I guess one of the advantages of there not being any cameras around in the first century is that you’re free to picture Jesus any way you want. One of my favourite pictures of Jesus is a painting called, ‘Consider the Lilies’ – the only picture I’ve ever seen that shows Jesus as comfortably overweight, bending over with his enormous rear end in the air and his face stuck delightedly into a bunch of wildflowers. Certainly the happiest-looking Jesus I’ve ever seen – the picture makes its point with gentle good humour – live in, if not for, the moment – be content – open your eyes to the beauty of God’s creation, or to put in more contemporary terms, wake up and smell the roses.
What more can a preacher possibly add to this wonderful, reassuring parable? Relax! God’s got it all under control!
Except, is this image a bit too simple? I learned soon enough when I was doing emergency food relief over at Belmont that you don’t tell a single mum with three kids and nothing left in the cupboard until pension day not to worry. How do we hear Jesus’ promise that God cares about us, that we can trust God to look after our basic needs, that we don’t have to get anxious and tie ourselves in knots – how do we hear that in the aftermath of the devastation in the Irrawaddy Delta, families torn apart and homes smashed, fertile land contaminated for years to come by salt water?
Our gospel reading this morning comes on the going home side of the Sermon on the Mount – after the teaching on prayer and Jesus’ warnings about the pitfalls of wealth. We’ve got the message loud and clear, you can’t serve two masters – over-the-top consumption, accumulating for ourselves more than we really need means, somewhere along the line in a global economy, denying to others the bare basics – looking after number one eventually means dividing human society into those who can compete and those who get left out, and Jesus tells us it also eventually results in a split and divided self – if you try to find your security in insurance policies or real estate and bank accounts, or in the distractions of wall-to-wall entertainment and consumer goods then you’re not listening to the voice of your own deepest self, you’re not attending to the spirit that is in you – you can’t serve God and mammon – that Greek word that we might best translate, maybe, as ‘stuff’. You can’t serve God and fill your life with stuff at the same time.
We need to be careful about this teaching because some brands of Christianity don’t see it as such a stark contradiction. Just put God first, good-looking and well-dressed preachers assure us, and ‘all these things will be added to you’. This is the brand of Christianity that sees material success as God’s reward for your loyalty, like cosmic Fly-Buys – because, really, the stark choices Jesus offers us are uncomfortable, the temptation is to bend it round, rework the gospel until it comes out that God and stuff are on the same side again. A slightly more subtle version of this is that we just have to wait for our rewards until the next life, meantime we’re collecting frequent flyer points every time we come to church. But actually neither of these versions have got a whole lot to do with the gospel, both of them are variations on working out how we’re going to be alright Jack, because we’re on the right team. So we need to listen again to Jesus telling us we have to make a choice – do we choose the God who makes us feel alright, or do we choose the God who challenges us to declutter our lives – less stuff, more sharing; less security, more compassion; less smugness, more love.
Well, that’s the background to today’s gospel. The uncomfortable ultimatum for would-be disciples. But can we afford it? That’s actually the question Jesus’ parable today is talking about. We can’t deny the reality of our own needs – for the basics of life, for food and shelter, but also for family, for fulfilling work – we have needs and God made us to care not only for those around us but for ourselves as well, in fact the commandment that Jesus says is half of the Law says ‘love others as you love yourself’ – actually I think our ability to love, respect and care for others is interwoven with how much we love, care for and respect ourselves. Love doesn’t mean denying our own needs, but it does mean putting them in the context of the needs of others. And I think that where Jesus is coming from with these sayings about the ecology of birds and wildflowers is that your needs and the care you owe to others are interdependent, interwoven. You don’t need to be anxious, just get on with the business of living and loving. Trust in the goodness of creation. All around you living things are busy growing towards wholeness without having the first clue how to go about it. So you can get by, too. You don’t need to be anxious.
There’s a sort of rural charm about all this that in our post-industrial, environmentally-conscious world has got an undeniable appeal. Grow your own vegetables. Compost, recycle your grey water. Drive less, walk more. Don’t be a captive to glossy advertising techniques. Keep global poverty in mind when you make decisions about what you really need.
As an actual strategy for how to live, it probably worked well enough in the villages and back lanes of Galilee. A subsistence economy with not much to spare, but enough to go around, most of the time. It meant that Jesus and his disciples really could live like the birds, landing on the doorsteps of strangers and sympathisers in the villages they travelled through and expecting to be fed in return for some quirky stories about what life would be like if God was in charge, the healing power of hands unafraid to come into contact with disease, self-loathing and despair. A good exchange, and the more Jesus’ message of forgiveness and radical inclusion was heard, the more this world would begin to approximate a place where men and women really could live without worrying how at least their basic needs would be met.
And there are two basic points here. The first one is that seeking God’s kingdom first and not worrying about how you’re going to pay the grocery bill next week is not a prescription for impracticality. It’s not a prescription for turning away from practical concern with human need, including your own need, and praying a whole lot. On the contrary, the implication of what Jesus is saying is to take more and more notice of the basic interconnectedness of human existence. Not to turn away from human need but to turn towards it, not to close our hearts to the people of Myanmar or Sichuan or wherever else we see the infrastructure of human society crumbling because we are afraid of what it will cost us. Actually, it’s not people who live in places where there isn’t enough food, or the basic needs of human survival aren’t guaranteed, who need to be reminded about the parable of the lilies and the birds. Ironically enough, in situations of extreme need human beings naturally live like that, sharing the little they have because they know their own survival may just as easily depend on someone else’s generosity. They don't need to be told to look at birds and lilies. But we do, so that our self-preoccupation doesn’t become an obstacle to living with a heart open to the needs of others.
The second point is that this is not a recipe for individuals, but for communities. A single lily soon stops flowering because there’s nothing to pollinate it, the birds of the field who live cooperatively in the building of nests and the raising of young don’t do too well on their own. There might be exceptions like wedge-tailed eagles, I guess. The injunction not to worry because we are secure in the care of God is experienced in our day-to-day lives as the blessing of living in the safety net of mutual human concern and shared responsibility. Human beings are designed just like wildflowers and birds to depend on one another, to live in communities of care. Modelling this is one of the core businesses of the church. We don’t flourish as hermits or loners, looking after number one is really a recipe for looking after nobody at all. The anxious individualism of our modern culture is literally killing us.
Jesus tells us to wake up and smell the roses.