Sermon

Mark 12:28-31; Luke 12:22-34

Rev. Dr. Heather G. Shortlidge

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An exasperated husband once asked his wife,
“Why are you always worrying
when it doesn't do any good?”
Anyone ever asked some version of that question—
“Why are you always worrying
when it doesn't do any good?”

But in response to her exasperated husband,
the wife quickly piped back, “Oh yes it does!
Ninety percent of the things I worry about—they never happen.”

In today’s world, the list of things to worry about
seems to be getting longer and longer.

Shooters show up in the lobbies of buildings, at outdoor concerts, and in high school classrooms.
Friends and family members are diagnosed with cancer or a tumor in their brain.
Scientists reveal alarming facts about climate change and the warming of the earth.
Politicians rage, bickering over who is right, who needs to be blocked or removed from office.
Church members deliberating and speculating and conjecturing “who will be our next senior pastor?”

There are so many things to worry about these days.

The big cosmic things,
as well as the everyday things.
At the end of the week, the planning team for Art Under the Stars
was completely glued to the weather radar,
trying to guess whether our outdoor event
would be held outside in the courtyard as planned,
or inside the sanctuary as feared.

We scoured those weather maps,
analyzing thunderstorms developing out of the west, pouring through data
from the national oceanic and atmospheric administration.
Wrinkling our brows—wringing our hands,
hoping that such extreme focus
might somehow convince the incoming front
to go anywhere but downtown Annapolis.

There are two things, I tell people, that I refuse to pray for: parking spots and the weather.
I’m pretty sure that God has more important things to attend to than my plea’s for parking or my petitions around precipitation.
But boy, was I tempted to break my own rule on Friday night and bow down to the weather gods.

We ended up outside
and although there were storms all around us,
the rain held.
We had a lovely gathering outside in the courtyard.
A neighbor across the street—who’s lived there for five years, but never ventured over to the church,
heard the jazz music and came over with his wife and baby.

The parents of one of the musicians came to hear their son play.
When I greeted them, they said,  “we had no idea this space existed in downtown Annapolis—what a gem.”

There were quilts and kinetic sculptures,
photographs, paintings, watercolors and wood carvings, all the work of some very talented artists connected to our congregation.

Julia Chamberlain, a 9th Grader at Southern High School, and the granddaughter of Louise and Bernie Wulff, was one of the artists displaying her work.

She had a lovely painting on an easel,
right where the teak table and chairs normally are.
It was a lovely painting—except for its caption:
It said: “we must all learn how to dance in the rain.”
I was tempted to stick up an addendum that read:
“but not tonight!”

***

For those of us who are worriers,
and I include myself in that category,
today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke
is a challenging lesson.

Jesus says don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes
or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion.
There is far more to life
than the food you put in your stomach—
more to your appearance
than the clothes you hang on your body.

To strengthen his request,
Jesus invites us to take a look at the birds,
free and unfettered,
not tied down to a job description,
careless in the care of God.

If the birds aren’t enough,
Jesus also invites us worriers
to walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers who never primp or shop,
but who have color and design like no other.

Trying to soothe our anxiety,
and assuage our fear, Jesus says:
If God gives such attention to the lilies and the birds, don’t you think God will also attend to you?

Jesus is trying here, to get us to relax,
to not be so preoccupied with getting,
so that we can respond to God’s giving.

Jesus was saying don’t get all worked up
about what may or may not happen tomorrow,
because God will help us deal
with whatever hard things come up.

***

It was about fifteen years ago,
when they noticed that Peter’s arms
no longer swung when he walked.
Peter was a neurologist, so he probably already knew
what was coming.
It wasn’t long before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s,
the disease that he had spent his entire career working on.

But true to fashion,
Peter Schilder, the first and for a long time
the only neurologist in Annapolis, kept working,

Instead of complaining, he adapted.
When he began to lose dexterity in his hands,
and could no longer button up a shirt,
he started leaving his shirts buttoned
and would just slip it on and off over his head.
Eventually, he kept a tie attached to a shirt as well
so that he wouldn’t have to fuss with that.
He was unbelievably patient—
maybe because he had watched so many others
with the symptoms that he was now experiencing.

Peter’s patients loved him
because he immediately put them at ease.
After all, no one shows up in a neurologist’s office
without being extremely worried.
Peter would diffuse the anxiety with a little humor,
putting up the MRI pictures and then saying,
“Well, the good news is that you have a brain…”
Patients who came in worried sick,
left knowing that they had a doctor
who knew what he was doing,
who would fight for them and care for them
and be by their side
as their brains stopped working the way they were supposed to.

Parkinson’s Disease was a hard thing—a very hard thing.
But time and again, Peter’s wife, Marion, would say to me, “I can’t worry this disease away.”
We used a portion of this text at Peter’s funeral,
because Marion wanted others to be reminded
that worrying does not add time to our lives.

But not worrying—just quitting worry cold turkey—
is not really an option for many of us.
After all, I do not think it is possible to raise kids
without being worried sick at one point or another.
I don’t think you can listen to the news these days
and not worry and worked up
by all that is happening.

Which is where, I think, the church comes in.
It’s easier to worry less about a disease you cannot control when you know the other people you are with will hold you up and carry you
when you no longer have the strength to hold it together.
That on the days when our faith is weakest
and we can’t sing, or pray or live as we think we should...
on those days—that’s when others in the community sing and pray and live on our behalf.
That’s the blessing of the church.

When Jesus points us toward the lilies and the things with wings,
he’s asking us to shift our focus,
to pay attention to others,
that’s the way we resist anxiety, he says,
by focusing on the people who enter your life:
Listening to them.
Invite them into your life and your losses.
Allow them to be real with you and you with them.

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver,
says it this way:
“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. 
Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Biblical scholar, Walter Bruggemann, writes
that Americans have a love affair with “more”
and that we will never have enough.
He thinks that consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy,
but that it has become a demonic spiritual force among us.

This belief of not having enough can be traced back to the beginning of the Bible.
The bible starts out with God and a liturgy of abundance.
Genesis 1 is a praise song for God’s generosity.
It tells how well the world is ordered.
It keeps saying, “It is good, it is good, it is very good.”
God blesses the plants and the animals, the lilies, the birds, the humans.

But then in the 47th chapter of Genesis,
Pharaoh dreams that there will be a famine in the land, so he gets organized and monopolizes the food supply.
For the first time in the Bible, someone says,
“There’s not enough. Let’s get everything.”
And right then and there, Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity,
of not having enough.[1]

***

John D. Rockefeller was driven
by this fear of not having enough and needing more.
He became America’s first millionaire when he was 33 years old. At 43, he ran the largest company in the world, Standard Oil.  At 53, he became America’s first billionaire. But he paid a very high price for these accomplishments.
He had crushed so many people in his race to the top, that he was one of the most hated men on earth. And worry and high-tension living
(in today’s world—we call that stress)
wrecked his health
By the time he had a billion in the bank,
he was suffering from mystifying digestive problems.
He lost all the hair on his body, even his eyebrows.
The man looked like death done over.
Newspapers started to write his obituary,
because they were sure he was going to die.

His doctors ordered him to retire and abide by three rules:

  1. Avoid worry
  2. Relax and make time for mild exercise
  3. Watch his diet

So he retired.
He started to sleep through the night again.
He chatted with his neighbors.
Worked in the garden.
Played games and sang songs.
He followed his doctors orders,
but he did something else too.
Now that he was not working,
he had time for reflection.
And he began to think about others.
For once, he stopped thinking about how much money he could get, and instead began to wonder how much happiness his money could buy others.

And this began his great journey of philanthropy.
John D. Rockefeller began to give his money away.
He first tried to give it to the church,
but interestingly, the church was quite picky.
Because he had crushed so many people in his business dealings,
pulpits all over the country thundered with cries of “tainted money!”

But there were other places that needed a boost.
He learned of a starving little school on the shores of Lake Michigan that was being foreclosed upon because of its mortgage.
He came to its rescue and built it into the now world famous University of Chicago.

When a doctor said, “Fifty cents worth of medicine will cure someone of hookworm,”
Rockefeller ponied up,
stamping out the disease.

Once he started to focus on giving,
doing exactly what Jesus talks about in today’s passage from Luke,
his health began to stabilize
and he did not die as the newspapers had predicted.
Instead, Rockefeller lived 45 more years,
dying at the ripe old age of 98.

The Christian cure for that creeping angst
that tells us we do not have enough
or that we are not enough,
the antidote for that kind of anxiety, Jesus says,
is to make purses for yourself that do not wear out,
to get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt,
to be generous, to pay attention to others,
to relieve the worries of someone else.

At yesterday’s arts workshop,
Lisle showed us a painting from the artist Jan Richardson based on today’s scripture lessons.
Reflecting on today’s texts, the artist said,
“I find myself wondering not so much
how to keep myself from worrying
but wondering instead
how I might be called to relieve someone else’s worry— to be part of the way that God provides
clothing and shelter and solace for someone else.”

We all have worries—some more than others.
But I wonder what the world might be life
if we spent our time trying to relieve the worries of others.

Giving up worry, especially in a world of mass shootings, global warming,
Parkinson’s disease, political chaos,
and a time of transition within our church,
it’s not easy stuff.

But it’s what Jesus is trying to teach—
saying that we do not live in a random universe,
but in the creation of the one God:
and that we address each day’s problems as they come, confident that our lives are in the hands of a loving God.

Consider the lilies, Jesus says,
when you begin to wring your hands and wrinkle your brows.
And take a look at the birds. Because worry—
the kind the world is really good at peddling right now, will not add a single moment to our lives.

 

[1] Bruggemann, Walter, Deep Memory Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World