Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Thanksgiving Day, 2015Jesus says, “Don’t worry about it!”
You wouldn’t necessarily think so, but this morning’s Gospel is one of the more fraught passages in holy scripture. And it’s because of our complicated relationship with those two words:
When someone is telling us not to worry, a couple things are usually going on.
The first is, we are worried. We are anxious. There is something that is troubling us and we are nervous and feeling out of control and fearful. And we’re feeling that strongly enough that other people are starting to pick up on it . Or maybe the circumstances are so obviously troubling that they are kind of doing a preemptive strike on our anxiety.
The second is, most often the person saying “don’t worry” to us … that person isn’t worried. They are feeling OK, in control. But all is not well for them. Our feeling worried … or their anticipation of our anxiety in the situation … is starting to make them nervous. Maybe it’s making them feel bad, or powerless … or maybe they are tempted to anxiety themselves and they don’t like that feeling.
Whatever it is, often the anxiety, the worry we are feeling and expressing is making them uncomfortable, so they want to remove it. They want it to go away so they can feel comfortable again.
It's not that there isn't genuine compassion there, but so much of the time the driving force is that feeling of discomfort.
And so the words come out.
It’s going to be just fine.
Words of hope? Sure. But mostly words that are designed to soothe. To take the uncomfortable feelings and make them go away because they are making other people uncomfortable. And that’s a real problem … because feelings don’t just go away. They get suppressed. They get repressed. And when they do that, they fester. When they do that, they tempt us to think the feelings are bad and that maybe we are bad or weak or somehow “less than” for having them.
When I was working as a hospital chaplain one of the best pieces of advice I got was this:
When someone is crying or expressing anxiety or other emotion, it’s important that they be allowed to feel it! In fact, it’s important that they not only be allowed to feel anxiety or pain or fear but that they feel supported and protected as they feel it.
And because of this there are two things you should never do:
First is, when someone is crying or trembling or feeling pain, fear or anxiety, never pat or rub them on the back. We learn when we are babies that when someone pats or rubs us on the back they are wanting us to be quiet, to stop crying, to stop expressing whatever emotion we are expressing. Instead, any touch should be safe touch of support. Cradle their head. Put a hand on their elbow, gently supporting and lifting up.
Second, never say “Don’t worry.” Because no matter how sound the theology behind it, we interpret “Don’t worry” as worrying being bad and we being weak or faithless or even bad ourselves for doing it.
Frankly, most of the time, “don’t worry” just is about as helpful to those who are worrying as “don’t be hungry” is to those who are starving or “don’t be devastated” to someone whose child has just been killed.
So it’s problematic when we hear Jesus saying “Don’t worry.” Not because these aren’t good and true words of hope but because much of our experience of them is about others trying not to bring us words of truth but to suppress our own troubling emotions for the sake of their own comfort.
And it’s especially problematic on a day like Thanksgiving where the cultural expectation is so high for us to be joyful and thankful. But the truth is, on days like today when we truly are thankful for what we have, we are also painfully aware of what we lack. We are painfully aware of the broken relationship, of the empty seat at the dinner table, or maybe of the fact that we have no one to share a table with at all … or maybe of the fact that we don’t even have a table at all.
To just hear Jesus out of context spouting “don’t worry about your life” can seem cruel on a day like today. It can feel dismissive and denying and make us feel unworthy and less than.
And so on this day particularly, this Gospel reading needs a little redeeming. And that starts with remembering that Jesus was never one to be uncomfortable with our feelings. That Jesus was never one to pat us on the back and say “shhhhhhh” when someone started to cry. That starts with remembering that Jesus shed tears at Lazarus’ grave, trembled in anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane and absolutely freaked out in fear of abandonment on the cross.
Jesus says don’t worry about our lives not because worrying is a sin or because our anxiety makes him uncomfortable. Jesus says don’t worry precisely because he is not going to run in fear and discomfort from our anxiety and pain. Jesus says don’t worry because he is the Word that became flesh and didn’t just pop in for a short visit, and then when things got uncomfortable glanced at his watch and said “look at the time!” and headed out the door … but dwelt with us and stays with us in all our anxiety and pain and brokenness. Jesus says “don’t worry” because he is the same Jesus who would stand with his disciples and say “Remember, I am with you always even to the end of the age.”
Jesus says “don’t worry” not because there isn’t anything to worry about but because in all those things we never have to worry about being alone. Jesus says “don’t worry” because he is modeling a way of life that is not about spouting platitudes to one another for our own comfort but actually hanging in with each other, actually being the assurance that we won’t go without food or clothing. Setting the foundation for the first church where “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Now that is something to be thankful for!
The irony of how we’ve applied this Gospel today is those of us who are in comfort have too often used it to disengage from the very human anxieties and worries that come from our deepest wounds and disparities … the very places Jesus intentionally leaned into the most and dwelt the deepest.
The irony of how we’ve applied this Gospel today is that we have used it to take anxiety, pain and fear and suppress it instead of doing what Jesus did – own it, feel it, and let it motivate us to be people of healing, creators of equity, and crusaders for justice.
The irony of how we’ve applied this Gospel today is that too often we have used it as an excuse to shut down one another’s pain and anxiety instead of resting in it together, using it to grow deeper in love and understanding and ultimately to become the Body of Christ that is the eventual path to every fear being answered and every tear being wiped away.
So this Thanksgiving, let’s hear this Gospel differently. And instead of hearing Jesus say “don’t worry” and patting one another on the back saying “shhhhhh….” Let’s cradle each other’s heads and put a supporting hand under each other’s elbows. Let’s say “worry, fear, cry, rage” – do it all you want and we’re going to be here and we’re going to be the presence of Christ holding each other and feeling with each other and knowing that these feelings are not going to be our last but that they must be felt if healing is to come.
Because holding each other in love, holding each other in discomfort, holding each other no matter what comes – that is the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. And if we seek to live that first, everything else truly will be given to us as well. Amen.