is my willingness to acknowledge that my things are not my things, that they are God’s, and that indeed my sisters and brothers might have a claim to them.
What matters is a willingness to suspect—to be open to the idea—that perhaps there is more to life; perhaps there is a more abundant life available to us as we cease our striving and increase our loving, loving God and those around us.
This Thanksgiving weekend is perhaps a good time to take stock. To consider all the things in your life that money can’t buy, the things that are not the result of your striving, and to give thanks for them. And to think of all the things in your life that money has bought, that are the result of your or someone else’s striving, and to ask if they are enriching your life or limiting it. It’s a time to give a thought to your neighbors, near and far, human and other creatures, too—and to ask if there are things you might do to contribute to their flourishing.
Let us pray:
Dear God, draw our eyes, first, to you, that we may be reminded of the abundant life you have promised and provide and, second, to our neighbors, that we may see and respond to their need. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2015. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.
 Prayer by David Lose.