I’ve been worrying about a lot of things, lately. I worry about being a good pastor, and father, and husband. I worry about friends who are having medical tests done. I worry about family members with health issues. I worry about my kids going back to school soon, after some of their best friends moved away over the summer. It seems I always have a lot on my mind. I’m not sure they’re related, but I am prone to chronic headaches that were worrisome enough a few years ago that I visited a neurologist. He thinks that they’re related to the migraines that I’ve been getting since I was in middle school — that they have become chronic migraines, though significantly less painful than the great big real ones that I still get, though only occasionally.
Recently, I visited my general practitioner to discuss my routine blood panel, noting that, as far as my blood is concerned, I am the very picture of good health, except for slightly elevated liver enzymes. She looked at me and said, “Do you take a lot of Ibuprofen?”
“Yes,” I said. “I have chronic migraine. And while I try to change it up so that I’m not always taking the same NSAID, I do consume them almost every day.” So she prescribed a medication for me to take for my headaches so that I could give my poor liver a rest.
What role worry has played in these headaches is uncertain. Migraines are complicated, and more likely triggered by things like food, weather, and sleep patterns, than stress. But while I may appear cool as a cucumber on the outside (and if I don’t, please don’t tell me; just allow me to continue to delude myself), on the inside, I’m a worrier. So I’m not sure how to take it, when I read the words of Jesus, saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…” Don’t worry about my life? Are you kidding? What would I do with all my time?
You’ll recall that in my last post I noted that Jesus’ teaching about treasure in heaven and “serving two masters” leads automatically to this post’s teaching about not worrying. This is evident by Jesus’ use of the phrase, “Therefore I tell you,” meaning that what he says to us now is the logical conclusion of everything he started to say a couple of posts ago. We find life’s meaning and purpose in what or whom we serve — and so we should choose to serve God, rather than treasure worldly success or societal honor. That’s what Jesus has been getting at: we can’t serve our own wants and God’s will at the same time.
So how, exactly, are treasure and worry related? Jesus gives us some strong hints. They’re related because the prevailing worldview of American society is the philosophy of scarcity. In other words, we worry about what we will eat, drink, and wear not because we are fat, slovenly gluttons (well… you’re not), but because we’re afraid that we might not have what we need tomorrow. Again, the issue isn’t money per se; the problem comes when we make wealth, comfort, or social esteem our god — that thing, as Luther once observed, which we trust for our every good. Once we believe that wealth can satisfy our deepest needs, then we suddenly discover that we never have enough. Money, after all, is finite. And so once we decide money grants security, then we are ushered immediately into a world of counting, tracking, and stockpiling. No wonder we worry! In a world of scarcity, there is simply never enough, and certainly not enough for everyone.
My sisters-in-law are all animal lovers. One is a veterinarian, as is her husband. Another is a technician in a vet’s office. A third is a certified equestrian trainer. They all love animals; they all understand animal behavior; and they all speak in related terms. So they would be the first to describe themselves as “food aggressive.” Whenever you’re having dinner with them, perhaps enjoying a picnic, you must remember that just as you should never reach in and try to take a bone away from a dog, you should never reach in and try to steal food off of their plates. If you do, you’re liable to get stabbed with a fork, or perhaps have your hand bitten. They all laugh about it, but they also all take it pretty seriously. Don’t touch my food! I have no answers for why they are this way, except to muse that since there were five children growing up in that family, perhaps they felt like they, like nursing puppies, had to jostle for their share or risk not getting enough to eat! Such is the mentality of many in our society, functioning under the philosophy of scarcity.
But what God offers us in Jesus Christ is not scarcity, but abundance. The alternative Jesus invites us to consider is the God who is infinite and whose love for us and all creation is infinite as well. Love operates from a different “economy” than money. For instance, when my son Liam came along, I didn’t divide my love for my daughter Afton and give half to him; I suddenly had more love, more than I could possibly have imagined before. No doubt you’ve noticed the same thing: how the more love you give away… the more you have. Love — and especially God’s love — cannot be counted, tracked, or stockpiled. And when you live in this kind of relationship of love and trust, you’ve entered into the realm of abundance, the world of possibility, the world of contentment. Suddenly, in this world — and Jesus calls this the “kingdom of God” — not worrying actually becomes an option!
It’s hard to believe in this “world of abundance” that Jesus proclaims, this world that invites us to trust God’s faithfulness like a flower does the soil. The discrepancy between scarcity and abundance is one explanation for why, from a socio-political perspective, Jesus had to die: because those in power were so invested in the world of scarcity that abundance was threatening to their sense of order. Scarcity, after all, creates fear, and fear creates devotion to those who promise protection. That’s why gold prices soared over the several years following the terror attacks on September 11, 2001: as people were encouraged to fear the future, they sought comfort and solace in owning gold. Could anything be more emblematic of the idolatry about which Jesus speaks, more emblematic of serving the wrong master?
Those in power encourage us to view the world in terms of limited resources, so that we will trust them to provide for us. Because we live in fear, and entrust ourselves to the whims of others, we have no freedom. Abundance, on the other hand, produces freedom. Rather than imagine Jesus’ world of abundance, and committed to keeping the power they derived from a fear born of scarcity, the rulers of Jesus’ day put him to death.
But God doesn’t operate from scarcity; God operates out of abundance. So in response to the crucifixion of God’s Son, God does not keep track, or look for payment, or hoard power with which to destroy the offenders; instead, God resurrects—which, when you think about it, is the ultimate act of abundance: creating something, once again, out of nothing, drawing light from darkness, giving life to the dead. It is an act of overflowing abundance where there is supposed to be not just scarcity but nothing whatsoever! This is the world Jesus invites us into: a world of abundance, generosity, and new life. But it is also a world of fragility, trust, and vulnerability. The lilies of the field, after all, can’t defend themselves (neither do they provide for themselves) but must trust God’s providence and love.
“Therefore I tell you,” Jesus said, “we can serve the Lord and trust that God will provide for our every need!” Why should we worry about food, clothing, or shelter? God will see that we have what we need; therefore, our only pursuit need be the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. The rest will come.
We ask this of God each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer — and especially when we bother to consider our words and actually mean it! The Lord’s Prayer says, “Give us this day our daily bread.” By praying this way (regardless of what the phrase actually means — a subject debated by Biblical Greek scholars), we are entrusting our provision to God — give us what we need in order to serve and glorify you.
That’s not the kind of prayer that will get us rich, is it? We don’t ask God to abundantly bless us, or to make us rich. We ask one day’s provision. It’s a long-standing joke amongst small church pastors that their churches only have about 18 months’-worth of money left, but they’ve been saying that for the past 30 years! I once knew a wise church Elder who said, “God never wants us to have too much; if we have too much, we stop depending on him for our future.”
Jesus put it this way: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” I tell myself this all the time. These are some of my very favorite words of Jesus. They advise us to recall to whom our future belongs, and to put our trust in the Lord and not ourselves. If we have only ourselves to depend upon, we will worry and we should worry. But if we rely on our heavenly father, who gilds the lilies and whose eye is on the sparrow, we need not fear tomorrow. Today’s troubles are enough for today.
Our Lord even provides for us around his own table. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of the Enemy. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Ps. 23). That’s abundance! That’s extravagant generosity! And it comes as the table prepared by our Lord, through his death and resurrection, through his ascension to the Father’s right hand, and through the sacrament that he offers to us for the healing of our souls, for our reconciliation with God and one another, and for our participation in God’s generosity to the world.
Did you know that the word “worship,” which comes from Old English, is actually a compound contraction of Worth-ship? In other words, by devoting ourselves to the praise of something, we are ascribing it worth, value, treasurability (which is a word I’m pretty sure I just made up). What we treasure, we worship. So you can put your faith in yourself, in the company you work for, in the money you have saved up, or in your plans for your future, if you want to spend the rest of your life worrying about whether or not those things will pan out and come through for you. Or you can put your trust in the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who offers freedom through his abundance. Trust instead of worry. What’s that worth to you?