Sermon: October 7, 2018 – Matthew 6: 25-34
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
Seven months ago, Shannon and I stood with roughly 40 other pilgrims at the top of a hill – the same hill, according to tradition, where Jesus spoke the Sermon on the Mount. We were ready to take a quiet downhill walk to the Sea of Galilee, and on the way, look and listen to what nature had to tell us. Our guide, Dr. Andrew Mayes, prepared us for the day with prayer and with these words from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:28-29: “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.”
And then he told us something that was, for me, a game-changer: the word that Jesus uses, which we translate as consider, means to observe deeply, to pay attention for a long time. So Andrew urged us on our walk to consider what was around us – not just glance, and move on, but to take our time to truly discern the message of the moment.
As we walked down the hill, a field of mustard was humming with the sound of bees. Further down, a cacophony of birds serenaded us until we passed their favourite tree, then they left. And I started to embrace the fullness of the moment, the glory of that hillside, the holiness of that place where Jesus walked and taught and healed and embodied God’s love for all people and all creation.
“Consider the lilies of the field…behold the birds of the air”. Slow down, find nature’s rhythms, embrace your kinship with all living things, recognizing the common bond you share through the God whom we acknowledge as creator.
I hunch that a nearly-universal experience among the people of the Bow Valley, is this sense of meeting God in the majesty of mountains and the intricacy of wildflowers, seeing the imprint of God’s handiwork in the large impressive animals that we need to keep our distance from and the tiny beings that play their important yet nearly invisible role in the grand scheme. Those of you who have seen this land from many summits are already well-aware of all this, and from all reports the awe-inspiring beauty of this place never grows old.
And yet, even on a hike – or a snowshoe, or a cross-country ski, or a mountain bike ride – we sometimes get concerned about our destination rather than fully embracing the moment. We move quickly, our attention taken up more by the footing on a root-bound trail than by the flora and fauna off to the side. Perhaps there is an appointment later in the day that is on our mind, or a time-marker in the day: when we’d hoped to stop for lunch, or if you’re out at Lake O’Hara you don’t want to miss the bus that will rattle you back down to the parking lot. It is hard to slow down to the point that we really consider the creation around us, and the privilege of living in such a place.
Although Jesus uses a different word in talking about the birds of the air – the word translated “behold” rather than “consider” – this word also implies something more than a casual glance. As Mark Davis translates the Greek, Jesus tells his disciples to “view with steadfastness and attention” the birds and to “learn thoroughly, examine carefully, consider well” the lilies. Different words but similar, both urging us in modern terms to “stop and smell the roses.” And while I don’t want to take Jesus’ words too far, I got wondering this week what specific kinds of lessons we would learn if we did spend time – not just a couple of seconds, but a couple of hours, viewing a bird “with steadfastness and attention”… or “examining carefully and learning thoroughly” the lessons that a plant could teach us if we took a whole day watching it…truly “beholding” the birds of the air and “considering” the lilies of the field.
The thing we would first notice, is that neither the birds nor the flowers have a wristwatch, or a wall clock, or even a smartphone to tell them the time. Rather than being bound by artificially defined units of time, nature unfolds in the right time according to the circumstances. In the language of the New Testament, humans may be bound by Chronos, chronological time, but nature is more attuned to Kairos, “the right time” – God’s time. So a flower responds to the stimuli of sunshine, heat, rainfall, and the nutrients delivered by the soil, following not its daytimer but the sun and the moon. We’d also see the mutually-beneficial relationship between insects and flowers, the insects deriving nutrients from the flowers and in turn, spreading the pollen. If I were to give a day over to just this – fully taking in a day shaped by natural conditions, fully aware of complex interrelationships as flowers and fruits and vegetables rely on insects and worms and microbes – what could I learn about the holy source of life, on whom I rely each time the sun rises in the morning? What could God teach me if I allowed myself to rely more on others, rather than clutching my fantasy of self-sufficiency?
And what would come if I “beheld” the birds in the air? The more I think about this one, the more fun and complex it becomes. Think of the different times of the year, and what birds are up to: finding the materials to build a nest, teaching the little ones to fly, heading south for the winter. Those are very different skillsets, and there is no external, pre-determined calendar saying, “today is the day to do this.” Think of the tasks of a day: searching for food, feeding the young, finding a mate. And when I was doing a bit of online research, this nugget of information came my way from Biologist Kirk A.Janowiak: “Where food is plentiful, some species of birds …spend as much as 50% of their day loafing; resting, hanging out and interacting with flock members, and preening feathers.” (So, leisure time exists even in the Animal Kingdom! I think there’s a message there.) Depending on the availability of resources, the time of year and the weather patterns, the shape of a bird’s day can vary hugely from day to day and they do what needs doing – busy with the moment, or just hanging out, but in either case freed, as Jesus was attempting to convey, from the power of anxiety over what tomorrow would bring.
For the past five weeks, the Sundays have been designated as “Creation Time” or the “Season of Creation” and these lessons beautifully bring this season to a close. They give us a great focal point for the Thanksgiving holiday, as well, bringing us up close to the natural world that brings forth such bounty at the end of a growing season, even in a year like this with that cold, weird September we had. But the other context for this day, is World-Wide Communion Sunday, a day when we step back and consider life not just locally, but globally.
Aruna Gnanadason, a theologian from South India working for the World Council of Churches, wrote an essay in 1994 entitled “Women, Economy and Ecology” where she takes terms that we see in a particular way in the wealthier nations of the world, terms like “development” and “economic growth” and “production” and relates those to the lives of the poorest of the poor. She writes (p.180), “for the women in India, as in most of the Third World, ecology and the protection of the environment and its resources are issues of livelihood and survival. The majority of women in India are poor. They are the backbone of the subsistence economy which sustains rural India. As feminist ecologist Vandana Shiva puts it, poor women in many parts of India are those who ‘work daily in the production of survival.’ Although victims of the degeneration of the environment, they are also active in movements to protect it from the onslaughts imposed by ‘development’ on the earth and its resources.”
I found that to be a very stark turn of phrase: people – particularly women – living in subsistence economies are, indeed, involved in “producing” something: they produce survival. And unlike the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, their lives are often heavily burdened by anxiety: anxiety of the rising tides as our earth warms a little bit more each year, anxiety of burying yet another child before having to decide if they could afford to send her to school, anxiety of corporations buying up the best land, cutting down the best firewood, bottling and selling their water. As we consider the natural world around us, we also consider the heavy lifting done by impoverished people in much of the earth, whose reliance on the earth is so direct. Jesus clearly stated that his primary identification was with the “little ones” – children, i.e. those who were literally, “little”, and the poor and marginalized, who were bent down, minimized, diminished by the greed of others – so I think it is not only acceptable but necessary to behold and consider these realities of life, along with the more genteel, pastoral ones of birds & flowers.
As one of the great spiritual figures in human history – and, in Christian belief, the full embodiment of God’s intention for the world – Jesus calls us on this day to a broad-based mindfulness. He calls us mountain-dwellers to take full time to appreciate and learn from the glories of nature that surround us. He calls us deadline-addicted, busyness-fueled people to focus on relationships rather than the clock. He calls us to recontextualize our lives, to see the lives we live and the comforts we can take for granted, in light of our natural surroundings, while also taking seriously the impacts of our lives on all those with whom we share the earth. By encouraging us to awareness of the realities of our world, Jesus moves us from glimpsing and glancing and peeking at life to observing it, listening to it, beholding it, truly considering what it means to dwell on this fragile, rather small spinning planet.
In our worship, in our social engagement as a congregation and our global involvements as the United Church, in the way we relate to the marketplace and the love we show our neighbours, in the pace we choose to live, we hear this call to experience the full, shared gift of life. May our response be filled with sustainability, compassion, humility and gratitude. Amen.
Gnanadason, Aruna. “Women, Economy and Ecology” in Ecotheology, ed. by David Hallman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994. Pp. 179-185.
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.