‘Do Not Worry’: Sermon Preached at St Oswald’s, Glasgow, 19 February 2017 (Epiphany 7)

Matthew 6: 25 – 34

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

We seem to be living in a ‘through the looking-glass’ world, with ‘alternative facts’ being accorded the same status as real facts. Tweedledum or Tweedledee (does it matter which?) said something to the effect that ‘the words I use mean what I want them to mean’, and examples of this approach abound in certain kinds of political discourse. Serious journalism is being discounted in favour of social media, and there is a sedulously cultivated  disdain for scientific and other kinds of expertise.

It is a time of anxiety such as I personally have not experienced for half a century. What does the post-Brexit future hold for our country? What will the most powerful leader on the globe say or do next?

The advice in today’s gospel not to worry seems, at first glance, rather naive; we are not, after all,  ‘birds of the air’

The passage could also encourage us to assume that God will sort out all our problems for us, and consequently that God can be blamed when things go wrong: ‘Where was God on 9/11? Why did God not prevent it?’

If, however, God were to communicate with us directly, he would probably say something like: ‘I can’t guarantee to protect you against all difficulties, especially those created by your folly and selfishness, but please try to trust me. I’m still here; I haven’t gone away. But I gave you freedom so that you could take sensible decisions about your future. Furthermore, it would help if you prayed a bit more, if you reflected on my nature and my lordship over creation in the light of scripture, and took responsibility for co-operating with each other, and even with those who still don’t acknowledge me, to build my realm of peace and justice. It will be tough, but you are not alone.’ As one of my fellow-students remarked, during our training for ministry, ‘God engages, but doesn’t micromanage’.

The gospel passage is really about excessive and self-centred anxiety, the antidote to which is trust, and turning outwards from our own concerns to respond to the needs of others. In short, the traditional triad of faith, hope and love is as relevant as ever.

Paul knew about sustaining hope in difficult times, and in the passage from the Epistle to the Romans which formed our second reading (Romans 8: 18 – 25), he articulates it very forcefully. ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Rom. 8:18). He had good reason for referring to the ‘sufferings of this present time’, for he himself had been the target of suspicion and hostility from the Jewish converts at Jerusalem, some of whom could never quite bring themselves to believe that he was either a genuine Jew or a genuine Christian, since he had been a persecutor of the church (rather like the situation of Muslims in the US or the UK, who often don’t feel they are regarded as really American or British). Furthermore, by the time he wrote the Epistle to the Romans, he had suffered imprisonment, had been beaten severely, and was the target of a murder conspiracy. Throughout all these dark years, however, he was sustained by hope.

For Paul, the hope promised in the resurrection is the start of a dynamic process which will ultimately be completed when Christ is all in all, and all things are brought under the rule of love.

It has fallen to us to live in dark days, but others have been there before us. As Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, he knew that it had been destroyed before, that the cohesion and identity of the nation had been shattered, their government and institutions destroyed, and the population imprisoned in a foreign land. A situation comparable in some respects to what we are experiencing now. Despite all this, the Israelites had survived as a people of faith.

It is not given to us to know what the future holds, but in the meantime we are called to look for and to nourish life, to hold fast to faith, hope and love: a faith that can, if necessary, withstand the destruction of all we hold dear; a hope that even if ‘All humanity is grass’, in the words of Isaiah, nevertheless, ‘the word of the Lord remains forever’; and a love which will make us support and encourage each other in the work of building the kingdom of God.

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