In 1996, moviegoers like me excitedly watched the first installment of Mission: Impossible, the franchise of films that follow our superspy heroes as they attempt to defeat the bad guys against terrible―well, impossible―odds. In this first film, we find Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt on a high-speed train with a couple of disavowed spies, including Luther, played by the charming, mellow Ving Rhames. Luther, despite his usual calm affect, is growing visibly anxious as Ethan tells the team that they are going to break into CIA Headquarters, in Langley. Luther finally is speechless, his eyes filled with worry.
Ethan, wearing Tom Cruise’s famous smile, says, “Relax, Luther. It’s much worse than you think.”
Many of my friends―particularly in seminary―know how much I love that line, because I say it to them fairly often (maybe annoyingly often?) when they’re worrying about one thing or another. I sometimes remind myself of this wisdom when I’m getting nervous about something. I love this line, so much. Luther is smart: he won’t buy it if Ethan pretends that their mission will be a breeze. He knows that the stakes could hardly be higher, and his whole life would effectively come to an end if they fail. So Ethan doesn’t deny any of that. In fact, he piles on: it’s much worse than the world-wise Luther thinks. So… why worry about it? They’re in this together, they’re smart and agile, and they simply have to do this job. Worrying about it only slows them down. Worry―which in their situation was a reasonable, appropriate emotional response!―will not be useful. And anxiety is no fun. Relax. It’s much worse than you think.
This is the interpretive lens I choose to use as I hear Jesus in Matthew tell us not to worry about food or clothing. On first hearing, it’s almost comic: he’s kidding―he must be kidding. Very little in life is guaranteed: food, shelter, clothing; health, safety, security; friends, family, community. Many of us in this room have many of these things, but one day every one of us will lose our health, and we live in a time when all of the other things could be jeopardized not just by freak accidents or happenstance, but also by political upheaval, climate change, and human conflicts that have troubled our species throughout all of recorded history, conflicts around race, class, gender, and nationality. We simply do not live in a world where we can trust that God or anyone else will guarantee that our basic human needs will be taken care of. And so that’s why, in my hearing of this part of the Sermon on the Mount, I hear Jesus saying this:
Relax, Church. It’s much worse than you think.
Consider a few details about Jesus himself. After preaching the Sermon on the Mount, which is where today’s sayings appear, Jesus goes on to lead a life that draws him further and further into the deadly trap set by political authorities who had both the will and the power to kill him. As he neared his moment of death, he cried out to God the opening verse of Psalm 22, a powerful complaint of abandonment― “Why have you forsaken me?” Following Jesus would prove to be much worse than his listeners originally thought. When we consider what it really means to follow Jesus, it becomes obvious that even though our heavenly Father knows that we need food, clothing, and all the rest, that does not mean that our lives will be secure, our futures safe. We may even have to put all these good things at risk, for the sake of the Gospel.
And we also hear from the prophet Joel this morning, He, too, proclaims something that at first sounds lovely, but gets more complicated when we take a second look. The earth itself, in Joel’s telling, is filled with life, abundant life. The land is verdant and rain-soaked. The people’s storehouses are filled with grain and oil. God is in good fellowship with the people. And now, we hear, God will repay them for all the years when God had sent them swarming locusts.
Wait―let’s hear that again. “I will repay you,” God says, “for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.” And so we see that the abundant land and the nourishment it yields is not simply God’s gift to the people, the generous opening of the divine hand in a happy paradise of plenty. No, the relationship between God and the people is more complicated than that. There had been discord. There had been heartbreak. The people had sinned, and the people had cried out to God, complaining that God had abandoned them. The abundance we celebrate in the book of Joel is the result of a hard-won reconciliation. Maybe we can understand this in light of the history of our own land, a land of seemingly inexhaustible bounty, but also a land of discord, sin, and bitter conflict.
This good world, abundant with life and beauty―this good world and its blessings rightly inspire deep gratitude in us. We are grateful for the gifts of food, clothing, health, family, friends, and shelter. Like the Israelites who saw God restore the fortunes of Zion, life for us can sometimes feel like a happy dream. Today at countless Thanksgiving tables, many people will observe the tradition of going around the table to hear everyone say something they’re thankful for. High on my list is my physical health, the immense gift of being able to study and pray with good friends, and the stability and love in my household.
And yet―life is complicated, often very troubled, and our complicated lives are met by God’s Word today, which sounds not just the themes of gratitude and rejoicing, but also acknowledges that it’s not always that simple, and suffering is widespread. Gratitude beats worry any day as a healthy, adaptive response to all of the blessings in our lives. But it also helps us navigate the many complications. Some cancer patients find that gratitude for their health deepens as they struggle with disease. Some shooting survivors proclaim a message of confidence that overcomes fear, hope that overcomes despair, friendship that overcomes hatred, even as we all continue to confront the violence that continues to hurt and kill so many people. Nations embrace green technologies even as news of climate change becomes ever more stark, and whole counties in the west are engulfed by fire.
And so, when we give thanks around this Table of God, we are not putting blinders on and denying the hard truths of life and death in this community. When we sing songs of rejoicing around this Table, we do not deny the howl of sorrow that sometimes rises within us in the course of our complicated lives. God also does not lie to us and pretend that everything is going to be just fine. The birds and the flowers have all that they need, and in Matthew Jesus says that their heavenly Father knows their needs, and therefore God must know ours even better. “All things come of thee, O Lord,” we say week by week as we hold the gifts aloft. Yes. Our faith tells us that this is true. But God in Jesus also faces the hard realities of life, and does not look away. God in Jesus joins us in our suffering, and embraces us in our loss. Even on a day when we have no health, or food, or friends, or shelter, even and perhaps especially on the day of our death, God is here with us, and in Jesus God has experienced all of this, too.
So, relax. It’s much worse than you think. And God knows all about that, and all about you. Rejoice and give thanks, for at this Table we meet God, and eat our fill, and rest content. No matter what.
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Preached on Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2018, at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill (Episcopal), Alexandria, VA.