October 7, 2018
Matthew 6: 25-35
Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
Anyone who has ever taken a course in empathetic listening or pastoral care knows that the worst thing you can do when someone is sharing their honest feelings to you is tell them to stop feeling whatever it is they are expressing. When someone sits across from me in my office and bursts into tears I don’t tell them to stop crying. Likewise, if someone is angry I try and affirm their anger rather than tell them to shut it down. A good minister is supposed to know how to honour people’s feelings.
So it seems a bit odd to me that in this morning’s scripture reading Jesus, who many consider to be the ultimate source of compassion, care, and good listening, is telling people not to feel what they are so clearly feeling: worry, anxiety, and preoccupation. As if, like Bobby McFerrin, telling us not to worry, be happy, is all we need in life. It all sounds a bit trite in the face of our everyday reality.
This passage actually comes from a much larger section of Matthew’s gospel commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. Over the course of several chapters of scripture, Jesus dishes out a lot of challenging teaching to his followers. Love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you, cut off your right hand if it causes you to stumble. They are expectations that even the most serious of Christians find difficult to live up to. So we arrive at this passage about worrying and it sounds very comforting. In the grand scheme of things, there is nothing about which we need to concern ourselves. God’s got this. All will be well.
And yet for many of us, telling us not to worry is like telling us not to breathe. Who among us doesn’t lay awake at night from time to time or maybe all the time worrying about one thing or another?
What’s being exposed here is something at the core of our humanity, our desire for control, our need for comfort. In case there’s any doubt about that, notice that we are specifically being asked not to worry about money, food, clothing, our material possessions, the things in life that make us feel like we do have control. Things that give us comfort and a sense of security. It’s why we send casseroles when someone has lost a loved one or why we go shopping to make us feel better when we are down. Because doing something tangible and having something concrete to hold onto feels better than doing and having nothing when things are spinning out of control in our lives and in our world.
Thankfully, what’s being asked for here, isn’t really about living worry-free. It’s about asking ourselves who and what our priorities in life are, who and what we are serving or giving our time and energy to. What Jesus is actually inviting us into in this passages is what he refers to as the heavenly realm, the kingdom of God, a way of being where priorities are clear and the focus is on what God’s focusses on, an existence where people look out for one another, where they share what they have and take what they need and leave some for others. And they do that because they trust that what is needed will be provided. So we might say that being worry-free isn’t the goal of a life of faith, it’s the result of getting our priorities right.
In one of the more challenging lines in this passage, we’re told not to be like the Gentiles who strive after creature comforts. We’re really being told not to act like non-believers. The irony is that most of us do act like non-believers most of the time. We’re functional atheists. We might say we trust God to provide for our every need but when push comes to shove, we’re much more comfortable providing for ourselves, just in case God doesn’t come through in the end. It’s hard to live an open-handed, open-hearted life, especially when things feel out of control.
So Jesus gives us some really simple instructions on how to cultivate our trust in God’s gracious provision, how to get our priorities right. All we have to do is pay attention. Look at the birds. Consider the lilies. Although it’s not explicitly stated, what’s being encouraged here is the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude. It’s as if Jesus is acknowledging that striving first for the realm of God, at least for most of us, is something we come to slowly. We don’t get it right overnight. So if we can begin with some baby steps, intentionally stopping to find something, anything for which we can thank God, anything we can acknowledge is not actually our own doing, then perhaps when the real challenges of life come we will be better able to notice the mysterious provisions that come our way, often completely unbidden.
Brother David Stendle-Rast, the Benedictine monk and interfaith scholar, famous for his writings, television interviews, and Ted Talks says that we all have experiences of gratitude in our lives every once in a while but we can also live gratefully by becoming aware that every moment of every day is a gift. Think about it, all that is certain in our lives is that we have this moment. We can never be absolutely certain of what will happen in the next moment. But, Brother David says, the gift that dwells within each moment is the opportunity it brings. The opportunity to enjoy it, to receive it and to be grateful.
That doesn’t mean that we have to give thanks for everything that happens in every moment. There are lots of things not to be grateful for in life like war, injustice, the loss of our health or the loss of a beloved family member or friend. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be grateful in those situations and availing ourselves to the God-given opportunities that arise within them.
That’s how some of the world’s most compelling art and inspiring life stories have come into being. They rise up out of the muck of life.
So, much like Jesus, Brother David has developed a very simple method for living gratefully in our often worrisome world. He calls it the Stop, Look, Go method. Many of us live our lives in go, go, go mode all the time which is why stopping is the first step in this method. It’s what we are doing today actually, stopping to give thanks.
Brother David says we all need to build stop signs into our lives. Even he who has worked hard to cultivate a life of gratitude says this is hard even for him to do. In one of his TED talks, he mentions a trip he took to Africa and how when he returned he was in awe of the water flowing out of his taps and the lights that turned on in his house with the flick of a switch. But before long he lost that sense of wonder and gratitude, so he had to put sticky notes, stop signs, on his taps and light switches to remind him how amazing it is to have water and light so readily accessible in our lives.
This makes me think of the toasted bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with mayonnaise I had when I came home from the hospital after my last surgery. I savoured every bite because the untoasted bacon lettuce and anemic tomato sandwich without mayonnaise I had in the hospital was so dreadful. And yet until this week I had completely forgotten how good that sandwich tasted along with everything else I put into my mouth without thinking day in and day out. Which is why the practice of putting a sticky note on our meals, otherwise known as the practice of saying grace before we eat is so important. It causes us to stop.
The next step in cultivating a life of gratitude, says Brother David, is to look. To open our eyes, our ears, our noses and all our senses to the wonderful richness that is all around us and to enjoy it. Consider the lilies. Look at the birds. And then, he says, we can open our hearts to the opportunities that present themselves. We are more able to see those opportunities because we are surrounded by possibility.
That leads to the final step in his method. After we look and see the opportunities, those opportunities invite us to do something. Sometimes it is just to enjoy and appreciate what we have. Other times it’s more challenging but it’s the noticing that fuels our going and our doing, our co-creating of the heavenly realm of equality and respect here on earth. Stop. Look. Go.
Last month I finished reading Diana Butler Bass’ latest book called “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.” In it, she talks about how she spent a good portion of her life worried that she was an ingrate. Being grateful was difficult for her. She disliked the notion of debt and duty and required reciprocity that so often goes along with our expressions of gratitude. You know how that is. I invite you for dinner and then you feel like you have to invite me back? It can be very difficult to give and receive freely without strings attached.
So Diana Butler Bass set to studying the topic of gratitude and then, much like Brother David, practicing it each and every day. One of the many things she noticed is that gratitude is inherently social. It always connects us as individuals to others. In the worst of what that can be it makes us feel beholden to one another as I just mentioned. In the best of what that can be it feels joyful and makes us want to reach out to others to share our gifts. It deepens our awareness of our common humanity, of humility and blessing. It calls us to focus on and build the world that God envisions.
This summer when we were driving home from the Okanagan we suddenly came upon a moose standing at the side of the road. Several cars had stopped with other onlookers admiring the majestic sight. As we drove away I wanted to flash our lights or honk our horns to signal to the other anonymous drivers on the road to slow down, stop and look. It’s not every day you see a moose on the side of the road. It is, however, every day and every moment that we are being given the very gift of life itself and more than we need to live and live well. So let’s try not to worry too much. Let’s stop, look, go and be grateful instead. And together, we will build the world that God has planned.