by Rev. J. Michael Solberg
at The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.
From the 9:00 a.m. Service
on Sunday, March 15, 2015
As a pastor I have been in a lot of cemeteries, so I have seen a lot of tombstones. Looking at all these monuments of remembrance has made me think about what I would like to have written on my own tombstone. Not that I am going to plagiarize, but I like to go around and read what others have written.
Most tombstones today are very simple – just a name, year of birth and year of death – sometimes a relationship – “beloved wife of so and so” – “Our dear daddy.” But if you get in the really old sections of cemeteries you can find some interesting things. Sometimes you see that the dead had a sense of humor: Here I lie, Jacob Yeast, forgive me for not rising. Sometimes it’s the living with the sense of humor: Beneath this stone my wife doth lie, now she’s at peace, and so am I. Here lies Ezekial Aickley, age 102, the good die young. Sometimes there is commentary on the person’s professional life. On the tombstone of a man named John Strange, who had a job common in our midst at Union Church: Sir John Strange, an honest lawyer, and that is Strange. Sometimes you see significant theological reflection: Here lies an atheist, all dressed up, with no place to go.
Given that I won’t be around when the final decision is made, I guess what matters is not what I want on my tombstone, but what my family is likely to actually put on my tombstone. It is not very humorous, but the saying on my tombstone is likely to be “It’ll be fine.”
I say that a lot – “It’ll be fine” – because I tend not to worry about things. When the car starts making an unfamiliar noise: it’ll be fine. When the snow is coming down hard and I’m still driving 65 on the interstate: It’ll be fine. When I get an abnormal result back on a medical test: it’ll be fine. When the house is consumed in flames, setting off a large explosion that sends a metal rod through my head, my clothes catch fire, and my dog just bit me: it’ll be fine. Just kidding. Well no, it’ll be fine.
As someone who tends not to worry about things, I see not worrying about things as a good thing. Others disagree. They point out that sometimes when the car starts making an unfamiliar noise, you do need to worry, as that is what will motivate you to fix it when it only costs $200 instead of $2000. A stitch in time saves nine, right? But often just one loose stitch doesn’t actually get worse, so it’ll be fine.
We live in a very anxious culture. The last few years we have alternated between the top two spots in rankings of the most anxious countries – sometimes we’re first, sometimes it’s Afghanistan, which has basically been in a constant state of war since 1978 and where the per capita income is 4 %, yes, 96 % lower, that of the United States. And our overall anxiety level is, of course, made up of millions upon millions of individual stories. Last year a member of our congregation who moved to France called me, and in the course of our conversation she said that she loved living there, in part because the French are much less anxious than Americans. I have spent time in Angola, and despite the suffering caused by a 27 year civil war, grinding poverty and pervasive government corruption, I can tell you that the Angolans I got to know do not share our level of anxiety.
And I don’t think I need to elaborate on the anxiety in our community and among us. There are, of course, a lot of diagnosed anxiety disorders, and it is often wonderful that people are able to get medical help in those situations, but it is broader than that. Even I, Mr. “It’ll be fine,” have a few things I worry about: the top two being the happiness of my children, and how well I am actually doing my job of leading this congregation, not so much in your eyes, but in the eyes of God. If we compiled the lists of everyone in this room, just counting the things that people have directly talked with me about, it would include worries about the happiness of your children, the security of your job, concerns about getting old, the health of your marriage, concerns about current of future memory loss, finding someone wonderful to spend your life with, your use of alcohol, worries about your own health and the health of loved ones, and the possibility of suffering as death approaches – and more – not to mention global sources of anxiety like ISIS, climate change, income inequality, racism, nuclear war, and so on.
Given all that, I wonder if you are as unimpressed as I am at first upon hearing today’s passage from Matthew. Jesus basically seems to say that if only we would seek first the kingdom of God, we wouldn’t worry. Which may be true, but, given the difficulty of seeking first the kingdom of God, hardly helps us worry less. And, honestly, Jesus sounds rather obnoxious in this passage.
Look 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? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
As if our whole lives long we could just sit back and relax, and food and clothing and housing and other essentials of life will just come flowing in to us, and as if God is going to come along and do our laundry and cleaning and paying of bills and shoveling of snow for us. It sounds like Jesus not talking about a way to quit worrying but about a way to be completely irresponsible and likely take advantage of the goodness of others.
But when you stop and really think about it, birds are anything but lazy and irresponsible. They may not, as Jesus says, sow, or reap, or gather into barns, but they sure dig in the ground for bugs, they search the trees and bushes for seeds, they fly all over the place looking for just the right material with which to build their nests, and some of them fly thousands of miles to avoid the cold of winter and thousands more to return home in the spring. The truth is, God doesn’t deliver worms to birds on a silver platter. They work hard.
And lilies. They may sway gently in the breeze and look beautiful for part of the year and stand there silently and peacefully. But at the cellular level, they are working hard. They position their leaves to take maximal advantage of the sun, they convert sunlight into energy they can use, they draw up water and nutrients from the ground, they build new cells to grow and thrive. The truth is, God doesn’t pull lilies up from the ground, and magically create their flowers from thin air. They work hard.
So I think Jesus’ point is not that birds and lilies get to be lazy and still live and add beauty to the world. And, given that they are not sentient beings, I don’t think Jesus’ point is that birds and lilies seek first the kingdom of God and thus have no worries.
I think he is talking here about living in harmony with your environment. That’s what the birds and lilies, and most every other organism on earth does. They live in harmony with their environment. In a healthy eco-system each animal and plant has a niche, they are limited. They don’t store up more than they need, and if they do, they probably find it to be a burden rather than a blessing. Birds don’t catch tomorrow’s worms today. Lilies don’t try to capture tomorrow’s sunlight today. They live in harmony with their resources and their environment. And here’s the thing, in the end, they are all better off for it. If one organism gets too far out of line, the whole eco-system can collapse. But if they all play their role, well, it’ll be fine, and they will all be better off for it.
And back to those amazing creature we call human beings. So often, we live out of harmony with our eco-system – and this includes our physical eco-system, but it is so much more than that. It is the whole eco-system of our lives – social, emotional, spiritual, relational. In the language of today’s passage, I’m talking about the Kingdom of God. That is not just a way to talk about “heaven” – it is way to talk about a vibrant and whole eco-system of life now. Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” That’s the eco-system of life I am talking about. We live out of harmony with the way of God because our sights are set too low, too inward. Our own well-being is part of the whole, but in calling us to seek the kingdom of God and God’s justice, Jesus is calling us to seek the well-being of the whole in everything we do.
Our “happiness,” which is really a weak word – our joy and meaning, don’t come from what we have, but from what we seek. A good and worthy goal, whether you reach it or not, is what brings joy and meaning to life. And the good and worthy goal of our lives is to seek first the healthy eco-system of God for all.
Of course, our faith is based on a strange truth, though. Because although Jesus calls us to find a relief for our anxiety, to find our joy and meaning, in seeking the healthy eco-system of God for all, it is not up to us to actually bring it about. The goal is our, the vision is ours, the work is ours, and it is all good, but the result is God’s – and that is the greatest good news of all. Because we believe in the God who brings light and life to all.
Now I can’t tell you that if you seek first the healthy eco-system of God for all that you are immediately going to start worrying about your kids less, or have less anxiety about your marriage, or rest peacefully in the face of any and all health concerns. But I can tell you that seeking first the Kingdom of God and God’s justice will, in time, make you a different person. It will make you a person who sees more and more of the goodness of God all around you. It will make you a person less and less likely to worry about yourself in unhealthy ways. It will make you a person who sees more and more that God is at work everywhere, all the time. And yes, I dare say, because of the transformative power of God’s steadfast love, it’ll be fine.
You can see a list of all available UCH sermons online at: http://Hinsdale.Church/podcast