Act, Don’t Worry
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, April 28, 2019
Reading: Matthew 6:25-34
It was about six weeks ago that I was privileged to attend a book launch at Regents Park College at Oxford University. I say privileged, because the invitation came from the author, a Canadian from Alberta, who did her doctorate at Exeter University and now is a fellow at Oxford, working with the great theologian, Alistair McGrath. Bethany Sollereder is her name. She thought it would be nice to have a fellow Canadian at her book launch, and I was honoured to be there. Even more so because the book that she wrote is fascinating, and I’ve reserved talking about it until today, because of the blessing of the pets earlier. The title of her book is God, Evolution and Animal Suffering: Theodicy without a Fall. It is a deeply intellectual book.
I’ve been re-reading it the last few days in preparation for today, with some degree of poignancy and perhaps urgency. My own dog, Humphrey, had surgery this past week, and for the past few weeks has been walking around with one of those Elizabethan collars on his head. I liken it to a martini glass turned upside down – that’s at least how I’ve explained it to him. He’s embarrassed by it and will be glad to be rid of it. But I've watched him suffer and I haven't been able to do a lot about it.
In her book, Bethany suggests that the suffering of animals is a natural thing, that it is part of the whole process of evolution. She argues that God actually uses evolution to create, that evolution isn't something apart from the Creator, and the first mover, to use the classical language of philosophy, is still God. But evolution is the process through which God has put in place creation. She argues that evolution is a natural thing and it is a natural thing to include suffering. Indeed, suffering is such a part of evolution that it is no more or less important than life itself, that suffering is part of the coming in and the going out of life. As one person commented at her book launch, without suffering and death, there is no room on this Earth for new life. Suffering is integral to the nature of creation.
Where she and I differ is that she does not ascribe the death and the destruction of life to the fall, which of course the Bible does, and on that we depart company. Nevertheless, she makes a powerful point, that in the counsel of the Almighty, in the very heart of God, there is room for suffering. And when you think about it, suffering also involves for the sufferer and the onlooker, a certain degree of love. I think it was Robbie Burns who put it so poetically, “Had we never lov'd sae kindly, had we never lov'd sae blindly, never met -- or never parted, we had ne'er been broken-hearted.” Love itself has a brokenness to it when it comes to an end. I also don't believe that God ever wills our suffering. All brokenness is a result of the sin of the fall.
Jesus said something very similar in the Gospels: “Greater love has no person than this, than they lay down their lives” – they suffer – “for their friends.” Pointing of course, to His own crucifixion, and resurrection, the victory of love.
Even Jesus sees room for this. 1 John 4 puts it this way:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love, does not know God, for God is love. By this, the love of God was manifested in us. God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
In the very heart of God is the cross. In the very heart of this evolved world, there is brokenness and suffering. This is an integral part of the created order. So too is this notion that the world evolves. We are not in a static universe. It’s not as if there is a nice, neat little box around the universe and that there is no growth, change, or dynamism to it. On the contrary, scientists have been pointing, in the last couple of weeks, at the expansion of the universe at a rate beyond what even the most optimistic of all physicists would have ever comprehended.
Likewise there is a change that takes place through the natural order itself, there’s no doubt about this. I use for example Humphrey, my dog, again. Two hundred years ago there were no cocker spaniels on earth. Cocker spaniels only came into existence in 1880, with the very first dog called Obo II, who was bred to chase woodcocks, hence the term cocker spaniel. Life evolves. The great sociological theorist of the Bible, Gerd Theissen says that this is all an integral part of God’s providence and care, that creation moves, changes and adapts. It is not a static thing.
If I go back to Bethany Sollereder’s argument that there is God, there is evolution, there is animal suffering — is there anything that we can learn from this? She makes the argument by looking at creation itself. She looks at the created order and in it, she sees the hand of God.
So often we separate the notion of God and the created order, as if the created order is purely a mechanistic thing, something only driven by forces of evolution, without a meaning and a purpose to it, or an intent or a creation behind it. When I look at Jesus and how he uses creation to make points about his own Heavenly Father, Jesus was not shy about making the connection between the earthy order and the created order, and lessons about God that can come from it. In today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does exactly that. The Sermon on the Mount, as you know, is one of the most oft-quoted parts of the Bible. There we find the beatitudes, and many of the great statements of Jesus. He did so following the temptation. It was the early part of his ministry, and he’d suffered in those temptations. He’d been promised the whole world, but knew the only thing that really mattered was whether he fulfilled the work of his Father, and lived the mission of God’s kingdom, the missio dei.
Jesus suffered, Jesus experienced pain and arising out of that pain, comes this incredible Sermon on the Mount, where he is talking to his disciples. He wants them to live differently than everyone else, not to be like the Gentiles, the pagan world, living in the shadow of doubt, but to live in the light and the power of faith.
He uses these examples. (When we had the pets here earlier this morning, I thought, how apt it is to speak of creation in a positive light.) He says, “Do not worry”, and then he uses the example, “look at the birds of the sky. They do not reap, they do not sow, they do not store, and yet they have food to eat. How much more will your Heavenly Father care for you if He provides for them?”
When you look at the birds of the sky and you see how hard they work – and they do work. Just this last week when I went for a walk, I saw two most unusual birds, they were black and white, in a tree and clearly making some sort of a nest for themselves. They were hard at work, and diligent in what they were doing. Every now and again – and I watched them for a few minutes – they flew apart and chased one another and started almost taking each other on. (I think they must have been married or something.) Anyway, they were having a little spat on the ground and then they came back to the tree and continued to work.
Jesus says, that may be what birds do, but look how they're provided for, look how they are taken care of. They don’t worry about if they're going to have food the next day, they simply live their lives. How much more then should we, who are human beings, not worry? Because, he goes on to argue, and what does worrying do for us? Does it add one more day to our life? Does it expand the nature of our existence? No, it doesn’t add one thing to our days. And this is a truth, is it not, that if we worry about ourselves, we cause more damage and harm than if we trust in God’s provision. If God cares for the birds of the air, how much more does He care for those who are made in His image, in the image of God, in the image of His Son, Jesus Christ?
“Do not worry about what you should eat and do not worry about what you should drink,” and then he goes on and gets deep. He says, “Look at the lilies of the field.” And you can just see him, can’t you, in a rural setting in Palestine, talking to his disciples. “Look at the lilies of the field” – probably around the Sea of Galilee – look at these, “they are beautiful and they are splendid.” Then he compares them to all the glory of Solomon in the Old Testament. Solomon, of all the greats in the Old Testament, was the most glorious of all. For example, in 1 Kings 10:4 it is described as follows:
When the queen of Sheba perceived all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food at his table, the seating of his servants, the attendance of his waiters and their attire, his cup bearers and his stairway by which he went up into the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her. Then she said to the king, it was a true report which I heard in my own land about your words and your wisdom.
Nevertheless I did not believe the reports until I came and my eyes have seen it, and behold, the half was not told to me. You exceed in wisdom and prosperity. How blessed are your men, how blessed are your servants who stand and continually hear your wisdom.
Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel, because the Lord loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king to do justice and righteousness – remember that – and she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents of gold and a great amount of spices and precious stones. Never again did such abundance of spices come, and the queen of Sheba gave them to King Solomon.
Wow, he had it all! And Jesus says, “but all that he had is nothing compared to the lily of the field, and if God provides the clothing of the lily of the field, for they do not sew, they do not knit and yet they're clothed in this grandeur, how much more does He then provide for you?”
Now, the lilies of the field, in Palestine very often only lasted for one day. Often they would bloom early in the morning, blossom with the dew, and then when the sun went down they would simply shrivel and die. A lily would be gorgeous for a day, but then the roots would be taken and parts of the flower would be thrown into a fire, put in a stove and used to cook the food that people could eat. For only one day was the lily glorious.
Jesus is brilliant. This is better than Cicero, better than Aristotle, better than anybody. He says, “Look at today, the one day you have. Is there not enough on this day to worry about, without spending your time worrying about tomorrow, what you may eat or what you may wear or what you may drink? Isn't today enough?”
After all – and though he does not say this here, it is implied – you cannot worry about yesterday. Yesterday is gone and you cannot change it. You live with the consequences of it, but you cannot change it. Tomorrow is a day that you anticipate and you think things might happen, but may not. You only have today, this is the day. Do not worry about the past, do not worry about the future. Like the lily of the field, be only concerned with the day.
This is where we get the phrase used by Alcoholics Anonymous, “live one day at a time.” It’s not part of the Twelve Steps, but it is part of what they believe. And the reason they believe it is, because from an alcoholic’s point of view, you celebrate the sobriety of the day that you have been given. You honour and recognise the power of what you have been given that day. Tomorrow is another day to be handled on its own. You cannot worry about whether you drank yesterday, it’s the sobriety of the day and a sense of honour and thanksgiving for that day that really matters. They're onto something.
Jesus was onto something, and we should learn from this. Do not worry. Now, He is not using the word anxious here, he uses the word merimnao in Greek, which means to worry. Anxiety can often have medical reasons underlying it, it’s different. Do not worry about tomorrow. In other words, do not fixate on these things. Why? Because ultimately it comes down to trust, and who knew this better than Jesus who had been tempted in the wilderness. He knew that he could trust His Heavenly Father. He knew that he could rely on him to provide for him in his time of need. He knew that he didn’t need to be worried. Then He says, “Here’s what you should do.” It’s not passive, just sitting back and saying, “God will take care of everything.” He takes care of birds, he takes care of lilies, and he’s going to take care of me. No, Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and then all these things will be added unto you.”
In other words, in the day that you have been given, set it aside to seek what God’s kingdom is and live it, and then these other things will be added unto you. In that day – in that one day – you may suffer. “There are enough worries for the day,” said Jesus, “but if you commit yourself in that day to seeking first the Kingdom of God, then there’s no need for you to worry. All other things will be added unto you.”
In our age, which is a worrying age, we worry about the state of our creation; we worry about the state of the world; we worry. I worry, I confess about religious intolerance; my gosh, we saw it again yesterday and I am concerned for the world. But worry can paralyse. Worry can stop us living in the present, it can cause us not to seek first God’s kingdom. If the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and all of creation can teach us that, how much more should we learn this from our Almighty God? After all, we’re here, the Sunday after Easter. We know it’s true. Amen.