Whenever I hear today’s gospel lesson (Jesus saying, ‘Don’t worry what you shall eat and drink and what you shall wear’), I am reminded of a certain tune that then I can’t get out of my head again: ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ by Bobby McFerrin. Anyone here who’s never ever heard that song? ‘Here’s a little song I wrote, you might want to sing it note for note, don’t worry – be happy!’
This song was a smash hit in 1988, making it to the no. 1 spot on the U.S. billboards. So apparently there were many who liked this song back then. But then there were also many who loathed it because the lyrics seem to take the hardships of life too lightly. ‘Ain’t got no place to lay your head, somebody came and took your bed; don’t worry, be happy. The landlord say your rent is late, he may have to litigate; don’t worry, be happy.’
So this was quite a controversial song, annoying many with its apparent callousness. Who honestly would want to hear a cheery ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ if they were to be homeless in the street, or had to work three jobs to make ends meet, or had been sexually assaulted, or had been diagnosed with a debilitating disease? If I were in such a situation and was told, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’, my response probably would be, ‘Well, it’s easy for YOU to say…’; and I’d probably have some choice words for that person as well.
Now Bobby McFerrin didn’t come up with this line, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ by himself. He saw this motto on a poster in some friends’ apartment here in San Francisco. This poster was from the 60s and showed the picture of Indian mystic, sage and guru, Meher Baba. ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ was like Meher Baba’s signature, and he had many followers in the West who followed his simple philosophy. I can just imagine that smiling guru, surrounded by wafts of incense and maybe wafts of other stuff as well, draped in flowers, saying , “Don’t worry, be happy, my children.” It’s so sixties, isn’t it?
But then, in today’s gospel we hear similar words from Jesus. Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink. Don’t worry about your clothing. Worrying will not prolong your life. Don’t worry about tomorrow.
Now Jesus of course doesn’t go so far as to say, don’t worry, be happy – Jesus is not a lifestyle guru, after all, although he is sometimes mistaken for one – but his words about not worrying probably annoyed some of his listeners – just like Bobby McFerrin’s song roughly 2,000 years later – maybe some were even aggravated by these words. Jesus, after all, was talking to those who were suffering under the Roman Empire and its politics. Jesus was talking to peasants, fishermen, and day laborers, to those who didn’t know if they’d have enough money by the end of the day to feed their families. Jesus was talking to those who regularly would be slapped on the cheek and be put in their place. Jesus was talking to women, who, together with children, were the least and the last in society and often treated as property.
I am certain that at least some of those listening to Jesus saying, ‘Don’t worry,’ may have grumbled, well, Jesus, that’s easy for YOU to say…
And though we for the most part may not worry about food or clothing, even though our basic needs are filled, I think there are plenty of things we worry about.
Today, we celebrate ‘Erntedank’, the traditional German Festival where people give thanks for the harvest, together with many other congregations in Germany. But this year’s harvest in Germany has been dismal, due to extremely high temperatures and an unprecedented drought that lasted from the end of April to September. People, Germany ain’t California, there is always rain during the summer. Except this year.
In some regions, farmers lost up to 70% of their usual yield. And there are many farmers, especially smaller enterprises, who don’t know as to whether they will be able to make it in the future. They see the heat and drought of this summer as a harbinger of things to come – for them, climate change has become very real. They fear what they have experienced this year will be the new normal.
A devastating earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia last week reminded us that we could be next. The stock market in this country is doing well, but the economic reality for many is bleak. The future of Social Security and Medicare is uncertain, and the welfare of many seniors is at stake.
It has become clear over the past few weeks that there are many in this country who see sexual harassment and assault as something that -mostly – women just have to live with. She probably was drunk, she shouldn’t have been at that place at that time, and she must have done something to provoke it. Boys will be boys, what can you do. A man’s word is still much more worth than a woman’s word – it’s no surprise that many women and girls don’t come forward with their harrowing assault stories.
As a nation, we are divided and can’t seem to come together to truly work for the welfare of all. There are those who are dehumanized, just because they are from somewhere else, look different, talk differently, think differently, or worship differently.
To all those recent events in this world, add the stuff which is going on in your personal lives – illness, loss, financial pressures – like student loans – and then try to heed Jesus’ words: Don’t worry. Easy for YOU to say, Jesus.
But let’s just think about worry for a moment. Now what it interesting is that the English word ‘worry’ comes from the old English ‘wyrgan’ and has its roots in proto-Germanic languages. Now here’s a question for all German speakers: what German word does the old English word ‘wyrgan’ remind you of? It’s ‘würgen’. And ‘würgen’ means to choke, to strangle.
So worry is a sensation or an action that chokes us – we can’t breathe. And when we can’t breathe, we become incapacitated, paralyzed. We are stuck in the moment, and we can’t – or don’t want to – act. When we worry, we stare like the rabbit at the snake.
Maybe we could say that, when we worry about what to eat and what to drink or what to wear, this easily becomes our sole focus, our fixation – and we may lose everything else out of sight. And often, our worry captures us and paralyzes us.
Worry easily keeps us from taking responsibility and action. Worry chokes us, chokes the breath out of us, chokes the Spirit out of us—our spirit AND God’s spirit right out of us. I think that’s what Jesus is talking about.
Now I want to go back for a moment to Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’ According to his own witness, the lyrics to this song are very tongue-in-cheek, and they are a scathing criticism of American society, where often issues and problems are not dealt with, but rather hidden behind a happy and cheerful and shiny façade. And there is an ironic twist of fate: there is a music video to this song, and the late Robin Williams is in it. Williams sure knew what it was like to hide pain and mental illness behind a smiling face.
Our holy scriptures don’t pretend that things are just fine, but deal with issues like injustice and oppression head-on. In that sense, Bobby McFerrin’s song and today’s lessons from the Scriptures go very well together, albeit the lessons are much more direct.
Don’t worry. Instead, so Isaiah, ‘loose the bonds of injustice, undo the things of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke; share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor in your house, cover the naked.’ In other words, focus on what you can do to help your neighbor.
Don’t worry. Instead, so the Apostle Paul, ‘Sow bountifully. Give cheerfully. Be generous.’ In other words, don’t focus on yourself, but the welfare of the community.
Don’t worry. Instead, so Jesus, ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things you worry about will be given to you as well.’ And the Greek word for ‘striving’ doesn’t mean oh, let’s give it a half-hearted try, but it means passionately working toward it. Incidentally, the same word is used when Judas seeks or strives to betray Jesus. Judas passionately works to make it happen, Judas has a plan.
In the same way, Jesus calls out to us: strive for the kingdom of God, and for righteousness. Have a plan, put some passion into it. Put first things first. We are not to worry and to be anxious, because then we are choked, and there’s no room for God’s Spirit – it doesn’t get us anywhere. But we are still called to look at all that is broken around us, and to see how we can bring healing – to all our siblings who hurt on this planet, and to creation that has been abused by human mindless consumption -how we can work for justice, how we can work for peace among those who can’t see eye to eye because of political opinions these days, amongst ourselves.
And remember, Jesus wasn’t just off somewhere, without a worry in the world, twiddling his thumbs and lost in prayer. No, Jesus came out of concern for humanity and creation, healing the ill and the possessed, touching the untouchables, preaching good news to those who needed to hear it, criticizing and challenging those who abuse their power and their influence, protesting against all life-denying powers, sharing the road with the poorest of the poor and the disenfranchised, teaching love and forgiveness and ways of living with God and living with one another. Jesus LIVED the kingdom of God, not striving half-heartedly, but with a passion that led him to the cross.
And his biggest protest against all life-denying powers was his resurrection on Easter morn, giving us hope for new life beyond destruction and death. And, oh, how we have to hold on to this hope in this world right now.
Contrary to guru Meher Baba, Jesus doesn’t promise us happiness as he admonishes us to not worry, to not be choked by things that happen to us and around us – after all, happiness often is a shallow and fleeting feeling that is dependent on what happens to us. Jesus promises us much more: God’s Spirit, which fills us and gives us life – a life that we are called to live to the fullest, for the glory of God and in service to others – life in this world and beyond.
And this is something we can truly be thankful for.
Picture by Shlomo Shalev on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: Englisch