Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 23rd February 2014
23 February 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides-Yeldham, Chaplain
Two friends, who’d not seen each other for some time, met in a pub.
The one said to the other: ‘How are things?’
‘Well,’ the other replied, ‘I have a mountain of credit card debt, I’ve lost my job, last week my car was stolen, and now our house is about to be repossessed, but I am not worried about any of it. You see, I’ve hired a professional worrier. He does all my worrying for me, and that way I don’t even have to think about it.’
‘That’s fantastic!’ the one replied. ‘How much does your professional worrier charge for his services?’
‘Fifty thousand a year.’
‘Fifty thousand a year? Where are you going to get that kind of money?’
‘I don’t know. That’s his worry.’
On the face of it, our gospel reading this morning is about the futility of worry.
The Jesus of Matthew’s gospel appears to be saying, ‘Don’t worry about your life or your next meal or what clothes you will put on your back’, as if there is something unchristian about worrying. And yet you and I, we all worry don’t we? It’s as if the human brain is hard-wired for worrying, and in some ways it is. Psychologists will speak of an anxiety scale with worry and mild concern at one end of the spectrum, and at the other end fear and blind panic. Worry is part and parcel of human nature, often a way of preparing ourselves for an event or an encounter which is uncertain or which takes us beyond our comfort zone.
If you’re the worrying type, you’re in good company. St Paul was a worrier, as is obvious from his letter to the Christians in Galatia where the Church had been hijacked by Jewish-Christian teachers, who not only denied Paul’s apostleship, but insisted that non-Jewish converts to Christianity had to accept Jewish law.
Elsewhere we read how Paul was worried when his friend Titus failed to arrive at Troas as they’d agreed.
As for the church at Philippi, there’s a cauldron of worry. The Philippians are worried about Epaphroditus, their envoy to Paul. He’d fallen seriously ill either on his way to Rome to join Paul or in Rome itself. That was as much as the Philippians knew, for now Epaphroditus was with Paul in Rome seven hundred miles away. There was no email, no Skype, not even I’m afraid, Mr Dean, Twitter. For his part, Epaphroditus, having made a good recovery, soon learned that those back in Philippi were worried about him, so he’s worried that they’re worried. To top it all, Paul is worried that Epaphroditus is worried. Everyone’s worried!
Perhaps, this takes us to the nub of what Jesus was getting at. There are times when we become so worried, pulled in so many directions – for that’s what the Greek word for ‘worry’ means, ‘being pulled in many different directions’ – that we lose a sense of perspective and fail to see what’s important, really important, fundamentally important.
For many years I was a hospital chaplain, and on the wards I would encounter people and situations that were desperate and tragic. False re-assurance, empty words such as ‘don’t worry’ were worse than useless. What was more helpful and often appreciated was a willingness to listen, perhaps with a question to prompt a conversation: ‘What worries you most?’ I would listen not in order to provide answers, for more often than not there are no answers, but to enable the person herself or himself to name, confront and perhaps begin to navigate their worries.
Of course, it’s not only when our health is threatened that worry –justifiable worry – knocks at the door. Which one of us would not worry if we had to rely on a food bank to feed our family – in the last two years the number of people in London visiting food banks has increased by a staggering 394%? Which one of us would not worry if it was my home which had been flooded in the recent storms – thousands of homes remain uninhabitable? Which one of us would not worry if, as a Syrian, home was a refugee camp in Jordan or Lebanon or Turkey or Iraq or Egypt – two and a half million people displaced in and around Syria?
So when Jesus berates his disciples with the words, ‘you of little faith’, what is he getting at? ‘You of little faith’ is a phrase that translates the Greek word, oligopistos, which means sceptical in the sense of lacking confidence. It’s a word the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel uses four times: when the disciples are afraid of drowning and Jesus rebukes the winds and the sea ; when Peter is convinced he’s going to drown and Jesus stretches out his hand to support him; when Jesus warns the disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees and the Saducees and they think he’s irritated because they’ve forgotten the packed lunch; and, finally, in our gospel passage this morning.
‘You of little faith’: what is Jesus getting at?
In each of those episodes, the disciples display a scepticism, a lack of confidence in the presence, the promise and the power of God. ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ and everything else will fall into place. That’s the nub of our gospel reading. In fact, that’s the nub of the gospel period.
The kingdom of God is not a place. It can’t be found on any map. The kingdom of God is an attitude of heart, a life measured in service and self-sacrifice not square kilometres. Matthew illustrates the measure of those who will inherit the kingdom taking that moment when the Son of Man comes in his glory and says: ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ Doesn’t that resonate with our gospel reading? For you and me, that’s the test of our admittance into God’s kingdom. That’s righteousness: that’s what puts us into a right relationship with God.
Accept the reality of worry: it’s human. But don’t be overwhelmed by worry – that will only leave you paralysed! For you and I have kingdom work to do: foodbanks, asylum seekers, hospital visiting, writing letters to prisoners of conscience. There’s so much to be done. Worried? Of course not! Amen.