"Worry – Our Most Useless Experience"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 25, 2008
Psalm 62:5-12; Matthew 6:24-34
We know that worry will never enable us to put one foot in front of the other as we prepare to enjoy a hiking adventure on a backpacker’s trail. Even before this remarkable experience in nature begins, some people begin worrying about the weather patterns, finding enough watering holes, speculating about the presence of predators, wondering what might happen if there was a medical emergency, or dwelling on the possibility of a major equipment failure.
Paul Harvey often prefaces one of his News or Comment stories with these words, “Just so you won’t run out of things to worry about.” There is something about us that craves security and safety – it’s called the human survival instinct. Almost every adventure upon which we embark has a long list of “what if’s” and “But suppose this or that happens?” Worry can become a constant companion during every phase of life. The more we turn to it, the more our created response will grow. Worry can consume our lives to the point where we drive our friends and loved ones away.
When we sit down with a certified financial planner, for example, one of the first areas of exploration is our risk tolerance. In essence, the planner wants to know how secure we feel when placing a portion of our financial assets at risk. We can grow our assets faster with modest to moderate risk. For those of us who worry about the future, we may choose the most conservative vehicles in which to place our assets.
These are extremely frightening times to some people who look at escalating costs for everything from pharmaceutical products and health care to commodities like flour, milk and butter. It can be unsettling to observe that the price for a barrel of oil is hovering around $130. That translates into BIG bucks if a person is driving a SUV.
For others of us, we remember something Henry Ford once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” We recognize that there are remarkable opportunities for investing in companies that are on the cutting edge of technology that will carry our society to a brighter, energy independent, future.
The Bible clearly features the tug-of-war between these seemingly opposing qualities of life. There is the side that can be dominated by our fears, doubts and worries. This was the side displayed by the Prophet Elijah when he was hiding in a cave, fearful that Queen Jezebel would make good on her vow, “By this same time tomorrow Elijah will be dead.” (I Kings 19:2).
The other side is one that is optimistic and calm about the future, always thinking of ways for improving what we create to meet our society’s needs and requirements. This was the side that Jesus taught when he told his listeners the parable of the talents. He praised the two servants who invested his money without fear. He told the fearful servant, “You should have, at least, deposited my money in the bank so that when I returned, I would have received it all back with interest.” (Matthew 25:27).
It is one thing to understand these dueling voices and quite another to greet uncertainty with trust. Most of us say, “I can’t help worrying. It is part of being human.” The truth is that worry can literally kill you. First, it distracts people from their ordinary living patterns. Secondly, constant worry drastically weakens the body’s immune system. Adrenalin and cortisol are wonderful hormones when we need them but when they enter our bodies at high levels on a daily basis, they become like acid to our vital organs.
A decade or so ago, engineers, technicians and scientists were dying at record numbers at what was then Cape Kennedy. Blood work on randomly selected employees showed increased levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), the kind manufactured by our bodies, not the kind found in eggs and butter. The researchers were sent to discover why the death rate was far outpacing every other industry. The study revealed a most interesting conclusion. The demon that was killing so many people was worry.
Each year the appropriations for NASA had to be decided by Congress. Employees worried about their program being cut. Congress kept telling the Space Agency that it had to produce more successes with less money. Employees had financial commitments and decisions to make never knowing if they would have employment from one year to the next. Living with this level of worry and stress was taking its toll on their physiology. Worry was killing NASA’s employees at the Cape.
Tonight, NASA employees who have invested years of their lives in a fascinating project will live in 7 minutes of high anxiety. This is the time it will take for the Phoenix Mars Lander to touch down softly on the red planet near its north pole. If the landing is successful as everyone hopes, the project employees will have a future analyzing the data stream that will be coming from the probe. Are they worried? Did most of them sleep well last night? It depends on how grounded their spiritual orientation has made them.
In our lesson, Jesus sounds as though worry is not one of our human entitlements. Worry appears so natural to our make up that we wonder how Jesus could teach what he did. Jesus was teaching his listeners that worry is the result of being preoccupied with life issues over which they had no control.
Peterson’s translation has Jesus say:
Jesus is correct! If our moods and attitudes are governed by “what if’s,” we will be creating our own misery. If we live to the fullest in the current moment, we neither regret the past nor become fearful of the future.
The other night, NBC news interviewed a veteran who had returned from Iraq. A roadside bomb had destroyed his vehicle causing extensive burn injuries to the young man’s body. His dream was to become a chef when he returned to the United States. The camera crew entered the kitchen of his restaurant. His head and face are disfigured, but the spirit who lives inside is lighthearted, optimistic and gregarious. He said, “Well, I may not look like much but hopefully people will come in here because they enjoy eating what I cook. I may have to stay in the kitchen.” Yes, it is sad, but he is extremely grateful to be alive and can still be useful.A number of returning veterans are whole while living in shattered bodies. Their legs are gone but their spirit radiates that life goes on and “I am in charge of the quality of it.” They can become their own worst enemies by focusing on how cruel and unfair life can be. Or, they can use wisely and productively what they have.
This Memorial Day, think about them when our teeth are not as white as those of an actress in a television commercial, when our hair is receding at an alarming rate, or when our tummy is bulging and we are tempted to wear tight fitting human glove undergarments that create the illusion of physical fitness. Yes, we worry about how we look.
This is what Jesus had to say about that:
Has anyone, by fussing in front of the mirror, ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion – do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and designs quite like what they have? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside of them. (27-29)
We have to escape our habit of basing our happiness on external things, things that are always in the process of changing.
I remember a wedding that I performed while at Capitol Hill. Lots of details did not come together as the bride had planned. The soloist called to tell me that she had locked her keys and music inside the car. There was not enough time to send someone for her. The time came to light the tall candles on the altar and the taper was missing from the lighter that acolytes use. The candles remained dark for the ceremony. Two groomsmen came to take the runner down the aisle only to discover that it had been installed upside down. The runner kept tearing away from where it had been pinned at the front. A third usher came down the aisle and stood on it while two others unrolled it in the worst possible fashion. It wound serpentine down the aisle with large folds.The bride came down on her Dad’s arm. She looked at me with a smile on her face and said, “Isn’t this wedding a mess? I love all of it because today I am marrying my best friend.” She was not about to allow a series of reversals to rain on her parade. She kept her eyes focused on the main thing, and not on how such an imperfect ambience might appear to their guests. She enjoyed her moment.
If she could find humor on her wedding day, she was equipped with a spirit capable of greeting the rest of her life with the same lightheartedness, the same forgiving spirit and an orientation toward life that communicates, “It is what it is.” Only when we make judgments spiced with disappointment, remorse or expectations of misfortune do we invite worries, fears and preoccupations to assume control over the quality of our lives.
To the credit of our Volunteer In Mission team that recently returned from Juarez, they went in the face of dire warnings that the city was dangerous and unsafe. Stories were circulating that the military was needed to maintain order. People planning to travel to Juarez were advised to cancel and many of the VIM teams did.
Our team returned and reported that their experience was about the same as in former years. Because so many teams canceled, there are now economic pressures on the Mission House and on Jose Luis Ramos who manages the facility where teams of volunteers stay. There are a number of families who were counting on living in a new home that will now have to wait.
Do we live by trust in God or by everything that we give the power to worry us? This truth has a universal quality to it and lessons about it can be found in every major religion in the world.
For example, in the sixth century B.C., Lao Tsu, who was the father of Taoism or Godism, wrote these words that are very similar in spirit to words spoken by Jesus:
Accept what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other than what it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it, for to try to change what is, only sets up resistance in you. The universe provides everything without requiring payment or thanks, and also provides for everyone without discrimination – therefore let us present the same face to everyone and treat all people as equals, in spite of how they behave.
When we place our trust in the one who gave us life, there really is nothing of which to be afraid. Life can reverse itself in seconds. We are never safe. The adventure of living is learning how to grasp every moment of life with both hands and to know that at all times we and everyone else are perfectly all right. From God’s perspective, absolutely nothing in this world can hurt us. Our thoughts, moods and attitudes, however, can terrify us. We must learn to let go and row our boats gently down the stream. When that stream empties into the ocean, all of us will be home and completely safe from our journeys here.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and merciful God, so many unique events continue to unfold in our world, a world filled with striking contrasts. We enjoy freedom while remaining guarded against those who would take it away. In the midst of destructive earthquakes and cyclones, people are being prevented from giving expression to what would nourish and heal those most in need. We experience new ways of bringing diseases into remission while seeing the weekly results of suicide bombers. We find numerous people angrily expressing themselves while few of them are communicating. Help us to understand that it was into such a world that Jesus came. He taught his listeners not to expect a crop where no seeds have been sown. Inspire us, O God, to export to the rest of the world our desire to live in community as one. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving God, as we gather this morning to worship, we are greeted by a marvelous Memorial Day weekend, a time when many people have a pause in the song of their harried and often challenging schedules. While we enjoy these moments of calm, we are aware of the runaway fires in California’s redwood forests, of the 101 people who have died in tornadoes this year, and of the tens of thousands of people entombed forever under rubble from the powerful earthquake in China or washed away in the cyclone in Burma.
We are grateful that we live in a world where those who have will go to the aid of those who have little or nothing. The will to reach beyond national borders during a time of disaster is one of the fruits of spirit. We are grateful that slowly, more and more nations are following our example, an example born by a desire to be in and live in community.
On this weekend, loving God, we lift up the memory of those who have paid the ultimate price for preserving human freedom. Today we ask that you bless our deceased sentinels of liberty who surrendered their futures to preserve ours. Bless the families who understand the vacuum caused when loved ones do not return. Bless those of us who are willing to step up and serve, so that future generations might improve the foundations we have laid today. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . . .