TEXT: Matthew 6:24-34
Preached today at Montclair. Enjoy.
Oliver just read us a scandalous text. Throughout the history of Christianity, people have appreciated the poetry of the lilies and the birds, but they also have tried very hard to find ways to get around it, to say somehow that it doesn’t say what it says. What it says is: Consider the lilies. Don’t worry. Consider the birds of the air. God takes care of them, and therefore God will take even better care of you.
This is a problematic statement, in all kinds of ways. The first problem that comes to my mind is a Peanuts cartoon, in which Woodstock the bird hears this verse, asking if a human being is not “of more value than many birds,” and he goes off totally depressed, and Snoopy has to cheer him up. That verse is not fair to birds.
The second scandal, this one a little more serious, is that it doesn’t necessarily WORK, at least not to cure us of our worrying. If you don’t believe me, find an anxious person – I bet there are many of us who identify as such – tell them to consider the lilies, and stuff some flowers under their nose and see if they are cured. Better yet, tell them “the Bible Says, you shouldn’t be anxious,” and watch them have a panic attack because now they feel guilty for feeling anxious. I do not recommend using this as a treatment plan for anxiety.
The text is also scandalous because it seems to tell us not to work. And what would happen to our society if we all stopped working? We can’t ALL be hunter-gatherers in the woods, there just isn’t enough to go around.
What’s more, it’s upsetting because we know we need more than food and clothing… education, for example, and technology… so it’s insulting to compare our complex needs and requirements with the simple existence of birds and lilies. This text is riddled with problems. How can we interpret it?
One hint for interpretation is that Jesus may not have addressed this message to everyone. The Sermon on the Mount begins by saying “his disciples came to him,” so it probably includes the twelve famous disciples, and an inner circle including women as well, but it’s not addressed to “everyone.” These are verses of particular encouragement to a particular group of people. Some of them were fishermen, but some may have been farmers, and some of the women were employed in spinning and weaving. The point is that these are people who used to sow and reap and labor and spin, who no longer work in those vocations, because they have given them up to travel on the road with Jesus full-time. These are people who know well what it is to work, but who have willingly put their work behind them. By leaving their work to follow Jesus, the disciples have abandoned their means of supporting themselves. So maybe the message about birds and lilies isn’t meant to challenge us to STOP working, but to console people who are no longer working.
So some of us can heave a sigh of relief. Jesus isn’t addressing this to us, after all! Some, however, are in a similar life situation – where you do not sow or reap or labor or spin – some are there willingly, because you have saved up enough from your previous work to retire or take a self-supported sabbatical…. But some are in this kind of situation unwillingly, because of injury or misfortune or old age. Keep in mind that regardless of how we are living now, most of us at some point will face such a situation, where we are no longer ABLE to work, and these words will take on a new meaning for us.
When you can’t work, and your savings run out, these words need no interpretation. They speak for themselves, with good advice. God loves you. Don’t worry about the future. Just take it one day at a time.
I did my internship in the hardscrabble hills of Eastern Oregon, where many people live off the produce of the land and have known what it is, at least at some point, to be in need. One woman told me that when she had more than enough, she could go out hunting – for fun – and never get a deer, but somehow whenever she was desperate and wondering what she could put on the table for her children, it seemed like a deer would just walk up to her in the woods and offer himself to her. Or a neighbor would ring the doorbell and drive off, leaving a basket of food just exactly when she needed it. Some call this coincidence and some call it providence. In such situations, the verses about lilies and birds need no explanation. They are a comfort and consolation.
But for those of us who fortunately have clothes and food and don’t need that kind of comforting, what does this passage do for us? What can we say about it?
No matter what our context, everyone can hear this as a challenge and an invitation to simplicity. Of which most of us are in desperate need.
Everything around us teaches us to fight, to scramble, to survive. Work harder, worry more, save more, plan more. We’ve been groomed our whole lives for the culture of competition and the evolutionary scramble to the top, and along the way, if we step on some other people, that’s just the cost of doing business. We push them down so we can stand on their heads, because we need to rise to the top.
But in Jesus’ words of challenge, we are being invited BACKWARDS, going down that ladder of competition instead of up it. We’re being invited to remember that we are, simply, animals; to compare ourselves to plants. But that is not easy to do.
Consider the lilies – how they grow.
Consider how they poke their heads up, early in the spring,
Consider how they bloom, how gorgeous they look.
But consider how they fade, how they wilt, how they scatter their seeds and die back down to a bare root for the winter.
Consider the birds – how they live.
Consider the food they find all around them without working and farming the land.
But consider the birds that find NO food around them.
Consider the birds of the Gulf Coast.
Consider the birds whose habitat is being destroyed.
I don’t want to compare myself to that kind of bird! So we might think that here the metaphor breaks down, that Jesus only wanted us to naively consider the happy birds. But let’s try to take it farther.
Consider a lily in harsher climate than ours, one that came up too soon, one that has been snowed on – a flower that is freezing, wilting, and dying.
It still doesn’t worry! It still doesn’t fret about the future, or the seeds it hasn’t produced. The grass of the field is alive today, and tomorrow it is burned in the oven, and all of this is part of its natural life cycle.
I remember as a child when our family’s cat was slowly dying. I was worried about him. Was he scared? Was he confused? And although no one knows what was really going on in the cat’s head, my mother told me that cats don’t worry about dying.
I may be leaning away from the Christian and more toward a Native American kind of understanding here, but in some sense I believe that animals know some simple things that we have forgotten, and one of those things is that death can be a friend.
It’s not just in the animal world that we see such radical trust and acceptance. In Jesus’ example himself we see that although he admitted his fear, in the end he was not too worried to give his life away.
It’s not necessarily because Jesus believed he was going to heaven. That idea took a long time for the early Christians to develop. Even before we put pearly gates and golden streets in our minds, Jesus and his disciples were able to face death as a transition, knowing that even death could not separate them from the boundless love of God.
It’s a hard world out there. And we are taught to fight, and to deny the reality that we will ever die. We keep our mortality at bay by constantly struggling up the ladder of achievement. We may not THINK we’re stepping on anyone’s shoulders to get to where we are, but we still buy shoes made in sweat shops, and blueberries picked by underpaid immigrants, and we fill our cars with the same sludge that swamped the Gulf of Mexico. We are stepping on a lot of shoulders – whether human or any other creature. Because we have to keep ourselves UP, you see, and we will sacrifice anything to keep ourselves on top. But the painful truth is that this struggle doesn’t even work. It hurts us, it hurts others, it lays waste the earth and pollutes the seas. We are finding more and more that we cannot be healthy and whole while we destroy the world around us. When we get to this point we realize – even if the Bible doesn’t tell us how the earth was really created, it does tell us one important thing: we didn’t create it ourselves. And for the most part, we can’t control it either.
The good news that comes with this recognition is that another way lies open before us. We can recognize the world around us as a gift, and we can take a path of simplicity, of trust, of natural connection. On this path we will not be the ones on the top, who control everything from a place of untouchability, immune to every disaster – but just grateful, humble participants.
I wonder, what this path will look like?
For some of you I may have just touched very close to home by mentioning the fear of death. For some that’s a nearby reality, and I certainly can’t pretend to know what you should do, especially in questions about your medical care. I, and we as a church, can only offer our respect and honor for the path you walk, and offer a blessing – may you trust and feel God’s presence, day by day. May God’s love protect and sustain you, day by day.
For others this path may lead to some self-examination. How much of my energy do I spend competing? How much do I put into building my power base, gathering my supporters, preparing arguments for those who will disagree with me? What would happen if I showed up open-handed instead of armed and defensive? Can I be simply one part of a greater whole, or do I feel I “need” to be on top?
What if we even took this farther – out of our personal relationships? What if I saw myself as a sister or brother to the non-human creatures of the earth? It takes a radical shift to get there, and to really escape from the default position, which is that the natural world doesn’t matter except when it’s useful to us. We could act, instead, as if the lily’s joy were our joy, and the Gulf Coast seagull’s pain were our pain.
It raises the question of generosity. Do I hoard my treasure like a dragon, or do I give it away trusting that others will do good things with what they receive?
It raises the question of sufficiency. Do I have enough? Am I in need? Do I have clothing and footware to spare? Isn’t there a three-week supply of food in my pantry? Or am I in need?
Sallie McFague writes: “Theology by relatively comfortable North American Christians ought not to focus on personal salvation, in this world or the next, but on lifestyle limitations, on developing a philosophy of “enoughness,” and realizing that the cruciform way of Christ means making sacrifices so that others might live.”
But this path is not about bucking up and being grim. It’s about truly being grateful for the abundance we DO have. And it’s about joy. Considering the natural world around us, we do see death and suffering, but we also see abundant life, multiplying like crazy every springtime, and now is a great time to be out in the parks looking for it. When we see the world with the Loving Eye of kinship rather than the Arrogant Eye of objectification, we ourselves will be happier.
This path is liberating. Because with all we have done to keep other people and creatures down, we find we have been bound, ourselves, in the same oppression. As we free other people, we find we are freed. And as we work to heal the earth, the earth works to heal us.
Jesus invites us to take a radically different path from the one we have learned… but deep in our souls, somehow we know that it is joyful, and beautiful, and good. Jesus invites us to receive the grace that allows us to back off our competitive scramble and take our rightful place in the order of things.
Let us receive that grace from God…
A grateful heart
And feet standing on the solid ground of God’s good earth, rather than climbing on the shoulders of those we must push down.
Let us pray.
God, pour out your grace on your people gathered here. Give to those who need it, trust and provision, one day at a time. Give to all of us who struggle, grateful hearts, generous hands, and grounded feet. Lead us forward on a simple path of joy and compassion. We ask these blessings in the name of our teacher, our brother, and our friend, Jesus Christ – Amen.