Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 8, 2010

2010.08.08 “What, Me Worry?” Luke 12: 22 – 34

Central United Methodist Church

 “What, Me Worry?”

Luke 12: 22 – 34

Pastor David L. Haley

August 8th, 2010

“Jesus continued this subject with his disciples. “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.

“Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance — but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think God will attend to you, take pride in you, do best for you?

“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

“Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bankrobbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” – Luke 12: 22 – 34, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

  Some will recognize it, and some won’t: the face of Alfred E. Neuman, the fictional mascot and iconic cover boy of MAD magazine, founded one year after I was born, in 1952.

      Now we have The Simpsons to satirize American society, but before The Simpsons, there was MAD magazine. Indeed, The Simpson’s producer Bill Oakley has said: “The Simpsons transplanted MAD Magazine. Basically everyone who was young between 1955 and 1975 read MAD, and that’s where your sense of humor came from. And we knew all these people, you know, Dave Berg and Don Martin – all heroes, and unfortunately, now all dead. And I think The Simpsons has taken that spot in America’s heart.” 

On every cover of all but a handful of the magazine’s 500 issues has been the face of Alfred E. Neuman’s, distinguished by his jug ears, missing front tooth, and one eye disquietingly lower than the other. Editor Harvey Kurtzman first spotted the image on a postcard pinned to an office bulletin board: “It was a face that didn’t have a care in the world, except mischief,” recalled Kurtzman. Neuman’s third appearance was in the illustrated border of the first magazine version of Mad #24 (July 1955) with his now-familiar signature phrase “What, me worry?” underneath.

      Little did I know then, that a time would come when I would wish I was more like Alfred E. Neuman, in attitude, if not appearance. Although there were a few times in my childhood that I did look surprisingly like Alfred E. Neuman, with freckles and missing teeth.

      As I grew up, I learned what most of us learn: that there are people like Alfred E. Neuman, “slap-happy” people who seem to rarely have a care in the world.  Or at least, if they do, they don’t show it.  “What, me worry?”

      Then there are the rest of us, w natural born worriers. I know, for certain, that I got the “worry wart” gene from my Dad.  We make lists, we mark things off.  We’d rather be an hour early than five minutes late. We like to be prepared for every eventuality, and get flustered when we’re not.  On the outside we may appear calm, but our internal engines are always racing, and sometimes at night – when it’s time to sleep – we can’t find the “off” switch.  

      We may become like the man portrayed in a New Yorker cartoon, sitting up in bed, late at night, scribbling on a note pad, talking on the phone. He tells his friend, “When I can’t sleep, I find that it sometimes helps to get up and jot down my anxieties.”  Around him, every square inch of the bedroom walls is covered with dozens of scribbled worries — war, recession, killer bees, aging, calories, sex, balding, radon gas, and so on.

      Not that all worries are imagined; some are frighteningly real. In fact, as any worrier worth his salt will tell you, the list is almost endless: disease, divorce, children, finances, unemployment, unhappiness, not to mention environmental disasters, economic collapse, rogue states, and the threat of terrorism, especially weapons of mass destruction. For me, it probably didn’t help me to work all those years as a firefighter/paramedic and see all the bad things that can happen to people. And, in case you haven’t noticed, I am breathing a little easier now that my son is out of the Marines.

       In some people, some forms of anxiety disorders become debilitating; surveys have found that as many as 18% of Americans may be affected by one or more of them at any given time. There is, for example, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, various phobias, social anxiety disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, to name some of the more common ones.  If you know anyone who suffers from any of these, or if you yourself have ever suffered from any one of them, you know they are nothing to laugh at, and are rarely cured by saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Like most forms of neuroses, talk therapy, behavioral therapy, and medication are all often helpful and sometimes necessary.

 

Our gospel for today anticipates both our personal neuroses and legitimate anxieties, although not in a way that we might want or expect. Following up on last week’s obsession about money and things, Jesus continued to speak on this subject, addressing our existential anxieties:

“Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more. “Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance — but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think God will attend to you, take pride in you, do best for you?”

        Keep in mind that we’re still in the section where Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, which began in Luke 9:51. Imagine that as they walk and talk, birds fly overhead, or sing in the trees. Imagine that flowers dot the fields, or grow by the side of the road, as they walk along.  By the way, when was the last time we heard a birdsong, or stopped to examine a particularly stunning flower? We’re unlikely to hear or see them, when our eyes are down and our backs are bent with worry, and we’re only looking at the road in front of us.

        Ever hear that story about the child, who while walking, found a quarter? Ever after, he walked with his eyes down and his back bent over, on the lookout for more money. And, sure enough, over his life, he was to find some $2,500 in loose coins and bills. What he didn’t see was, the blue sky, the green trees, the beautiful flowers, or the faces of the people he met on his way. Sometimes, burdened by our anxieties, it sounds like us, doesn’t it?

        In fact, I have always agreed with something church consultant Roy Oswald once said, which is that the worst advertisement for the Christian faith and any congregation is a pastor who walks around with sad face and shoulders bent under the anxieties of ministry, a mere shell of a man or woman. That why – as a Pastor – I’m determined to do whatever it takes to keep from winding up that way.

        Indeed, that’s almost exactly what Jesus had to say:

“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”

      I know, if we were there, we might want to take exception. Jesus’ words seem so out of step with our society and the way we live, indeed the way we have to live.  As Ulrich Luz has put it, when interpreted in a superficial manner, this statement could only have been written by a single guy living a carefree life on the beach in sunny Galilee. The implication is that much of what matters to us today, the material aspects of our lives, ought not be taken seriously and can be completely entrusted to a God who cares for us. It seems to suggest that one does not need to work or prepare for the future; we can simply relax knowing that God will take care of our needs. But as most of us know, this does match what we know of life on this planet. Obviously Jesus never had to worry about the rent or health insurance or even car insurance.  (WWJD – What would Jesus drive?) 

      On the other hand, let’s face it, the way we live is not working out that well for us, either. In fact, the stressful, ever-anxious way we live is literally killing us, either causing or exacerbating many of the disease processes that take us down. Constant anxiety depletes our immune systems, it keeps our bodies in a constant state of fight-or-flight response, raising our blood pressure and constricting our arteries, squeezing off the blood flow to our heads and hearts, and yes, even our pocketbooks. 

        “Relax.”  “Let go,” says Jesus. “Open your eyes, your hearts, even your clenched fists:”

“Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bank robbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. It’s obvious, isn’t it?  The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

      Not bad advice for a week in which the Edens Bank was robbed yet again, and the first bank I ever owned stock in, The Bank of Ravenswood, was taken over by federal regulators.  It’s the 13th bank to fail in Illinois, and the 109th in the United States this year.  (Just another thing to worry about)

 

        Perhaps, like me, you’ve known these words of Jesus for a long time; in fact, we may even think about them often. Perhaps like me, you’ve tried to slow down and smell the roses, but find you are worried about the thorns; you’ve tried to stop and hear the birds singing, but all you can think of is the West Nile Virus, carried, of course, by birds.” 

        Even though I haven’t achieved “What, me worry?” status yet, much less the trust in God that Jesus both commended and modeled, I do appreciate the wisdom of 91 year old Huston Smith in his book Tales of Wonder, Adventures Chasing the Divine: An Autobiography (2009).

Born to Methodist missionary parents in rural China in 1920, Smith (who by the way is still a Methodist) enjoyed a distinguished career as a scholar of world religions. His book The World’s Religions, first published in 1958, has sold 2.5 million copies as an introductory university textbook on the subject.  As he once confessed, “I never saw a religion I didn’t like.” During his life and travels he met such religious luminaries as Aldous Huxley, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Dalai Lama.

Smith has been married to his beloved wife Kendra for almost seventy years. However, despite their profound knowledge and practice of faith and religion, they – like all of us — have also known at times the realization of their worst fears. They lost their grown daughter, Karen, to cancer at age 50, and their granddaughter Serena, 30, to a mysterious murder.

In the second half of the book, now near the end of his long life, Smith describes his personal Christian faith, and says that he’s absolutely convinced of at least one thing: “We are in good hands.”

At 91, I think Smith has gotten what Jesus was talking about.  In life, in death — relax!  We are in good hands.

I want to acknowledge my indebtedness in this sermon to Dan Clendenin for his reflective essay, “Don’t Worry About Your Life:
 Jesus Speaks to Our Fears and Anxieties,” The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, August 2, 2010, http://www.journeywithjesus.net 

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