I love Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite holiday. The mixture of the season of the year, the cold air, the family warmth, the food, the nostalgia, all of it combines in my head when this time of year approaches. The reason for the season also resonates with me. I appreciate gratitude, both receiving it and giving it. Gratitude, otherwise known as thanksgiving, is absolutely essential for life together as families, as friends, as neighbors, and as a church. This holiday serves as a nice reminder once a year that we should be showing our gratitude, giving thanksgiving, for what we have in our lives and to the people in our lives. For all this, I absolutely love Thanksgiving and I know, from our conversations, that many of you do, too.
So one particular thanksgiving stands out to me in my memory. I have known many happy Thanksgivings but this was not one. I was too worried about money. Early in our life in Macon, through a series of decisions made by us and some made for us, we had a brand new house with $150k in a mortgage, a brand new car with about $20k in debt, were looking at pay cuts as the state and school system considered furloughing teachers, and we had medical bills rolling in as we prepared for the arrival of our first child. I remember staring at our budget and our checking account, wondering how we were going to make ends meet. At the time, the roughly $3800 per month we brought home, combined, just didn’t seem like it was going to cover all these expenses and feed us. Nevermind savings, of which we had none.
That Thanksgiving, I wasn’t thankful. I was worried and fearful about our financial future. I was worried, and when you’re worried, it’s really hard to be thankful. When life seems to demonstrate more of what you don’t have than what you do have, when life gives more reasons to be concerned about the future than excited about it, it’s almost impossible to be grateful.
To that, Jesus has something to say to us. Hear now Matthew 6:24-34:
Hearing Jesus say these words, I can’t help but hear Bobby McFerrin in my head singing, “don’t worry, be happy.” His song, with its laid back beat and Caribbean influences makes me think of somewhere warm, with a beach, no cares or concerns, just a nice time of sabbath. In such a moment, on some beach somewhere, I might feel like the birds of the air or the lilies of the field, unconcerned with what the future holds, unconcerned with anything except that moment that I’m in. I might feel free.
And that’s what Jesus seems to offer us here in the scripture: freedom. Freedom from worry and anxiety. Freedom to live life without concern for whether or not we will have what we need in this life. Jesus notes that we are much more valuable than birds and lilies and so we can be assured that God will take care of us at least as well as God takes care of them. There will be provision, there will be blessing, there will be enough.
But of course, life isn’t that simple. And in this sermon, I’m not going to try and make it that simple. Birds don’t have mortgages. Lilies don’t pay medical bills. Birds don’t feel social pressure to keep up with each other. Lilies don’t have investments for retirement. The birds and lilies had no idea what life was like for us that Thanksgiving when we were worried and fearful about our finances. God takes care of us, like the birds and the lilies, but we have much more on our minds than those simple creatures do.
And so we worry, we fret, we experience anxiety. To that, we tell ourselves not to worry! We know from scripture that we’re not supposed to worry, so we tell ourselves not to. We tell ourselves what to believe: we’re Christians, we’re not supposed to worry, God’s got this. Thus we try and force ourselves to go down the street singing “Don’t worry, be happy.”
But, of course, we all know how that goes. We eventually start worrying again. Telling ourselves not to worry is like telling ourselves this thanksgiving that we will not, we will not, eat poorly. Most of us, no matter the amount of times we tell ourselves, will have the second helping of pie. We’ll make the excuse: we deserve it, we’ve worked hard, we worked out more this week, we’ve been working hard at our jobs, and it’s Thanksgiving! Calories don’t count on holidays. We’ll come up with any number of excuses to go ahead and treat ourselves.
Which, oddly enough, is exactly how we’ll act the next day, too. We’ll go black friday or cyber monday shopping with a list, telling ourselves that we’ll only buy what’s on the list. But then we see the new shoes or the new electronic gadget or whatever the new thing is. And we tell ourselves that we deserve it, that we’re worth it, that we’ve earned it, and so we justify getting it, just like we justified the extra pie the night before.
Just like with the car we had purchased that was part of the reason our finances were stretched that Thanksgiving years ago. Before purchasing the car, we had two older cars that ran just fine. One day, the A/C went out on one of the cars on a return trip from Savannah. On the drive, it started pouring rain and the windows fogged up because we couldn’t blow dry air on them. Then, we got a flat, while it was pouring rain. We pulled over on the side of the road and I started changing the flat. While I was changing the flat, my foot started burning. I looked down and it was covered in fire ants. I had run over a fire ant pile on the side of the interstate and it was right next to where I was changing the tire. Dana started hitting my foot with her umbrella, which only hurt worse, but she was trying to kill the fire ants.
Eventually we got the tire changed, it stopped raining, and the windows defogged. But we decided to buy a new car. It was time. This one was getting old. Did we really want to pay for the air conditioning to be fixed? What would go wrong next? Besides, we finally both had full time jobs. I was just out of grad school. We earned it, we could afford it, it was exciting, so why not go buy the new car? And so we did.
And so, like so many purchases, and like the extra slice of pie, we came to regret it. The car payments came to own us, entrapping our finances. We were upside down on the car. We had made a dumb decision, one that revealed to us a reality of this life: somehow, the stuff we purchase can easily come to own us, rather than us owning the stuff.
Stuff owns us when it sets our priorities, when it determines our decisions, when it sets the patterns of our lives, when it demands our attention, when it exerts control over us. Debt is perhaps the best example of that. Having debt controls finances because it ties up a certain amount of our income, meaning we cannot make other decisions with that money. I say that as one who has two student loans and one car payment; payments that eat up 12.5% of our monthly income, more than the 11% we give to charity and the 11% we save or invest. That’s $966 per month we could be doing something else with. But it’s tied up.
It’s true with gadgets. When the iPad first came out, I had to have one. Now I can’t imagine life without one. It’s woven into the fabric of how I do business and how I recreate, but it also means that every so often, I’ll pay to purchase a new one, and that I have to spend time updating software and otherwise taking care of it. Cars are that way. Houses are that way. Kitchen appliances are that way. Furniture is that way. Everything we purchase, everything we own, in some way owns us: it owns some of our time, our energy, our money, and it can exert influence over our decision making and priorities.
If we think about our lives this morning, many of our cares and concerns derive from stuff. Maybe you, like me that Thanksgiving, have overextended your household or business finances. Maybe you’re concerned to purchase a new house or car or furniture or some other big expense to keep up with the Joneses. Maybe you’re trapped in a cycle of debt payments that eat up too much of your take home pay. Maybe you’re house poor. Or maybe you’re just scheming to figure out how to buy the new thing you want, even though you know you can’t afford it. Whatever it is, these concerns can override our priorities, our decision-making, exerting control and influence. It owns our mental space, it owns our thoughts, and creates worries and anxieties.
Even on that vacation beach somewhere, with Bobby McFarrin playing “don’t worry, be happy,” I bet some of you have been like me on some vacations: happy to be there, worried about how you’ll pay for it when you get home.
We worry, and Jesus says not to. But this is one of those scriptures where one word plays a big role. Note the beginning of verse 25, “therefore.” Many recitations of this scripture begin here, at verse 25. We hear Jesus telling us not to worry about the future, but to be like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, confident that God will take care of us. But for all you literature and English grammar nerds out there, the word “therefore” means that what comes next is based on what has come before. And what came just before verse 25?
A single verse teaching from the sermon on the mount, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore, I tell you do not worry about your life…”
This famous scripture isn’t a stand-alone teaching. Jesus is saying that worry and anxiety come from trying to serve a particular, and different, master than God. The word mammon, what the Bible translates as wealth in verse 24, can also be translated as possessions or property; in other words, stuff. Jesus tells us here that worry and anxiety come from stuff, from when stuff owns us, when we spend our time and energy and money caring for and providing for our stuff. Much of the worry and anxiety we experience in this life comes from our property, possessions, and wealth; from our stuff.
Life will come with worries and troubles. Families will give us reason to worry, relationships will cause anxiety, job losses will occur, financial downturns will happen; life comes with troubles. Indeed, Jesus is right to say, at the very end of this teaching, to worry just about today because tomorrow will have enough troubles of its own.
But think of the anxieties and worries we could save ourselves if we were less concerned with stuff. Jesus isn’t offering some magic solution for all worry and anxiety; Jesus is offering a solution for the anxiety and worry caused by stuff; a call to not let our stuff own us. If we’ve overextended ourselves, if we’re worried about keeping up with the Jones’s, if we’re trying to strive for the next thing or to achieve some status, we’re worried and anxious because we’re worried about stuff. And to that, Jesus says, “do not worry about your life.” God will provide for your needs.
We too often serve a brutal and exhausting master: the master of stuff. Get more, earn more, achieve more. But God offers us freedom through seeking first the kingdom and God’s righteousness. If that sounds highfalutin, it’s not so much. Consider the lilies and the birds. They don’t have mortgages, they don’t have stuff, but maybe there’s a beauty to that. Simplicity is the virtue here. Life does come with cares and worries. Even for birds and lilies, howling winds come, storms rage, bad things happen. But generally speaking, they are simple.
And the simpler our lives are, the less we have to worry and be anxious about. Richard Foster puts it this way when describing a lifestyle marked by simplicity, “Speech becomes truthful and honest. The lust for status and position is gone because we no longer need status and position. We cease from showy extravagance not on the grounds of being unable to afford it, but on the grounds of principle. Our goods become available to others.” We stop craving things that we neither need nor enjoy because we no longer live out that old maxim that says, “‘We buy things we do not want to impress people we do not like.’” A life of simplicity means our lives are marked simply by recognizing that anything we own, any stuff we have, should live in service to God, and then to us; not us in service to stuff.
And how do we achieve this? We “seek first the kingdom of God and the righteousness of his kingdom first and then everything necessary will come in its proper order…Everything hinges upon maintaining the ‘first’ things first. Nothing must come before the kingdom of God…” This means, simply put, in all the things we purchase, in all the things we strive for, in all of our stuff, asking ourselves if the thing is helping or hindering our relationship with God.
What’s the role of stuff in your life? Does it help or hinder your relationship with God? Asking those questions will lead to a simpler, less stressful, less anxiety-filled, life.
This coming holiday week is a chance for us to consider how to simplify our lives. It’s in simplicity that there’s freedom from anxiety and worry, it’s in simplicity that we seek first the kingdom and God’s righteousness. That’s the prescription Jesus offers: to seek first is just a matter of aligning priorities. And the less stuff we have to distract, the less stuff we have to demand our attention, the easier it is to focus ourselves first on God and seeking after righteousness.
An attitude of gratitude, practicing thanksgiving, comes much more naturally when we are not anxious and worried. And we’re less anxious and worried in life when we simplify. So this thanksgiving, consider: how can you simplify your life? In doing so, you will, indeed, not worry, but be happy.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.