With the Spirit’s help, listen for the Word of the Lord from the Gospel of Luke:
Jesus 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 pagans of the world who 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.” (Luke 12:22-34)
Secular messengers sometimes proclaim the sacred message of the Gospel, and one such unlikely courier of the Good News is the scrawny, freckle-faced, gap-tooth-smiled Alfred E. Newman.
His signature philosophy for carefree living, “What, me worry?”, has been a staple of popular culture for more than 100 years. Early in the 20th century, his impish face and nonchalant attitude appeared in ads for painless dentistry, and in the 1950s, Alfred E. Newman became the perennial cover boy for Mad magazine.
“What, me worry?” is a rhetorical question that’s packed with plenty of potent potential. Stronger leaning into the motto would be a game-changer for those among us who engage with worry as a daily pastime.
Even so, when it’s a naïve, adolescent, clownish character like Alfred E. Newman doing the talking, it’s amazingly easy to brush off the life advice he offers as nothing short of ludicrous.
But it’s no laughing matter when it’s the very Son of God doling out the orders: “Do not worry” is full-throated command that Jesus issues in this morning’s lesson. He recognizes that fretting about what-ifs and anticipating nothing but the negative is, at best, a waste of time and energy.
If you’re a worrywart, do you even remember what agonized you two weeks ago? Probably not! Because whatever it is that troubled you most likely didn’t happen.
At its worst, worrying about what might or might not happen sets off a destructive, downward spiral of dark thinking that siphons off the joy of living and, more importantly, drains away the trust you and I ought to have in the Lord.
Our trust in God should be anything but timid.
That’s because one of the most beautiful and consistent themes of the Bible is the generous provision of the Lord – the generous sower of gracious seed who plants his Creation in a world chock-full of abundant resources, new possibilities, and unlimited potential.
The bigheartedness of God is what the opening chapters of Scripture lay before humanity. But before too long, humans begin to question the generosity of God.
The choice of Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit uncovers their fearful worry that what God already has given isn’t enough and that the Lord is somehow holding back on what’s needed to survive. Though God freely provides all they need to thrive and flourish, Adam and Eve doubt God’s goodness and bounty and decide to take matters into their own feeble hands by hoarding some edible riches for themselves. (Genesis 3)
And thus begins the unraveling of human trust in God. Beyond the Garden of Eden, the entire story of the Bible convicts humanity of forever seeing scarcity amid great abundance.
The COVID pandemic surely pours gasoline on the fires of thinking in terms scarcity.
Certain consumer staples have been hard to find. People have lost jobs and paychecks. Meaningful relationships remain in short supply as family and friends linger in physical distancing. And, worst of all, neighbors and strangers have lost their health, and some have forfeited their earthly lives. Nothing about any of that screams abundance, and it surely feels like God is being stingy.
But before we sucked too far down that rabbit hole, let’s do what Jesus says and “consider the raven.”
First off, rather like the starlings and grackles that speckle our yards this time of year, ravens are not attractive birds. No thanks to poet Edgar Allen Poe and his “once upon a midnight dreary,” ravens are creepy. They scavenge to stoke their voracious appetites. Ravens will eat just about anything from seeds and berries to roadkill, hence the term “ravenous.” That’s why God in the Old Testament declares ravens to be unclean animals. (Deuteronomy 14:14)
So, followers of Jesus would have steered clear of ravens at any cost, and deliberate contemplation about their dark being would be considered a foolish waste of time.
But that’s precisely Jesus’s point!
These homely, creepy, hungry birds have enough of what they need to survive. God provides for them, which leads Jesus to challenge the mindset of scarcity. “Doesn’t God value you as much as, or even more than, these bottom-feeders of the bird world?”
Jesus then draws attention to another slice of Creation: “Consider the lilies, and how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!”
Once again, as Jesus invites, let’s do some pondering.
Lilies definitely are much easier on the eyes than ravens. The beautiful plants can grow as tall as six feet, and they’re one of the top 10 choices for floral bouquets and centerpieces. Jesus draws attention to their beauty by claiming that King Solomon in all his gilded living never dressed so well.
Jesus’s point, again, is that God provides for the flower’s proper outfitting. So, why are you so worried about what you’re going to wear?
Even so, even as we emerge from the COVID pandemic, it’s tempting to call out Jesus for making such wild-eyed claims.
Our seduction is lumping the Lord together with the likes of Alfred E. Newman and other apparently simple-minded types who shun the inclination to worry. It’s somehow perversely appealing to see the glass as half empty, and we might have a smidgen of good reason for that perspective.
After all, look at the harm this virus has done to individuals and families, to cities and states, to our nation and the entire world. What do you mean “don’t worry?”
But, lest we forget, Jesus isn’t born into a life of material abundance.
His first home is a feeding trough in a place where animals bed down for the night. Later in life, he’ll declare that, while foxes have holes and birds have nests, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head and no place to call home. And Jesus lives under the oppressive rule of Roman occupation and heavy taxation, which makes Jesus acutely aware of scarcity.
Yet, Jesus lives with a mindset of trust in the God who ensures that there is, and always will be, enough. In a time of deep crisis and apparent shortage, Jesus’s remedy for anxiety is consideration of birds and pondering of flowers – and then, above all else, seeking the Kingdom of God.
And to his dear little flock of nervous sheep, Jesus dismisses the need to search for the Kingdom of God as if it’s as mysteriously hidden and out of reach as lost treasure buried in ocean deep. No, it is God’s good pleasure and pure delight to give you the kingdom and to reveal it right before your very eyes.
Once again, the generosity of God springs forth.
God has been, is, and forever will be a gracious and generous host.
God hoards not the kingdom like a Caesar or other earthly rulers, despots and captains of industry who think and act for no one other than themselves and their bottom lines. No, God wants to share the Kingdom and promises to hand it over to those who follow in the footsteps of his only begotten and beloved Son.
If you want, you can drink in all that Good News as a cure for worry and leave it at that.
But Jesus doesn’t.
He goes on to tell his followers to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. And here’s the Lord’s calculus that once and for all solves the problem of worry:
If you truly believe that God definitely is a generous host, that there truly is enough, that God really is providing, and that God absolutely promises to give you the very Kingdom of God, then a radical change takes place in your heart.
Not only do you stop worrying about whether there is enough for you and those in your inner circle, but you also begin to open your heart and mind to the needs of others. You look for opportunities – even prepare for opportunities – to be generous with the time, talent and treasure that God has freely given to you.
After all, Jesus doesn’t just talk the talk. Jesus walks the walk. Jesus gives all he had of himself when he died for us and our salvation upon a rough-hewn cross. Indeed, though he was rich by heaven’s measures, yet for your sake and mine, he became poor, so that you and I, by his poverty, might become spiritually well-heeled. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
And from our abundance of joy over such amazing grace should overflow a wealth of generosity from ourselves that reflects our deep-seated belief that there is enough, that there is plenty to share, and that worry hinders not the generosity of our sharing.
I very well might be preaching to the choir about all this. During the past 15 months, as the coronavirus brought scarcity and infected worry, you nevertheless remained extremely generous in your financial support of this congregation’s mission and ministry. That allowed our worshipful work of loving and serving God and neighbor to continue uninterrupted and open doors for us to be the church in some fresh, new ways. Thank you for faithful stewardship.
And now, the elders and I are inviting you to deeper generosity in the sharing of your treasure.
We seek your financial support of much-needed repairs and repainting of the walls and ceilings of this sanctuary.
And at times over these past several months, as the Session has been laying out plans and sharpening budget-writing pencils, I sometimes find myself sliding down the slippery slope of worry – that we won’t get the money needed to take on the work of rejuvenating this sacred space where we encounter the Lord our God in our gathering for worship.
Apparently, I need to spend more time considering ravens, and pondering lilies, and basking in the Kingdom of God – even as I seek forgiveness for my sin of worry and pray for the Holy Spirit to deepen my trust in the Lord’s ability to provide what’s needed to get the job done, using the vast riches that God already has given to each of us.
Hear, now, Jesus calling:
You are on the path of My choosing. There is no randomness about your life. Here and Now comprise the coordinates of your daily life. Most people let their moments slip through their fingers, half-lived. They avoid the present by worrying about the future or longing for a better time and place. They forget that they are creatures who are subject to the limitations of time and space. They forget their Creator, who walks with them only in the present.
Every moment is alive with my glorious Presence, to those whose hearts are intimately connected with Mine. As you give yourself more and more to a life of constant communication with Me, you will find that you simply have no time for worry. Thus, you are freed to let My Spirit direct your steps, enabling you to walk along the path of Peace. (Sarah Young, Jesus Calling, p. 128)
“What, me worry?”
May it not be so, even as the Lord makes it so.
By the movement of the Spirit, let our treasure be where our hearts are – in grateful worship of our generous Lord and loving God.
Amen, and amen.
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, May 2, 2021.