Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Hard Command

The Hard Command
Matthew 6:24-34
2nd Sunday After Pentecost
25 May 2008

What do you worry about?

If you made a list of your worries, what would be on it? Money? Your house? Your job? Your kids? Your parents? What else? Retirement? Your health? The cost of health care? The cost of gas? The cost of food?

How much of your worries can’t even be specifically named, because they are just such a deep and ingrained part of your way of being, your sense of your self and the world? George Buttrick once said that it is easier to face a fear than to face an anxiety. Because, he said, “fear is specific – as with a fire in the house when we can at least scream – whereas anxiety is inchoate like a clinging fog.”*

Now tell me, what does it do to that clinging fog for someone to wag a finger at you and say simply, “Don’t worry.” Is there anything so useless in the face of real and persistent anxiety as the advice to not worry? Sure, we can smile and sing along when someone starts in with “Don’t worry, be happy.” But soon enough those brief moments of singing and levity are gone, and our real anxiety tends to hang on.

Of course we know that there are many practical reasons not to be anxious. For one, what good does it do? It doesn’t change whatever it is we’re afraid of. Worrying about the future does not make the future more secure. Charles Spurgeon said it this way, “Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow – only today of its strength.” William Ralph Inge put it like this, “Anxiety is the interest paid on trouble before its due.” Jesus said it too, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

We know. We know. Worry doesn’t add a thing. It only subtracts. But for most of us, knowing that doesn’t change the fact of it. We are still going to worry, about little things and big ones. Jesus’ question, though, zeroes in on the biggest worry of all, possibly the one that is the source of all other concern. He asks if we can add a single hour to the span of our life? The answer is, of course, no. We can’t add a thing, we can’t change the hard fact. We are all going to die. And that, surely, is the primal source of all our other anxieties.

It is the thing that separates us from the rest of the created order. Everything, every being is going to die. We just happen to know it. The squirrel running across the street doesn’t wonder if he’s going to make it. The cow being led to slaughter doesn’t realize what’s about to happen. The dog with the tumor doesn’t speculate about life after death. Even chimpanzees do not seem to be aware of their own mortality. Humans alone live with the gift and the burden of self-awareness. We are the ones who know we’re going to die.

Could this be at the root of all our other worries? Could worry about clothes and food, about money and jobs, about family and health – could all of these simply be the day-to-day manifestations of our ultimate worry? Anxiety always has at least one foot in the future. Which is to say that anxiety always takes us one step closer to death.

When Jesus gives us his counsel – when he says those hard, sometimes unacceptable words: do not worry – the examples he holds up for us are of beings who cannot worry, because they do not know what is to come. For them, everything is a given. “Look at the birds of the air,” he says, “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?.... 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. 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?”

In urging us not to worry, Jesus holds up creatures and creations that have no idea that worry – or death – is a possibility. What do flowers and birds have to teach us? They have no choice. We have every choice – about how to think, and how to respond, and how, finally, to live in the face of death. How can beings with no idea about their fate have anything to teach us about what matters? And yet his words are not absurd. They are beautiful. These are some of the best-loved words of comfort in Scripture. They speak to something deep and needy in us. So we sing, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

Jesus is not saying we are like the sparrow or the flowers, as if we could somehow find a way for our lives to be as simple as theirs, and uncomplicated by consciousness. In fact, it is consciousness he is inviting us to take hold of. His words here are: Look! and Consider! These are words of great spiritual counsel. They are reminders that in the midst of all the things we think we need to do to secure our future, what matters first is that we stop, step back, take moments for reflection, for connection to God and to what matters. Look! Consider! Pay attention! These are invitations to any who are feeling the grinding pressure of everyday life and the mounting anxieties that go with living. Invitations to step back from what’s right in front of our eyes and see what else is true. And transcendent.

Look at the birds. Tiny little creatures made of just a bit of feather and bone, of beak and claw. And God more than the most delighted birdwatcher on a park bench, thrills at feeding these little beings. How much more will this God take us, and feed us, and keep us?

Consider the lilies! These gorgeous, completely unnecessary, heavily scented, heavenly-scented creations. They bloom, then they die. Consider them! – and then consider what they have to show you about a God who would create such profligate splendor. God has clothed this green earth with beautiful bloom. How much more will this God take us, and clothe us, and keep us?

When Jesus says, “Do not worry,” he is doing far more than offering simple advice. He is expanding our vision, and he is offering to expand our trust. He starts by redirecting our gaze, pulling our eyes away from our own little lives and the many complexities and legitimate concerns. He asks a question: Isn’t your life more than this? Isn’t it more than the things you concern yourself with? Lift your eyes off your life, and look around. He draws our gaze up – to the birds soaring overhead – and then down – to the blooms bursting underfoot. The hummingbird and the stargazer, the rainbow and the geode – they are signs pointing beyond themselves, to a God who in infinite wisdom and love is creating still, and tending to creation still, and holding us in most precious care. The God who is bigger than the sparrow and the lily is bigger than our little lives, too, and all our deaths, and all our countless worries.

Is it possible to be anxious and in awe at the same time? Is it possible to worry about tomorrow when we are intentionally focused today on stopping to look, and to consider the precious and extraordinary gifts of God and to locate ourselves in the deep care of God? Self-awareness is the burden that separates us from the chickadee and the daffodil. Self-awareness is also the gift that allows us to find again our rightful connection to them, our rightful place alongside them as recipients of God’s nurture and faithfulness. Maybe the opposite of anxiety, with its future focus, is memory. Memory of our place, memory of God’s goodness, memory of whose we are and the joy and love for which we’ve been created.

In the face of worry and small faith, Jesus invites us outside, to consider and contemplate the million miracles of creation, and the God behind it all. Wendell Berry speaks of this kind of contemplation in a poem:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.**

The grace of the world has much to teach us about the reliable care of God, who loves us with a reckless, extravagant abandon. The birds and flowers are small signs of that. Jesus, of course, is a sign of it too. And when he stood on the mountain, with the wildflowers swaying in the breeze, and the birdsong echoing on the hills, what he gave was more than advice. It was a kind of command – and a gift. Do not worry, he said. Do not worry about your life. Do not grasp after the things you think will make your life secure. Look at what God has made. Look at what God has given. Look at how God cares for all of it, and for you. Seek this God. Strive for the kingdom of this God, and for God’s righteousness.

How, then, could we spend one more minute on our worries, when there is so much of God’s goodness to see and to seek and to serve, and, finally, to show in the living our own little lives. What a command Jesus gave when he said, “Do not worry.” What a command he gave when he said, “look at the birds and consider the lilies and seek God.” What a command. What an invitation. And what a gift!

*"Anxiety and Faith." Sermons Preached in a University Church. George A. Buttrick. 38.
**"The Peace of Wild Things." The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry. 1998.