Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Consider the Lilies, Sermon 25 May 2008

Matthew 6:24-34

Everyone has been very supportive since my mother died last month. Today’s Gospel is an interesting text for me…

Before we get to today’s Gospel passage, let me tell you that I’ve always loved it for a very particular reason. In 1928, my mother’s mother had decided that if the child she was expecting was to be a girl, she would be called Eirwen. Eirwen is a popular enough Welsh girl’s name; it’s a compound of “Eira” meaning “snow” and “Gwen” which is the feminine form of the adjective meaning “white”. My mother always said that since her middle name literally meant “snow white”, it was a good job she wasn’t a redhead! But the reason that Eirwen wound up as her middle name, not her first name was the subject of one of those family stories. As my grandmother was being wheeled into the delivery room, she saw a framed sampler on the hospital wall. Embroidered into it were the words “Consider the lilies…” Throughout her life, people who knew my mother well assumed that “Lil” was short for “Lilian”. But it wasn’t. It was short for Lily, and that was why.

So I have always known these verses – these quite complicated verses – and from long before I had a hope of knowing fully what they meant. I was brought up “considering the lilies”. But this meant that I was also brought up always having some sense of a love of God that cared for everything, no matter how fleeting its existence, in which everything had its place. And so did I, and so did everyone. Because my mother was called Lil, I’ve had a lifetime to think about this. And I have to confess that I’m still working on it. For all their shattering simplicity, these verses are saying something that’s as complex and as sophisticated as you can get, and then some.

You see, this little portion of the Sermon on the Mount says something very special, something that is not said with such clarity anywhere else in the whole of Scripture. The Christian faith is something to be lived – oh, you get that throughout the New Testament. But that it is to be lived in simple, joyful acceptance – that’s something that’s expressed in just this way only here. That’s part of it. But one of the difficulties of this morning’s Gospel reading is just exactly that it’s so difficult to unpack, to put into any terms other than its own.

It says so many things, but when you start unpacking them, and translating them into mundane language, they turn into a set of platitudes that sounds like the sort of psychobabble that you get on those cheesy daytime television counselling shows of the gentler variety. “Don’t be anxious!” “Everything will be all right!” “You have your place!” “Just do what you know is right, and everything else will fall into place!” “Choose your priorities – what is really important to you?” All of these are in there – but every one of them, on its own, misses the point about what this passage is really about, which is something vastly deeper. Take it apart into bits, and you find that you have lost what it is that makes it hang together. And what makes it hang together is an understanding of what our human existence, this life that we live right here, right now, really is.

Let’s start with a really good slogan. Everybody knows that the motto of Christian Aid is “We believe in life before death…” And the reason that Christian Aid have to state this – and the reason it’s such a breath of fresh air to hear it – is because Christianity is so easily misrepresented.

Think about it: Christianity is so easily represented as being nothing to do with this life, this life before death that we have to live today, and tomorrow, and the day after. Pie in the sky when you die.

Agian, Christians are so easily misrepresented as being “so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly use…” Or that Christianity is about living our life today, and tomorrow and the day after, as though none of today or tomorrow or the day after actually matters in the light of eternity. As though all that today and tomorrow and the day after are about are getting through some sort of life-long exam with a sufficiently high mark to get to heaven. How can our faith make sense to us, if it doesn’t make sense of our daily living – of today, and tomorrow, and the day after?

Put it another way – we know what “life before death” means to the people Christian Aid help; what does “life before death” mean to us? Put it another way again – what is our real life in the real world really like – and what couldit be like?

Let’s hear today’s Gospel. But first, let’s ask a few questions. As we listen to Jesus’ words, let’s ask – do we think that, over two thousand years, they have sounded the same to everyone who hears them? When you think about it – how could they? Life has changed so much -and so many times – over two millennia. The things people have, the things that they want, the things that they agonize about not having – and the things that worry them, the things that threaten them, the things that seem so much bigger than them, and more than they can cope with: these things have all changed out of all recognition, not just throughout the world in two thousand years, but in our own society in seventy years. And they won’t be the same for someone living today in Kilbarchan to someone living in rural Zimbabwe, or in the Andes, or in Bedfordshire or in Texas or in southern Burma or in Darfur or in Easterhouse. If human existence is so varied, how can Jesus’ words speak to all of it? What, in other words, is he actually saying?

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? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith? 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. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”


Hymn 137 “All things bright and beautiful”

So – what is Jesus talking about here?

Well, in the first place, Jesus is talking about everyday life. This is ordinary, routine, boring human existence, not crisis, not emergency, not life falling apart or hanging by a thread. But clearly, if what he says is to mean anything to us, it has to make sense even when the world goes mad. This is where we usually are in life – and this is what is so different for all of us, across the world and through time. And yet, in our ordinary lives, just like people anywhere on earth in their ordinary lives, we worry and we fret. And we worry and we fret, not because we feel absolutely powerless, but because the things we can do are limited, and we need to be doing them, otherwise everything goes pear-shaped. But things might go pear-shaped anyway. Whatever we do, and however much we worry, things might still go wrong. And so everything becomes a worry, not because we are powerless, but because we aren’t.

And Jesus is talking about what faith does to life – to real life, to life before death, to the life of today and tomorrow and the day after. And whether we live in in Kilbarchan to or in the Andes, or in Bedfordshire or in Texas or in Easterhouse, or for that matter in first-century Palestine, what Jesus is saying is this: all of this is in God’s hands. And faith is trust in God. Beyond what you can do, is what you can’t do. That is a condition of human existence. But beyond what you can’t do, is God.

But a God beyond what we can’t do, a God far away, is an idea, a concept. Some people are more easily comforted by ideas than others, but ultimately we all need more than this. Some of us might be philosophers – but we are all ultimately human beings.

One of the authors we were made to read as theological students in the seventies was the sociologist Peter Berger, who was also an important voice in contemporary religious discourse. He offers a picture we will all recognize, one we’ve looked at before.

“A child wakes up in the night, perhaps from a bad dream . . . beset by nameless threats. At such a moment the contours of trusted reality are blurred or invisible, and in the terror of incipient chaos the child cries out for his mother . . . It is she (and in many cases she alone) who has the power to banish the chaos and restore the benign shape of the world . . . She will speak or sing to the child, and the content of this communication will invariably be the same – ‘Don’t be afraid – everything is in order, everything is all right.’ If all goes well, the child will be reassured, his trust in reality recovered . . .

Now, it may be because of my personal relationship to today’s Gospel, but I have found myself wondering over the years if what Jesus is doing in it for his hearers is offering just this sort of mothering insight into what reality really is. Not just into life in the world, but into God. Ultimately, life, the life we have to live today and tomorrow and the day after is trustworthy, because the order of things is ultimately trustworthy, because God is trustworthy. That’s part of it. Jesus is talking about God, and how God is. But the point is not so much what Jesus is saying, but what he’s doing by saying what he says. He is playing the role of the mother. He is the one saying: It’s OK. Everything is all right.

He is, if you like, the one who has come into the darkened room, to be with us, to reassure us.

Maybe this is best explained by considering the point that Berger goes on to make – and a very hard question he asks:

Is the mother lying to the child?. . .

And he says: look at what the mother is actually saying to the child.

Everything is in order, everythingis all right’ – this is the basic formula of maternal and parental reassurance. Not just this particular anxiety, not just this particular pain – but everythingis all right. The formula can, without in any way violating it, be translated into a statement of cosmic scope – ‘Have trust in being.’ This is precisely what the formula implies. And if we are to believe the child psychologists . . . this is an experience that is absolutely essential to the process of becoming a human person …

That’s why parents talk like this to their children. But Berger says this, too:

[Yet this] representation [this way of talking about it] can be justified only within a religious… frame of reference. In this frame of reference the natural world within which we are born, love, and die is not the only world, but only the foreground of another world in which love is not annihilated in death, and in which, therefore, the trust in the power of love to banish chaos is justified… The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality.”

What parents do is to bear witness to the way things really are. And, says Berger, that isn’t any sort of scientific proof that things are that way, but then again, that isn’t what the parent is offering the child. The parent is offering a child who is living in a world that makes no sense to it, that terrifies it, the parent’s own faith, if you like, that the world does actually make sense. Everything actually is all right. And, says Berger, the fact that this wells up from inside the deepest human being of the parent is a hint that actually this is the way things really are. Apart from anything else, the parent doesn’t stop to wonder if it’s OK to say things like this to the child. She just does it. And that points to something much bigger.

And in a sense, that’s just exactly what Jesus is doing here. He’s just telling it the way it is. Everything is OK.

But what when it’s not? What about when things fall apart? What about when we suffer, and are bereft, and die? How are things OK then? If what Jesus says is to make sense in Kilbarchan to or in the Andes, or in Bedfordshire or in Texas or in Easterhouse, or for that matter in first-century Palestine, doesn’t it still need to make sense if it’s heard in Darfur, and Zimbabwe, and Burma, and Sichuan?

So we need to say this. This is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is “teaching”. And of course, we speak of Jesus as a “teacher”. The Teacher.

But ultimately, for Christian faith, Jesus is far more than “just” a teacher. In fact his centrality to our faith is on quite a different basis. At the centre of our faith are the two words bound together by a hyphen: crucifixion-resurrection. Between what Jesus said and what he did is a unity that takes us to the heart of our human existence as existence in and out of God. Jesus, because of who and what he was, died in this way. And Christ is risen. His life, lived in loving trust of God, didn’t steer him past the pain and suffering of our human existence.

Faith is basically a matter of going all the way with the God who goes all the way with us. Of trusting in the God who is here with us, in the dark night of our fears, and who, ultimately, will bring us through.

As the great and much underrated Scots theologian Ronald Gregor Smith said: “only a suffering God can help.”

God needs to be here with us, in the darkened, frightening room. The Gospel says he is…

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