Sunday, October 7, 2012

Birds of the air and lilies of the field: no worries?

Text: Matthew 6 25-33 (do not worry)

Today's well-known Gospel passage finds signs of God's providence in nature. Jesus says, "look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them." And later, "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 despite the charm of these images, I wonder about them. For one, birds are hardly idle, are they? Most of the time, they are frantically busy. Nor do they always have a gentle and easy existence. Some birds are predators, others are prey; and all of them have an existence as harsh and difficult as any other living thing.

The first Sunday that I preached here in Borderlands last year, I ran into a yellow flicker as I drove between services in Coronach and Rockglen. Later that day, yanking the corpse of this beautiful bird out of the grill of my car made it difficult to see birds as models of a worry-free existence within God's providence.

Similar thoughts come to mind in the face of the statement that the lilies of the field do not toil. All day long, a lily turns its leaves towards the sun to use the sun's energy to produce sugar. All day log, its roots use this energy to pull water and nutrients out of the soil. Lilies look beautiful to the human eye -- that is, when they haven't been withered by drought, flattened by hail, or eaten by bugs. But like birds, they hardly seem idle to me.

The natural world is intricate, beautiful and mysterious. But I am not sure that it illustrates the providence of God in the way that our reading today suggests.

Next weekend, I will be in Banff for the 2012 United Church's Men's Conference. A key draw for this year's conference -- other than the beauty of the mountains and the fellowship of other ministers and lay leaders in our church -- is the keynote speaker, Bruce Sanguin. Sanguin is a United Church minister from downtown Vancouver and a prolific author. He promotes a progressive and evolutionary Christianity that draws upon ideas from Darwinian biology and the environmental movement.

I enjoy Sanguin's books and articles and I appreciate the energy with which he pursues his vision of the Gospel and the large following he has developed in the past few years. But I also question his work.

To my mind, Darwin's teachings about evolution through natural selection strip nature of its Divine enchantment. After Darwin, nature still retains its power to elicit our awe, but it does so without the idea that God ensures that everything will turn out all right. Darwinism accounts for the cruelties of predators, pain and death in nature in a way that the sunny view of the birds and lilies in our reading today do not. In my opinion, Sanguin misses this key point. So I look forward to hearing more from him next week and perhaps discussing some of this.

Then there is environmentalism. I have been concerned about the social destruction of the environment since elementary school. Over the years, I have also become discouraged at the ability of any one person, community, church or even nation to play a positive role in reversing human damage to the environment. Sanguin has a much sunnier view on this question as well, and so I also look forward to confronting this idea next weekend.

But what does all this-- an awareness of pain and death in the natural world as well as its beauty; and a pessimistic assessment of humanity's ability to halt environmental destruction -- have to do with Thanksgiving and Jesus' message that we should  stop worrying and seek instead the kingdom of God?

Here in southern Saskatchewan this year, many farmers give thanks for a productive and lucrative harvest. But we are also aware that today's higher prices come at the expense of farmers to our south who suffered a drought not just during the harvest, but through the entire growing season.

I understand that it is ever-thus in farming: years of bounty following years of hardship; and the calamity of one region being a boon to another one. But while we try to give thanks in both good years and bad, we are also aware that human-induced climate change is making the swings of weather more extreme than they were before the age of fossil fuels.

And yet Jesus urges us to not worry and to have a trusting faith. "Strive first for the kingdom of God" Jesus says, and all the material things that we worry about will be given to us.

Well, at the most basic level, Jesus is clearly wrong about this, is he not? Both yesterday and today, many saints of the church have served God and neighbour and yet suffered from poverty or the ravages of war and sickness. The kingdom of God is about love, sacrifice, solidarity, faith, and hope. But pursuing these values hardly guarantees one material success.

However, when we look at Jesus' statement from the vantage point of his whole ministry -- especially his journey from the beauty of countryside to the squalor and violence of the capital city Jerusalem -- we can hear his repeated calls to fear not from a different angle.

Jesus knows that his ministry of love, healing and service will end in arrest, suffering and death. This does not discourage him from a life of faith, hope and love. Instead, this tough awareness fuels his ministry. From a worldly point of view, there often is no way out. But from a spiritual point of view, God is always the solution.

In society and in nature, there is much that we do not like: pain, poverty, and death. But despite what looks like a lack of providence, the kingdom of God is always available to us.

If we spend our days and nights worrying about all that can go wrong, we might become paralysed by fear and miss the gracious moment right in front of us. But when we join Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, we share his awareness that it is inevitable that we won't always get what we want at a material level.

At the end of the journey, there will be suffering and death. Along the road, there will sometimes be losses, sickness, and pain. If we worry too much about these things, we can close our eyes and ears to this gracious moment, which is the only time that God's grace is available to us. Or we can relax and accept that we won't always get what we want at a material level. We can trust that God's Love is what we need, and God's love is a sure thing, both in this moment and at the end.

God's love is our source, our calling, and our sure destiny. This is true for individuals, for communities, and for the whole groaning natural world. When we accept this love, we can wake up to this moment and enjoy it and our companions on the journey without being distracted by disappointment with the past or fear for the future.

God's kingdom is based on a trusting faith, an unshakeable hope in God's support, and a life lived in self-giving and abundant love.  At any moment, we can stumble into this kingdom life when, with Grace, we confront the painful reality of all that we don't like and all that we want but can't get in life.

I never want to kill another bird with my car, but probably I will do so. I never want another beautiful natural habitat to be fouled by economic progress, but probably this will happen. I never want another international dispute to lead to war, but probably this will happen too. I don't want to die, but I know that I will.

Given the inevitable disappointments of life, our tendency to worry is understandable. When with grace our worry drifts away, we wake up with Jesus right here and now and accept the reality of life, both what we like and don't like. Based on an acceptance of reality -- personal, natural and social -- we can also accept our most sacred values of trust, community and love.

We pursue these values in church and in our families not because they guarantee that everything will turn out well the kingdoms of the world. With God's help, we pursue them because in a life that seems to have so much to fear, we want to stay awake. Despite pain, loss and death, we trust that God is with us.

Our material circumstances may not improve when we live in God's Kingdom. But we trust that these kingdom moments will wake us up to the love and acceptance we most crave and need.

In the freedom of life in God's kingdom, we continue to work for our material needs and to fight for a world of greater justice and peace; and we do so with less attachment to the outcome. Whether we have a good harvest or bad; whether our fight for justice succeeds or not; and whether we have a season of health or sickness, we continue to journey with Jesus and his friends.

Today as we gather again at Jesus' holy table, we re-enact our unity with God in our bodies and with our brothers and sisters as the Body of Christ both near and far.

We are not alone, whether in years of bounty and years of scarcity.

In the life of the material world, there will often be much to fear. But in the kingdom of God, there is never anything to fear; and there is always an infinite amount for which to be grateful.

Thanks be to God.


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