Our gospel lesson today is one of my favorites. Jesus’ instructions not to worry are a soothing ointment for the constant itch of worry in my life. His words calm my nerves and remind me of the need for perspective. I can almost imagine Jesus as a yoga instructor, calmly affirming a room of people who are trying to take in deep breaths and to relax their tight muscles. As I think about the heavenly Father who knows my every need, I am given a sense of perspective and calm that I can rarely muster on my own. Because I am a person prone to worry, this passage truly is one of my favorite passages from scripture.
That being said, this passage is also one of my least favorite passages. We tend to think of ourselves as having a certain amount of responsibility in this life – a responsibility to use the talents God has given us to care for ourselves, and even to care for others. But who among us has not had times when that was just not possible – either from being laid off or furloughed from work, not being able to find a job in unemployment, or having an injury that has made our work impossible. Besides, what does Jesus expect us to do? Just go about life, expecting everything to be handed to us – clothing, food, and drink? The proposition seems naïve and ultimately frustrating.
But even harder than a basic frustration with Jesus is the underlying message of what Jesus is saying: that through our behavior of worrying, we are implying that we have ultimate control over life, and that God plays little, or at least a superficial, role in our lives. The presumption of worry is the presumption that we have the ability to fully control what happens and then fix things when they go awry. Our worrying is a way of saying to God, “I do not trust you to handle things in my life. I am not willing to give up that control to you.” One question from Jesus summarizes this conflict for us, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Jesus really knows how to get to the heart of the matter, and when he does, his words feel like a stab to the heart.
Truthfully, there really could not be a better lesson for us today on Thanksgiving Day. I imagine every one of us has had a worry about this day in the past week or more. Talk about worrying about what you will eat! We stress about what food to serve, how to accommodate our gluten-free friends in the menu, what items can be prepared in advance, how to get the moistest turkey, and whether we have made enough for those gathered. Some of us have worried about what outfit to wear, knowing there will be countless photos trying to capture the happiness of this day. And what to drink? I know parties where the host has purchased copious amounts of wine, despite delegating wine to guests, for fear that there will not be enough to cover the gathering. And those worries do not even cover the other worries of the day – how to fit in Eucharist while the turkey is still cooking, whom to sit near our cranky aunt, and what kind of arguments might erupt between family members. For those hosting meals, many of us barely have a chance to catch our breath after the meal before the clean-up process begins.
But that is the beauty of this lesson today: like our eternal battle between worry and control, this special day also has the potential for lost focus. Our country, with all its flaws, gives us a day that is almost sacred in nature – a day set aside for gratitude and thanksgiving; a day when we can pause, and remember the abundant blessings of our lives and the incredible gift of this life. And if we are at all considering what we are grateful for, our minds inevitably end up with God – the one from whom all blessings flow. The simple act of thanksgiving melts away tensions, and turns our worry-hardened hearts to hearts overflowing with gratitude. When we really think about all that we have to be grateful for, the list gets longer and longer – even if we are not even in much of a mood to celebrate.
I was wondering, then, how we might incorporate the lessons we learn today from the gospel and from Thanksgiving Day into a rule of life beyond this day. Then I remembered the last line of the gospel, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We have been singing these very words since September, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And all these things shall be added unto you. Alleluia.” I have been singing these words every Sunday, and I took until today, with today’s gospel and today’s celebration to finally connect the dots. The answer is not to throw up our hands, naively trusting God to put food on the table. The answer is changing our pursuit – not pursuing the things that we think we want and need, but instead pursing the kingdom of God. The rest is just gravy. Amen.