To Worry or Not to Worry
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Sermon – To Worry or Not to Worry?
St. Alban’s, DC – 7/17/16 – The Rev. Emily Griffin
Amos 8:1-12, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42
Is this what we need today – Jesus delving into a sibling squabble? This container feels, well, a bit light to hold all the weight we’re carrying this morning. Maybe we should focus on one of the other readings instead. Do we really need another story about Jesus, the impolite dinner guest? (You can tell which sister I identify with these days.) In today’s Gospel, we have Martha welcoming this vagabond rabbi into her home. I don’t know about you, but if I were entertaining Jesus Christ, I’d be a little anxious too. I’d want everything to be right. But rather than let her off the hook when she verbalizes her all-too-human concerns, Jesus tells her – don’t worry so much. “You’re worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” He offers a gentle reproach to his host, but a reproach nonetheless. One could, I suppose, take it as a lesson on not worrying and reducing distractions and leave it at that.
Only that seems a bit flimsy, given the scale of sorrow and terror we’re being asked to absorb with each new news cycle. Our first reading perhaps better reflects our world stage. According to Amos at least, we have plenty of cause for legitimate worry. Pick your image – earthquakes, flooding, public mourning over mass casualties – all of them show up here, and none of them involve a careful separation of the innocent from the guilty, the good guys from the bad. In this passage, the end is coming soon, justice trumps mercy, and we all go down together. If that’s not cause for at least some worry, I’m not sure what is.
We could cherry pick our Scriptures, I guess, in our search for good news and go with the reading from Colossians instead. Here it sounds as if God’s got everything under control. Whatever problems may have existed in Amos’ day, apparently it was all settled two thousand years ago on the cross. The reconciliation of all things to God has already happened in eternity, we’re told; we just haven’t realized it yet in time. Here it seems we have nothing to worry about.
The demands of justice appear anyway to be swallowed up by an indiscriminate, perhaps even unjust mercy. The writer uses the word “all” here 7 times in 7 verses. If “all” really means “all,” then I guess we’re all set. The cosmic accounts were settled a long time ago.
That may sound good, but it doesn’t sound quite right. Why? Because the things that brought down judgment on Amos’ people still happen today – so frequently, in fact, that we don’t think of it as news. We may not worry about it, but perhaps we should. The needy are still getting trampled. Here Amos takes aim at the world of commerce where most of us make our livings. More specifically, he’s talking about the prices we set and our willingness to commodify just about everything. This is more than just anger over a repeal of the blue laws and our refusal to honor any kind of Sabbath. Amos would be horrified to know the lengths to which we now go to make a sale – the ways we crowd out precious space and time with advertising, our methods for targeting children, the elderly, the poor.
Sometimes it’s not even the impulse buyers we target with our cartoons and late night ads; we overcharge for basic necessities, like housing and health care. We tell ourselves we’re charging what the market will bear; we’re meeting consumer demand; we’re creating profit for our shareholders; we’re providing for our families. All of these things might be true and bring some positive benefit; the effects on the poor, however, are the same. And we don’t need to be predatory lenders or big pharma to be implicated here – because it’s not just how we sell things; it’s what we buy too. We know now more than we ever wanted to about where our clothes and much of our food comes from. Our dollars do end up supporting sweatshops and all kinds of shady middle men. When we stop and think about it, we too buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. It seems cold, even unconscionable not to worry about that.
So which is it – are we supposed to worry, or aren’t we? Jesus tells Martha: “You’re worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” OK…just one? Given all we know about the poor and needy, all the violence we suspect is at our doorstep whether we’re poor or not, it seems to me that there are a great many things – all of which are legit. Where do we start? Clean water, adequate housing, a reliable food supply, education, job training, health care, an ability to walk around in public without fearing for our lives…take your pick. We could spend a lifetime working on any of these. What one thing could encompass them all – as they must if Jesus was really about bringing good news – and not just some limpid self-help? What could that one thing possibly be, and what part has Mary (Martha’s sister) chosen in this moment that she somehow hears it? All she did was sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he was saying. That hardly seems enough.
Is listening really all that’s required of us? Do we exhaust our duties to God and each other with contemplation and a Zen-like calm? I don’t think so, and it’s not just because I’m a chronic worrier like Martha. Think about the content of what Jesus said as we hear it in the Gospels. Immediately before today’s verses in Luke, we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan. Surely the Samaritan in that story did more than listen; it’s not what he heard or even had faith in that’s of consequence – it’s what he did that matters. Who knows? Maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about with Mary that day.
Or maybe he was talking about what immediately follows this story of Mary and Martha – namely, the Lord’s Prayer. Each week we pray on Jesus’ lead: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s not a stretch to think that he was talking about the kingdom of God with her; it was his favorite topic, after all. He was obsessed with it. It was his one thing. Everything he said and did was to bring the kingdom of God near – whether it was taking women seriously when his culture said not to or eating with tax collectors and prostitutes or forgiving people who didn’t know enough to be sorry. Amos’ poor and needy are relieved and made whole in God’s kingdom; perhaps this one thing could encompass everything else.
Maybe Jesus’ point to Martha is that worrying in itself does nothing for the kingdom; it brings neither justice nor mercy. Most of the time, it’s paralyzing. While worry is human and probably inevitable and certainly forgivable, as much as it pains me to say this – it’s not terribly helpful. It’s what we do with our worry that matters – whether we’re able to channel it into action (as we should sometimes) or we lay it at Jesus’ feet and try listening instead (because sometimes that’s all we can do). At the very least, perhaps Martha is worried about the wrong things. Maybe she’s a little too concerned with how she compares to Mary, when Jesus never intended to compare them. Maybe she’s losing the forest for the trees in all her distraction, and he’s trying gently to bring her back to what she already knows is most important.
One more loose end to address, at least for now. If we can keep Amos’ concerns about the poor and needy in mind and act on them without getting too paralyzed by worry, then what do we do with our reading from Colossians – with all its talk about God reconciling all things (and therefore, all people) in Christ? Think about the week we just had – the violence at home and abroad and the dehumanization that’s made it possible. Reconciliation with God and each other seems as elusive as ever. Do we just dismiss this passage as lofty words that never quite touch ground? I don’t think we can afford to do that. In fact, if what the writer is saying here is true, then we have more reason than ever to hit the ground running.
If in Christ all things hold together, if in his suffering and death and unconditional love he reconciled all things to God – including us, whether we know it or not – and made a new way forward that insists on both justice and mercy, then we are all profoundly connected and are each of infinite worth as beloved children of the same God. We are in Christ’s loving embrace by definition, and Christ is in us; that makes us all valuable, period. We trivialize the cross to treat each other as anything less.
So what do we do with that? Well, at the risk of being impolite, I say we lay our worry on the altar along with everything else we can’t carry this morning and get onto something more productive. We trust that God will show us what is truly ours to shoulder. Sometimes that means action, and sometimes it means quiet and surrender until the next right action is clear. We listen to what Christ is saying even when it makes us uncomfortable, and we practice letting the kingdom of God be our one thing – the lens through which we see everything and everyone else. Yes, we do what we can to protect the vulnerable. We lift up the dead and the grieving, and we care for the injured. We work for justice for all who’ve been dehumanized, and we reach for mercy. We let the kingdom of God be our standard of value, our measure of another’s worth, our North Star. And then we pray for the strength and imagination to let it affect how we work, what we buy and sell, and who and what we let ourselves care about. In the Name of the One who loves us too much to let us off the hook – Amen.