211010 – Relax

Yr B ~ Thanksgiving ~ Matthew 6:25-33

It’s the last line that trips us up. We hear it and it derails us from what I think Jesus is really teaching. A huge challenge is that it’s lines like this that televangelists and charlatans latch onto to twist the gospel into something hideous. It becomes a self-serving, self-aggrandizing, wishlist-granting, magic wand abomination. The problem is it sounds so nice and comforting. It goes like this: If you’ll just turn to God then, Matthew 6:33, You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. In more classic language it says, seek ye first the kingdom of God and (God’s) righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

If you take that verse out of context and don’t carefully read it with the rest of Jesus’ teaching here then it would be easy to say, “No, that’s demonstrably wrong. There are lots of people all over the world who are devoted Christians and they don’t get everything they need. In some places Christians are starving, or oppressed, or very, very poor. Or all three at once. Or worse.”

So you take that textual problem of the last verse, and add it to the first verse of the NRSV translation of this passage, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…” and we get really messed up. Don’t worry about anything? Really? As a Christian I’m somehow not supposed to have any worries? And everything is going to be given to me? Cool! Sign me up!!!

Except I’ve been signed up my whole life, and this simply isn’t true. Well, it’s not true on the surface. It’s actually very true if we dig deeper. So let’s dig a little.

First, there’s nothing wrong with worrying – as long as worry means concern. We are supposed to be concerned for one another. Love shows concern! The Greek word for ‘worry’ here actually means to be preoccupied by, to be absorbed with, to be rendered frozen and incapacitated by the worrying. That’s not healthy. Concern – good. Debilitating worry about things you can’t control – not so good.

The Message bible says it colourfully: Matthew 6:27 Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch?
Foolish, right? That’s not loving concern – that’s futility!

Now I’m going to say something provocative. In this scripture passage I think Jesus is focusing laser-like on the ‘insiders’. He’s not preaching to the general public – he’s talking to his closest followers – his disciples – us. They’ve ‘given up everything to follow him’ but we know that his ministry was still well supported (interestingly, probably by women who rarely get mentioned). That means that Jesus’ followers – the insiders – probably didn’t have to worry at all about food or clothing. Their needs were being well provided for. Just like us.

So Jesus is not ignoring the problems of the world, nor is he for a minute suggesting that if you just believe hard enough you’ll get everything you want or need. Faith is not magical thinking. Many times as he taught he would point directly at the people he was teaching about – the ill, the outcast, the beggars in the street – but he’s not pointing at them here. Instead, he’s looking right into the eyes of his followers – the insiders, us – and challenging them to think differently. I think that maybe Jesus is talking directly to the ‘haves’ and scolding them/us for convincing ourselves that despite our privilege that we’re somehow ‘have-nots’?

Jesus invites us to consider the birds of the air. Matthew 6:26 Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to (God) than birds.

Then in verse 28 he has a go at the flowers: …Walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen colour and design quite like it?

And then Jesus drives his point home. Matthew 6:30 If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think (God will) attend to you, take pride in you, do (God’s) best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving.

I think the big message here is that we tend to spend our time and energy on the wrong stuff. This is why I love The Message translation of this passage. The first verse, Matthew 6:25, is kinda the whole sermon: If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about… whatever. Let me say it differently. We forget that Jesus is a master wordsmith – probably because some of it gets lost in translation from the Aramaic which he spoke, to the Greek that the scriptures were written in, to the English we read. What he’s saying is, “Don’t worry about your life – worry about your life!” Don’t spin your wheels so much fussing about your outer, physical life – instead attend more to your inner, spiritual life – and all things will be given you. Again, not ‘things’ – things! Spiritual things. Loving things. A mission, a purpose, a ministry, a spirit of loving-kindness. Stuff that really matters.

The Greek word for ‘life’ used here means the inner life, the vital breath, the soul. Focus less on your physiology (life) and more on your spirituality (life). In still other words, if we attended as much to our ‘inner life’ (spirituality) as we did about our material needs, we’d be much better off. And the first step in attending to Spirit, is to notice.

Very recently Bishop John Spong passed away. One of my favourite turns of phrase from him was how he said that God loves ‘wastefully’. I love that. It means that God just loves, and loves, and loves – splashing it out all over everything and everyone, without a care for who may have earned it, or who deserves it, because love doesn’t work that way. Love just loves. Gushingly. Wastefully.

Hear Matthew 6:30 again: If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think (God will) attend to you, take pride in you, do (God’s) best for you?

I’ve recently moved to a new home in the country. I’m now immersed in rolling hills, and forests, and fields. As we go for walks I look into those forests and fields and I’m struck by all the beauty. And it boggles the mind that beyond what I can see from the road there is even more beauty beyond that – hidden from my view. Maybe hidden from everyone’s view. Creation is unspeakably, staggeringly beautiful, and so much of it we can’t even, or ever, see. That’s God’s glorious, wasteful love. Even those unseen wildflowers are magnificently adorned. Why? For the squirrels to enjoy? Maybe, who knows?

But the point is that life is beautiful – and creation is beautiful – and if the loving, creative life-force at the centre of the universe that we’ve named ‘God’ adorns those unseen wildflowers with such beauty how much more will God bestow upon us?

Thomas Merton was a 20th century mystic, who may be single-handedly responsible for reigniting the Christian mystical spirituality movement, that in my view is the prime thing that can save the church. Merton spoke about a life-changing mystical experience he had while standing on an ordinary street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. He described it like this:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness…

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Why don’t people realize they’re shining like the sun – adorned even more beautifully than the wildflowers?
Maybe because they’re too preoccupied with worrying about stuff?
So Jesus says,

What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way (God) works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how (God) works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

You’re not missing out on anything that important.
You have the greatest things imaginable already.
You have love.
You have relationships.
You have faith.
You have spirituality.
You have God’s love filling you to overflowing.
You are adorned more beautifully than any wildflower ever. You are walking around shining like the sun.

Jesus is teaching nothing less than a complete paradigm shift for how we might understand reality. His nickname for it is the Kingdom of God. It’s a way of knowing, and perceiving, and living, and loving, centred not on scarcity but abundance. The abundance is God’s being, the abundance is God’s presence, the abundance is God’s love, that infuses every moment and every molecule.

That which is not the Kingdom of God celebrates scarcity – you don’t have enough, you aren’t good enough, you need this and that and the other thing to make you happy.

But Jesus is all about Abundance – celebrating that we are drenched in God’s blessings – clothed in beauty beyond imagining – filled with light, and love – walking around shining like the sun.

Look at how great we’ve got it.
Look at our abundance.
Look at how God loves so magnificently wastefully.
Receive, receive, receive – and yes, absolutely, be grateful, give thanks.

That’s all ‘in-breath’ stuff. Receiving blessing is like breathing-in so, so deeply.
And then what? What do we do with that? What about the out-breath?

Jesus says, “Relax. I got you. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Embrace the deeper reality of the Kingdom of God. Embrace my counter-cultural perception of the world. Know that you’re aglow – shining like the sun. And then let yourself shine. Live out the love that fills you. Make a difference in the places you find yourself. Living differently is the only way to transform the culture from scarcity to abundance.”
At least that’s how I imagine he’d say it.

Maybe it’s naïve to think that a bunch of spirit-filled people, inspired by the Way of Jesus, striving to embody that Way and love it out in their daily lives, can change the world.
But the truth is that that’s the only way it ever happens.

Thanksgiving reminds us to pause and notice the abundance in which we are immersed. To be grateful that we are filled to overflowing. To breathe in deeply, and revel in how wonderful God’s all-encompassing, wastefully gushing love feels.

And then we get to breathe out – responding to God’s giving – transforming the world – one breath at a time.

Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions.

Know that you’re aglow – give thanks – and shine.