Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 49:14-15; 1 Cor 4:1-5; Mt 6:24-34

I suspect that one sentence of today’s Gospel would raise eyebrows on multitudes of Christians: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life." For most of the past ten years I’ve been living with several supreme worriers. One of them was Sr. Amelia. She worried about everything, which made her extremely observant and extremely good as a sacristan. She even worried about her worrying too much. We used to talk about it regularly back in the sacristy. She used to often say, "I wish I wouldn’t worry so much, but I can’t help it." I told her I would pray for her about it. To remind myself and her regularly I began to add a phrase to the daily text of the mass. In the prayer that follows the Lord’s Prayer this line occurs: "Protect us from all anxiety." I added the phrase, "and worry." It didn’t have much effect, but she knew I was praying for her every day. The other heavy worrier I live with is my mother. She’s even worse than Sr. Amelia. She even dreams up things to worry about. They say that worrying takes years off your life. Well, at age 97, I’m not sure when that’s going to kick in for her. But we don’t need to consider famous worriers. Most of us are at an age when we begin to worry about our bodies. We worry about that new bump or mole that appears on our skin. We worry about that ache or pain in our stomach. We worry if a headache is actually a sign of something much worse. At a certain age worrying becomes a natural component of life.

The question weighs upon us: what exactly did Jesus mean when he said: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life." We need to take this sentence in the context of the entire passage it is part of. Then we see that the primary intent of the passage is to build to its climax: "Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness...." Everything before that in the passage is overstated in order to lead to the climax and emphasize its importance. Seeking God is always of greatest importance in the life of the believer. And I have no doubt that such was the case with Sr. Amelia and is so with my mother. But they were and are still great worriers.

If we would look at the whole body of Jesus’ teaching, we see that he continually encourages his followers to be concerned about their brothers and sisters. And that concern includes worrying about them. There are very legitimate worries that faithful believers can have. That should be of some consolation to all of you who are worriers out there. A man who is laid off work or in danger of being laid off can have some honest worries about how he is going to provide for his family. And each of us should have some valid worries about the state of our health. We do need to look after that.

Our task is to distinguish between valid and inordinate worrying. Worry becomes inordinate when it begins to blind us to our true tasks and purposes. That can happen Hypochondriacs constantly worry about their health more than anything else. We had one priest at St. Meinrad—he’s now deceased—who worried all the time about his health. Supposedly he had a different doctor for each day of the week and he had to see each of them regularly. Each Christmas season we have a party for all the doctors who serve members of the St. Meinrad community. The monks would joke that after that priest died, the number at the doctors’ party decreased by half. We’ve had other worriers who were almost incapable of doing any job at all.

We aren’t talking about anything sinful here. Excessive worrying is a psychological disease and often not a matter of willfulness at all. But we are speaking about the importance of good mental health in a sound approach to the gospel message. Good mental health is important in being able to respond to Jesus call to the Kingdom of God. And each of us has a responsibility to check ourselves with regard to mental health. That too can be a part of Jesus’ message to make the Kingdom of God first in our lives.

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