Genesis 1: 1–2:4a
Matthew 6: 24-34
An educational psychologist got on the train home to Edinburgh, and began preparing notes for a seminar. An elderly lady sat next to him, and explained that she was returning home after two weeks visiting her six children, 18 grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. When she discovered she was sitting next to an educational psychologist, he expected to be asked for free professional advice. Instead, she sat back, picked up a magazine, and said, “If there’s anything you want to know, just ask me.”
I was lucky, I had good parents. And so did many of you, I’m sure. But some of you did not have good parents. And few of us had perfect parents. Mums and Dads are only human. The Bible uses many different names for God, but when Jesus chose a name, an image, an earthly idea, which we could use to imagine the God of Heaven, he chose the word Father. According to the Gospels, Jesus called God, ‘Father’ virtually every time he prayed to him. He taught his disciples to think of God as ‘your Father in heaven’. He taught us to pray, ‘Our Father’, and it was an idea which was taken up with enthusiasm by the first Christians. It was as if, with the coming of Jesus, the time had come for humanity to understand God in a new way, as a perfect Father who always wants the best for his children.
I had a good Father, but not everyone is so lucky. And at times, Fathers can seem distant and authoritarian. When the Church has pictured God in that way, as a kind of male authority figure, bullying his children, then we have to say that that was wrong, and was emphatically not Jesus’ intention. To understand what Jesus was getting at, start by thinking about what you know about human fatherhood, and then imagine a father without any negative connotations, a father who is wholly good, and you begin to glimpse what Jesus meant when he spoke about his heavenly Father.
In today’s Gospel reading we heard some words Jesus spoke to a crowd on a hillside in Galilee. Imagine Jesus’ eye falling on aspects of the scene, the birds in the air, the lilies in the field. And imagine him looking at the crowds. Some people would be well-dressed, others would be obviously poor. There would be just a few folks who obviously cared a lot about their appearance, who worried about what other people thought of them, and who could afford expensive clothes. And there would be the farm workers who lived hand to mouth, always worried about what the next harvest would bring, who dressed in the same working clothes day by day. This passage is addressed to people who worry. It’s for anyone who suffers from anxiety.
Why worry? says Jesus. And what did his audience think? Perhaps that man in the rich clothes is thinking, “I worry that I can keep my position in society. I worry about being well dressed, about making sure that my table has the best food and drink, I worry about impressing people, I worry about the debts I’ve got into to finance this lifestyle”. And perhaps the man in the farm labourer’s clothes is thinking, “I worry that the harvest might fail. I worry that I won’t be able to feed my family. I worry that I might not have good enough food to feed my little baby properly. I worry that the man who owns my land, and the Roman tax collectors, will take away even what I earn”.
Why worry? says Jesus. Many worry because their pay has been frozen for years. Many worry about pensions. Many worry about paying for college for our children. Jesus doesn’t think our worries are not important, remember that he said “Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things”, but he realises that our worries can cut us off from God. So, money can’t be what we worship, making material wealth our first priority will be fatal, we can’t love both God and money. God has to come first. But once we make that decision, once we decide that we are not going to let the pursuit of wealth get in the way of a relationship with God, then life takes on a new perspective. Remember that Jesus said, “This is why I tell you: do not be worried about the food and drink you need in order to stay alive, or about clothes for your body. After all, isn’t life worth more than food? And isn’t the body worth more than clothes? Look at the birds: they do not plant seeds, gather a harvest and put it in barns; yet your Father in heaven takes care of them! Aren’t you worth much more than birds?”
What the birds of the air and the lilies of the field point us towards is something which Jesus’ Jewish audience well knew: that God is the loving creator of all things, as we read in the poem from the opening verses of Genesis. More than that, creation was not a once-only event because God continues to create, and care, and love us. God clothes the humble flower of the field in a way that not even King Solomon could emulate. But, God isn’t just a distant creator and ruler. God is a loving Father, the perfect Father, who knows our every need, a Father who loves us much more than the best of human father’s loves his children.
What I think this story has to say to us is that if we have something other than God as our first concern, then we’ve missed a trick. A God-orientated life will allow God to look after us. When a child has a worry, one of the best things they can know is that their parents are dealing with it. If you fall and scrape your knee, mum or dad will give you a hug. If you are having trouble at school, your parents will understand. It’s not that Jesus says that our worries aren’t important, God doesn’t want any of us to starve to death or walk around naked. Jesus says, “Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things”. To know that God is like a perfect Father who knows what all our needs are, including our material needs, is a wonderful thing. Our Father in heaven knows what our needs are. If he clothes the fields, and feeds the birds, surely he will look after us.
Andy Murray once told an ITV tennis commentator after a match, “I think it was nerves that made me nervous”. For many people, their anxiety about a problem can become a much greater problem than the problem was in the first place. It’s the anxiety about the problem, and not the problem itself, which causes the symptoms like tense muscles, sleeplessness, and a lack of concentration on other things. Remember that Jesus asked, “Can any of you live a bit longer by worrying about it?” Anxiety is more likely to take years off our life than to add to it. If we can do something about it, well and good. But merely worrying will get us nowhere, and when we worry that there might be more worries in the future, Jesus says, “Do not worry about tomorrow; it will have enough worries of its own. There is no need to add to the troubles each day brings”.
How much easier our lives would be if we were able to believe this. But we do worry. Worries lodge in your mind, and it can be very difficult to dislodge them. You need something to take its place. But Jesus offers an antidote to despair, “be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things.” For people like us, living in a materialistic, consumerist, culture, this is radical advice. Stop worrying about the things we think about most, food and drink and clothes and money, and put God’s kingdom first. What kind of advice is that? But focus on God and God’s kingdom, and you are on your way to stop worrying about yourself.
If I had a pound for every time someone said to me when they were in hospital, “There are people much worse off than me in here”, then we could get on with the Pilgrim Project today. I know it’s a coping mechanism, and I think it’s very wise. Following Jesus is about loving God and our neighbour. And that takes us out of ourselves right away, because now we’re concerned about other people. Being unwilling to take the chance of loving another person is at the heart of much misery. But putting God first, and God’s kingdom, takes us out of ourselves.
Live as if you believed that God is a loving Father, and your own worries can begin to take on perspective. Believe that you can share your concerns and worries in the hands of a Father more perfect than the best of human fathers, and your anxieties might become more manageable.