August 12, 2018: Sermon Series: Living Generously – Week 1 : Overcoming Worry with the Blues by Rev. Beth Hayward (Matthew 6: 19-34)

Jesus says “…don’t worry about tomorrow,

tomorrow will bring worries of its own.

Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It’s sage advice. But when you hear a line like that it sounds more like a useless truism than words to live by. A gospel of Matthew scholar says that this line “could only have been written by a single guy living a carefree life on the beach in sunny Galilee.” What does Jesus know about the worries of our lives?

Worry: it’s such a pesky thing, the troublesome little cousin of fear. Not as big, not as primal but still extremely persistent. It’s pervasive, it’s pernicious, it eats away at you. Worry is so much a part of our lives that we can carry on as though it doesn’t exist; a low-grade hum in the background of your life, a ringing in your ears, so constant that you mostly forget to hear its beat, not shocking enough to suddenly grab your attention but there nonetheless, the background music of daily life. A quiet little nuisance that you forget to notice until you don’t and then no amount of ear twitching or head shaking can make it stop. It becomes the only thing you hear, and then the guilt sets in for feeling the worry in the first place.

Worry, Jesus says, is a problem because it separates us from God. Which is easier for him to say than for us to fix. If I could shake the things that worry me, I would! Wouldn’t you? I don’t need Jesus to ask me sarcastically if by worrying I can add a single hour to my span of life? The science is in; worry takes a toll. It doesn’t much matter who you are or where you come from or what’s happening in your life, we all worry. I read about a 72 year old multi millionaire who claims he’s constantly overcome with worry about not having enough money to see him through his retirement years.[1]

We’re not even all that discerning. We’ll worry about everything: the state of the world, the state of your bank account, the state of your wardrobe. It’s not some dusty biblical concept; it’s timeless. Worry is a minor chord in the music of our lives.

To say don’t worry about where your next meal will come from, or how you’ll get clothes on your back, to some first century peasants is harsh. In that context, you worried for your very survival and on the off chance you came into a little bit of affluence, of course you’d build some barns to hold your stuff and then start worrying about people stealing your good fortune out from under you.  Those folks had legitimate things to worry about.

All through Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells people to let it go. Drop your nets and follow me, leave your family, your former life, leave your second tunic behind. There are so many instructions on what to leave behind, that it makes you wonder if it’s not so much about what you need to leave behind but why. It’s the worry that separates us from the Holy, not the things in and of themselves. It chokes out our generosity. It takes away the space where possibilities can be born.

“…don’t worry about tomorrow,

tomorrow will bring worries of its own.

Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

If only living in this moment were so easy to accomplish. Jesus seems to suggest that we let go, that we practice letting the worry dissolve, releasing our grip on all the things that leave our tummies in knots and our hearts palpitating. “It is in that choice to dissolve that we[‘re carried] to a state of greater freedom.” Our hearts begin to soften: the tension begins to loosen. Think of what happens when we let go, when we give things away, literally. Think of how it feels to bring a dozen bags to the Salvation Army, to let go of a grudge, to downsize. When we let go, in a real sense we’re set free.

Jesus wants those who seek to follow him to replace worry with striving for the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is code for this alternative way that Jesus kept teaching about and living, where the last are first, and the holy shows up in the most unexpected places, a world where there is enough for all and where losing our lives saves them. In many ways the Kingdom of God is very much about living in this moment, open and ready to engage this time. Worry gets in the way of that, it keeps us looking ahead and not only can we miss being fully present to this moment we cut off the depth of possibilities in this moment. It chokes out our generosity. It blocks us from fully experiencing the active presence of divine love.

When I’m saturated with worry it’s my tendency to just want to steep in it,

When I’m feeling worn down, or downright broken, down in the dumps, so down that the best I can hope for is blindly groping my way toward some semblance of light, I tend to want to pull out the heartbreak music and press replay. Just listen to

Celine Dion’s All by Myself, again and again. Just reinforce how bad it is.

Perhaps there is place between drowning ourselves in the very real worries of life and pretending there is nothing to worry about.  Maybe there is a way to transform the ear ringing worry of our lives into something more beautiful, more practical, more useful, more generous.

There’s an African American preacher who talks about Blue Note Preaching. Otis Moss III who is as impressive in stature and preaching prowess as his name suggests. He says that a preacher is to stare into the darkness and speak to the blues. “The blues, help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you aint alone.”[2]  The blues hold the tension, the very real longing of our hearts to strive for wholeness without completely silencing worries and losses and struggles. They weave those worries right into a richer more complex evolving melody, pulling together all of our lives into this rich fabric.

There’s something in its twelve-bar frame, its predictable 4/4 beat: it’s like a dance beat while lamenting. The blue notes allow for key moments of expression during the cadences, melodies, and embellishments of the blues. By the bass line it creates and reinforce the trancelike rhythm and call-and-response, and they form a repetitive effect called a “groove.” To be in the “groove” is to be released from the things that hold us back. The blues are a call and response, calling us into new ways of being, to live well despite the pain.”[3] “The music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion.”[4]

It just seems sometimes, and maybe this is what Jesus was pointing to, that we actually think we can sort things out in our lives or the world if we just worry enough. Maybe the letting go that he keeps coming back to is not about burying or denying the very real things that consume our minds with worry. Maybe it’s about weaving them in to a bigger story, like a blues rhythm. Putting that constant ringing into the music and allowing it to be surrounded by a much more complex story of deep and persistent love.

Writer Flannery O’Connor may have captured it best when she said that “Christian writers are burdened by their knowledge of an alternative world…But the world that they look at doesn’t fit the alternative world. They see the ‘grotesque’ who are out of sync with God, as well as characters who demonstrate the grace of God even though they are distanced from God.” This is the reality that the blues lift up, the truth that life is complicated, that worry keeps us from being a people flowing with generosity and openness and yet even with our imperfect offering that holy presence can make something of our messed up offering

“…don’t worry about tomorrow,

tomorrow will bring worries of its own.

Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Otis Moss III  tells a story about the time he was serving as pastor of the church Obama attends when in Chicago. You may remember the former pastor of that church got into some trouble in the media when Obama was first running for president. The media circus that ensued meant that the church was being threatened daily. Bomb threats, death threats. It was hard to sleep at night with the worry of it all. One night when Moss wasn’t sleeping so well anyway, he was awoken by a sound in the house, or more accurately his wife was awoken and pushed him out of bed to go investigate. He went down stairs, looked all around and then heard the sound again, coming from upstairs. In a panic he arrived at the door of his young daughter who was spinning in the dark and saying “Daddy look at me!” Daddy looks at her and says “it’s three in the morning, time to get back into bed.” No daddy she says look at me! As Moss tells the story in his fine tuned African American preaching sort of way he says that as he watched her spinning, pigtails going back and forth, he heard the voice of God in the dark of night saying “Look at your daughter. She’s dancing in the dark. The darkness is all around her but it’s not in her!”[5]

That’s the Blues claims Moss, when the darkness is all around, when it threatens to take you down, when the worry should be more than you can bear but still the light shines.  May each and every one of us know that the light radiates even from our meagre offering.  Amen

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/your-money/wealth-anxiety-money.html

[2] “Dance in the Dark,” by Otis Moss, The Christian Century. November 25, 2015.

[3] http://www.georgehermanson.com/2010/02/you-have-to-sing-the-blues-to-feel-the-joy-year-c-lent-2-sermon.html

[4] https://www.allaboutjazz.com/a-brief-history-of-the-blues-by-ed-kopp.php

[5] Otis Moss III.