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Let me preface what I’m about to say here by saying I am in no way am I against technology. At least I don’t think I am. I don’t think I’m any kind of Luddite. Having said this, as I go about my days, I note that people seem overly engaged with their screens. The danger of this is, I believe, that we lose the chance we have to take things in. We lose the chance we have to observe and reflect.
Listen to this quote from poet Ada Limon. A question was put to her about close observation and its importance to poets:
“I think that’s a great place to start. Really watching, noticing, and deep looking—not the distracted looking, but really curious looking—that’s a way of loving and a way of valuing, and I don’t think I knew that before. I think that I thought watching was part of life, and I thought it was part of the creative work of being a poet. And I always thought observation was important, but I didn’t know it was also the thing that connected you to the world on a larger scale, not just in the way of making poems and making art, but in the way of making your life feel connected and whole and complete.”
When I’m feeling blue or distracted or discouraged, I find that simply watching (even for five minutes) the birds, or even just looking at my plant in the window, just the smallest thing, or looking at my dog, is helpful. I’m reminded of what it is to be a living thing amidst this living world. In some ways, it takes me out of myself. Limon goes on, “If I were to offer that to other people, what it is to look without the foregone conclusion, without the narrative, without the—What am I going to turn this into?—but instead to look with a real curiosity and to de-center themselves a little bit in that looking.”
This is the way that Jesus is looking around him as he sits on the hillside. We’re back in the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus is talking about worry. Someone has asked the question “Has it ever struck you what a happy person Jesus was?” This is not to discount the idea that Jesus was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief and to live any length of time on this earth is to become familiar with what that means. It’s not to say that Jesus didn’t agonize or weep. It is to say that Jesus had a way of noticing what was going on around him and linking it with what it divulged about the kingdom of God. Jesus is hearing the birds calling out around him and watching them dart about in the air. Jesus is noticing the wildflowers that are in bloom around him. I had been reading this passage recently and was coming back to church from a walk to Sunnybrook. At Sunnybrook, I had been reminded (and I pray that I was a reminder) of truths of God’s kingdom. Truths of God’s presence and God’s comfort and God’s protection. I stopped at Sherwood Park and took a detour down into the ravine. Even in the city, you can be reminded of truths of God’s kingdom. This helps with worry.
Here's another really great thing about Jesus. He doesn’t simply say “Don’t worry.” No offence to Bobby McFerrin or his song. That kind of advice is never going to work on me. It’s like saying “Calm down!” Does that ever actually work? Jesus doesn’t simply say not to do something (in this case worry), he lets us know what we should do. But before we look at the passage from Matthew, I want us to hold something underneath all this. It’s a note of grace. Let it sound underneath Jesus’ words like a drone. God is for you. If God is for you, who or what can be against you? This is not a conditional if/then statement, and we might do well to consider saying “since.” “Since God is for us, who is against us?” I have to say I’ve often thought of this verse in terms of the latter half, focussing on things that are against us. So much so that I might have missed the truth of the first half, and let this not be something we ever take for granted or get used to. God. For. Us. He is for you, he is for you, as the song goes. To let this truth permeate the core of our being might even be enough to let us stop and sit and consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Even in the city.
Where we’re striving all the time. The word here that is translated “worry” has that kind of mental aspect. Worry. Mental anxiety – not so much in the clinical sense but a debilitating anxiety about the necessities of life. Here it’s food and clothing. The word translated “worry” also contains a sense of working hard after, striving after. To make working and striving our number one thing. This comes back to what we were talking about two weeks ago. Trust. Trusting God to be God. Trusting that God is on our side. Trusting that everything isn’t up to us. To stop and consider the birds and the flowers is to stop and consider “What are we striving after?” What are we actually doing?
Is God really for me or do I have to be for myself? Is life not more than food and the body more than clothing? I don’t think Jesus is calling for austerity here in food or clothing. Jesus enjoyed food and drink – so much so that “they” said he was a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus’ robe was so sought after that soldiers gambled for it. The call from Jesus here, rather, is to put first things first. It’s not a call from Jesus to neglect our own material needs or the needs of others. it’s not a call from Jesus not to work. Birds are always hustling for their food and shelter after all. The call is rather to stop and notice how birds and flowers are looked after. 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? And quite practically, which of us by worry can add a single hour to our span of life? If God is so for the birds of the air, how much more so is God for you? Flowers don’t even have to hustle. Lilies don’t work or spin, but even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and thrown into the oven tomorrow, how much more will he clothe us, oh we of little faith?
We’re being invited here to imagine a new way of being in the kingdom of heaven. A way of being in which debilitating anxiety about material concerns is banished because it is in direct opposition to trust in God. Someone has put it like this – “What is being prohibited is the energy draining, chronic, paralyzing anxiety that is futile and even self-destructive. Not only does it not “add a single hour to your span of life” (Matt. 6:27), it sucks the life right out of you. It shortens lives and makes what life we do have a fretful misery.”
We might object to this passage and say “Well surely not all birds make it. People are undernourished to their detriment and I’m sure even Christians starve.” To which I would reply “Yes and what are we called to do about that?” This story was never an abdication of action on our part – generosity on our part that is reflective of God’s loving care for all of creation. I would also remind myself that in the kingdom of heaven, even death has been given a new outcome. Remember those wonderful words of Paul to the Romans - 38 For I am convinced (For I have been convinced and I remain convinced) that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I believe that goes for the birds and the flowers and the grass too.
Of course, this is the Sermon on the Mount. We’re familiar enough now with the Sermon on the Mount to remember “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who know their need for God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst first for the justice and righteousness of God. As we come to the end of the passage, we come again to Jesus’ prohibition - 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 (in other words people who don’t know me) who seek all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. God is for you. The 'don’t worry' thing never works, but this does. It’s not simply a question of not worrying or hearing the “Don’t” command. On the flip side of the “Don’t” command is the “Do” command. Do put first things first. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. God has given us the capacity to seek and to strive. A few weeks ago we talked about how God has given us the desire for greatness and what it means to be great in the kingdom of God vs. in the eyes of the world. To be great in the kingdom of God is to pour out oneself in service, in self-giving love. The problem comes when our desires get misdirected. God has given us the capacity and the desire to seek and to strive. This capacity and desire becomes misdirected when our seeking is not firstly after His kingdom and its righteousness. Think of how the kingdom of God has been described over the last three weeks. A kingdom of grace, of harmonious relationships, of wholeness, of well-being, of steadfast love, of justice, of flourishing for all, of mercy, of joy. To seek first the kingdom of God is to come to discover and realize that our lives are not primarily about what we need to strive for and gain and achieve. To seek the kingdom of God first and God’s rightness means finding out that the thing which we are seeking is given to us. Grace, harmonious relationships, wholeness, well-being, steadfast love, justice, flourishing for all, joy, mercy are all gifts from the Father of lights, the giver of every good and perfect gift – from us all the way on down the line to the birds and the flowers. It is to discover and come to realize that nothing can separate us from his love.
We can get so hung up on worry that if we’re not worrying, we worry that we’re forgetting something. Summer is upon us. As we get chances to be outside let us take them and remember these verses as we consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. They’re all around us, even in the city. This is not a call for disengagement from the world or its troubles. It’s a call for present tense living in the kingdom of God which looks forward to the renewal of all things (which we’ll look at on the other side of my vacation) while at the same time, living in a state of peace and attention to God’s care for all of creation in the present. May our own care for one another and for all of creation be a reflection of God’s own generous care, and may this be true for each and every one of us. Amen