February 27, 2010
William G. Carter
"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?"
This is one of those Bible passages that sounds so attractive and strikes us as so unrealistic. It begins so peacefully: look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field. As a nature lover, I've always enjoyed such invitations. Take a good look at the world around you. Take notice of the peace at the heart of God's creation.
Maybe that's why we like the 23rd Psalm. Not only is God portrayed as the Good Shepherd of Ezekiel 34, He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
Such peaceful restoration is so appealing to us. It's comforting to know the world is in good hands. Everybody will be OK. Don't you worry about a thing. This is the promise of God's providence. God provides what the world needs.
It’s a beautiful vision. It’s difficult to keep it in focus.
Not so many weeks ago, I was driving down toward Elmhurst. I love how the mountains fold in together. It’s a beautiful stretch of land. But you can guess what happened: the black clouds ripped open and all the white stuffing started to fall. In a matter of minutes the road was covered. The wind was whipping furiously. The Road Warrior tires on my car began to spin. I started worrying about my safety.
The cell phone started to ring. I reached for it and then thought otherwise. Some foolhardy soul decided to pass me, and swerved. He almost took me out. My pulse was pounding. The adrenaline was giving me a spontaneous high. I was really terrified that I might go off the road, or even worse, that I would have to spend the rest of a very short life in a mountain ditch near Elmhurst.
Now, Jesus can say, "Stop being anxious," but he never drove through a winter storm in the mountains on shaky tires. Surely I can stand here today and say, "God was with me somehow, as I was driving through that storm." But frankly, if I had the choice, I would have preferred to be sitting at a spa in green pastures, by the still waters, getting my soul restored.
Christ’s invitation is so appealing: consider the lilies, look at the birds. But we get so easily distracted. Or we turn aside because of whatever else is laying heavy on our minds. Either way, anxiety creeps in. Anxiety is a constant companion that never leaves us alone.
Jesus says, "Don't be anxious. Don't get worried about anything. Have no fear of life or death. Trust God, and let go of everything else." Easier said than done.
He points to nature as his sermon illustration. The birds of the air don't worry about anything. He gazes at the lilies of the field and quips, Ever notice how they don't fret about their appearance? Why do we worry so much? And why do we worry about such little things?
I don't know, but we certainly do worry. Let's see a show of hands: how many of you have had to wait up until a really late hour for one of your kids to get home? How many of you are still waiting?
I used to get so angry when I would come home from college, and go out until the wee hours, and when I sneaked back into my parents' house, my mom would be sitting in the Lazy Boy chair with a cold cup of coffee, waiting up for me. I could hear dad snoring upstairs when I was still in the driveway, but mom would stay up and worry. "Is he OK? Is he lying in a ditch somewhere? Is he wearing clean underwear?" It made me angry, and Mom said, "Just wait until you have kids of your own."
Well, I don't know what the problem is. I'm not going to let my girls date until they are eighty-seven years old. I'm worried about them.
Jesus says, “Cancel your ongoing subscription to anxiety. Chill out and look at the birds." It sounds so peaceful, but we have to remember that Jesus got killed for talking like this. He spoke not only to affirm life under God's protective custody, but to confront the prevailing views of how to run a world.
Peter Gomes, the preacher at Harvard University's Memorial Church, tells about preaching at the commencement for an exclusive girl's school in New York City. He says,
"Many of the brightest and the best of the girls went on to elite colleges, and soon thereafter would make their way into the expanding stratosphere of the establishment once reserved for their brothers. They were able, aggressive, and entitled young women on the threshold of conquering the world, and I rejoiced in their achievement, was happy to celebrate with them, and wished them well."
For that occasion, Gomes based his sermon on the sixth chapter of Matthew where Jesus asks, "Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Therefore, do not be anxious about your life." It seemed like an appropriate message for the audience, and all the graduates smiled upon him.
During the reception, however, one of the parents went up to Gomes with "fire in his eyes and ice in his voice." He told the preacher that, frankly, his sermon was full of nonsense. Peter said, "The message didn't originate with me; it came from Jesus." The parent looked at him and said, "It's still nonsense." As the man went on to explain,
"It was anxiety that got my daughter into this school, it was anxiety that kept her here, it was anxiety that got her into Yale, it will be anxiety that will keep her there, and it will be anxiety that will get her a good job. You are selling nonsense."
Like Peter Gomes, we know a lot of people like that prep school father. Some of them have been our teachers. Others have been trusted friends. A few may be members of our extended family. What binds them together is the consistent message by which they live. The message goes something like this:
• If you want to get ahead in the world, you have to carry a lot of anxiety with you.
• If you want to be successful, you have scramble get up the ladder.
• If you want the good life, you must work without ceasing and bear the burden of much stress.
• In short, anxiety is good. It is both a good motivator and a necessary companion for anybody who wants to get ahead.
We know a lot of people who believe that kind of stuff. Maybe you are one of them. In these words from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is striving to puncture our eternal illusion that life is ours to manage and control. He pushes us to look beyond ourselves and see God.
Have you ever considered how much time we spend thinking about ourselves? Did you ever realize how much emotional energy we burn up by pondering our own circumstances, fretting over other people, worrying about the bank balance?
In his commentary on this passage, Tom Long points out that Jesus is trying to get us to trust God. He's not telling to dig in and try harder. He's not saying, "Listen, you need to go for it, reach for it, scramble for it, work for it."
Look at the birds of the air. They are constantly flitting around, looking for food, and they find it. There is a necessary striving in life; you have to go looking for things. But it's there. That's the point. What we need has been provided.
As a practical consequence of these words, I went out and bought a lot of bird seed recently. It began to dawn on me that God provides and maybe God needs to provide through me. Sometimes we need to participate in the work of providence, especially if we've been given the resources.
Consider the lilies of the field. Here today, gone tomorrow. They are beautiful in their time, not because they worked at it or worried about it. They were beautiful because that's how they were created. God said, "Let there be lilies," and then God said, "Look how pretty they are!" From the time they were seeds in the ground, all the lilies had great potential in their genetic formation. With a proper amount of nurture, sunshine, and rain, their beauty breaks forth. They don't need any makeup. They don't hustle around trying to prove anything. They are beautiful because God made them that way.
As somebody once reminded me, "We don't put a ribbon in a young girl's hair to make her pretty. We put a ribbon in her hair because she is pretty."
Look at the birds. Consider the lilies. In the Greek language, these are strong, energetic verbs. Look, really look! Pay very close attention. We spend so much energy striving, working, hovering, as if that's going to improve anything. But the birds and the lilies live in a different world, "a world where God provides freely and lavishly, a world where anxiety plays no part, where worry is not a reality. Jesus invites us to allow our imaginations to enter such a world, to compare this world with the world in which we must live out our lives."
All of this, I think, prepares us for providence. If our hearts are open, we see God gives us a beautiful world, continues to provide whatever is essential, and promises to complete and fulfill all life through no authority of our own. God provides. And God is so securely in charge, so powerfully in control, that even God can kick back and keep the Sabbath.
Look at the birds of the air. Stop and really look, and look behind them to a God who provides in secret. In the words of John Calvin,
When the light of divine providence has once shone upon godly (people), they are then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that was pressing them before, but from every care.... Ignorance of providence is the ultimate misery; the highest blessedness lies in knowing it.
This is the blessed truth: God provides what we need. We pray for daily bread and God is under no obligation to give us cake. We receive the bread we need, with enough to share. That may be how God provides for others – by giving to them through us.
We are reaching the point where the preacher must stop and the poet takes over, and then we are left to decide where and how we are going to live. The poet, in this case, is Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer, and the poem is called, "The Wild Geese." He’s riding through the woods one day, and it strikes him how much has been provided:
Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer's end. In time's maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed's marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
(c) William G. Carter
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