More Than Good Advice (Thanksgiving)
At first glance, today’s gospel looks like good advice:
“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?”
It sounds like good advice, not just for Jesus’ original listeners, but also for us, in our time and place. Because there is a lot of worry in our world, in our communities, in our homes. So much so that one in nine of us will experience an anxiety disorder in a typical year. And this year of the pandemic has been anything but typical. This is the year that we hoarded toilet paper. Right now, in is city, we worry, with good reason, about the resurgence of cases that we are seeing in this second wave.
But “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
We know that worrying in and of itself, when it is excessive, when it starts to impact our bodies, is bad for our health. Excessive worrying is a risk factor for heart disease, digestive problems, short term memory loss and even the suppression of our immune system, which is the last thing we want to happen in the midst of a pandemic.
But some of you may be thinking that worrying also has a positive side. Sometimes worry spurs us to action, motivates us to make changes, to go out and get the things that we need. Is Jesus advising us to be passive in this text? To sit back and wait?
No, not at all. Seeking, acting, working, striving are all good – as long as you’re striving for the right thing.
“Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things, food, clothing, the things that we need, all these will be given to you as well.”
Because when you start digging into today’s gospel, it’s not really about giving advice. It’s about much more than that. It’s about a fundamental reorientation in our values, priorities and self-understanding. It’s about who we are in relationship with God and with each other.
Our propensity to worry is telling us something about ourselves. Worry is a symptom of a deeper existential angst. It’s telling us that we are vulnerable. That our lives are fragile. That we are needy. That we are not in control.
That’s something we don’t like to admit to ourselves. I like to be in control of my life. I like to be self-reliant and I don’t think I’m alone in that. The main strategy that most of us use to make ourselves feel in control and self-reliant, as individuals and as a society, is the accumulation of wealth and power. Food insecurity? Get a good job, build up lots of money in the bank and go to the grocery store anytime you like and fill your cupboards. Clothing? I have way more than what I need. And of course in our wealthy society, we don’t limit our needs to basic needs. Car? Check. Nice house? Check. Savings for retirement? Check. Accumulation becomes our go-to strategy for dealing with insecurities and giving ourselves the feeling of self-reliance and control in our lives.
But that feeling is an illusion. Moses anticipated this over three thousand years ago in the reading that we heard from the book of Deuteronomy, as he spoke to the people in the wilderness, in the days before they arrived in the good land to which God was bringing them:
“The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity …
When you get there, and have eaten your fill, “take care that you do not forget the Lord your God. . . When you have eaten your fill, do not say to yourself, “My power and the work of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” Does that still ring true today?
Or as Jesus warns us in the verse that immediately precedes today’s gospel text,
“No one can serve two masters; for you will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Or as the psalmist writes, “It is God who has made us, and not we ourselves. We are God’s people and the sheep of God’s pasture.”
We are not self-made people. We are created people, God’s people, created to be in relationship, created with all our needs and vulnerabilities to be a participant in God’s beautiful and abundant creation. The pasture is good. Everything we have has been given to us by our Creator. We need to reorient ourselves back towards our Creator. That’s where Jesus is leading us.
“Is not life more than food?” Yes! But what is the more?
“Look at the birds. Consider the lilies.”
Consider the bigger picture! You are part of a beautiful, abundant Creation that provides us with everything we need.
“Look at the birds. They neither sow nor reap, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Look at the lilies of the field, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
God is good, God cares for you, God knows what you need.
So trust God. Live by faith.
Of course, we all live by faith, one way or another. Some of us, as Moses pointed out, live by faith in our own power and the might of our own hand. Some of us live by faith in our wealth and position in life, in our bank accounts and our social status.
But Jesus wants us to live by faith in God, the one who created us, the one who cares us, the one who provides for us.
When we live by faith, when we trust God, it doesn’t mean we won’t have needs, it doesn’t mean that we won’t have problems. It means that instead of worrying excessively, we turn to God, the one we trust, in prayer. We pray the prayer that Jesus taught: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Or as Paul puts it in his letter to the Philippians, “do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”
Now let’s be clear about one thing. Reorienting ourselves towards God, living by faith, daily prayer moving from self-reliance to trust in God: none of these things are intended to make us passive or fatalistic. Perhaps some of you have heard the words attributed to Pope Francis:
You pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.
Authentic prayer is always a call to action. We pray “give us each day our daily bread” but before we do so, we first pray “your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” Reorienting ourselves towards God is not just a matter of trust but also of action. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. Love God, love your neighbor as yourself. Act justly. Be in right relationship. Care for those in need. You know, if we could all just do that, no one would have to worry about not having enough.
And in all things, in all of this, give thanks.
Because let’s not be under any illusions. This fundamental reorientation of our lives that Jesus is calling for is not an easy thing to do. Transforming ourselves from people who trust in power and wealth to people who trust in God is hard. Transforming ourselves from people who want to be self-reliant and in control to people who embrace their own fragile nature and vulnerability is hard. Transforming ourselves from people who strive to fulfill their own needs and deal with their own worries to people who strive first for the kingdom of God and the service of others is hard.
But you know what? There is a very simple tool that can help us get from here to there, when used regularly and authentically. A spiritual practice so simple and so good for us that it’s amazing that we don’t do it more often.
That spiritual practice is the act of thanksgiving. Giving thanks to God for the good things we have been given, and even the hard things that have made us who we are. Giving thanks for those and to those who have loved us. The act of thanksgiving reminds us that we are not alone, that we depend on God and others, that we are called to be in right relationship with God and others, that we are not self-sufficient, that often the things we worry about in life are not the most important things.
Can I ask you to do something with me, borrowing from Mr. Rogers, that just might help illustrate the power of thanksgiving in this spiritual journey that we are on?
“All of us have special people who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who have cared for you, and wanted what was best for you in life ... Ten seconds of silence.”
And now, I invite you to give thanks to God for the people that you’ve been thinking about, and perhaps, if you have the opportunity, to also thank them directly, on this day that we celebrate Thanksgiving.
Homily. Thanksgiving. Oct 11 2020 St. Albans
Readings: Deut 8.7-18; Psalm 100; Philippians 4.1-9; Matt 6.25-33
Image by tuchoda, Creative Commons