We’re living in anxious times in the midst of a pandemic, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sally, in anticipation of a presidential election that is straining the unity of this nation. So I’m riffing off a sermon Jesus once preached to anxious people while also drawing from a sermon I myself once preached on this Matthean text. In today’s reading from Matthew Jesus points to the birds of the air and lilies of the field as models for living nonanxiously. On this feast day of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, we conclude our series on Creation Care with appreciation for a spirituality rooted in creatureliness and earthiness. We celebrate the Divine Love that attunes us to earth’s wisdom.
The role model for serenity I used in a long ago sermon I preached about the lilies of the field, was, coincidentally, named Lily, Although the Lily I referenced in the previous sermon no longer walks this earth, I’m recalling that sweet dog of mine who, unlike her successor, the high strung Rascal, spent most of her days taking life as it came. Once I actually I curled beside her on the carpet to become her student for a while. I watched Lily’s chest expand and contract in a regular rhythm. I matched my breathing to hers. I dug my fingers through her thick fur and made her layers of muscle and fat ripple at my touch like batter being poured into a cake pan. “Mmmm,” she rumbled her deep thanks from some imperturbable place in her soul. “Mmmm,” I echoed. “Mmmm” was the best prayer I prayed that day.
Good ol’ Lily–with her wide-set shoulders, thick neck, square head and heavy coat–looked more like a bear than a lily. No delicate flower, she. But Lily came named when we adopted her many years before. And even into her old age (she lived to be 15), and despite her girth and lumbering gait, she had her own loveliness: an ease of being in the world, a comfortableness in her own fur, a patience with what is. She never worried that her days on earth would be far fewer than mine. And the simplest things delighted her: company at the front door, every move I made, and especially, her dinner bowl. Just the mention of “dinner” turned the old girl into a whirling dervish. Dinner time, for her, was like winning the lottery. Every day of her life.
The best sermon I could preach on today’s text from the Sermon on the Mount would require me to summon sweet Lily back from Dog Heaven so that we might simply “consider the Lily.” We’d learn much about living nonaxiously from emulating her peacefulness, far more than we’d glean from this sermon.
But sermon writing is why I make the big bucks, so a sermon you shall have. Interestingly, the lilies of the field and the Lily of my house, those icons of serenity, earn NO bucks: “they neither toil nor spin.” A key stressor in our human lives is pursuit of the big bucks—-which an increasingly smaller percentage of Americans are making, though the smaller segment of the uber-rich are getting richer and richer. Once again Jesus sermonizes about economic and political realities that we recognize, too. Whether you think of yourself as a “have” or a “have not,” you can probably trace a great deal of stress in your life to the task of surviving financially or striving financially for security or status. Jesus’ sermon clearly says that we can pursue God’s purposes only when we are not possessed by our possessions.
But as I look further into Jesus’s sermon, I confront some trouble in the text. While I agree that materialism is not the way to serve God and is good a way to increase stress, I question Jesus’s implicit assumption that the God who clothed the lilies so resplendently will clothe us, too. I want to call to Jesus’s attention that there are plenty of ragged or naked people around the world God forgot to dress. Further, Jesus’s sanguine observation that the heavenly Father feeds the birds and so will feed us makes me want to object: “But birds go hungry sometimes, Jesus. Sometimes birds go hungry. And so do children.” And then, if we get literal, we have to admit that this passage may extol the limits of less-evolved creatures who simply have no concept of the future. I want to tell Jesus that, though I really appreciate his attempt at assurance, the worst way to calm a worried soul is to tell her not to worry. Rather than decreasing my anxiety, this text—that has gentled many an anxious heart—sometimes riles me.
Until I read it poetically. And indeed there is some scholarly evidence that in this beloved section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is drawing from an ancient Aramaic poem. Here’s how I think this passage is meant to operate. Readers see the birds of the heavens and wild flowers of field as symbols of God’s graciousness. We’re to image the iconic wild bird or wild flower and meditate on that romanticized image until, like a repeated mantra, it calms the spirit. We’re to treat these symbols, not as scientific evidence of Providential care, but as conveyors of a felt truth of God’s beneficence. It is not a literal fact that all birds are fed. But based on the fact that these creatures have fears but not worries, a deeper spiritual truth is expressed in this poem’s conclusion: that lives aimed at ushering in God’s reign of mercy are not anxious, that taking one day at a time is the best prescription for sanity, and that worry never helps matters anyway. Sometimes I need to let the images rather than the words speak to my heart.
And sometimes I need to turn to other sources for more practical advice. Jesus was aware of the effect of worry upon groups. Much recent research explores the role of worry in systems of relationships. Family systems theory acknowledges that people in groups differ from one another in how much sense of threat they carry around with them. Anxiety is a very uncomfortable feeling. It is more uncomfortable than fear, because fear is a reaction to the known. Knowing what we are afraid of gives us some sense of control. You know if you have a fear of snakes, for instance, and if so, you can often avoid the feared thing by keeping your distance. But anxiety is more amorphous than fear.
Change always brings some degree of anxiety. Not only do societal changes in this period of pandemic contribute to the potential for anxiety, so do changes within groups—-like the anticipation of a new pastor for Open Table.
As individuals dealing with anxiety, we may need to do some simple self-assessment. What are we worrying about? If it’s something we can change, we can decide upon a course of action, even if that decision is an intentional choice not to do anything. If it’s not something we can change, we have to let go of the anxiety. Sometimes there are physical means of reducing anxiety by, for example, exercising or getting more rest or improving our nutrition. We may need counseling in addition to prayer and other healthy means of dealing with stress in our lives. I’m available to meet with you and/or refer you to clinical counselors.
But groups get anxious, too. Every organization is anxious to some extent—families, work environments, churches. A few churches have such a high level of anxiety that they see everything as threatening. A critical ingredient in churches that have lower levels of anxiety are those with leaders (official as well as unofficial leaders) who remain calm, who can take things lightly, who don’t overreact, who keep a sense of humor, who relish change and new ideas and different perspectives. Nonanxious individuals can create nonanxious groups. Anxiety, you see, is contagious. In seeking to relieve their anxiety, worried people “pass it on.” And so it spreads. The anxious person can feel a little bit better because once someone else is worried too; they feel they don’t have to hold all the worry. One individual can change an entire system, for better or worse, by changing their behavior.
Having strayed into a practical, analytical mode, let me return to a poetical perspective and close with the image of another nonanxious lily in the spirit of Jesus’s simple poem. This poem, “The Lily” by poet Mary Oliver, is, it seems to me, a prayer:
Night after night
enters the face
of the lily
closes its five walls
and its purse
and its fragrance,
and is content
to stand there
in the garden,
not quite sleeping,
saying in lily language
some small words
we can’t hear
even when there is no wind
are so secret,
is so hidden—
it says nothing at all
but just stands there
with the patience
until the whole earth has turned around
and the silver moon
becomes the golden sun—
as the lily absolutely knew it would,
which is itself, isn’t it,
the perfect prayer?