Ah! The “Don’t Worry Be Happy” Scripture! I once played Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” in a sermon on this text. Twice. After the service, one congregant let me know that she turned her hearing aids off both times. “I don’t like that song.”
I get it. It’s an earworm. It’s going in your heads right now, isn’t it? You probably won’t even be able to hear the rest of the sermon. Sigh.
For those who are still with me, let’s look again at Jesus’ admonition to stop worrying about what we’ll eat or wear, “for life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.” It sounds pretty “pie-in-the-sky,” doesn’t it? Especially with inflation. How can we not worry about putting food on the table or putting gas in the car?
Consider the ravens, Jesus tells the crowd. They neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! This is the second time Jesus reminds his hearers that they are of more worth than birds. Last week, it was sparrows. This week, ravens.
We remember that the people with whom Jesus chose to hang out, the people with whom he shared the Gospel, lived on the margins of Roman society. They probably did have trouble getting food and clothing. They probably did feel like they didn’t matter as much as the birds. They probably did worry. A lot.
Is it any wonder that Jesus keeps reminding people of their worth in God’s eyes? If you don’t have access to basic resources, if the society in which you live doesn’t value who you are, being reminded of your humanity–over and over–helps. It helps.
Jesus’ lesson on worry leads to this: Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. Your Abba knows that you need them. Instead, strive for God’s kindom, and these things will be given to you as well.
Strive for God’s kindom, aka, the world of which God dreams. If you do that, the things you need will be given to you, as well. I wonder if Jesus isn’t calling for an either/or thing here, but a reassessment of priorities. Seek ye first the kingdom of God, right?
Sure! Let’s just go seek the kingdom of God! Let’s send one of the clipboards around and let us all sign up.
It’s not that easy, is it, creating God’s kindom. A big part of what makes the work of creating the world of which God dreams rests in the social systems in our country–the economic system, the healthcare system, the racial system. Systems of injustice are insidious. We’re all caught in the web they’ve created. After last week’s sermon, someone said that they got the thing about economic justice (which I’m convinced they do), then asked, But what do we do?
I’m not sure. I know. I’m the pastor. I’m supposed to know these things…but I struggle to know precisely what to do in the face of unjust social systems in which we also participate. The work many of you are doing to get out the vote, the work for climate justice that’s beginning to solidify here at UCT, the renewed focus on advocacy for those in the LGBTQ+ community, Peter Butzin’s work with the Ethics committee…all these efforts are, I believe, kin-dom work. All these efforts help create the world of which God dreams.
But so much more needs to be done. So. Much. More.
At one of the retreats I attended last month, I learned about the impact of racist societal structures on people who are Black. I’ve been doing anti-racism work for a long time. That work intensified after George Floyd’s murder. I went to the “Building Diverse Communities” retreat saying I “just wanted to listen,” but thinking to myself, “Oh, yeah. I know all about creating anti-racist communities.”
In the first session, when I heard something inappropriate coming out of my mouth, it hit me: It doesn’t matter how much anti-racism work I do, I’m always going to be caught by the racist structures in our society. All of us are caught–people who are Black, people who are white, all people. All of us are caught in the web of racist societal structures.
So, as the person who sent the email asked, What do we do? How do we create the world of which God dreams when injustice in our world is so insidious?
I’m glad I made my stumble in the first session of the retreat. Getting past it freed me up really to listen to what was being said by our four Black women presenters.
The main presenter was Rev. Dr. Alika Galloway, a Presbyterian pastor in Minneapolis. When she started her ministry, which was in a rough part of town, each morning she’d sit on the church’s steps and wait with her daughter for the school bus. As Alika sat, she observed. Sometimes, she’d invite the people she saw to come sit a spell on the church steps.
Many of the people who came and sat were engaged in survival sex…people whose rent was coming due and who were desperate for money to pay it. When the people came– early in the morning after their work was over–Alika asked them what they needed. Almost always, they asked for water. None of the restaurants in the area allowed the people to get a drink. After the water, what they most needed was a safe space to rest.
And so, Alika, her congregation, and the Presbytery created a space within the church for these survival sex workers to rest. The red brick church building was old, including its exquisite stained glass windows. The limits of the space became clear when a trans woman walked in one morning, looked at the stained glass windows and said, “How the bleep can I rest with that white Jesus looking at me?”
A recurrent theme at our retreat was the power of symbols, especially symbols in white churches…like that blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus. The woman who came to the church that morning, needed–she needed–to see another image, an image that looked more like her.
Alika made an appointment to meet with the Presbytery…a Presbytery known for not approving much of anything. She asked them to remove the windows. She said, “I’m not here to shame you about your windows, I’m asking you to save some lives.” Then she told them girls as young as 11 were practicing survival sex in her neighborhood. She asked if there were any 11 year old girls in their lives, to think about them as they made their decision. The Presbyters asked Alika to leave the room while they voted. When she came back in, they told her they would remove the windows. The church now has clear glass windows.
I wonder if Jesus spends so much time reminding people of their human worth because creating the world of which God dreams requires all of who we are for the work. If there are people walking around–which there are–who think they aren’t worth anything because they aren’t white, we haven’t achieved the world of which God dreams. If people who are white aren’t thinking about, learning from people who don’t look or live like them, we haven’t achieved the world of which God dreams. We’re all caught in webs of injustice. Until we dismantle them, the injustices will continue.
Goodness, Pastor! Can’t you get us to some hope, like now? Why, yes! Yes, I can! Listen to the last few verses of today’s Scripture story. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kindom. Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Where is your treasure? Where is your heart? It’s telling that Jesus follows “it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kindom,” with “sell your possessions and give alms.” God’s kindom is about our connection with each other. God’s kin-dom is about making sure that others have what they need. God’s kin-dom is about creating a world where everyone feels safe and knows their full human worth.
What Jesus seems to be saying here is that our treasure is US…and by us, I mean all of humanity, all of creation. I’m reminded of the African idea of ubuntu–there is no me without you. We cannot become fully human until we live as if we need each other to survive.
I Need You to Survive is one of the best Gospel songs ever. At the retreat, Dana, one of the presenters whom we called “the songbird,” was asked to sing I Need You to Survive at prayer with the sisters at the monastery. Rather than using an accompaniment track, which she usually did, she wanted to sing it with guitar–as a way to embody Black and white folks working collaboratively. Dana asked if I could play it. I looked it up, changed the key, and thought I could manage it. When we practiced, I did okay except for this one crucial–but for me, awkward–chord. I told her I would practice the chord. It should be fine for prayer the next day.
It wasn’t. Not by a long-shot. It was awful. Absolutely awful. Dana was gracious, but I was really embarrassed. I thought about it as I drove home from Indiana. Somewhere in northern Alabama, I decided that we would sing the song last Sunday in worship and that, since Quentin would be out of town, I would learn to play it on piano–maybe as a way to atone for botching it at the monastery on guitar. I pulled up the chords. I pulled up tutorials on Youtube. I practiced and practiced…then prayed for God to send a real Gospel pianist.
Tuesday a week ago, I had just given up practicing the song and gone back to my office, when Rev. Jarvis Alls knocked on the door. Rev. Alls pastors a small congregation in Quincy. He said they first got to know UCT a few years back at Pride. My eyebrows shot up. A black church at Pride? He also said that he’s been watching our services. When I asked why, he said, “You might not hear from them, but you need to know that your ministry here is very important to people. They are watching.” When I asked if his congregation was really supportive of people in the LGBTQ+ community, Rev. Alls said, “Here’s what we believe: God is love. Love is love. It’s our job to love people. One day we’re going to have to answer to God for that.” I could have hugged him right there.
In the conversation with Rev. Alls, I learned that he’s also a musician. His grandmother, Dottie Alls–who sadly died of Covid in 2020–was a blues musician known as B. B. Queen. When Jarvis showed me a video of his grandmother playing guitar and him playing piano, I asked, “Can you play I Need You to Survive and let me record it for my congregation?” He said yes! I was so relieved. You should also be relieved.
So…we’re going to sing I Need You to Survive. Rev. Jarvis Alls will accompany us. We’re actually going to play the video twice. We’ll sing one set of words the first time, a second set of words the second time.
As we sing // remember this: our treasure is us. There is no us and them. There is only us. There is only us. Our treasure is us. We need each other to survive.
Video: I Need You to Survive
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2022