Rev. Jennifer Adams – February 27, 2011 – Epiphany 8A
This is one of those sneaky gospel passages that as first glance is simply quite beautiful and peaceful and almost relaxing to sink into. “Consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus said. Just hearing those words helps me relax a bit and breathe more deeply. And I need to. “OK, Jesus I’ll consider the lilies. Nice.” And then he tells us to “Notice the birds of the air.” Lovely again. Peaceful again. Lilies and birds. Good stuff. The point of course being that those pieces of Creation are well cared for and fed – the lilies neither toil nor spin and they are clothed in more glory than Solomon – and the birds neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns yet God feeds them – so we who worry about those kinds of things shouldn’t worry about those kinds of things. “We can’t add one hour to the span of our lives by being anxious,” Jesus tells us. So — we should stop worrying. And that message is an important one. It’s meant to give us perspective and help us relax and shift our focus to God’s provisions and God’s priorities, to shift our energies away from those material things that tend to have too much power over our lives. And we need to hear that.
But just when I got to filling out those thoughts into a beautiful sermon about releasing anxieties and rediscovering an inner sense of peace I began to wonder about those who don’t have enough food or shelter or clothing and worry almost every day about how to get enough of those things because they have to worry about how to get enough of those things. They aren’t concerned about how to store up those things. Not how to build barns or make more room in the cupboards or hit the sales at the end of the season in order to be well clothed next year. Many who hear this passage have far more basic concerns – like how to simply get enough – food, shelter, clothing – to stay alive. I read one essay this week written from the perspective of someone who has lived in Haiti for the last year, and she assured all who were reading that worry was a critical dimension of life there and until there was more support – more actual goods and services – they would remain anxious for themselves, for their kids, for their parents, for their neighbors. She said that until things changed, they would continue to stand in line for hours because they were worried about missing out on distributions. They would continue to beg relief workers for help because they were anxious about tomorrow, what was coming or what was not coming to them tomorrow. She wrote that they haven’t been particularly focused on the lilies these days — thank you very much — and noted that even the birds of the air could at times be more of an annoyance than a beauty. And it’s when you listen to those voices and read those words that you realize that often where we stand effects how we hear any one particular passage of Scripture.
And so here’s where the gospel gets sneaky. It’s not simply a case of “if you happen to be born into this circumstance you hear it this way and if you were born into this circumstance you hear it like this and that’s all there is to it.” The gospel is more than that. And here’s how Matthew pulls it off: Later in his gospel, towards the very end of Jesus ministry this same list appears. The list about food and water and clothing and it’s again tied into a message about how letting go of those things can lead us into a deeper relationship with God. In chapter 25 Matthew’s Jesus tells the parable about the sheep and the goats – the sheep being those who care for Christ, the goats being those who neglect him. (And just for the record – it’s not good news for the goats.) So someone asks Jesus what exactly he was talking about in terms of seeing the Christ and caring for him. “But when did we see you?” they asked him? And Jesus responded that whenever we run into someone who is hungry and we feed them, or someone who is thirsty and we give them drink, or someone is in need of clothing and we clothe them – in those moments we are caring for the Christ. And our sheep-hood is confirmed. So at that later point in the gospel, the releasing of material things is not only for the sake of calming our hearts, it’s so that we can care for others. And that caring for others is not only about our own sense of inner calm, it’s about another’s well being and our own salvation.
So – wow. Considering the lilies is an important step, but I think the way Matthew has set this up is as a first step. The kind of awareness that comes from noticing the birds of the air is intended to move us also into considering our neighbor. The lilies and the birds are provided for by God. Our neighbors can be too – and often those provisions don’t fall from the sky, they need to come from the hands of others. Here’s how I think it works: The less we worry about things, the less tightly we hold onto things. And the less tightly we hold onto things, the more easily we share things. And the more we share things, the fewer people there are who have to worry about having enough things simply to stay alive. I actually think that’s what this is all about.
So the challenge is for us to make time to consider the lilies and notice the birds, to let that peace settle us, and give us perspective. But the challenge is also to not stop there. To let the peace settle us but to also allow it to free us, open us up to release some of that which we of material privilege in this world hold too tightly. And then maybe when that happens we approach the day when those in Haiti and other places of poverty and neglect will be able to breathe and consider the lilies too. Perhaps the kingdom on which we are to set our sights.