Text: Matthew 6:25-33
Yesterday, I was up in the Cities for the memorial service of my mom’s mom, my last living grandparent. My Grandma Carol was very much her own unique person, as strong-willed and fiercely independent as they come. I will always remember her for her tell-it-like-it-is comments, her matter-of-fact approach to life, her lifelong love of sewing and providing alterations for people’s clothing, and—most recently—the sparkle in her eyes as she enthusiastically played marbles with my son at my parents’ house less than a month ago. Saying goodbye to her has been a bit surreal—the end of an era for me—an era of having my grandparents’ generation just a phone call or a drive away. I don’t know that I’ve fully processed that change yet, but I do know how thankful I am that I was able to have over 30 years of my life to know and make memories with my grandparents. But this change has also brought with it some realizations about the nature of life and death, some of which jumped out at me when I was reading today’s passage from Matthew, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Now that Grandma Carol is no longer living on this earth with us, we as the family have to decide what happens to all her stuff. And even though she and Grandpa Bob downsized when they moved into their townhome almost 20 years ago, and she chose just select furniture and belongings when she moved into assisted living a year ago after Grandpa died, the number of physical remnants of a person’s life is still astounding. Now that she has moved on, I have a newfound appreciation for the assortment of things of hers that have found their way to my house over the last couple years, both the decorative ones like her candlesticks and the practical ones like her socks and handkerchiefs (which remind me of her even more, since she passed on her practical-mindedness so strongly to her children and, in turn, her grandchildren).
But at the same time, even an apartment full of favorite photos, mementos, furniture, and the other accoutrements of life cannot sum up who a person is. No objects can. They can help us remember, which is wonderful. They can perform useful tasks such as telling time (we have a clock in our living room now that was from my grandparents’ house). But my grandma is not in any of those things. She is in my heart and in the hearts of so many who knew her. And, more importantly, she is now together again with her beloved husband of 60 years and in the peaceful embrace of her loving God.
So when Jesus says in verse 25, “Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?” the answer is so obvious. Of course it is! Grandma Carol’s possessions cannot contain who she was as a person, and her physical needs for food or shelter did not define her life! Food, water, shelter, and clothing keep us alive, but what gives us life? If I think back to the moments in my own life that mean the most, I can assure you that what is most powerful from those moments was not what I was wearing or what I ate that day. What I remember and treasure the most are those shared hugs, deep conversations, sights of breathtaking beauty, and feelings of boundless joy. And when I reflect on this passage, I think this is the message that Jesus is trying to get across. What gives us true life? How can we live for that, rather than be tethered to what keeps us down?
For when we allow ourselves to worry, we are blocking off our own freedom to live fully. Worrying is natural, of course; we’re human. We get afraid of things. Life is stressful. Dangers exist—all over the place. We get hurt. Money is limited. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the world and think that we have no choice but to worry. BUT, even in all that stress and fear, worrying is not the solution. When we worry, we are choosing to ignore God. When we worry, we are grabbing the reins ourselves and shouldering all the responsibility for everything that happens. Why? Why do we do that?? (I say this as someone who is totally guilty of this, too!) Why do we, instead of letting go of that pressure and stress, grip our worries tighter and tighter until we get to—or past—our breaking point? Why is it so hard to have faith?
Faith is a hard word to define in English because our language doesn’t have the adequate terminology to express it. In ancient Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word “faith” was both a noun and a verb. For those of you who aren’t huge grammar nerds like I am, let me explain. In English, “faith” is just a noun: an idea, or a thing. We often use the word “believe” as the verb form of “faith,” but “believe” has its own noun form (“belief”) that is distinctively not the same thing as “faith.” To have a “belief” is like having an opinion, or a thought about something. To have “faith” is to trust. In the New Testament, we often see the verb “believe” when really the Greek word is the action form of the word “faith.” When Jesus criticizes our faith, it is not about which doctrines we intellectually agree with or not. It’s about what we do with our beliefs.
Jesus is reminding us that it’s not up to us. We don’t have to take care of everything ourselves or worry ourselves to death trying to; we do have to give up some control in order to demonstrate that our faith is something we actually put trust in. And while that is certainly easier said than done, we’re being asked for good reason. Our all-knowing, all-powerful God already knows what we need and will take care of us when we need it. As Jesus says in verse 32, “Your heavenly father knows that you need” these things (food, drink, and clothing). God’s provisions will not always look exactly like the kind of care or answers we were hoping or praying for, and it will not always be easy, but we will be provided for. If God watches over even the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, we have no reason to doubt that God is likewise watching over us, always seeing and responding to our needs.
Where it gets hard, of course, is that necessary step of letting go. Until we relinquish our grip on the reins, we are bound to follow our own paths and the very human and imperfect consequences of those paths. Worrying and toiling may indeed help us get onto the less-bad paths in life, and for that, we can be grateful. But, in our constant hurried glances this way and that on our frantic ride through life, are we not totally missing the other path?
The thing is, worrying isn’t just a drain on our mental energy and quality of life. Worrying actually prevents us from living life as it was truly intended, and from getting on the path that will take us through Spirit-filled encounters and into amazing possibilities beyond our capacity to even dream! When we worry, we fill our minds with “What if…? and imagine the worst possible outcomes. We cling to what we have and worry about losing our grip. But what good, great, important things are we not doing because we’re afraid to even look? What wondrous opportunities are we missing out on because we are too busy worrying about things that seem important at the time but matter little in the end?
When Jesus tells us in verse 33 to seek first the kingdom of God, it’s not because he wants us to ignore our physical needs. It’s because he wants to free us. He is leading us into a life of faith in which our knowledge of what’s to come may be limited, but the possibilities of God’s transformative power are limitless. When we relinquish our attempt to control every detail of our lives, we are free to ride along with the pushes and pulls of the Holy Spirit and into places and experiences that would never be possible through our own efforts alone.
To help to illustrate what this kind of life can look like, here’s a recent example from my own life, which came in the process of David and me moving here to St. James. Due to the timing of his job offer and start date, along with the complications of buying our first home, we ended up closing on a house and starting a mortgage without any sense at all that there might be a job opening for me to teach ESL in this area. We could have decided to rent instead, or waited for a different opportunity with better timing, or hoped that something would come up that would give us both job offers, but we didn’t. Our own inner sense of God’s call was too strong, that feeling was confirmed and reinforced by the community around us, and we felt certain that the Holy Spirit had something great in mind for us if we would move here. And, sure enough, about 2 months after we closed on our house, I got a call notifying me that a brand-new ESL teaching job was opening here in St. James. I applied, interviewed, got the job, and have been blown away already this year by how well my own unique skills and passions have been put to good use in this position. Making the decision to leap into this move, no holds barred, was something we did not out of worry but out of hope and trust. And this path we’re on has been astonishingly rewarding from the very beginning.
I believe that the church today, especially the American church, is at a crossroads about worrying. With demographics changing, and Christianity no longer the only major cultural force across the country, we can’t just operate the way we used to and remain relevant to the world around us. We worry about changes that might be happening or how we can adjust to changing times, but how often does that worry end up turning into a desperate look inward and backward to what we remember from the past? We so badly want to be in control, to keep things comfortable, and to be able to plan and predict what will happen next, but that’s just not how God works. We can’t know what tomorrow will hold or where the Spirit will lead; what we can know is that God will be there and that God’s plans tend not to fit into our human boxes.
Whether as a denomination, as a church, or as individuals, that can be such a hard lesson to remember. Our worries and concerns always feel so urgent, and we feel like if we just had a little more money, or a little more power, or even a little more of an ability to predict the future, we could handle things better. All along, though, we’re forgetting that we’ve taken on this burden that we don’t need to carry. The sparrows and the lilies don’t get calendars or schedules, but they live each day in expectation of sustenance. We as Christians need to learn from their example. So often we live as Christians in name only, where our daily actions, major decisions, and financial practices are in no real way distinguishable from those of other decent human beings who believe there is no God. Instead, our lives should be lived joyfully and boldly, looking forward with hope in the faith that God is on the path with us and will take care of us every step of the way.
So when it comes to running the church, whether locally or as a whole denomination, we can’t operate like we’re some corporation or even an ordinary non-profit. We’re a church: a body of Christ-followers, who walk by faith and not by sight. Unlike the secular world, we can look to the future with promise, for we know a God who has the whole world in capable, loving hands. We can take big steps that sometimes even seem crazy by the world’s standards, but we do so by following the Spirit’s lead. We can’t let our worry keep us tied town to the human viewpoint; we have to open our hearts to feel the Spirit blowing in new and different ways. It won’t always look the way we expect or even want, but we can take that step forward in faith because we know that God’s plans are so much greater than our own. We are seeking to build the kingdom of God here on earth, and that means being more concerned with whether something advances the love and life-giving Spirit of God than we are with whether that thing is risky.
Because what it all comes down to is this: What really matters? What should guide our paths? If we let ourselves be subject to worldly cares above all else, our worry will get us nowhere. We can get by day-by-day, staying alive, but we are not living the abundant Spirit-filled life that God is offering us. And in the end, all our toils and worries get us to the same place. When it comes time for our earthly lives to end, we can’t take our money, or belongings, or fame, or achievement, with us. What we can take, and also leave behind for others, is our unshakeable faith that God is with us on paths even where the road ahead is too foggy to see. We can leave a legacy of love and generosity that reaches beyond the grave, changing lives for generations to come. Faith does not mean throwing away practicality, as my Grandma Carol knew very well. But it does mean living beyond just the practical and into the unknown—trusting in the God who watches over even the lilies and the sparrows to graciously lead us into a life of abundant love wherever and whenever the Spirit calls. Amen.