Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Giving Thanks in Crazy Times

A Sermon for an American Thanksgiving in France
2015 - Year B
 Matthew 6:25-33


Don't worry, says Jesus; not about food or drink, not about being
appropriately clothed.  Don't even worry about the length of your life.
You think you are alone with these concerns but you're not.
God knows you need all these things.

Yonder are the Gentiles.  Look at them strive.  Don't be like them.
Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things (the very
things you worry about) will be added to you.

Bible readings for Thanksgiving (October in Canada and November in America) are chosen according to the same three-year-cycle as the usual Sunday lections.  This year - Year B - dwells heavily on the subject of anxiety and the Gospel reading for the day is taken from the Sermon on the Mount. 

Jesus tells us not to worry. 

Let’s clear the table first, shall we?  There are two things we need to negate (one of them completely) and something else we need to explain so that we can see clearly what Jesus then proclaims to his listeners at the end of the passage as the best and most worthy way to deal with anxiety. 

After all, this is the Sermon on the Mount.   We might imagine it to be a sort of manifesto for Christians everywhere and at all times.   Because it deals with the subjects of worry and uncertainty it may have a particular leverage on us right now.  Terrorist attacks have taken place in various places around the world.  Here in France and in Western Europe families and friends are grieving the events and losses of the last week or so. A much larger community is worried about what might take place in the future.  As an expatriate community living in Clermont-Ferrand we have some particular refinements on that worry.  When the news reached our home countries, there were enquiries from friends and family members.  Are you safe right now?  Are you secure in the future?    How far is Clermont from Paris?  Are there troops on the street?  Do you live in ethnically mixed neighborhoods?  What sort of precautions are you all taking?  So, what should be our attitude in crazy and unsettling times?  If we're being told by Jesus not to worry we want to know how.  What are we being told not to do?  What should we do instead? 

First of all some negations:  The subject at hand is not worry itself.  Jesus is not chiding those of us who worry about nonsense.  That would be easy angle to take.   That would mean that this section of the Sermon on the Mount is directed to the ten percent of the population who jump at shadows or who always imagine the worst or who have lived with a sense of dread and impending doom most of their lives and watch helplessly as this anxiety passes from one thing to the next.  For such people this anxiety is more about them than it is about the world.  Faith can have a hand in fixing that too.  So can therapy.  So, too, will friendship.  These might help us to change the way we think. That’s another sermon, though.   Maybe a pastoral conversation.  That's not what this scripture is about.  Jesus is telling his followers on the mountain side that they should not even worry about things which are real and substantial threats to them – the absence of food, drink, and clothing – up to and including the very spans of their lives.  Real things – don’t worry about them, says Jesus.

There’s something else we need to negate and clear from the table:  Is Jesus simply praising a peasant’s or poor artisan’s life by suggesting that it won’t get any better by worrying?  Jesus was speaking to poor country people about a life of subsistence which, while it was hard, was at least working for them.  How could they complain too much?  They were alive after all, weren’t they, as they sat on the mountainside and listened to him?  They were descended from people who had successfully navigated poor and difficult lives and who had scraped by.   Their parents were no more secure than they were.  But they were alive, getting by year-by-year “working for the man,” living in their villages, playing with their surviving children. Is this a sermon meant to dignify a chronic life of worry and struggle as being ‘not so bad after all – most of you will survive - look at the birds, look at the flowers’?  Why would it take Jesus to say such a thing?  They’d heard that from their oppressors and employers. No, I don’t believe that Jesus was simply praising the low and humble life by recourse to nature and family history.  Both Jesus and the crowds understood the novelty of what he was proclaiming which was the presence of the Kingdom around them - Good News for the poor - not merely the dignity of the daily grind.  It’s what drew them to the hillside in the first place.

Before we leave the idea of an inherited ability to “scrape by”, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Isn’t there a well-known path through uncertainty that others walked before us?  You may be related to people who have lived - gotten by – even thrived - in highly insecure circumstances.  Some of you have work colleagues or even school mates here in Clermont who have come from countries where physical security is a daily concern and where the tasks of raising a family and maintaining a household takes place in an atmosphere of turmoil and chaos.  You might want to ask them how it’s done - and done successfully, for that matter.  But even this is still not the point of the passage.

Don't worry, says Jesus.

The word he uses for worry has, at its root, the idea of "dividing up" (“don’t divide” or “don’t be divided up”).  In English we say "don’t go to pieces" – similar, but still not completely on the nose.  The “dividing up” behind this Greek word for worry seems to be more like taking ten one-dollar-notes and trying to apply a dollar to each bill which has come through your letterbox, or trying to deal with all threats to safety, comfort or security simultaneously and thereby turning in frantic circles, desperate and with insufficient resources. The presumption is, of course, that we are completely alone with a single tank of gas that will not get us all the way to Swift Current or a limited pot of money which will not satisfy all our creditors.  Not that, Jesus says.  Don’t do that.  Unify your effort.  Focus your energy.  Do something else first.  He even tells us what that is:  First, says Jesus, seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.  After that, all these things will fall into place 

Is seeking the Kingdom of God, then, just a matter of running from what we know to be the case –  what is true?  Is it a matter of going in a different and unrelated direction?   You might object that what Jesus is saying in his Sermon on the Mount is simple denial.  Well, what is exactly is true here?  The truth that hits us in the face – which needs to be reacted to (which Jesus tells us not to do) and doesn’t need to be sought out (what Jesus does tell us to do) is written in four inch headlines in the newspaper in deep red block capitals on our television screens, with drumming music in the background, as we watch the 24 hour news.  Our way of life is at stake.  People of ill will lurk in the shadows.  Further plots are suspected.  The four-inch headlines in the newspaper and the deep red graphics on the network news would tell you that last Friday evening in Paris was a Night of Evil, a Night of Chaos and a Night of Danger. We find that we easily come to inhabit a world divided into black and white, yes and no, friend and enemy, good and evil, right and left in which we have no choice but to flee, react, hide, and strike out - or just helplessly flap our hands.  That might be our character or it may be what we do when we’re not feeling in control of circumstances. You and I should suspect, though, that the truth which you don’t need to seek, the truth which simply hits you in the face, is rarely the truth. And yes, the one positive command that Jesus issues in this passage is to seek - to seek the Kingdom and its peculiar logic.

We are mature enough to tolerate a measure of ambiguity - that state of life where paradoxes abound and more than one thing is true.  The battle is not between a thing which is false and a thing which is true but between two things which are found to be true when you dig a little bit – when you seek truth out.

It’s true that evil, chaos and danger were in evidence in Paris on the Friday night in question, in Beirut the day before and in Mali a few days later at the hands of small and organized groups of terrorists.  But that very same French capital city, for example, contained a much larger community of people intent on doing some of the following things:  comforting and shielding people with a physical embrace who needed to be hidden, reassured and protected, opening their doors to people who had found themselves stranded in the 10th and 11th Arrondissements, working for days to ensure the appropriate medical care for the wounded who were swamping Paris hospitals and conducting all the appropriate investigations to ensure the safety of their city.  What we don’t see screaming at us in the headlines is any mention of a Night of Courage, a Night of Friendship or a Night of Helping Strangers. Little mention is made of the people who agonized within themselves in the following days and who vowed that their responses would not make them smaller people, less open to others and less capable of love.  That the truth of what occurred on a particular evening in Paris was expressed in one way and not in another was a choice that somebody made.  Somebody who is not us - who have sat on the hillside and heard Jesus tell us that in the Kingdom of God blessings and challenges are divided up according to a quite different logic.  

We have rather a lot of choice in the matter.  

On such a night, while the panic and the anger, the prejudice and all the frantic feelings have been flagged and then negotiated, there always remains something to do - something that makes us better and not worse, more open and not hidden away. Life in the Kingdom of God is living within a truth which men and women have been invited to and have then chosen to seek out.    It is quite possibly not the first thing in their minds and certainly not their immediate reaction.  The Kingdom is a bigger world - a place where worries and hungers are mediated by purpose.  Tell your children that.  Tell your neighbours.  There's always something to do.  And be thankful that such a world is there for the seeking.