TEXT: Matthew 6:25-33
Some time ago, I saw a cartoon showing two businessmen sitting in a limousine. They were looking out the window and one of them said: “Johnson, consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin. Fire them!”
Remind you of anyone?
The message in Matthew 6:25-33 is countercultural. Even though it contains some of the most beautiful language in the entire Bible, its central message about work and wealth and worry presents us with a profound challenge.
You know, whenever Jesus challenges us, it almost always has to do with our priorities. And that is exactly what Jesus is doing here.
The Revised Common Lectionary begins today’s reading at verse 25. But I think it should begin a verse earlier, with verse 24, where Jesus says: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave 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.”
And then he says: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life …”
“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Whom do we serve? Where is our allegiance? Where do we focus our energies? What is it, exactly, that our hearts are set upon?
Those are challenging questions, indeed. Because where we set our hearts determines—in large part—what choices we make, this is a good message for us to consider on this Thanksgiving Sunday. This is the day we’ve set aside to give thanks for our blessings. But it’s also the day we’ve set aside to give thanks for the church, to celebrate the power God has given to us as members of the church—including the power to visualize a future and the power to choose a path to take us there.
Imagine Jesus standing on that hillside, in front of the huge crowd that has come to sit on the grass and listen to him. There are clusters of families and friends, young and old, male and female, the devoted, the skeptical, the curious. In other gospel accounts, we see Jesus ministering to the poor and the outcast; in still others, with the rich and the powerful. But today he is with ordinary folks—the people who really did toil and spin and reap and sow.
Most of them likely had the “basics” of food and shelter. But Jesus knew what was in their hearts—the longing, perhaps, for luxuries they did not have; their worry for what one bad crop could do to them—or an illness, or even … the government.
They probably all knew someone who had lost everything in one disaster or another. And, truth to tell, we are not really so far away from that, ourselves. One look at the 24-hour news cycle—or even a trip to deliver sandwiches to the Drop-In Centre—reminds us just how tenuous our human existence still can be. Even in this affluent society, many of us are but one paycheque separated from ruin.
In the face of such uncertainty, it’s very tempting to put our trust in things we can see and touch—not just money, but also property and possessions. In other words, all the “stuff” that we acquire—newer, bigger, higher-tech stuff, with which we try to construct a buttress against our insecurities.
It’s also very tempting to put our energies into long-range plans in an attempt to control all the outcomes and contingencies. But investments can turn sour, pension plans can fail, our best-laid plans can come crashing down … as can our health, our marriages, our happily-ever-after. And in our heart of hearts, we know this. So our lives are fraught with anxiety, and—ultimately—disappointment when our illusion of control is shattered.
Money. Property. Prestige. Possessions. Careful plans. What will we do, when these things are not enough? Jesus points out that worry does not add a single day to our lives. In fact, worry probably shortens our lives. But the damage runs even deeper than that.
When fear and anxiety define our existence, our focus turns inward. Anxiety begins to crowd out our impulses for generosity or forgiveness or compassion. Self-preservation becomes our priority.
When we make an idol out of our sense of control, we leave no room for moments of grace. And so we fail to notice the working of God in our lives. We pay no attention to the moments of beauty which reveal God’s presence in our world. We overlook the tiny miracles of healing which testify to God’s action in our lives.
No wonder Jesus draws our attention to nature. “Just look at those flowers!” he says. “Consider the lilies of the field.” The crowds listening to Jesus could look just beyond him and see lilies, for sure—but also red poppies, purple carmelite, pink cyclamen, crocuses, daffodils, and irises—all growing wild on that Galilean hillside.
God takes care of them, in all their transitory beauty, Jesus says—just as God takes care of the birds.
So why not us? God cares more for us than for a whole flock of birds!
But, listen … notice something about those birds: they may “neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns”—but they are hard at work, gathering up what God has provided for them. Jesus is not saying we should be idle, or that we should not make reasonable provision for ourselves and our families. It’s all a matter of perspective. The work that feeds us—literally and figuratively—is one thing. But Jesus reminds us that our lives are not defined by toiling or spinning. God’s care for us does not depend on our pay grade, our social status, or our level of education. God cares for us simply because we are his children.
Well, then, exactly how can we cut through the worry and acquisitiveness and frenzy of 21st-century life? How can we truly place all our trust in God?
Above all else, Jesus tells us, we should seek the kingdom of heaven—the kingdom of God. And, incidentally, that is something which Jesus never describes explicitly. However, by looking at the life he lived and the stories he told, we uncover some clues.
Know this, first of all: the kingdom of heaven is not some faraway place where God lives—or some faraway time. When Jesus healed the sick, he spoke of the kingdom of heaven being present with him—right then, right there.
Got that? Someone has described the kingdom of heaven as “God’s dream”—the dream of God for the whole of Creation. There is an “already-here” quality to God’s Kingdom, and also a “not-quite-yet” quality about it.
So, through the grace of God, let us place our trust in that kingdom where all of Creation is healed, where we are reconciled to God and to one another, where God’s justice and righteousness prevail, and all of this world’s misery is somehow made right. That’s what we’re praying for when we say: “thy kingdom come” and “thy will be done.”
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—they go together.
Now, if we seek the kingdom first, then do we get what we really, really want, here and now?
Well, that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus did not promise us lives free of trouble or pain. No.
But consider this: if, above all else, we set our minds and hearts on that existence where God’s will is complete and perfect, then, perhaps—bit by bit—our minds and hearts will be shaped by God’s gracious love, until that which we desire aligns with what God desires for us.
Consider the lilies, then. Know that you are beautiful just as you are—that you are cherished as one of God’s own creations—and trust that the God who has inscribed your name on the palm of his hand holds you closely today. And trust that he always will.
Thanks be to God. Amen.