March 19, 2017 “Security” – Matthew 6:25-34

Matthew 6:25-34
“Security”
March 19, 2017 – Third Sunday in Lent

Was Jesus practical? What I just read for us may seem to you about as far from practical reality as you can get. His words sound like lovely images and beautiful ideals. But He is not really telling it like it is about our lives. He is so unrealistic.

In Confirmation class I used to show a snippet from Franco Zeffirelli’s film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It has beautiful cinematography and wretched ’60s music by Donavan. I would show the scene in which Francis becomes horrified with the wealth of his home and the pomp of his church. His father is a wealthy textile merchant. Francis throws all the family’s beautiful rolls of cloth out the window into the street. He quotes these same words from Jesus. All he wants is to live like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Possessions will not make him happy. Get rid of it all.

The conjunction of Jesus’ words and Francis’ actions always impresses me with their conviction. What they do not impress me with is pragmatism. As much as I am stirred by what appears to be a man taking Christ as seriously as possible, I cannot conceive how I or anyone I know might ever do the same. It seems too idealistic, too far removed from real life to believe that ordinary people will give up everything and quit worrying.

It actually feels irresponsible, lazy, indolent. That was the constant accusation of Francis’ father. The young man who wanted to live like the birds was ignoring his responsibilities to his family and community as he set out on the road of obeying Jesus as literally and faithfully as he could.

Another movie may demonstrate our true attitude toward what we read from the Bible today. In The Lion King Simba meets a couple characters named Timon and Pumbaa. They introduce the young heir to the animal kingdom to a philosophy of life which sounds remarkably like the recurring refrain of today’s passage, “Do not worry.” The warthog and the meerkat sing the African phrase, hakuna matata, “no worries.” It’s Swahili, and literally means, “There are no concerns here.” Timon and Pumbaa sing it to a catchy tune (by Elton John), which you find yourself humming long after the film is over. These two homely animals teach the young lion to eat bugs rather than working up a sweat chasing prey. Take one day at a time, live a peaceful, unworried life and let the world go by.

Yet part of Simba’s coming to maturity is realizing that hakuna matata doesn’t cut it. He has responsibilities. There are matters back in the kingdom he should worry about. He may not just drift through life. He needs to get up off his furry duff and accept the mission and work he has been given. Anything else is the shirking of duty and real adulthood. So the lion goes back to his family, shoulders his responsibility and starts worrying. If that is what the animal kingdom requires, how could God’s kingdom be different? We need to worry about and provide for our own security.

Even if an unworried life does not strike us as foolish idealism or lazy indolence, it probably seems simply impossible. Whenever I have talked about this passage, I have always heard people respond with the feeling that it is just impossible to live without worry. What Karl Barth says is true,

         If we ever take the risk (and it is a risk) of preaching on Matthew 6:25-34, we at once meet with all kinds of sullen or dispirited or unwilling reprimands…, and most of all, if we are honest, from our own hearts and minds. For how can we help taking care for our life?[1]

One of the hardest things to imagine is a life without worry or anxiety concerning basic necessities of life. Part of the survival instinct built into us that we will be concerned with putting food on the table and buying shoes for our children. No wonder Jesus upsets us so much here. He’s asking us for an attitude which may be just fine for bird brains or vegetation, but which is unreachable for any right-minded human being.

Three times in these verses Jesus commands us “Do not worry,” because our Father in heaven will care for all our needs. What, I say, about my need to worry? How will that need get met? How will God address the anxiety I cannot let go of, no matter what?

This passage of Scripture, beautiful as it sounds, is generally ignored. Not many of us, and I include myself, has given much thought recently to how we might allow God to eliminate worry from our hearts and minds. We are all worriers and we generally just accept the fact that we are like that.

Thinking about the fact that we all worry can start us down another unhelpful path regarding this passage. What Jesus says feels harsh. Here we are, bogged down in inescapable anxiety, and He criticizes us for it. Verse 27 asks the rhetorical question, “can any of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life?” Worrying is silly. Verse 30 questions our trust in God’s willingness to provide for us, ending with the words, “you of little faith.” Worrying is a failure. Some say it’s a sin. Verse 32 says bluntly that it is pagans, non-believers, who worry about food and clothing. Worry is silly, unfaithful, wrong.

So Christ’s call to an unworried life becomes one more burden on top of all our other anxieties. It is an indictment. Not only are we concerned about food and clothing, and any number of other problems, like taxes and tooth decay and tires for the car, but Jesus condemns us for our concern. If worry is a sin, then with my all my other worries, I have to worry about worrying. There is no escape!

Karl Barth asks us to consider this: these anxieties which we find so inescapable—are they a good thing? That is, do we enjoy worrying? If an unworried life were not idealistic, indolent, or impossible, would we not choose it? Does worrying bring us any joy or pleasure? When Jesus commands us not to worry, is He forbidding something sweet and pleasant? When He calls us to eliminate worry from our lives, is He really adding such a heavy burden? Is it not that He wants to free us from a burden, the burden of fear and anxiety which constantly weighs us down? Wouldn’t it feel better not to worry?

Worry is not truly practical. A life without worry is better even in pragmatic terms. A study of steel workers on high rise buildings asked if they would be more careful, efficient and productive working with or without a net below them? One might imagine lack of a net would make you more careful, more precise about where you put your feet or laid your tools. It would heighten alertness to what you are doing. A little healthy worry would make you work better. The study showed just the opposite. Those who worked with a net below them made less mistakes, had fewer accidents, and got more work done. The absence of worry is practical.

God knows an unworried life is best for us, that His security is all we need. Barth says this about Christ’s command not to worry,

Do we not stand to lose all the evil, and win all the good, if, obedient to the command, we are not anxious…? …the command frees us. It is, therefore, full of the Gospel, full of grace, full of God’s friendship.[2]

         This is not an impossible demand to give up security. It is a gracious word, the word of a Father who really does love and value us much more than He does the birds of the air or the lilies of the field.

Part of our problem is the way we often read the Bible, and the way we preach it in church. We pick it up and read a little portion and expect a couple of isolated paragraphs to stand by themselves. Then when the words don’t seem to fit our lives we get frustrated and begin to think we cannot understand them or that the passage is irrelevant to us.

That’s one reason we’ve begun to read large chunks of God’s word together last fall and now this spring. It’s hopelessly impractical to focus on one small piece of it and expect it to make sense or to work into your life somehow.

Start any course of instruction or training and jump to the end, then you will find yourself frustrated. Begin piano lessons and immediately turn to the final piece in your book and it will seem impossible. The same is true for the last problem in your math text. Or start training for a marathon by trying to run 26 miles on the third day and you will fail. Try to build your muscles by putting the pin in the lowest heaviest weight on the machine and it will be hopeless. Start the life of Christian discipleship by turning to Matthew 6:25 and expecting to just stop worrying and it will be just as hopeless.

Jesus’s command here is grace, not condemnation. However, the grace is given as we make progress through what has come before, beginning with the unconditional blessings Jesus began this sermon with. A life secure in God and free from worry is a life which has first learned to accept His blessings through Jesus, as expressed at the beginning of chapter 5. That life is also one which has begun to show that love and blessing to other people, as Jesus taught in the rest of chapter 5. An unworried life is also built on a deepening relationship with God found in unpretentious practice of giving and praying and fastening, as Jesus explained at the opening of chapter 6. And then of course, directly related to our worrying, is last week’s text, calling us to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth.

The progression is not absolute. You do not have to master every step in order to go on to the next. We do not have to be paragons of love toward others in order to grow some in our relationship with God. Yet there must be some growth in each area. Loving God without developing some love toward other people is just impossible. In my old Teaching Little Fingers to Play piano book you could not even attempt “From a Wigwam” on the last page without a little progress on other pieces that used both hands. A runner cannot even try 26 miles without having once or twice run at least 12.

Life without worry, then, is going to come to us through what John Ortberg calls “training rather than trying.” The worst thing you could do today is go home determined to try hard to worry less about security. What I encourage you to find is some small step in that direction.

The first step is to accept an eternal security which is all God’s gift through Jesus. He said you can’t make your life any longer by worrying about it. But you can make your life eternal by accepting and trusting Jesus as your Savior. If you need to take that first step, I’d be glad to talk with you and help you do it.

Beyond that first step, we all are learning together to appreciate the depth of that free gift of salvation, to love God and love others, to pray, to worship, to give, to serve. We can’t really be free of worry and secure until we’ve learned a little of these other things.

Jesus is reminding us that by faith in Him, we are, in fact, working over a net. All the most crucial matters of our existence are provided by the grace and goodness of God. We have, in Jesus, an assurance that we cannot fall. God Himself provides for our life forever by the gift of His own Son’s life. Not one of our cares on earth can remove that gift from us. We are always secure. Part of following Jesus is to keep remembering that.

Take Jesus literally when He says to us, “Look at the birds of the air,” or “Observe how the lilies of the field grow.” You may not be able to quit worrying right now, but it is possible to pause for a moment and watch a bird or focus on a flower. Combine that observation with reflection, as Jesus suggests, concerning how God like a father loves and cares for us. Say thanks for the amazing gift He has given us in Jesus. And in that moment you will have done some training. Worry will be a little farther from you.

I confess it is still not easy. We bend beneath our worries like flowers bend in the wind. Yet God gives us the moments. Last time I preached on this text I wrote about a morning  years ago. We were scurrying around getting breakfast and lunches ready before school and work, when our daughter Susan said, “Look, it’s a robin.” She stood there staring out the window into the backyard, fascinated by the little red-chested bird pulling dry grass and worms from our lawn. What I wanted to say was “That’s nice, Susan. Now get your shoes on and the table set so you won’t be late to school.” But I bit my tongue and by God’s grace we all stopped for a moment and watched the little creature who without even knowing it relies entirely on God for what it needs. And I pray that we, that I, moved forward into the kingdom just a little in that moment.

One of my favorite writers said it much better than I can. Izaak Walton closes his Compleat Angler with the reflection that a pious man once said that we should beget “mortification,” that is, realize our mortality, by going to church cemeteries, viewing grave stones, even visiting funeral homes where corpses were being laid out, and “there consider how many dead bodies time had piled up at the gates of death.” Walton then offers his own, and I think much better, suggestion saying,”

when I would beget content, and increase confidence in the power, and wisdom, and providence of Almighty God, I will walk the meadows, by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the lilies that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures that are not only created, but fed, man knows not how, by the goodness of the God of Nature, and therefore trust in him. This is my purpose.

Walton was right. Jesus was right. Security and an unworried life are not beyond our grasp. We approach it whenever we allow ourselves the time and place to be aware of all the reasons we have to trust in God and not be anxious. May God give you those opportunities often. Walton says, “So, let everything that has breath praise the Lord: and let the blessing of St. Peter’s Master be with mine. And upon all that are lovers of virtue; and dare trust in his providence; and be quiet; and go a Angling.” May you go on a spiritual fishing trip and find the peace of God at the end of your line.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958), Vol. IV, 2, p. 470.

[2] Ibid., Vol. II, 2, p. 599.