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Wed, Mar 25, 2020

Love Does: Be not afraid

After beginning the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday with, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life,” the scripture texts for our Wednesday night services have been drawn from the Sermon on the Mount. We have been considering these texts alongside our study of the book Love Does by Bob Goff. And so we have examined what it means for love to be salt and light in the world; to allow love instead of anger to guide our actions in times of strained relationships; and Jesus’ audacious command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, knowing that is the kind of love God has for you and for me.

Today we continue in the Sermon on the Mount, with a text from Matthew, chapter 6, verses 25-34. Earlier in the chapter Jesus speaks about investing in the treasures of heaven and teaches his disciples how to pray. Now, he speaks to the outlook that should characterize those who know and trust that God is at work transforming the world. Let us hear this Word of God.

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

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

It is easy to dismiss Jesus when he says, “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.” Because obviously Jesus has not seen the news. Jesus has not talked to an emergency room doctor running out of necessary supplies or a worried family member who cannot sit beside the bed of a loved one. Jesus has not consulted with parents trying to work from home and help their children with online school assignments. Jesus has not looked at small businesses trying to stay in business or the balances of college savings or retirement accounts. Don’t worry – how could we possibly do that? Isn’t it hardwired into our very nature? One commentator expresses this sentiment when he writes:

Jesus’ words might have been relevant to the uncomplicated life of the first century, but are far too utopian to serve as practical wisdom for life in a technological world. After all, Jesus couldn’t possibly have imagined what incredible pressures modern families face. “Don’t worry, be happy” is a counsel of irresponsibility.

Now, my friends, I think Jesus probably could have imagined today’s world, but I do not think encouraging irresponsibility was his point. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, but especially in this text, Jesus is inviting us to imagine, to live into a different vision, a different future called the Kingdom of God. And to do so Jesus offers a poetic vision.

Look the birds of the air;
They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
And yet your Heavenly Father feeds them.
Are they not of more value than you?

And can any of you by worrying add
A single hour to the span of your life?

And why do you worry about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field,
How they grow;
They neither toil nor spin,
Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory
was not clothed like one of these.

If we truly hear these words, then it becomes clear that the point of Jesus’ examples is not a logical equation: Because of A, then B. It is not because every single bird is fully fed, therefore you should not worry about what you will eat. No, there are some birds that die of starvation and people who go hungry due to lack of planning. In the same way, it is not because every single lily blooms into a beautiful flower, therefore you should not worry about what you will wear. No, there are lilies that never bloom due to drought and disease and children who live in rags.

So, Jesus is not making a strictly logical argument – he’s making a poetic one. As New Testament scholar Douglas Hare writes,

“The birds of the heavens” and “the lilies of the field” become larger than life. They are not models to be imitated but powerful symbols of God’s providential care … The rhetorical development of these symbols draws our attention away from our frantic pursuit of the necessities of life to a calmer vision of God’s bountiful care in the natural world.

In the same way, in our study this week, we heard about Bob Goff’s son Adam buying a sailboat on Craigslist. As Bob says, the boat was rough around the edges, the fiberglass and teak rails needed work, several of the fasteners that held the sail to the mast were missing, the spinnakers should have been labeled “bad” and “worse,” the running lights didn’t work, the engine coughed like it had been chain smoking oil for years, and down below the smell of mold, must, and old gasoline was overwhelming. But none of that mattered to Adam. Instead, what he saw was the larger story, the larger vision that he could live with this boat.

My friends, our worries, our anxieties, our concerns tend to so focus our perspective, so limit our vision, that all we see are the items of concern. At least that is the case for me and I suspect it is true for you too. Whatever your and my worry is – it has this tendency to pop in our heads throughout the day, it distracts us from other things, and it keeps us up at night.

But Jesus asks us to envision a different kind of world: a world in which care and concerns are not forgotten but put into a larger perspective. It is a perspective that allows us to take a step back and to broaden our vision. For, how much do we miss when all we see is our own worries and concerns?

As Presbyterian pastor and poet J. Berrie Shepherd writes, when we pay attention we see:

God, God’s judgment and God’s grace, God’s beauty and God’s power, God’s kingdom or God’s reign, all this is manifestly evident in everything that exists and in each event that happens around us. And all we need to do is to stop, look, and listen, as [Jesus] himself put it … to consider the lilies of the field.

Yes, Jesus is inviting us to see beyond ourselves and our concerns, to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, so that we might notice God at work.

Thus, the opposite of worry is not necessarily peace of mind. The opposite of anxiety is not necessarily trust. No, I think what Jesus is pointing to here is something more like delight. More like love. “Therefore, do not worry … look at the birds of the air … consider the lilies of the field … and allow yourself, at least for a moment, to just delight in God’s good creation, to know the love the Lord has for you.”

Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann once shared an example of this. He wrote in his journal:

Day after day – the same sun, the same happiness: the lake, the mountains, the greenery, the light. Nothing special happens. Mornings until lunch – work … After lunch long walks with [my wife], every day a new one – an unending delight.

Yes delight - it takes time and requires paying attention. Delight requires putting a halt to controlling and self-serving interests. Delight invites us to give up our preoccupation with worry, our constant anxiety about what seems wrong or could go wrong, so that we might notice and celebrate all that is good and right. As theologian Norman Wirzba writes, “To practice delight we … learn the art of opening ourselves up and making ourselves available to the creative love that permeates and sustains us all. We learn to look differently, with the eyes of God.”

So my friends, do we need to work so that we will have food to eat? Absolutely. Does it matter what is happening in this world and the fact that we need to practice social distancing to care for ourselves and our most vulnerable neighbors. Absolutely. Does it matter that we plan for the future, for college and retirement? Absolutely. There are things in life that disturb and worry us and that’s a good thing, because if there weren’t then we wouldn’t care.

But as those who are learning to look differently, to see with the eyes of God, to know and reflect God’s love into the world, we must consider all these questions within the context of a world governed ultimately not by our concerns, but permeated and sustained by divine love.

So, my friends, do not worry - stop, look, listen – pay attention – delight and love. And join one more poet, Emily Dickinson, who wrote that “consider the lilies” was the only commandment she always obeyed.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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