Sunday, February 8, 2015

On Worry and Wildflowers: A Sermon on Matthew 6:24-35

Joan Fontaine in "Rebecca," 1940.

Scripture can be found here....

If you’re looking for a really wonderful old movie, a great grande dame of a film in black and white from the glamour days of Hollywood, it’s hard to find a better one than the early Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, “Rebecca.” It’s a love story, between the fabulously wealthy (and somehow vaguely tragedy-shadowed) Maxim de Winter, played by a dashing Laurence Olivier, and the woman who will become the second Mrs. DeWinter, played by Joan Fontaine. They meet cute in Monaco, of all places, where Joan is the much-mistreated companion of a stuffy, pretentious social climber. Maxim sweeps our girl off her feet, and they marry quickly, returning home to a brooding castle called Manderley on the coast of Cornwall. The castle comes complete with the scariest housekeeper this side of a horror story, one Mrs. Danvers, who appears suddenly and often to scare the daylights out of the young bride. 

It’s a love story, but more than that, it’s a mystery, and a kind of a thriller. The poor bride. She knows something is wrong, but she doesn’t know what it is. Shaky organ music gives us a sense that there must be a ghost. Maxim won’t tell her what’s wrong, even though he’s prone to dark moods and long absences. The new Mrs. DeWinter’s desperation comes out, finally, as she begs her husband to reassure her that everything’s all right. “We're happy, aren’t we? Terribly happy? And our marriage is a success, isn’t it? A great success?” Her husband pats her on the back absentmindedly, and says, “If you say so, then we’ll leave it at that.”

The new Mrs. DeWinter is worried. She’s worried half out of her mind, and no wonder. She doesn’t even know exactly what it is that she’s worried about… Her worry lurks in the shadows, its face hidden, just beyond her sight. And if you want to know the true source of her worries, well, you’ll just have to rent the movie or read the novel by Daphne DuMaurier.

My worries seem so…domesticated, by comparison. Boring, really. I’m worried about things like not getting the newsletter article done on time, or getting backed up on my laundry. I’m worried about driving in the snow, and that the salt all over the streets is going to rust my car. Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff. Nothing anyone would make a movie about, certainly not a movie starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.

OK. That’s not all I’m worried about. I’m worried about my children, in the same ways all parents of young adults worry about their children, plus all the worries that come along being the parents of young people who want to make a life in the arts. And I’m worried about the future, in some general and some specific ways. And sometime my sleep gets abruptly terminated at a time I still consider to be the middle of the night, and these worries swirl around in my head until it’s pretty clear: night’s over. Might as well get up. That’s what worry will do for you.

We’re circling back this week, to chapter 6 of Matthew’s gospel, right smack in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And we’re landing on one of the better-known parts of that sermon, the part about worry. Or, rather, the part telling us not to worry.

Jesus begins by speaking of money. If you’re wondering what is the topic Jesus talks the most about, look no further. It’s not war. It’s not sex. It’s not family life or values. Jesus’ most frequent topic is money. And verse 24 tells us why: Jesus regards the love of money as something that has the power to enslave us, to take the place of God in our lives. Don’t let this happen to you, he says. Don’t get the idea you can serve two masters. You can only give your heart to one. And by all means, don’t choose the wrong one. It’s either God or wealth; it can never be both.

Therefore, Jesus says, don’t worry. And the worries he lists are very basic ones: sustenance—food and drink. The lack of clothing. These are not the worries of the elite, or even the middle classes. These are the worries of the poor. At first glance, it almost seems that Jesus is being callous—in effect, downplaying the seriousness of poverty and want, even ignoring them. The letter of James has a scathing retort to that kind of callousness: If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?’ [James 2:15b-16] That’s not Jesus, anyway. That’s not what he’s saying.

And because that’s not what he’s saying, he starts talking about birds. Birds and wildflowers. Look at the birds, Jesus says. There they are, just… being birds. They are not punching in and punching out. They are not working hard for the money. They are not planting crops or harvesting them to get their fill of worms and seed. They are just going about the business of being birds, and look at that. They are fed. They are fine. God watches over them.

Will worry make your life one hour longer? Will worry make your life one minute longer?

The same is true for the flowers. When he says, “Consider the lilies of the field…” —Jesus is talking about wildflowers. Things like Queen Anne’s lace and bergamot, buttercups and bluebells. They’re not working for a living either… no flower ever labors over a spindle or a loom. They’re just being flowers. They’re just being. And Solomon, the king whose most famous attribute is his wealth, couldn’t hold a candle to them. Not even in his finest outfit. Not even on his best day.

Will worry make your life one hour longer? Will worry make your life one minute longer?

Again. There’s something here that feels almost like a disconnect. How can Jesus simply say, “So don’t worry about it!” when confronted with a crowd of people who are at real risk for chronic hunger and worse? Because, make no mistake, that’s who he’s talking to. Those he will call, “the least of these, who are members of my family” [Matt. 25:40]. What is going on here?

When in doubt, look closely at the language. There is something interesting going on in the original text. Without getting too heavily into Greek verb tenses, I want to tell you that they are part of Jesus’ argument.

“Therefore do not worry,” Jesus says, “saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ [Matt. 6:31]. Except that the verbs are subjunctives, they are conditional, so Jesus is really saying: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What might we be eating?’ or ‘What might we be drinking?’ or ‘What might we be wearing?” The verb tenses are telling a story of anxiety, of half-heartedness: the worry and fear have reached such a point that they have even colonized the language people are using.

Don’t be half-hearted, Jesus is saying. Be like the birds. A bird is a bird. It doesn’t occur to the bird to worry about where its next meal is coming from. It’s too busy just being a bird, with all its heart and intentions. It doesn’t occur to a wildflower to worry about its appearance. A wildflower is simply reveling in its wild and flowery state. Wholeheartedly.

Be like that, Jesus says. Be wholly yourself, who you are… And who you are, is this: you are beloved children of a loving God. Put that first. Then everything else will call into place.

What Jesus says, specifically, is “strive first for the kingdom of God.” But we need to interrupt this program to clear something up. Until this point in the gospel, Jesus has been talking about the “kingdom of heaven,” and I think we need to get clear what these various words are all about. When we Christians hear the word “heaven,” our default setting is to think of something very specific: We think of a place where God and the angels are, and our deceased loved ones, and we think of it as the place we will go—God willing—after we die. There is one very big problem with this. This is not what Jesus is talking about at all. He is not talking about an afterlife, the pearly gates, the great beyond where we will meet up with the Spirit in the sky. He is talking about the life of faith we live right here, right now, the life that is fully informed by him, and the ways in which he shows us the love of God.

Jesus starts talking about the kingdom of heaven in chapter 4. “The kingdom of heaven has come near,” he says, and what we see is:

·      Jesus gathering together a group of people who will listen to him and try to be like him.

·      Jesus teaching and preaching and telling people the good news about God—how God loves them; about God’s great reversals—the hungry being filled, the mourning being comforted, the meek inheriting the earth.

·      Jesus touching people to cure them of every kind of disease and sickness.

When Jesus says, ‘the kingdom of heaven’, he is not talking about what to expect when we die. He is talking about how we need to live. Jesus invites us to live in a community whose focus is healing and caring for those who are struggling with things like hunger and poverty.  When Jesus says, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” he’s not talking about an individualistic notion “me and Jesus” salvation. He is talking about whole-hearted devotion to God’s project of people caring for one another.

The big turning point in “Rebecca” is the moment when the second Mrs. DeWinter stops seeing herself as a timid and pathetic person constantly in need of her husband’s validation. A great revelation helps her to recognize that she is a powerful woman, a source of strength and consolation. She blossoms, because instead of being focused on what she lacks, she is now wholeheartedly focused on what she has to give. 

As Jesus looks out at the crowds gathered on the hillside, listening to his sermon, he sees, yes, hurting people, needy people, even hungry people. But he also sees strong people, people who have endured, people who have made do and made it through and who have it in them, not only to survive, but also to thrive. He sees beloved children of God, who have the ability to share that love with one another.

God sees us. God knows what we need. God asks that we train our hearts and minds on who we are and Whose we are. God urges us that we get our priorities clear, understanding ourselves to be God’s beloved children. God assures us that we have been equipped to share God’s love, not in some distant future, but today. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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