Don’t Worry (8/22/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
We are spending a couple of weeks in the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Last week we talked about the parable of the rich fool, and, I’m happy to say, discovered that there are no such people among the members of this congregation. Oh, most of us have our fair share of resources, but our wealth becomes our master only when we place it above the things that really matter—God, humanity, love.
The passage you heard read form the lectern this morning is the concluding paragraph of one of the most famous and beloved passages in the Bible. I want to read that passage in its entirety. This is the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, verses 22-34:
He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
That is one of the most comforting passages in the Bible, and we need to hear it often. Life is so short, and we spend a significant part of it worrying about things that don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things. It is so easy to get caught up in all the little details, and miss the big picture. But how do we keep from worrying? That is a pretty tall order, especially if you happen to be cursed with a type A personality. To make matters worse, many of us Type A’s are Meyers Briggs J’s!
If you think that sounds like a bunch of meaningless psycho-babble, I understand. And this morning we won’t go into all the details of what those letters mean to psychologists. But suffice it to say that if you, like me, are a Type A / Meyers Briggs J, you know all about worry. Mellowing out and going with the flow runs contrary to your nature. You like to control things. You like to know things are well planned, and that they are going to turn out just fine.
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Most of us worry far too much. Of course, there are really only three things to worry about when you analyze the situation, and those three things are: the past, the present, and the future. For us worriers, that pretty well covers things. If we could quit worrying about the past, present and future, we wouldn’t have to return to Jesus great words from Luke over and over again, reminding us that life is too short to spend our days fretfully wringing our hands and biting our nails.
Those rare people who seem to live free of worry can be very frustrating to those of us who sweat all the little details of life. I read a story about a doctor who somehow lived a life completely free of worry, much to the consternation of his wife and children. One day, his wife said to him, “You wouldn’t even worry if the children and I dropped dead right here in the living room, right now!” And he calmly and rationally replied, “Well, it wouldn’t make much sense to start worrying then, would it?!”
Most of us are not like the good doctor, and spend more than a healthy amount of time worrying. And since there are only three things we could possibly worry about—the past, the present and the future—perhaps we should consider each of those.
Worrying about the past. Think about it. That has to be just about the most stupid thing a person could possibly do. Not that I don’t engage in that activity with great frequency! But I recognize the futility in it. We can certainly learn from the past, but to worry about it? Science fiction author Robert Heinlein, agreeing with many quantum physicist, says there is one past and an almost infinite number of futures. It’s too early in the day to give ourselves a headache wrestling with quantum physics, but his meaning is clear. The future may unfold in any number of ways, but there is only one past, and we can’t change it. End of story.
When I played Little League baseball, my coach made me the starting pitcher in the championship game for Meadowbrook Little League in Anderson, Indiana. This was a very big deal at the time, even though I can now look back on it and put things in perspective. There was a guy who lived about 8 houses down from me on the same street—Artie Baker—who was sort of my nemesis through those years. We were very competitive with each other, and frankly weren’t especially fond of each other.
We were on opposing teams in this game. It was late in the game, and my team was clinging to a two-run lead. I started getting a little wild, and managed to load the bases. And sure enough, Artie Baker comes up to bat.
Now, Artie was the home-run king for the league, meaning he had hit more home runs over the course of the season than any other player in the league. My coach came out to the mound and told me to intentionally walk him. It would walk in a run, but we would still have a one-run lead, and the coach was confident I could strike out the next batter.
And so I started to intentionally walk him. For those of you who do not follow baseball, this is done by softly lobbing the ball to the catcher, several feet from the batter. After four balls the batter walks to first base. It was on the third lob I tossed to the catcher that I saw a devilish gleam in Artie Baker’s eye just as the ball left my hand.
Did I mention that this was the championship game? Did I mention that everybody I knew was at this game—parents, family, school chums, all the players from all the league teams? What happened next, I promise you, is 100% true. On that third pitch, Artie Baker stepped clear across home plate, swung the bat high over his head, and hit a grand slam home run that won his team the championship.
There has never been another time in my life that I so desperately wished I had never been born, or could turn back time, or could at least shrink to the size of an ant and hide beneath some blade of grass. But I was stuck there on the pitcher’s mound. I looked up in the grandstands where some people laughed, and some people cried; and I looked at the opposing dugout where they were all running out onto the field to congratulate Artie and celebrate their championship, and then to my own dugout where mouths were gaping open and my coach held his head in his hands.
That was the most painful, embarrassing moment of my life. I had to live around all the people who witnessed this travesty of justice. I am convinced that to this day—37 years after the fact—most of the people in attendance at that game still tell the story of the day some idiot named Gary Cox gave up a game-winning grand slam, in the championship game, while trying to intentionally walk his sworn enemy!
I spent a few days…weeks…years…worrying about that incident. But no matter how I replayed that day; and no matter how far outside I threw that pitch as I replayed the game in my imagination; and no matter how awkwardly Artie swung that bat—that ball turned into a game-winning grand slam every time I relived the nightmare. And no amount of worry could change that fact.
I learned a valuable lesson in all of that. First, after a few weeks, I learned how to laugh at myself. And second, I learned to let go of the past. Worrying about the past is the most stupid and futile activity a human being can possibly undertake. Every person in this sanctuary today is an alumnus of the school of hard knocks, and that terrible educational institution has taught us a valuable lesson: You cannot change the past, but you can ruin a perfectly good present by worrying about it.
So if we should not worry over the past, we can surely find good reasons to worry over the future. I mean, if life has taught us anything, it’s that things can go wrong quickly. Still, there is an old saying that goes, “Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere.” And worrying about the future is the sure sign of a lack of faith. When the Apostle Paul tells us that faith, hope and love are the most important elements of life, he doesn’t give us any room for worry. What is faith, if not faith that the future is ultimately in God’s hands? What is hope, but hope for the future?
Now, worrying about the future is surely different from planning for the future. Stanley Allyn writes, “There is no use worrying about things over which you have no control, and if you have control, you can do something about them instead of worrying.” That makes sense. The future isn’t something over which we have complete control, but neither is the future something that just happens to us. Our future has a shape to it, and that shape is woven from the threads we weave together today.
But there is a difference between judicial planning and fret. When asked what had robbed him of the most pleasure in his life, one old man replied, “Things that never happened.” And think about it! How many hours of our lives have we spent agonizing over some future that never occurred? How much dread have we endured worrying about future events that simply didn’t happen?
Robert Jones Burdette, a clergyman from over 100 years ago, had it figured out. He wrote, “There are two days in the week about which and upon which I never worry. Two carefree days, kept sacredly free from fear and apprehension. One of these days is yesterday, and the other is tomorrow.” Of course, he had a pretty good teacher. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
But what of this present day? Jesus seems to tell us that we need not worry about the past—God has covered our mistakes; and we need not worry about the future—God is ultimately in control, and we should trust God. But what about today? What about this present moment, which is so ripe with opportunity for worry?
Jesus addresses that rather directly in today’s scripture reading when he says, Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds. Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!
We’ve just got to learn to relax, and the only way to do that is to trust God with the entirely of our lives—the past, the future, and importantly, the present. St. Augustine was a tortured soul who wrestled with every theological question a human being can possible confront. But he found his answer, eventually, in this prayer: Our hearts are restless ‘til they find rest in thee.
Yes! We are incapable of lives free of worry, unless our faith grows to the point we really do trust God—trust God with our past, our future, and our present. Where else could we possibly place our trust? In our houses? Our cars? Our jobs? Our bank accounts? Those are not treasures worth giving us a moment’s worry. They will all fall, ultimately, to thief, or moth, or rust.
Jesus’ words: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Such wisdom from the sage of Nazareth! When our hearts are truly surrendered to God, and we are free from needless worry, we are freed from our fear. Who is against us if God is for us? And if we have nothing to fear, then we are freed to love recklessly, unconditionally. Why not? And in the end, is our love for God not measured through our love of others?
I recall reading about a psychologist who specialized in end-of-life issues, spending most of her time around people who were soon to pass beyond the reach of all they knew and loved. This psychologist had spent countless hours with corporate executives, high powered attorneys, and other men and women whose lives had been amazingly successful by the standards we usually use to measure such things.
She said she was surprised not so much by what she heard in these sessions, but more by what she had never heard. She never heard anybody say that he wished he had spent more time at the office. She never heard anybody lament some trial she almost won, or some deal he almost made, or some business opportunity that slipped through his fingers.
When it comes down to the end, she discovered, it’s all about people. It’s all about relationships. The size of the house a person lived in means absolutely nothing; the friends and loved ones who shared that space—they mean everything.
She never heard a person lament having spent too much time with family. She never heard anybody sorry for the large number of friends they had made. She never heard anybody regret having spent money for a vacation that was barely affordable. She never heard the man, approaching death, who wished he had loved his wife a little less, so her pain would not be so great at his departing.
The dying are so wise. They see things so clearly. They understand that ultimately, everything in life is a gift from God, and love is the only gift we have to offer in return. In the final analysis, our lives will be measured not by what we had, but by what we gave; not by what we achieved, but by who benefited from our achievements; and not by the expanse of our holdings, but by the width, and depth and breadth of our love.