Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sermon for Thanksgiving: Matthew 6:25-34

Joy, Trust, and Focus

In our Gospel for today there’s one word that gets repeated over and over again: the word ‘Worry’. Not that worry is something that Jesus is recommending! Rather, it’s something that he’s warning us against. He says in verse 25, “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”. And again in verses 27-28: “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothes?” And again in verse 31, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” And finally in verse 34, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today”.

Now if you’re like me, you find this a little hard to take. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories, was a devout Christian, but he admitted that his whole life long he struggled against a tendency to be a worrier. Commenting on this passage, he often wrote to his correspondents, “If God wanted us to live like the birds of the air, it would have be nice for him to have given us a constitution that was more like theirs!” I’m sure that you can sympathise with Lewis; I know I can. Like him, I tend to be a worrier. “Don’t worry – be happy” sounds great in theory, but how do you actually put it into practice? Many of us have become compulsive worriers, and the habits of a lifetime are hard to break. To us, Jesus’ saying in verse 25 - “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life” - sounds like a pipe dream.

I think we need to begin by recognising that, in this as in every other instance, Jesus practised what he preached. He does not seem to have been a person who worried a great deal; he lived his life on the principle of trusting his heavenly Father, and he tried to teach his followers to do the same. And I would go so far as to say that this made him, so far as we can tell, basically a happy person.

Yes, I know, there’s an old prophecy that said the Messiah was going to be ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’. We know that when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and when he went to his death on the cross, the whole weight of the suffering of the world seemed to descend on him, so that his spirit was as dark as the sky around him. And we know that he wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and that he was sad when people refused to trust God and see the wonderful things God was doing.

But these moments are exceptions. As we read a passage like today’s gospel, we should see that it flows straight out of Jesus’ own experience of life. And I would like to suggest to you this morning that there are three basic attitudes that are at the heart of Jesus’ experience of life, three attitudes that are reflected in this passage: joy, trust, and focus.

First, joy, joy in the good things that his heavenly Father had created. I’m a bird watcher myself, so I’m delighted to find Jesus recommending this as a good hobby; he says in verse 26, ‘Look at the birds of the air’! We have no reason to believe that Jesus hadn’t taken his own advice; he must have spent hours watching the birds diving and swooping on the wind currents above the Galilean hills, simply enjoying being alive. I’m reminded of something Marci and I saw a few years ago outside the rest stop at Innisfree, on the way to Lloydminster. Those of you who have stopped there will know that the restaurant and gas station are up on a hill, and the prairie winds are strong around there. We were in the restaurant having a meal and we saw a raven playing in the wind. It would flap its wings and work hard to climb, up, and up, higher and higher, and then when it reached a certain height it would just let itself go, and it would dive and swoop around until it came back to ground level. Then it would go through the whole process all over again; we watched it doing this several times while we were eating. As far as we could tell, all this activity had no useful purpose; the raven wasn’t on the lookout for field mice or other prey like a hawk would have been. It was simply enjoying itself, riding the currents of air just as God had created it to do.

I’m sure that Jesus had watched birds do this sort of thing many times, and he had figured out that they never seemed to weary themselves doing the kind of work that humans do, and yet they somehow managed to stay alive and well. And Jesus had seen all the flowers, thousands of different species - the word translated ‘lilies of the field’ here actually refers to several different plants – and had been moved by their fragile beauty. One moment they could be standing in the field, the next they could be trampled under foot by horses or cut down by a scythe. Where did all this beauty come from? The flowers didn’t spend thousands of dollars on clothes, nor did they spend several hours a week in a tanning studio getting a good tan, or in front of a mirror putting on makeup. They were just themselves – beautiful, God-given, and free.

Jesus looked around and saw all this, but he saw more than this: he didn’t only see the creation, he also saw through it to its Creator. There’s an old hymn that expresses this attitude well. Let me quote you a couple of verses from it:

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears

all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.

This is my Father’s world; I rest me in the thought

of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world: the birds their carols raise;

the morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.

This is my Father’s world: he shines in all that’s fair;

in the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.

Jesus lived a life of joy because he not only enjoyed the creation around him; he also received it as a gift from its Creator, the Father of all. And none of this was about ownership. Jesus didn’t have to own the birds in order to enjoy watching them, and he didn’t have to own a field in order to enjoy the beauty of its flowers. He could simply receive it all as a free gift from his Father.

And this leads us to the second attitude that is at the heart of Jesus’ experience of life: the attitude of trust in his heavenly Father.

I was blessed – in fact I still am blessed – with a good father. When my brother Mike and I were little boys, my Dad worked hard to put food on the table for us – first as a commercial artist in the advertising business, and later as a priest. When my Dad stopped work for two years to go to seminary, my Mum took her turn in the workforce. Between them they always provided what we needed, and so my brother and I never had to worry about not having food to eat or clothes to wear. That didn’t mean that our parents let us sit around and do nothing. They required us to do our chores, help with the dishes and so on. But because we knew that our parents loved us, we could be secure; we knew that, if need be, they would sacrifice their own comfort to make sure we had the necessities of life.

Jesus had that sort of trust in his heavenly Father; he had a strong and lively sense of the goodness of God. To him, the goodness of the created world was a sign of the goodness of the one who had made it. And his teaching grew out of his own experience. When he told his followers not to worry about tomorrow, we can assume that he had learned this attitude by putting it into practice himself. He knew from his own experience that the creator of all this beauty was not a stern and stingy killjoy but a loving and utterly dependable Father. And because of his relationship with his Father Jesus was able to break free from the tyranny of worry and focus his life on the things that really mattered.

So, even though Jesus seems to have known all along that the cross was ahead for him, I don’t get the sense that he was always looking ahead anxiously, worrying about what was coming next. Rather, he seems to have been able to live entirely in the present moment and giving attention to the present task, celebrating the goodness of God here and now. And he wanted his followers to do the same.

It’s important to recognise that when Jesus tells us not to worry about food and drink and clothing, he’s not saying that these things don’t matter. He doesn’t mean that we should live an ascetic life, eating and drinking as little as possible and wearing only the most ragged and moth-eaten clothes. We’re told in the gospels that Jesus liked a party as much as anyone else, and when he was crucified the soldiers liked his tunic so much that instead of tearing it up and dividing the cloth among them, as they usually did, they threw dice for it. So Jesus enjoyed the good things of life, and he wasn’t telling us that they aren’t important. Rather, he was telling us that we are the children of a loving Father who wants to give good gifts to his children. We can trust our Father to provide for us, just as he provides for the rest of his creation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plant seeds and reap the harvest, or that we shouldn’t work at weaving and spinning to make clothes – or that we shouldn’t work at our own jobs and earn money to pay others for these things, as most of us probably do in this church today. Rather, we should do these things with joy, because God is not a mean tyrant who is out to get us and make life difficult for us, but our loving Father who wants to take care of us and gives us the fruits of the earth as a gift.

So Jesus would counsel us to get close to the creation and learn to take joy in all that God has made there, and he would counsel us to learn to know and trust God as our heavenly Father; the more we cultivate our relationship with this God, the easier it will be for us to live our lives on the basis of simple trust in him. And finally, Jesus would counsel us to choose our focus wisely. In the passage immediately before today’s gospel, Jesus advises us:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (vv.19-21).

And he goes on to warn us:

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (v.24)

And at the end of today’s gospel he says,

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (vv.31-33).

Here we are getting to the heart of the matter. The reason Jesus was able to live in joyful trust in his heavenly Father was that he had made his heavenly Father’s priorities his own. And he challenges us to do the same. Seek the Kingdom of God, make it the number one value of your life, and God will respond by providing for you what you need to live. And what is the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God means God’s power and love at work through Jesus to heal the world and restore it to his original intention and plan. One day this plan will come to completion; every knee will bow to Jesus, and God’s reign of justice and peace will be established and will last forever. We’re challenged to focus on that vision, to work toward it even now, and to make it the number one value of our lives.

The nineteenth century missionary Amy Carmichael once wrote these words: ‘Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for God will last’. Of course, ‘done for God’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘done for the Church’. God’s purposes for his world are far wider than the Church; they include building happy marriages and strong families and nurturing caring communities. They include working toward a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much, and a world in which future generations will still be able to enjoy the birds of the air and the lilies of the field as we do today. And they include the spread of the good news of Jesus with a call to everyone to become his disciples.

So these are the three attitudes that I see in this passage, attitudes that Jesus lived himself and that he tried to teach his followers too: joy in God and in all the good things that God had made, trust in the goodness of his heavenly Father and in his daily provision for our needs, and focus above all, not on accumulating wealth for ourselves, but on doing God’s will and cooperating with him in the work of healing the world.

Does that sound good to you? Does that sound attractive? Does that sound better than living by the principle of ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’? Does it sound better than accumulating mountains of luxuries and then spending our days worrying that someone is going to steal them from us? Which would you rather do: walk through what the old Prayer Book called ‘the changes and chances of this mortal life’ with only your own skill and strength to depend on, or walk through life with your hand in your Father’s hand, focussing on the things he tells you to focus on, and trusting him to provide the necessities of life for you?

I know which alternative I’d rather go for. I’m not there yet, not by a long shot, but I’m going to pray that Jesus will teach me day by day to find joy in God’s creation, to trust in the goodness of my heavenly Father, and to focus my attention on seeking God’s kingdom and doing God’s will. Would you like to join me in that prayer?

(Note: I acknowledge the assistance of Tom Wright's 'Matthew for Everyone: Volume 1' in the preparation of this sermon).

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