Sermon: Do not worry
Preached on 7th February 2010
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts,
Be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?
If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
"To him this must have been a familiar sight."
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should
come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone."
If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees.
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?
And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things"?
The beautiful poem, Afterwards, by Thomas Hardy. ‘He was a man who used to notice such things'. ‘He was one who had an eye for such mysteries'. That poem came to my mind as I pondered the words of Jesus from the Second Lesson;
‘Consider the birds of the air';
‘Consider the lilies of the field'.
Jesus was ‘a man who used to notice such things', to give attention to them, and allow them to inform his grasp of the mystery of life. Today, the Church of England Lectionary bids us consider creation, hence the reading of the creation narrative from Genesis 1 and this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. The impression from this and other passages, such as the Parable of the Sower set as the Prayer Book Gospel for today, is that Jesus exulted over the gifts of the natural world; that he was fully alive to his surrounding, that he had eyes to see, perhaps that he took the time to stop and see, and that he made such seeing, such noticing, part of his spirituality. Yes, the lilies of the field - not even Solomon in all his splendour was arrayed like one of these.
And that's really the first point of this sermon. Today's lessons bid us to stop and see and notice; to recover perhaps a child-like sense of wonder as we perceive the glory of God in the things that he has made, and so to exult before the mystery. It is something that the nature poets knew instinctively; this time words of William Wordsworth,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
But today's reading takes us further. The preceding verses are about money and wealth:
No one can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth , or ‘Mammon' .
And the verb serve means literally ‘be the slave of', showing that what really matters here is what motivates us and drives us. Jesus had eyes to see, and he saw how some people allowed themselves to become driven to the point of enslavement by their attempts to amass wealth, to extend security, so that this became the very centre of their energy and purpose. In fact, in setting their eyes on all this, they failed to see.
And so we come to the heart of this passage, with the words ‘do not worry', ‘do not be anxious'. Anxiety about the future lies at the root of all this striving, but it is fundamentally misplaced. Now, let me say that, of course, in some circumstances anxiety and worry are perfectly natural, especially when we have legitimate concerns for someone's safety, or their health, or when we encounter situations that have the potential to cause great distress or difficulty.
So what does Jesus say? ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear.' Because life is more than food; the body is more than clothing. And Jesus illustrates that by his reflection on what he noticed; the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, combined with his grasp of the goodness of God.
Now we need to be clear. Jesus was not saying that it is wrong to take sensible account of what we need. He wasn't saying that we are to be idle and expect everything just to turn up on a plate. He wasn't saying that we are all to be ascetics, scraping a meagre existence, bread and water, sackcloth and rags. But he was clear that it is wrong to worry, to be anxious, to be driven, by things that lead us away from our grasp of the goodness of God.
Rather, he was saying, value life itself with all its possibilities, with all its varied experiences, with all its encounters. And in valuing life, then the things we need for life, food and clothes and shelter, will find their proper place. In other words, in Jesus we see a freedom, a freedom to live truly for today, to inhabit the present moment unencumbered, because he wasn't always striving for an unknowable future, and he trusted God's providential care.
We also see a wonderful sense of our human value to God. Be sure, God greatly values the birds of the air, he greatly values the grass of the field, because he created such things. But he values us even more, as perhaps the whole movement of the Genesis 1 account is meant to illustrate. And God knows what we need for our existence. It's interesting that Jesus points here to the value God accords to us, not the value of what we possess. If we must have a status symbol, well it's not the detached house and 4x4; it is the knowledge of what we are worth to God, who loves us with an everlasting love.
And then Jesus beautifully concludes this section of teaching by reminding us that if we are going to strive for anything, then let it be for the Kingdom of God; let us strive to see God's love and mercy and kindness operating in our human relationships, and God's righteousness, his justice, his putting things right, operating in our human affairs and societies. And if we make that our priority, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God', then we will never lack the necessities of life. And you know, it's when we are content with the necessities, that we are able to walk away from what is so often paraded as the ‘must have's' that so many strive after. To quote Wordsworth again,
The world is too much with us, late and soon;
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!'
And then there is a beautiful, almost humorous and semi-ironic, conclusion to this passage. ‘So don't worry about tomorrow - because tomorrow will have enough troubles of its own. Today's troubles are enough for today' - or, in the more poetic language of the Authorised Version, ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof'.
You know, if I could have just one passage of the New Testament to be hung up in a frame over the breakfast table, it would be this one. Because it would remind me that today is a gift. That life is a gift. That I've been given two eyes and all the other senses to be open to God's graciousness in creation; that I am to be content with what I have been given; that I am called to trust God for both today and tomorrow; that I was created to walk in freedom and not to be enslaved; that I have been given faith and gifts and a calling to seek today God's kingdom as my priority, and that if I strive for that I will never lack the necessities and not worry too much about lack of the luxuries. And if I could only, by the grace of God, live that, and let God's handiwork inform my spirituality, my grasp of the mystery of life, then one day someone might say of me,
"He was man who used to notice such things"?
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?