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Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 29, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
A Question about Worry
Part of the Lenten Sermon Series “Questions Jesus Asked”
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
A preacher friend, Meg Peery-McLaughlin, once told me about an experience she had when she gathered with a family in their home. The gathering followed a memorial service my friend had officiated for the matriarch of the family, a woman they called simply “Gran.” My friend was sitting in the kitchen when one of Gran’s sons, named Mike, began to tell her about the different family members who were quickly filling up the small home. First, Mike pointed to his young adult nephew, who was standing in the next room, visible through a doorway, a plate of food in his hand.
The young man had curly long hair, even though he was the son of a shorn Marine. He was the one who had been taking care of his grandmother during the day. College was not his thing, and he had struggled to find his way. But he loved his Gran and found purpose in being present for her when others could not be. He also loved video games, and his Gran would ask him about the characters. The two of them were tight. That day of her memorial service, he was wearing a bright yellow Steelers jersey, because yellow had been Gran’s favorite color. “He’s close to the water,” Mike said to my friend. “That one is close to the water.”
It took my friend more than a moment to orient herself to the comment. At first, she wondered if Mike was referring to the five-mile stretch of water in the West Virginia valley where the family had originally settled. Had the young man in the Steelers jersey spent his childhood next to the river? Is that what Mike meant when he said he was close to the water?
Just about the time she was going to ask him that very question, the young man wandered up, and my preacher friend noticed his red-rimmed eyes and the way his nose was pink from having been wiped so many times. And suddenly it hit her. Mike was not talking about a river or the location of childhood years. Mike was talking about the tears that were just under the surface, ready to spill over at any sharp curve. “That one is close to the water” referred to unbidden and uncontrolled tears that refused to play by the rules and sprang up at unexpected times, salty and hot. “That one is close to the water,” Mike said with tenderness, recognizing the struggle his nephew was experiencing.
That story came into my mind because I sure have been feeling rather close to the water over the past two weeks. I know many of you have as well. I can tell due to the responses many of you emailed me after receiving my pastoral note yesterday. And it makes sense why so many of us feel that way. In such a short span of time, a little over two weeks, just about every single way we order our lives has changed dramatically.
College kids are home regardless of whether they want to be there or not. School-aged children are trying to learn via a laptop set up on the kitchen table. Some of you have been laid off or furloughed. One person told me she had not been overtly fired, just given “reduced hours”—reduced all the way down to zero. She has filed for unemployment. Others of you are having to make difficult decisions about payroll for your small business. Can you pay your employees, or will that take you down? The stress and the pressure of the constant drumbeat of chaos have undoubtedly brought many of us very close to the water. As a matter of fact, a few might feel we’ve been pushed completely in and are just trying to dog paddle long enough to keep our heads above the surface.
Surely some of the disciples and others who had gathered around Jesus that day on the mountain must have felt the same way. Otherwise why would Jesus have started this whole teaching segment with the Beatitudes? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” When Jesus preached the Beatitudes, not only was he trying to give his followers kingdom-vision, a glimpse of the world the way God sees it, but Jesus was also pronouncing blessings on those who rarely, if ever, felt blessed.
For those disciples who felt close to the water on that day—perhaps because they had left their families and their livelihood behind, or possibly because they were still unsure about being Jesus’ disciple in the first place—for them, Jesus’ words must have cradled them in an embrace of grace and care. When he looked at them in their faces and called them the light of the world, the salt of the earth, at least a few of them must have felt like they had finally been seen after feeling invisible or unworthy for a very long time. Yes, some of those disciples and people in the crowd must have been feeling close to the water, and Jesus knew it.
I wonder if that is also why Jesus spent so much time talking about the human emotion of worry. As Martin Copenhaver has written, “It is telling that Jesus’ longest discourse on a human emotion is about worry.” I find that intriguing, don’t you? Jesus could have picked all kinds of different emotions on which he could focus—anger, fear, affection, etc. And yet he chose worry. Again, Copenhaver: “It is clear from Jesus’ attention to the subject that worry has been an unwelcome guest in human hearts and minds from the very beginning, . . . insinuating itself, creeping up and settling in wherever and whenever it can” (Martin Copenhaver, Jesus Is the Question, p. 45).
Now before we go any further with this text, though, I must admit to you that I have not always appreciated this particular portion of the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t know about you, but I rarely find it helpful if, when I am stressed out about something or someone, a well-meaning person tells me, “Don’t worry so much about it. I’m sure it will be fine.” Even if my face doesn’t change in response, my internal voice replies, “Gee, thanks. That admonition totally solves it. I shall not worry because you told me not to,” rolling my eyes in my mind. Thus, whenever I have read or heard Jesus say, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” I’ve typically experienced a kind of emotional recoiling.
This week, though, as I wrestled with this text while standing so close to the water, I realized it’s because I have always heard Jesus say these words with an emotional subtext of shame. I have always assumed these words came from Jesus as a kind of verbal finger-pointing: “You know, preacher, if you just had more faith, you would not be so worried, so stressed out.” Prior to this week, whenever I heard Jesus saying, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”I would find myself in what Brene Brown calls a shame spiral. Of course my worry does not add time to my life. Of course it is not useful. Of course it is not the response of faith and trust that I want to have, and on and on it would go, bringing me down further and further.
And yet, as I read these words this week, living so close to the water, I realized something you probably already know: that is a whole lot of projection on my part—projecting my own stuff onto Jesus. Truth be told, from what I know of Jesus, shame is not in his DNA. So that’s all on me. After recognizing that, when I hear these words today, standing with you so close to the water, I can hear them with an emotional inflection of deep care and concern.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. . . . Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
When we do what we did with the Beatitudes and imagine Jesus sitting in the middle of people who are very close to the water, who are exhausted by unexpected grief, exhausted by unbidden tears salty and hot, don’t we hear these words differently? Less admonishing and more upbuilding. Less about shame and more about loving-kindness. Less finger-pointing and more nourishing.
When we hear that different emotional subtext, infusing that more grace-filled inflection into the whole passage, we can see that by asking us all of these rhetorical questions about worry, one right after the other, rather than trying to build up some case against us, Jesus is instead layering his points to reassure us. To reassure us that God does indeed care for us, for this world; that God will always care for us and for this world; that God will stop at nothing to always cradle us, cradle this world, in God’s own arms, sustained by nothing less than God’s own presence, God’s own Spirit, God’s own life-giving breath. “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son,” the Gospel writer John puts it.
In this section of his sermon, Jesus is trying to reassure his disciples that if the Shaper of the Cosmos cares for the birds, if the Creator of the Universe cares for the grass; if the Word who existed before the beginning of the world cares for the flowers out in the field, try to imagine how much more the Divine Mystery also cares for us, creatures made in God’s own image, creatures the Holy One called very good.
Listen to these layered rhetorical questions:
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (a phrase Jesus often used to describe the disciples).
To paraphrase Martin Copenhaver, Jesus uses all these rhetorical questions not to summon an answer from us, but rather to produce an effect in us, to steer us to an emotional response that is obvious, to a spiritual response that worry has caused us to overlook. And that is the response that when it comes down to it and everything has hit the fan, we still are going to choose to trust that what Paul wrote in the eighth chapter of Romans is true: that nothing in life or in death will ever separate us from God’s love that we know in Jesus our Christ. It is an emotional response, a spiritual response that can free us from the stranglehold of worry each and every time we center ourselves in that truth and allow it to shape us and the ways we are encountering the world.
By the way, did you know that “strangle” is the literal meaning of the verb worry? That is helpful, isn’t it? It helps us, because whenever we feel life has got us in a stranglehold, whenever we feel life has got us by the throat, that feeling alerts us that we might be allowing worry to hold too much power. We might be allowing worry to be the dominant voice in our lives rather than God. As E. Stanley Jones once wrote, “Worry says ‘It is all up to me.’ Worry sings ‘I’ve got the whole world in my hands.’ Worry frets that ‘if I don’t do it, it’s not going to happen’” (Copenhaver, Jesus Is the Question, p. 50).
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, by spending so much time talking about our human emotion called worry, Jesus is purposefully contradicting worry’s voice, doing what he can to loosen its grip around our throat, finger by finger, trying to make enough space for us to be able to take a breath again. Jesus does this because he knows that many of his disciples, back then and still today, sometimes live very close to the water, and Jesus wants to remind us he has lived there too.
That’s another truth to which we can hold tightly—that God’s love made flesh, known as Jesus, has also been close to the water. We see it quite often in scripture. When he weeps after Lazarus’s death. When he cries over the city he loved, Jerusalem. When he calls out of a sense of God-forsakenness on the cross. Jesus knows what it is like to be close to the water. Therefore, we can say with confidence, we are not there alone. And if nothing else will do it, that promise literally embodied, enfleshed by Jesus can indeed loosen worry’s grip from around our necks. Jesus has been close to the water too, which means God has been close to the water too, which implies that whenever we find ourselves close to the water, full of unbidden tears so close to the surface that they will undoubtedly spill over at any sharp curve, we can trust and know we are not alone. The one who feeds the birds of the air, the one who clothes the lilies of the field, that One known as God-with-Us, knows exactly how we feel and has taken it into God’s own heart.
Friends, I know there is so much to worry about in these days. Worry has a loud voice in our imagination right now. Many of us are living very close to the water. But let us not lose touch with the promise that not only does God have the whole cosmos in God’s hands, loving and caring for it all, but God also stands with us on the edge of the water, determined to loosen worry’s grip, promising not to let us go, until all tears—expected or not—are finally wiped away. Amen.