The message for today is… wait for it… “don’t worry, be happy!” Okay, that’s it. Go in peace and drive safe. (pause) If only it was that easy. Despite today’s lesson, we do worry, don’t we? We worry about the past, we all have regrets and there are things we wish we had done differently. Hindsight is 20/20. If only I… You fill in the blank. But we also worry about the future. What’s going to happen to our children and grandchildren? What if my health fails? What if I run out of money? What if,… again, you fill in the blank. The simple fact is we worry about all kinds of things. So what are we to make of this teaching that we have before us today? Well, I read a story this week that may help put things into perspective.
A little boy was riding his bicycle when he saw an old man sitting out on his front porch just smiling away, happy as a lark. So, the boy turned his bicycle around and said, “Old man, why are you so happy?” And the old continued to smile and said, “It’s because I have the present.” “Wow!” said the little boy. “I love presents. Christmas presents. Birthday presents. All kinds of presents. Any time. How can I get this present?” “Well, you already have it.” “I already have it?” said the little boy. “I don’t have any presents.” “Yes, you already have it. Someday you’ll understand.’
Well, some time passed and the little boy grew to be a teenager and by this time the old man and the little boy have become close friends. The old man had watched the boy grow up and they had many wonderful conversations on that front porch. During one of those conversations, the boy once again asked “Old man,” he said, “what’s this present you’re always talked about?” “The present is the greatest gift you can ever have.” “well, if it’s so great, just give it to me already.” “I can’t give you the present. You already have the present and once you understand, everything else will fall into perspective.” “Well,” the boy persists, “…is it like a magic wand?” “No, it’s not a magic wand. The present is magical in a way, because once you discover it, everything will make sense.” “Well, is it like a magic carpet that you ride on and you can get anywhere you want to go and do anything you want to do?” “No, it’s not like that at all. But once you have the present, you’ll be content right where you are.”
Well, some more years passed and the young man graduated from college and by golly he’s figured it out. “I think I finally got it. The present is right now, isn’t it? “Yes, you’re right.” Said the old man now beaming with pride, “It’s enjoying the moment now. It’s being in the present.”
A few more years passed, the young man got married, had a couple of kids, but things weren’t going all the well. So, he came to see the old man and said, “You know, I’m just at a plateau. Nothing is happening. I’m living in the present as best I can.” Well, the old man said, “there’s a little more to the present then simply living in the moment. You must also learn from your mistakes and let go of past regrets. Only when you do that can you truly live the present.”
The young man went back to his life, he remembered his mistakes, let go of his regrets as best he could and he lived in this present. Now, many more years passed and the once young boy was now a middle-aged man. He hadn’t been back to see the old man in a long time. Until, one day he learned that the old man’s health was failing. He rushed home so see his friend one more time. And as they spoke for the final time, the old man had one more piece of wisdom for his friend. The old man said, “You’re doing everything right except one thing, you need purpose and a meaning. Write it down, think about it, and work every day toward your goal.” The man went back to work, and suddenly, his whole future changed, because life had purpose and meaning.
A few months later the old man died, and man returned home for funeral to discover that from the wealthiest to the poorest, everyone in town it seemed attended the funeral. The old man had befriended lots of people along the way and he had shared the “present” with all of them.[i]
You can understand why I couldn’t help but think of today’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount as I read this story. Jesus says, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?
Now one way, the most common way perhaps, to approach this text is to challenge the importance our society places on material things. It’s like the old George Carlin routine about stuff. “A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” George would say, “that’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff! And Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? So you can get even more stuff.”[ii] And that’s a valid critique of Americans and our fascination with the material. But I’m not convinced that’s the end-all/be-all of this text. I think Jesus was driving at something deeper here. And the key to this deeper understand lies in our concept of “worry.”
Too often, I think, we put too much emphasis on trying to completely release ourselves from worry. But that simply isn’t possible and I don’t think that’s what Jesus is asking of us here. Rather, he’s challenging us to put things into proper perspective. That’s what the story of the old man and the boy was about. Perspective. Putting life, the past and the future into proper perspective so we can be happy in the present. You see, perspective asks us to take a time-out; to take a step back and consider all the possibilities. It’s like an old boss of mine used to say, “when you’re faced with a decision or a conflict, take a moment to respond rather than react. It may take 5 seconds or 5 minutes or 5 days but respond instead of react. That’s advice I still use today. Because response requires perspective, thought, consideration. A reaction is just that, a reaction.
Now, let’s put this into theological terms. When we react to a situation without thinking it through, it usually comes from a place of fear. I would contend that fear, being afraid, is what’s behind Matthew’s concept of “worry.” “Don’t live in fear, worrying about the mundane things of life, but instead, have a little faith that God will provide for all your needs.”
This text, when you view it from this perspective then, is really about choosing faith over fear. As I’ve said many times, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, doubt can be useful in helping us to find our way to faith; no, the opposite of faith is fear. Fear is stifling and it cripples our common sense. Yes, there are times when our natural fight or flight reaction comes into play and is necessary for survival, but most of the time fear is the enemy. “Who among you by worrying, by living in fear, can add a single moment to your life?” Jesus says. But, and here’s the alternative; the response from a perspective of faith. “Instead,” he says, “desire first and foremost the Reign of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” And he reinforces this teaching by wonderfully using images of birds and lilies to demonstrate how lovingly God cares for every creature and flower. And through these images Jesus reassures us that God will provide for all our needs as well.
And I know, this is easier said than done. But this is where faith comes into play. I mean consider that lives of those whom Jesus was addressing on the mountainside that day. A meal wasn’t waiting for them in the refrigerator or at McDonald’s and they couldn’t go to Walmart and pick up some clothes. And yet, even though their daily survival depended upon what they could find to eat and what they could make to wear, Jesus tells them to set those worries, those daily fears aside, and depend upon the grace of God. Even in the face of life or death, maybe especially in the face of life or death, trust in God. That’s the message here. That’s the essence of faith.
I have one final thought this morning concerning this perspective on faith. We heard in our Mission Moment last week about the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Ghana Africa. And that reminded me of some of the African pastors with whom I attended seminary. And I recall the words of one person in particular, a man named Samuel, as he described his calling to ministry. “In Africa,” he said, “unlike most of you who are called to serve a church, I am called to walk among the nomadic tribes as they move across the land.” “Notice,” he said, “that I use the words, ‘walk with.’ I do not feel as if God called me to “pastor to” the people as much as God had invited me to “walk among” them on their journey.” I think there’s great wisdom in Samuel’s words. When Jesus began to teach the people on that mountainside, he wasn’t preaching to them as much as he was assuring them that God, incarnate, would be walking among them. And as God walked among them in the human person of Jesus, he would be facing the very same struggles and joys and hardships and celebrations that they were going to face. The UCC statement of faith says, “he shared our common lot.
My friends, we can finally let go of past regrets and worries and release our fears; we can imagine a future with purpose and meaning allowing us to live joyfully in the present, because God is going to “share our common lot”. We finally do not walk alone. The Reign of God is here, now, walking among us. Lifting us up when we fall, bringing purpose back into our lives when we stray, and challenging us to fearlessly share this journey of faith with all whom we encounter. So, as you depart this service today and continue your journey of faith, heed the immortal words of that great theologian, Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t worry, be happy”
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Based on a story by Dr. Spencer Johnson in The Present (Crown Publishing) 2010
[ii] From “Stuff” performed by George Carlin, 1986. (babyboomerflashback.blogspot.com) 2008