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June 6 lesson: Freed from Worry

May 31, 2021
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Freed from Worry

Summer Quarter: Confident Hope
Unit 1: Jesus Teaches About Faith

Sunday school lesson for the week of June 6, 2021
By Dr.
Jay Harris

Lesson Scripture: Matthew 6:25-34

Theme for the Summer Quarter and for the First Unit

The theme for this quarter is Confident Hope. There is no better confidence in life than what we get from our faith and hope in Jesus Christ. With faith providing the vital link to this confident hope, we will be spending a lot of time talking about the nature of faith throughout this quarter. In the first unit this quarter, we learn about faith and confident hope from Jesus in the gospels. These teachings come from Jesus in situations in which the people Jesus encountered are demonstrating faith in some way. The other two units in this quarter spend time in the New Testament Letters where we see faith and hope often mentioned together.

Focus for this lesson: Freed from Worry

The focus for today’s lesson is being freed from worry. It is life changing to go from being shackled by worry to being freed from worry. Being freed from worry is an important key to living in confident hope.

Worry is a big subject. A lot of worry is a manifestation of fear. Fortunately, we are dealing with the subject of fear in next week’s lesson. Instead of trying to explore the subject of worry in a general way, let’s begin where Jesus begins, which provides a very specific starting point. Jesus said, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Context

This teaching is part of a larger group of teachings we know as the Sermon the Mount. It begins with a “therefore,” which reminds us that Jesus is tying this teaching on worry with the teaching that precedes it. Jesus had just spoken about materialism – not being obsessed with storing up treasures on earth that can be stolen or consumed by moths or rust. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) Jesus also stated that we cannot serve two masters – either we serve God or we serve the false god of wealth and materialism.

Not worrying about food and clothing gets very specific, doesn’t it? How would Jesus’ audience hear this? The Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount give us a clue about his audience and their situation. It includes the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek of the earth, the persecuted and reviled. They have little of the economic and social advantages the material world affords. This means, however, that the trappings that often accompany a materialistic culture have less of a hold on them. Consequently, they have had the opportunity to learn valuable spiritual traits like how to hunger and thirst after righteousness, how to be merciful and pure in heart, and how to make peace in the midst of conflict. Their place in society makes it where they have little to lose and everything to gain by living under the rule and care of God in the context of God’s reign. No wonder they are blessed, because the kingdom of God, in a real sense, already belongs to them, and they belong to it. Jesus gives them hope by exalting them and the life God rewards.

Still, there was the real-life situation with which they had to deal. They had to work incredibly hard to feed and clothe their families. Their lives involved many hours of subsistence farming; drawing water from the community well; purchasing the meager food supplies they could afford in the marketplace; making thread, weaving cloth, and piecing it together to make the few pieces of clothing they would own; and then patching their clothing when it became worn. Was Jesus asking too much not to worry about these things?

How Jesus teaches us to replace worry

Jesus, however, offers a replacement to worry that is far better than worry. We’re invited to convert our worry into something else. We’re being invited to look more closely at food and clothing as God’s provisions. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” We are asked to convert worry into contemplation – about the ways our heavenly Father provides for his children.

We do have a part to play in God’s provision of food. There is a divine partnership between our labor and God’s provision. In Mark 4:26-29, Jesus describes how the farmer dutifully plants the seed in the ground, but then only observes when the stalk has broken the surface of the soil, when it has produced the head that will hold the grain, and when the full grain has ripened. The farmer does not know how this part happens. The farmer did not cause that. That is the mysterious and wonderful part God plays. The farmer at that point goes in with the sickle and harvests the grain that God produced. According to Jesus, this divine partnership epitomizes what goes on in God’s reign.

There is an appropriate amount of labor involved in our part of this divine partnership, but it is an affront to God to add the emotional exertion involved in worry. “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Worry is unprofitable. It is a waste of time, energy, and emotion. We exert ourselves far more than we want to admit by worrying. We’re depleted by worry. Imagine replacing worry with trust. Imagine what that would do to our stress levels – to our cortisol levels, which is our body’s response to stress and has all sorts of harmful effects on our bodies. Replacing worry with trust could be one of the best things we could do for our health.

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” Notice that the analogy of the lilies of the field focuses on the beauty of the clothing that God provides. You think Jesus might have turned the focus away from the beauty clothing provides and focused instead on the usefulness of clothing to cover our bodies and protect against the elements. There would be people in Jesus’ audience who would have been sensitive to the plainness of their few items of mended and worn clothing. Perhaps, by drawing attention to the beauty with which God has endowed the lilies of the field, Jesus is expanding our definition of beauty. Beauty has something to do with the degree with which we understand ourselves to be dressed and also fed by the hand of God.

Illustration

I couldn’t help but think of Dolly Parton’s song, “Coat of Many Colors.” It’s about a young girl who did not have a coat, and fall was quickly turning to winter. So, her mother took a box of colorful rags someone had given them and began making her daughter a coat out of the rags. As the mother sewed the rags together, she told her young daughter the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors, and then her “momma” blessed the completed coat with a kiss. “So with patches on my britches and holes in both my shoes in my coat of many colors, I hurried off to school just to find the others laughing and making fun of me… And oh, I couldn’t understand it for I felt I was rich, and I told ’em of the love my momma sewed in every stitch, and I told ‘em all the story momma told me while she sewed, and how my coat of many colors was worth more than all their clothes. But they didn’t understand it… Now I know we had no money but I was rich as I could be in my coat of many colors my momma made for me, made just for me.”

When it comes to the way our true beauty shows, the actual clothing we wear may be the most inconsequential thing about the way we come across to others. The New Testament Church was fond of using the analogy of clothing. In the Letter to the Colossians 3:12, it reads, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

Choosing the Gentile culture or the Kingdom of God

Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.” Jesus did not want his followers to be caught up in the strivings and worries that characterized life among the Gentiles. The Gentiles were the non-Jews who brought their materialistic culture with them when the Romans took over. Even among the Gentiles, however, were those who were proving to be receptive to Jesus’ words, precisely because he was bringing attention to the emptiness of people whose strivings are self-centered, superficial, vain, and unprofitable in the end.

Illustration from a mission trip

My wife and I had the privilege of going on a mission trip to Tijuana with our church, Martha Bowman Memorial United Methodist Church. Our daughter had been the previous year and urged us to go. Our mission team was able to build a house on a concrete foundation for a family who had lived in a shack with a dirt floor, and we helped pour the foundation for the next house. We visited two orphanages and held a party for them with lots of food and games. We held a “shower day” with a soccer court filled with families with small children in a community where clean running water was scarce, and we washed many heads, treated those who needed it for lice, and gave out new socks. The men in our group went to a men’s prison to serve food and games and bring joy and witness to Christ to those prisoners. We put together bags of fruit and vegetables and distributed them in a neighborhood that was perched on the steepest land I have ever seen people live on – land upon which no one but the poorest would want to live. These were small one-room shacks with whole families living in them. It was there that we met Francesca. Our daughter hoped we would get to meet her. Francesca showed us the plywood walls of her home, which were filled with handwritten verses of scripture. Just as beautiful as these walls was the smile on Francesca’s face as she showed us her witness. Solomon in his finest apparel could not have been more beautiful.

When we returned home, we returned like many youth and adults from such experiences. We were much more keenly aware of our complaining, our worries, and our vain strivings. That seems to be the overwhelming response of those involved in mission trips such as these. We came under conviction. We also rejoiced that we had the privilege of meeting such wonderful people, who, despite lacking in material resources, were full of faith. They were more content with the little they had than people we often see who have much more. God does provide what we need, and helps us differentiate between our needs and wants. The opportunity we had to participate in the mutual sharing of God’s provisions – our material provisions and their spiritual provisions – felt like we were being shown the reign of God in some small way. When we strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, when we get that priority right, it puts everything else in the right order, the right perspective, and the right balance. When God’s people understand they have enough, they discover they have enough to share, so that everyone has enough. That, also, is the reign of God in action.

Thy Kingdom Come…Give Us This Day
When I think about striving first for the kingdom of God, I think about the world God is endeavoring to create. Remember, in the same chapter of our scripture lesson, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God desires to create God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. Our scripture passage ends with verse 34: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Again, this takes us back to the prayer that Jesus taught us, “Give us this day, our daily bread.” We trust God for the provisions for the day we are living. This means that we must come to God in prayer the next day, and the next day, and so on, to pray for the day’s provisions. In this way, we develop trust in God one day at a time.

Prayer

Dear God, our Gracious Provider,

Whose Son, Jesus, teaches us to convert our worry to contemplation and trust,

Make us mindful of your daily care, help us know true satisfaction, and see the beauty of contentment,

That your reign and righteous rule may be that which we seek and enjoy above all else,

Through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Amen.

Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at jharris@sgaumc.com.

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