Sermon: Sunday 23 February 2014
Second Sunday before Lent 2014
The Revd Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler
‘Don’t worry’? You’re kidding! I don’t think this Gospel reading is easy at all because, on the face of it, it can seem so trite. Don’t worry about things – God knows and God will provide. Tell that to someone who really is in a difficult place. Is Jesus being condescendingly patronising? Like one of those dreadfully well-meaning religious people who ‘know’ that it’s just a matter of having strong enough faith and all your troubles will be solved.
Flowers and birds – it must have been a lovely spring morning when Jesus delivered today’s homily. Picture some of the meadows you have visited – if not Galilee in the Alps perhaps, or my favourite – the machair in the Hebrides, where the flowers are so plentiful that it feels a sin to walk there! But even if you are sitting in a beautiful meadow, my guess is that many of us would still spend the time, not admiring the delicate blooms peeping through the grass, or listening to the corncrake, but turning things around in our minds. Preoccupations preventing us from just enjoying the moment.
Well, I’m quite a worrier and find it difficult sometimes not to overreact. Especially late at night, when all the ‘what ifs’ kick in. I worry all the time – where have I put my phone, did I lock the door, that’s an awful lot of money, what shall I cook for my friends, I’m going to be late yet again, not to mention worries about health and future. And if that’s not enough, what about the externals? Fear of becoming a victim of crime (real or imagined), fear for our city, our neighbourhood, fear about things we hear in the news, for our planet, fear of terrorism… Endless loops play round in the mind. Life is one big worry – or so it can seem.
Is this a feature or consequence of modern Western society, I wonder? One of our greatest anxieties seems to be lack of control. And yet so many of our worries are beyond our control. Pensions, jobs, health issues – we have limited options at best and worrying isn’t going to change them. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not belittling really big worries. But I put it to you that all worries can get in the way of living in the moment. We may be so busy preparing for the future that we forget to live in the present. Or the preparations for the future themselves generate more worries than they solve. But if the future really is very uncertain, then the present may be doubly precious, not to be missed at any cost. And sometimes it is the little worries which preoccupy us far more than the real ones. Do you find that?
So what was Jesus on about? Was he preaching to a load of people with anxiety disorders? He’s actually using a kind of implied dry irony, to take a pot shot at the religious and political elite – which his audience would have recognised. Often those most laden with anxiety are those with most to lose – I bet King Herod (he who chopped off John the Baptist’s head) was a bag of anxieties! In a deeply unjust society, with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few, Jesus’ listeners would have delighted in the reference to King Solomon, obliquely making it clear that God is not aligned with the elite, no matter what they might preach, but with those who know themselves to be powerless. Jesus is recognising and sharply challenging the corrosive effect of worldly desire and materialism, not least among the religious hierarchy. As ever! Jesus tacitly naming the evil around in the shape of those in power, rejecting the status quo and encouraging people to question things. No wonder he was seen as dangerous!
As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that the poetical contrast between flowers and worldly clothing is not merely an inspirational illustration of a key point, but that clothing was then a huge symbol of status and wealth, even investment. ‘What’s changed?’, I ask myself, when I browse in the airport shops to see watches at thousands of pounds looking no different from my cheapo version at a fraction of the price, or when my grandson implores me, almost tearful, to buy him the latest fashion in trainers at a ridiculous price so that he can look right. We have some of the least happy children in the developed world – if children in our society are growing up that anxiety laden, what can we best do to affirm and encourage them to blossom?
Our reading contrasts worldly attitudes with God-focussed attitudes, and worry with faith and trust. Jesus doesn’t promise a worry-free world, but he urges us to see beyond our immediate practical anxieties. In a sense he’s saying worry doesn’t solve the problem: worry just saps our energies and preoccupies us unhealthily. If we go with God, we don’t lose our responsibilities – Jesus isn’t disenfranchising our brains – we still have things to deal with, possibly very big issues, we still need to plan and make decisions, but we shouldn’t be so anxious. Remember that familiar prayer ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference’?
There is a further dimension to our reading, which is encapsulated in the final phrase ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’. In God’s kingdom everyone has plenty and there is no anxiety about the next day. This is palpably not so in today’s world: therefore to seek Kingdom values is to set our feet on a path where these things become a real possibility. I may be forced to consider that my personal priorities might be wrong. And that if I let go of my preoccupations, I might just have more time and energy for God’s mission. But to deny our need for food and shelter is foolish – God knows we need these things and knows others need them as well.
In my early teaching days I worked under an utterly bewildering but probably brilliant head teacher. He constantly affirmed this paradox: that stability was only to be found by coming to terms with constant change. I was chatting to a teacher the other day who said that he’d come round full circle with initiatives some three or four times. He’d probably understand the paradox well. But there’s truth in it – stability amid constant change is a bit like the eye of a hurricane. Haven’t we learned painfully that economic security is somewhat of an illusion – that what we thought was invincible and permanent is incredibly fragile? That extremely volatile financial markets cannot be tamed? That even with the best doctors and researchers, diseases and other life-threatening health conditions continue to elude our control? So why persist in thinking we can somehow arrive at permanent safety? Although I kicked heavily against that head teacher at the time, his thinking has stayed with me. Stability (and with it a measure of serenity) lies in living with and accepting change. The flip side is self-evident, I think.
Positive thinking is an overworked theme of the secular world on which people write copiously. If I am really in the middle of a huge and real worry, I do not want to be told to count my blessings. But it is worth, even amid the awfulness of particular situations constantly reminding myself of God’s abundance, noticing it in everyday moments and making sure I don’t miss even tiny grains of hope and peace. Using Jesus’ language, we can so easily miss the flowers and the birds amid our moans about the weather, or whatever. Or worries about my mobile phone!
A wise person told me this recently: think of a car’s headlights. You can only see so far in them, and it’s useless to try to look beyond. I’d say God is in the beyond – just ahead of the furthest gleam of light.
© The Revd Alison Adams