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The Gospel According to Alfred E. Neuman

Sermon - 2/27/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 6:24-34

We are looking once again at the Sermon on the Mount, that takes up 3 chapters in Matthew's gospel. Begins with the beatitudes in chapter 5, and I'm reading this morning from Chapter 6, verses 24 through 34. Jesus says:

‘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.

25 ‘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? 26Look 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? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But 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? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.


In 2008, I had the opportunity to travel to that region of Galilee where Jesus was active in his ministry. Even though we don't know precisely where he gave the Sermon on the Mount, we know it was on a mount in the region. And so when you go to Israel, Northern Galilee, you can find the "Mount Beatitudes Chapel", dedicated to this message from Jesus.

It's not a super big tourist destination (like many of the others places in Israel), though there were a number of folk there, but it is the kind of place where one can gather for small services in a very serene setting.

Or simply sit for prayer, or reading your Bible, as the case may be.


From that mount, you can look out over the Sea of Galilee, where you can see the fishing boats working the lake.

It's not a particularly majestic place, it's more of a serene, quiet place. Where it's not hard to picture a teacher gathering a large group of students to share a message about the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field, drawing inspiration from those things just immediately in that vicinity.

When you leave that peaceful setting, and you drive north to the border with Lebanon, you come across this scene:

Do you get what it is? A playground. See the play structure behind the brightly colored tank there, so nicely painted in those inviting colors so that children will feel free to play on the tanks? You know, nothing to fear here. I found that to be a particularly stark reminder of the reality of this world -- that no matter how brightly colored, that it is not always child-friendly at all. And as we see right now elsewhere in the Middle East, life often is not easy, especially not in that region of the world. And indeed for much of history, it rarely has been so.

Right around a year of Jesus' birth, there was another invading army, this one from Rome, that burned the town of Sephoris to the ground (after a revolt). Sephoris is located just 4 miles from Nazareth, the home of Mary and Joseph.

Undoubtedly causing hundreds if not thousands of refugees to flee, maybe even as far as Egypt, as of course Matthew tells the story of Mary and Joseph.

Subsequently, to appease their Roman lords, Galilee was forced into a major commercialization program, to pay their heavy taxes. Taxes, by the way, far greater than anything we have ever paid in this country, and I'm sure (given the current climate) that we ever will.

But heavy taxes weren't the worst of it. Peasants who could live off the land in an agrarian society were no longer able to support themselves, resulting in thousands who lost their land and livelihood and were faced with essentially a choice of either slavery or destitution. So when Jesus prays in the Lord's Prayer (right before this section in the Sermon on the Mount) "Give us our daily bread", you see, that was a prayer that was on the lips of a large segment of the population who do not know where their daily bread was coming from.

This is the context for this message from Jesus, telling people to not worry about food, about clothing. It's like telling the passengers on the Titanic 'Don't worry about those icebergs', right?

So how do we take this admonition from Jesus to stop worrying about the necessities of life? If we take this literally, wouldn't we give up things like our IRAs, and pension plans -- you know, why worry about the future? Why buy insurance -- do the birds? Why seek an education? Have you ever seen a lily with a PhD? I've seen some Ph.D's who weren't worth a lily, but that's another matter :)



Maybe we should all be like Alfred E. Neuman. What, me worry? You know, that clueless, happy-go-lucky icon who has graced the cover of MAD Magazine since the 1930's, popular among youth ever since.





Alfred E. Neuman's face has been used to satirize all kinds of public figures, as a way suggesting that they are clueless. Movie characters, from Spock to Harry Potter. Sports figures like Barry Bonds:


Oil companies -- BP, what, me worry? And of course, Presidents -- Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, President Obama.


Even the Pope has not escaped this characterization. Maybe we should say character 'assassination', because one generally does not want to be portrayed as Alfred E. Neuman.

And that picture is so disturbing I'm not going to leave it on the screen.

Sometimes the way this passage gets interpreted, though, sounds sounds a lot like that. Jesus comes off, you know, in this clueless way, telling us that we don't have a worry in the world because God is on our side. Don't worry, be happy (as Bobby McFerrin sang).

Well, tell that to the two families whose sons got washed out to sea in Yachats a couple of weeks ago. Tell that to the families of those yachting enthusiasts whose only desire was to spread some good, taking Bibles to various parts of the world, executed by their Somali pirates when American forces closed in. Tell that to the citizens of the South Pacific islands, whose homelands will be wiped out by climate change within 50 years. Tell that to any victim of domestic violence, or rape, or post-traumatic stress, or racism, or homophobia, or anti-Semitism, or a terminal illness, or war, or any other condition that robs people of their well-being, their dignity, or their livelihood.

The truth is, there are all kinds of scary things that go bump in the night. And they don't ask -- are you a good Christian? Do you believe in God? So I don't think that Jesus intends for us to live like birds or lilies or Alfred E. Neuman, without a worry in the world. But rather, I think what's going on here is poetic imagery. It's not a prescription for a worry-free life. I'm convinced that we learn to live life as God intends not by lists of do's and don'ts (although we have some big ones, 10 Commandments), but who is moved to change their life by laundry list of things you're supposed to do, or not?

What moves us is what speaks to our hearts. The poetic verses of a Maya Angelou, or the stirring music of a Bach symphony, the tender ballad of folk singer, the prophetic voice of a Martin Luther King Jr. The majestic vistas of the Grand Canyon, a dramatic story of a life turned around by God, the tiny hand of a newborn infant grabbing onto your finger for the first time.

These are the things that move us. They change us, because they speak to us at a deeper level. I wish everyone could have been an our Annual Meeting a few weeks ago. You don't often say that about church business meetings :). But this one was an incredible meeting. I mean this most sincerely (April and I wrote something about it in the letter we sent to the congregation). The testimony we heard at that meeting, from the Busic's, the Lauer's, the Tofte's, and Mary Robertson, was so incredibly powerful. Testimonies about their faith, about this church, about becoming an open and affirming congregation and why that matters so much. I mean, and I know there are some that weren't sure about that action that we took, but I think everyone heard something that spoke to them. That touched their hearts. As evidenced by the consensus that we achieved to embrace that proposal.

Hearts and minds were moved that day not by logic, or well-reasoned arguments, but by those stories. By the emotions. And ultimately, a trust that we were being led by God to do what was right. Jesus knows he can't use logic to tell his audience not to worry -- the logic says they had plenty of things to worry about.

Our daughter was involved in a car accident a couple months ago, down in LA, on the freeway. Her car wasn't touched -- the vehicle in front of her came to a sudden stop, she had to swerve to avoid it, and those LA freeways never have space, the car behind her swerved and lost control and rolled over into the median. Fortunately the young driver was not seriously injured, was able to walk away from it, but of course paramedics insisted that she come with them to be checked out at ER.

I got a call from our insurance agent this week, who said "I don't want you to worry, but . . . . ". What do you do when when someone says that? It's kind of like someone saying: "Whatever you do, don't think about a pink elephant". What do you do? You start getting this image of a pink elephant.

Turns out, they had received a medical claim from the other party of $85,000. Our insurance limit is $50,000. Who, me, worry? No, I'm not worried :). I know medical costs have gone up, but $85,000 for an ER visit?! She said, yeah, something's not right here, we don't know why, we're researching it, and not to worry because the insurance company is there to represent us, and we're sure we'll be able to work this out. So what did I do all that day? I worried.

It's just natural. Worry is a fact of life, it's part of the human condition. It's called "parenting" :). Our son (Patrick) had a concert last night in Bend, so he borrowed our van to take some other members of the group (On the Rocks). True confession, I went skiing yesterday, so I was up on the passes, I saw the snow and the ice on those roads. So as soon as I got home, I texted my son. He left at 1:00, I figured by 6:00 he should have been there. "How was the drive, did you make it OK?". No response. 7:00 p.m., no response. 8:00 p.m., no response. The other true confession is that I often work on finalizing my sermon's on Saturday, and so I'm working on this sermon about not worrying while I'm worrying :).

Literally, I kid you not, I finished everything, 10:00 p.m., I'm closing up my office, and I pick up my phone one last time, thinking "C'mon!", and I'll be danged -- the phone buzzes. And there it is, a 1-word response: "Yep".

I'm worry-free this morning :). Of course he has to drive home tonight, but I'll worry about that later.

So, worry is a lot like salt -- a little goes a long way. And a lot is bad for your health. It's bad for your physical health as well as your spiritual health. As Jesus points out, it doesn't do you any good anyway. Can anyone add a single hour to their life by worrying? As a matter of fact, we now know you can subtract hours from your life. Worrying adds to stress, and stress kills. It's not good for you.

So what do we do about this?

Everyone in Jesus' audience, then and now, has or had plenty of good reasons to worry. The whole point of the birds and the lilies is not that we have any guarantee of God's protection, it's rather that we have the assurance of God's care. That God cares for us as God cares for birds and flowers, and more so.

It was Thursday I was working on this, and I happened to look outside, and it's snowing pretty good. I look outside, and there's a bunch of birds on the telephone line, all kind of huddled together in the snow. And down below, there were about 20 guys gathered here for the Egan Warming Center, huddling up underneath a tarp waiting for us to open. And I wondered: how does God care for either one of those?

I went downstairs to check on the crew getting ready to open up, and I met Jack Tripp, the new Director for the Rescue Mission, just on the job for three weeks. Great guy. He said to me how he's been so impressed by the response of this community, not just at the Rescue Mission where he works, but elsewhere in things like the Egan Warming Center and Food for Lane County, and on and on. So impressed by the compassion of this community for the least of these in our midst.

And it occurred to me as I walked away from that conversation, that if it is that we don't have to worry for those basic necessities or even the safety of our children, then it's because that we can trust that people are generally prone to do what is right to help one another.

Now, many people are moved by their faith -- what would Jesus do?, they ask. Or, as the prophet Micah asks "What does God require of us but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God". Others move for other reasons -- by general sense of right and wrong, by the example of others, by their belief in Karma or other religious beliefs, or just a belief in goodness and random acts of kindness.

Whatever their motivation, I understand that to be the way God works in our world -- by moving us, even if we are not aware of that presence. To seek the good, to make that presence felt and known.

Our partners in Global Ministries, Amy Gopp (who was here a couple weeks ago), the head of Week of Compassion, and Bob Shebeck, here a year or two ago, often speak of the ministry that we have in the Church of 'critical presence'. The idea that being with people in their time of need is often the most important thing we do as church. Just letting people know after a natural disaster, or in the wake of a pandemic, or during civil unrest, or even in a private crisis, that they are not alone. That we, and God, are there with them, to support them, to care for them, sometimes to cry with them, and often to dance with them. To celebrate the gracious gift of God's love and care.

You see, that's the work of Week of Compassion around the world, and why we take this offering today. To show our love and God's love for people wherever and whenever disaster strikes, whether from nature or from nations. Whether illness or poverty. It's just one of the many ways that we seek to do God's work, to seek God's kingdom, God's righteousness (which also can be translated as God's justice).

Make that your first priority, Jesus says, and the rest will follow. And when we do that, we can trust that God's will will be done. And thus our attitude can truly be one where our trust in God will overcome our worries in life.

The Sermon on the Mount, as I said, begins with the beatitudes: blessed (which can also be translated "happy" or "fortunate"), Jesus says, are the poor in spirit. Or, as in Luke's gospel, Jesus simply says 'blessed are the poor'. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the the children of God.

I don't know about Alfred E. Neuman, but just maybe Bobby McFerrin has it right: Don't worry, be happy, our God is with us.


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