February 26, 2017
Austin Mennonite Church
Don’t worry, be happy
Psalm 131; Matthew 6:24-34
Twenty years ago Bobby McFerrin’s song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, was at the top of the music charts. It was used for a while in George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign until it was pulled because McFerrin refused to give permission for its use. It became a popular song in Jamaica after Hurricane Gilbert hit the island nation in September 1988 when the song was first released. Here’s the beginning of the song:
Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note-for-note
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry, you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy Don’t worry, be happy now
Some see “Don’t worry, be happy” as a formula for facing life’s trials. Another perspective would be to see it as a philosophy of denial.
The word, “Worry” is used five times in the scripture text today from Matthew 6, in the center of the famous Sermon on the Mount, a collection of the sayings of Jesus. One commentator called the Sermon on the Mount, “The Manifesto of the King.” It offers a description of the kind of life expected in the new community gathered in the Jesus movement of first century Judaism and it gives us wisdom for how to live in the 21st century.
Chapter 6 begins with the words, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” The assumption seems to be that how we carry out our religious obligations reveals our inner motivations for doing so. Do we practice piety to impress others? Or do we practice piety out of a genuine desire to respond and live into the love and care of the one who created us?
We tend to shy away from piety and I wonder if it is because it has become associated with hypocrisy and being sanctimonious. We certainly don’t want to have that label! Jesus uses the word hypocrite several times in chapter 6. We get a sense of the tension within the Jewish community as the leaders in the Jesus movement expressed criticism toward traditional religious practices of the day. Were they just going through the motions? What was the real motivation for acts of generosity, prayer, and fasting? To please God? Or to impress others?
It is not easy to live out our devotion to God and our sense of spirituality in world that distracts us with many things. The motivation of securing our status and place in the human community affects us more than we realize. The temptations are wealth and power and respectability and the status and attention that come with achieving those things.
It seems like that is where Jesus words in our text today are aimed. “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth (or Mammon).” This is a very difficult message to hear in the capitalistic, oligarchic system we live in. Mammon, the money God, is alive and well.
I guess we are running into another one of those hard sayings of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is not easily digested. It has a lot of roughage!
I do not see Jesus teaching withdrawal from the material world. That can be a temptation in faithful piety and spirituality. Monasticism is one way of responding to a complicated world – strip away all the materialism and focus on prayer and service and community. There is something admirable about people who give their lives to that way of life and give themselves to God and the spiritual life. Through the centuries different orders of communities have formed to pursue that vision, certainly within the Roman Catholic tradition that has been the case. Early Anabaptistism was considered by some to be a monastic movement.
Perhaps you have read about “New Monasticism.” In June of 2016 representatives of new intentional communities and academics met in Durham, North Carolina, with older communities like the Mennonite Reba Place Fellowship, Bruderhof, and the Catholic Worker. Drawing from church tradition and borrowing the term new monasticism from Jonathan R. Wilson’s book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World (Morehouse, 1998), participants developed 12 distinctives that would mark these communities, including: submission to the larger church, living with the poor and outcast, living near community members, hospitality, nurturing a common community life and a shared economy, peacemaking, reconciliation, care for creation, celibacy or monogamous marriage, formation of new members along the lines of the old novitiate, and contemplation.
However, Christianity is a way of life that takes the material world and creation seriously. We are not called to escape the world that God loves, we are called to give ourselves to a disciplined engagement with the world and to be good stewards of our gifts and talents as we serve God and our neighbor.
Once we turn in that direction and give our loyalty and our hearts to God and to the way of Jesus then perhaps that is the place where we wrestle more deeply with our tendency to worry too much about food, drink and clothing, in other words, about the necessities of life.
The writer of Matthew turns our attention to the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, and the grass of the field as examples of living things that live in the moment and somehow trust that the day will bring what is needed for that day. I doubt that there is anyone here who does not think beyond this day as to how they will make a living and sustain their lives. I am sure we spend a great deal of time considering how we will pay our rent, or make our house payment, pay the utilities, have reliable transportation, have good clothes to wear, save for an emergency, save for retirement, pay for insurance, replace that old washing machine, pay off student loans, have that dental work done, give to the church, give to the various institutions we support, continue our education, buy those books, pay our internet service, take a vacation, provide for our children, pay our taxes, replace our phone, and on and on the list goes. We live in a complicated world.
We could take a lesson or two from the chirping bird and the blooming flower and their worry-free lives as they go about doing what they do with singleness of purpose.
From the human perspective, this is a reckless way of life. Birds have predators. The beauty of the blooming flower quickly fades. The seasons change and they will either freeze to death or bake in the hot summer sun. It is not easy to shift our worry about securing our existence to living with confidence in God’s provisions.
Once again we are challenged to reach beyond the expected and imagine a different way of life, a way of life that trusts in the one who is wildly generous and spaciously forgiving and who knows what we need, a way of life that trusts deeply in the presence of God in all circumstances.
The Apostle Paul captured this sense of deep trust when he wrote to the church in Rome, the urban center of a sprawling world empire:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Don’t worry, be happy and blessed. Amen.