A sermon from February 27, 2011 given at Salem UMC in Haw River, NC.
Stop Worrying and Pray
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Gospel: Matthew 6:24-34
Please pray with me (contemporary prayer from gbod.org),
In a culture that is more preoccupied with satisfying meal preferences than with making sure that all are fed, we are guilty of too much worry.
Forgive us, Lord,
For needless worry.
Forgive us, Lord,
For any worry that is rooted in selfishness.
Teach us, Lord,
The grace of waiting patiently when we are in genuine need.
Remind us, Lord,
That you are both Lord of the sparrows and Lord of our lives.
Remind us, Lord,
That you are the source of all that we need. Amen.
The scriptures are full of dense single verses. The last verse of today’s Gospel Lesson gives us one of those, but it is a verse many may not like to hear, and it might be a little tougher to hear knowing that these were words of Jesus himself: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” I will confess, this verse doesn’t bother me at all. Seriously, not one bit. I’ve never been much of a worrier, the Lord blessed me with a disposition that leads me away from worry. But, the Lord also has a sense of humor. The Lord matched me up with a wife that has been known to worry about how much worrying she does. I’ll give her some credit though, she doesn’t worry nearly as much as she used to. I like to say that I’m rubbing off on her, but she tries not to give me too much credit, she doesn’t want my head to get too big.
But I can’t claim that I don’t worry at all. As many of you know, Rebecca and I are expecting our first child. One thing I’m worried about is getting my hand broken in the delivery room in a few months. This is a realistic worry, she’s one tough soon-to-be-mommy. In fact, we’ve already planned that she gets my left hand to squeeze, because at least that way I’ll still have my good hand to use if she destroys this one. Also, I admit I’m worrying about a college fund already. Kathleen hasn’t even been born yet, so that’s a little bit crazy. Oh yeah, and I’m still in school myself, so that’s probably a lot bit crazy to be worrying about paying for her college before we pay for me to finish first. That just goes to show that even a self-professing non-worrier can find all kinds of nonsense to worry about. In this sense, isolating this single verse is quite helpful for me: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
But, to only focus on this one verse doesn’t give us the full message. Sure, when we worry about things that are fairly insignificant, like whether we can wear a brown belt with black shoes, this verse is helpful on its own. But there are many real worries out there, hunger and famine, sickness and cancer, violence and war, really big things. Things it should be okay to worry about. How can people in these types of situations find these words comforting and assuring? “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Well, we need to look a little bit wider to realize we can’t always just single out a verse here and a verse there to decide EVERYTHING that is said in scripture. It’s way easier to remember a single verse though isn’t it?
I imagine a lot of you know John 3:16 -- " For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” We often us single verses to summarize portions of the Gospel, and this is a helpful tool.
Such as another one from John’s gospel -- “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Or this one from Matthew’s gospel -- “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
And for good measure, how about one from Paul’s letter to the Romans -- “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
All of these single verses can empower Christians in their faith journey. The problem is verses like these can become so popular that they begin to be known solely as isolated statements. This in many ways makes empowerment one of the furthest things from the truth. Take that last verse, which is Romans 3:23 -- “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” To a person feeling they are not worthy of God, say someone struggling to hold a job to provide basic needs for their family for example, this verse on its own can be discouraging, even depressing. But sometimes it’s just simple enough to read the next verse also to realize that much more is said: “and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” By adding that next line we regain some comfort from the despair of being told we are unworthy sinners, in fact, there is hope through the grace of Jesus.
Also take a wider look at the Great Commission that concludes Matthew’s gospel. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That makes things simple enough, all we need to do is baptize everyone, just baptism, that’s it. But wait, just follow this often quoted verse a few words further: “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Well, that’s a whole other story, that’s quite a deal more than the holy ritual of baptism.
Let’s look again at the verse from John 14:6 -- “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If we take these words of Jesus standing alone we are led to believe we have no access to the Father. That would really mess up the concept of a fully intertwining, fully relational Trinity. But again we sacrifice some of the full story if we only focus on what we want to focus on, hear the next verse – “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Now we can see a different account which Jesus tells his disciples that by seeing him, they have also seen the Father, this is because, with the Holy Spirit, they are inseparable.
Even John 3:16 has more meaning if we add verse 17. Hear them together: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Through memorizing John 3:16 we learn that belief in Jesus, the only Son of the Father, leads to eternal life. For many that is ingrained through memorizing that verse, but what do we really know about Jesus when we pay attention to the next verse? God through Jesus comes to us to save us, not to condemn anyone.
So I say all this to say we’re doing ourselves and those around us a disservice if we only remember what isolated verses say. Now if an isolated verse reminds us of the larger context, then that is a wonderful tool for our personal faith and our ability to share our faith with others. Take the great commission verse again -- “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We know the Christian faith is more than baptism, but we want to emphasize how important baptism is through recall of this verse as it also helps us remember that we are instructed to teach what Jesus taught the first disciples and what our Christian tradition has taught since.
Let’s go back to this verse in our text today: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” We understand how difficult this verse can be for many, especially those in difficult situations. So we need to understand this verse in context.
We find this verse very nearly at the midpoint of the Sermon on the Mount, which is the longest portion of continued speech we receive directly from Jesus in the entire Bible. As Jesus tells everyone within earshot to not worry, first let’s look at what he’s been preaching about. The Sermon on the Mount begins in chapter 5, and we can see that Jesus has been preaching about quite a long list of things that could easily be considered worries:
Being salt of the earth and light of the world
Obeying and fulfilling the law
Anger and reconciliation
Adultery that is committed in our hearts
To resist retaliation,
To love your enemies
And, Giving to the needy, which is both a worry for the giver and the receiver
But then it’s very important to note what Jesus does next, beginning with verse 6:5, he tells all those surrounding him on the mountainside how to properly pray, what to do and what not to do in prayer, then Jesus provides through example the prayer that has been prayed by Christians for centuries upon centuries since, what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
So what I see Jesus doing here is a little like bowling from 3 feet away. He sets up all these concerns that his followers should have -- and if they don’t have them yet, he just gave them to them It’s like he’s setting up his own pins. And just because it’s fun to get a strike, he pushes the pins together a little bit more than normal, because he knows the answer. So he takes just a step or two back from these pushed together pins of worry and bowls the “prayer ball.” BAM, a perfect strike! Take all these potential worries and focus on the Lord easing your burden and “take it to the Lord in prayer.” (UMH 526)
THEN and only then, does Jesus tell his followers: Therefore, do not worry…
Jesus already told the crowd what was worth worrying about, and then gave a solution of ridding oneself of those worries -- prayer. So now when he says do not worry, he is telling all of us to stop worrying about the little things in life. And anything that we do find that troubles us, remember -- he instructs us to “take it to the Lord in prayer.”
In other words, he’s telling us to TRUST. Hmmm, trust? That’s so tough for us, especially in our culture when it’s ingrained in us to be self-motivated and self-sufficient, because that’s what it means to be a strong American. But let’s go back to what we heard in today’s epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 4, Paul realizes that others in the early church are judging his effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel -- as I know some of you are doing right this minute, wondering if this intern has what it takes to do this -- it's human nature. But Paul’s trust is solely in the God, “It is the Lord who judges me.” I can only wish that I could be that confident to be that humble and solely trust in God as Paul does here. Well maybe rather than wishing I should pray for it instead. Which reminds me of every December since I can remember I always ask my Mom, “hey, what am I getting for Christmas?” And every year she says “I’m not telling you.” And my reply is always, “well, it never hurts to ask.” And that’s true here and with prayer, it never hurts to ask. But don’t go crazy and take this too far, asking God for a yacht, it’s not even close to appropriate, but to ask the Lord to fulfill your needs is entirely appropriate.
In fact, let’s look just a little bit further in the Sermon on the Mount. Just a few verses after our text for today, 7:7-8 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Well, look there now I really have some backing when I talk with my Mom this December. But in all seriousness, let’s look at what Jesus does here. We’ve already talked about how he sets up his own bowling pins of worry and knocks them down with the “prayer ball.” Then he tells us very forcefully not to worry. But then he follows it up with another way to deal with these inconvenient earthly worries of food, shelter, and clothing: ASK. And how did he just instruct us to ask God for things? Prayer.
So, Stop Worrying and Pray.
Stop Worrying and Pray.
Let us pray (from the UMBOW #485),
O God, source of all that makes life possible,
giver or all that makes life good:
We gather to give you thanks,
yet we confess that we have often failed to live our thankfulness.
What we have we take for granted,
and we grumble about what we lack.
We have squandered your bounty,
with little thought of those who will come after us.
We are more troubled by the few who have more
than by the many who have less.
Forgive us, O God.
In this hour of worship, accept our thanksgiving;
and teach us to make gratitude and sharing our way of life;
through the grace of Jesus Christ. Amen. (Paul J. Flucke, U.S.A., 20th Cent., Alt.)