25 May 2008

The Lilies of the Field

Have you ever picked up a stone from the beach and taken a close look at it? On those occasions when we've gone to a beach, I like to pick up a stone and often bring it home to remind me where we've been and what it was like. So on a dresser at home I've got rocks from the Pacific (in two spots) and a couple of Great Lakes. They are all very different, in colour and in kind, but there's one thing they have in common -- like all rocks that have spent time with the water and the sand, they are worn very smooth and polished. Run your fingers along the surface of one of these stones and you can't feel any cracks or irregularities, even wide enough for a fingernail to slip into.

Of course, if you put one under a magnifying glass, it will be a different story. Suddenly you can see more of the rough edges and cracks and the stone seems less polished but somehow more real. Sometimes a very familiar story or passage from a book, even from the Bible, can have a similar effect on the reader -- just as your fingers feel only the smooth polish of the stone's surface, the familiar words or phrases slip smoothly by and we don't engage with them.

Our gospel lection today is one of those passages -- it's been quoted in books and the movies -- remember Sidney Poitier's expression when he recites to the mother superior those words about the lilies of the field in the film of the same name? The final phrase has become a proverb, though in an older translation -- sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. If you've spent much time previously in Churchland, you are bound to have heard it preached. So how do we get past the polish and see the real surface of the stone? Well, the biblical equivalent of a good magnifying glass is close, careful reading. Imagine if you will that you are 12 or 13 again, and have just been given your first look at either the engineering schematics of the starship Enterprise or the plans of the DeathStar, depending on your generation -- that's the kind of close reading I mean. You may want to follow along in your pew Bible -- Matthew 6.24-34.

So let's take a second look, a close look, at today's gospel. This is especially appropriate this morning in light of the baptism in which we are about to take part. For this morning's gospel reading is, as I mentioned, from Matthew's Gospel -- Matthew is the gospel par excellence of God's household, the church, and what is baptism if not the door and entry to that household? Also, this passage comes from the sermon on the mount, which is addressed to the disciples, and through them to the wider church that is to be, to the new community that will be called out from Israel and the world into a new relationship with God. The newly-baptised person, child or adult, is right at the beginning of a journey out of the world and into relationship with God.

The passage itself appears to be about taking a rather relaxed attitude toward our future needs, and if you have an RRSP or a savings account, you may be feeling a little left out by Jesus's arguments. But, as with the rock from the shore, we need to look very much more closely. And a close reading shows us some key words that mark divisions in the text and invite us in to its structure. When we see that the second and eighth verses begin with "therefore" and that the final statement begins with "so", we know that we are dealing with a statement (the first verse) and its consequences.

We need to consider that first verse, then, since every thing else flows from it -- "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." What does it mean to serve God? Jesus offers us a lot of clues about that. Some chapters further on in Matthew, he quotes from Deuteronomy, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and makes it "the greatest and the first commandment" (Matt 22.34-40). In the next chapter, he goes so far as to say that we should call no one our father on earth, since we have but one Father, the one that is in heaven. Loving God to the utmost and honouring him with the obedience that was considered due to a father at the time are just the beginning of what it means to serve God.

Jesus did not need to tell us what it means to serve wealth. That's something we all have a lot of experience with on our own. Indeed, creating idols from the market place seems to be a besetting human temptation. Whether it is as a way of keeping score, a measure of status, or made into the reason we work, we are prone to set up wealth and the "stuff" it lets us acquire in place of other measures of accomplishment, other objects of love, even in place of God God's self. We know about that. We can see it in the world outside these doors, all along Bloor Street in shop windows and on bill-boards. We are constantly bombarded with the message of more -- more money to get more stuff: get the latest iPod, the newest iPhone, the most sophisticated Blackberry. At its height, this way of thinking about wealth and cool stuff infects and distorts how we feel about one another -- our friends, our partners, our children. The expression "trophy wife" says it all. Having put wealth in God's place, we turn others from people made in the image of God into creatures made in the image of wealth.

So, how do we escape from this trap? How do we devote ourselves to God, which will let us keep everything else in perspective, even one another, since the corollary of "love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul" is "love your neighbour as yourself"? How do we become the church we are called to be? Do we withdraw from the world like the Mennonites or the Amish? From our gospel today, Jesus seems to be recommending a different approach, more counter-cultural and more indirect. "Therefore", he tells us, "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?"

Jesus says over and over in these verses, "do not worry" and the repetition of those words is, I think, very significant. So too is are the repeated reminders that God, who cares even for what seems to be unimportant, especially by the false standards of wealth, values us and will care for us. You see, we know a lot about what it feels like to fall into the trap of serving Mammon rather than God, but think less about how we sprung that trap to start with. When we replace an ordinary, prudent concern for the future with constant anxiety and worry about material goods, we start down the long and dangerous road which ends with wealth in God's place. So Jesus encourages us to nip the problem in the bud, as it were, by not giving in to anxiety and worry.

And he does not just tell us not to worry, as if it were enough just to say so. He goes at the problem from several directions. First, as we've seen, he offers us a good reason not to give in to anxiety in reminding us of God's love and care. Birds and even flowers in the field experience God's loving care, creating the hope that we too will enjoy it. For the cynics among us, he offers more a more practical reason not to indulge in anxiety -- it doesn't help. It does no good to worry -- it won't make us live longer (though those of us that are prone to worry, like me, know it certainly makes you feel a lot older!), it doesn't change anything -- don't worry about tomorrow because today's trouble is enough for today! It's all good advice, but advice is never enough, so Jesus offers us a practical suggestion -- instead of worrying, do something constructive! Strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness -- not only will that take your mind off anxiety, it gets your priorities re-ordered in the right way. If we are concerned primarily for God's kingdom and his righteousness, then we won't end up putting wealth first, and everything else will fall into place.

Understood in this way, as a call to constantly re-order our priorities from those of the world around us to those of God's kingdom, the text takes on new meaning. We are, I think, accustomed to see it as a very impractical and hippy-dippy sort of message, counselling us to fold our hands and wait for God to provide. But it doesn't seem to me that the teaching here is really about saving against future needs or having a retirement plan -- faithful stewardship of God's gifts for ourselves and one another is not the issue here. Instead I think it is far more radical and countercultural than that. Our whole society is built on a certain hierarchy of values, as was the secular society of Jesus's day as well -- make money, a lot of money, and acquire a lot of cool stuff and you will be a top dog. The types of cool stuff have changed over the centuries but the basic premise remains the same. And as a society, we've bought in -- a revealing term indeed! -- and put wealth and its acquisition in God's place. Jesus simply turns that hierarchy on its head and tosses it away.

Instead, as the baptized, we are to create a new society, the church, based on a radical re-ordering of those priorities, serving God instead of wealth. In our relationships with one another and with the world, we are called on to model a different hierarchy and way of life, seeking the kingdom of God and God's righteousness. The instructions for how to do that are richly available all through Jesus's teaching and that of St Paul and the rest of the New Testament as well. As with so much else, the problem is not so much that we don't know what to do, as it is that it's difficult to disentangle ourselves from the values and expectations of the world so that we can live a radically new life in God. But just imagine what a church, and a world, like that would look like and be like!