Today’s reading has a familiar ring (Matt. 6: 25-34). Bob Marley, rest his soul, got it right, but Jesus got there first, as I am sure Marley knew. Don’t worry. Be happy. The birds in the air, the lilies in the field, and our complete inability to control anything. Because as the Jubilate says, “Know this: The Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” And we hear the message in Scripture over and over. Come as a little child. Martha, Martha, don’t worry, be happy, because there is only one thing. I Am. And you are doing fine being my hostess, so let your worry go. The poor will always be with us and the oil for my burial is nice. Smell it. How fragrant it is. Not that Jesus is unaware of the realities of life. And this passage ends with the rather chilling, “‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
And today’s worries crowd in and we do worry. With the barrage of news, most of it bad, we are overwhelmed with worry and anger and frustration and helplessness. A far cry from the lilies of the field. And it is so easy to take this passage as Jesus’ self-help best seller. It is not. Now in the Season of Creation and the Church’s renewed concern with the environment, we hear of Jesus’ awareness of the beauty of his Father’s creation around him, not only here but elsewhere. Foxes’ dens. Birds’ nests. Sparrows. Lilies. But this passage is not about that either. It is also not a promise of prosperity for the few. It is never that simple. It is again about the One Thing, the One God. His One Son. And about owning stuff, like money. And the power that comes with it. This section of the Sermon on the Mount lies between the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, some words on not showing off your piety, and then back to the point about wealth. You can’t store it up. About rust and moth (Matt.6: 19), I don’t know what your garage looks like, but my late husband was a great one for hanging on to things “just in case.” That meant that I had a lot of rusted, totally obsolete, pretty useless stuff that nobody wanted to steal, to recycle. Better to put that energy and anxiety into trusting God to provide that “just in case” item, by those miraculous means that sometimes fall into our laps or just by a community that shares its second coat, its extra shoes. We can’t serve two masters. We have a choice. Either trusting the grace of God. Or grasping for a world in which we cannot add one hour to our life.
I think the first key here is “you of little faith.” Jesus uses that rebuke to disciples over and again, here (Matt. 6:30), when he calms the storm from the boat (Matt. 8:26), when Peter fails to walk on water (Matt. 14:31), not lack of bread but the yeast of the Pharisees (Matt. 16:8), faith could move mountains (Matt. 17:20), and in Luke’s narration of the lilies (Luke 12:28). And the second is from the previous reading (Matt. 6:24), “No one can serve two masters,” also said in Luke (16: 13) in that complex and problematical Parable of the Shrewd Manager. God or clutching onto the world. But the injunction to give up wealth is taught too often to cite here. Now, that is what this teaching is all about. Not lounging around on the beach waiting for food and drink and a new pair of flip-flops to show up because God is good. God is not Amazon Prime!
What makes Christianity seem so easy is that Christ loved us enough to offer mercy and eternal life, but what makes it so difficult is that it requires seeking total commitment to God. The Jews knew it, with their hundreds of Laws, some pretty incomprehensible, and Jesus didn’t come to banish the Law, but to bring it to fulfillment. We can stop burning up fat sheep, but we can’t give up total devotion to God. To be deeply Christian it seems we have to be a little bit crazy, John the Baptizer crazy, Paul yelling and screaming and writing letters and trips to prison crazy, Jesus crazy. That is God’s honest truth. And that is what Jesus is saying when he says don’t worry, be happy. God has it all worked out, and God’s mind is higher than ours (Isa. 55: 8), and the supernal beauty of an ordinary field is beyond the imagination of the best artist. In fact, the whole of Isaiah 55 teaches us not to seek food or drink with money but seek happiness in God’s covenant.
Last week I wrote that the Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount seemed pretty harsh and inflexible, and had been used as tools of oppression, rather than the sensitive goal which Jesus was trying to teach us. Our inner thoughts, our deep prejudices, our irrational fears were just as real is adultery, murder, lust, envy, the whole list of them. Here he is exposing the flip side of that teaching. God is all. Grace through Faith is all. God will provide, one way or another. And even if the worst things that broken humans can do to each other happen, God’s love will support us unto death, or heal the survivors. Yes, that can feel like cold comfort when you are frightened, hungry, thirsty, and without clothes or shelter. And that is why a lot of people leave the Church, leave Christ. It is too Hallmark card sweet and fluffy to be believable. And if that doesn’t empty out the pews on Sunday morning, the relatively easy availability of resources, even for the critically poor in this country (and as unacceptable as that is, there are worse places) can make that promise irrelevant. That is what makes “you of little faith” critical. It is that trust and faith that holds us, binds us, even when it gets really bad. And if we have enough faith the mountain that moves, the waves that are calmed, the true bread that feeds us is the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit, a peace which passes understanding because there is no earthly logic to explain why in the depth of need we feel so happy. Beyond happy.
Faith is a gift of the Spirit, but we are taught to ask for what we need. It is no sin, far from it, to say, “I believe, help my unbelief (Mark 9: 24).” We scoff at “there are no atheists in fox holes” as hypocrisy, but, as the man who begged Jesus for his son, there is no shame in conversion in great need. Perhaps it is in times of crisis when we find true humility, true poverty, and reach out to God. Yes, our Heavenly Father knows we need food, shelter, clothes, and that human inequity has often deprived the many for the greed of the few. Jesus came to expose that, but also to bind us to the Father in ways that over-arch the hunger and thirst and fear, as the suffering and redemption of his Gospel slowly permeates human hearts and brings the Kingdom to all. So, look at the lilies of the field.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.