The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Matthew 6: 25-34
“Therefore I tell you, 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? 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 can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry 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 clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear? ‘For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed, your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Given the global pandemic, the enormous downturn in our economy, violent protests in the streets of the cities, the impeachment of a president, the potential postponement of elections, wildfires, hurricanes and now a pending meteor strike, I thought it was a good time to read dystopian novels.
Dystopian novels, think the opposite of utopian, are stories of the future when the future is bleak. I have been digesting a couple novels a week for a few months now. There are stories of every type of disaster. Each one is unique. In some, the stories are about a new political order; in others the earth has fallen apart; in still others there is a technological component all foreshadowed by the question, “just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”
They are different, yet, they have an interesting common denominator. In each of these novels, there is too much of something. Too much war; too much disease; too much technology; too much power. The message of these novels is this: too much of just about anything ruins the future
One of them, called The Bone Clocks, looks to a future not far from ours where chaos reigns because of too much pollution. One of the scenes near the end of the book sticks with me. Young thugs are stealing solar panels from an elderly woman. She protests; you shouldn’t steal.
The answer of the thugs is intriguing. With all of your excess and mindless consumption you stole our future. So consider these solar panels not as being stolen so much as repossessed.
With all the crazy going on today you would think that reading dystopian novels would make things worse. And, I must admit, there are a few of these not best read on a gray and rainy day. But for the most part, there is a strange affirmation, comfort even. It is a sense of “well, things are not that bad.” There are no zombies for starters. I don’t like zombies. No atomic or chemical wasteland in our backyard and given this is New Jersey were talking about, that is positive. And, yes, there is the highest unemployment since the great depression, but it is not yet time to release flying monkeys.
It is not as bad as a dystopian novel, but I for one feel there is a bit too much today. Too much worry; too much anger; too much unknown. We are not yet at 1984, but there is a feel of ruin in such excess.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “it was the plenty that hurt me.” Too much of anything can ruin us. Too many cooks ruin the soup. There can be too much birthday as there can be too much loss.
It may just be me but I want to say the pandemic has created both incredible confusion as well as clarity. In a moment of crisis it is not uncommon to see what is important, what we need, and what we don’t need. We have this clarity right now.
Yet, we are also arguing. There is lots of ambiguity. Do we need to gather; do we need to be shopping and dining and going to the beach? Households are split. Try imagine asking these questions a year ago.
There is something about a disaster that can refocus us, redefine things, make the invisible visible.
What is very visible today is worry. Anxiety. One elder described the constant twists and turns of life right now as a roller coaster that never seems to end. There is too much to worry about and it comes very fast.
Confession: I am not a big fan of worry or fear or anxiety. It takes without giving anything in return.
Many years ago after worship one Sunday a congregant came through the line and shook my hand. In short order she described a series of things that were far beyond her control; she spoke of worries that were impossible to predict. With each one you could feel her anxiety about her family grow and grow. Once the list of fear was complete, I spoke. “Here is what I think you should do. Go home and worry; I mean really worry. Let the anxiousness grow and grow so it becomes overwhelming. That will fix it!” Seeing my sarcasm she punched my arm and said, “Oh, shut up.”
Although sarcastic, this was not bad advice in non-pandemic times. We know the worst thing you can tell an anxious person is: don’t worry. Doesn’t work. Usually makes people more anxious.
Right now there is a need for vigilance and concern and attention to safety that is far beyond our lives heretofore. So much so I am not sure the simple advice of not worrying is helpful.
The teaching of Jesus we read this morning might be inconsiderate right now. Don’t worry tomorrow. Seems like a stretch. True we may be worrying less about what we will wear or eat, but tomorrow has so many problems, big problems. Not worrying is good advice under normal circumstances, but does it help us now? Does not worrying about tomorrow speak to our needs today?
One dystopian novel had the line, “the future haunted her.” Tomorrow looms today and intrudes.
If we take the teaching today at face value (don’t worry about tomorrow) or try to see it without understanding the riddle, which it is, then no, not much help. Simply saying, “don’t worry” is just not a help right now.
But this is a riddle. So the meaning on the surface is not the value. What do you learn from birds and lilies; what do you see when time and providence come together? The quick answer is balance, a clarity about God and creation and time.
This teaching, like the three before it, is a clue for salvation, a riddle whose answer will guide you to freedom. So are the three that follow; they each have the same possibility of freedom from ruin.
The secret to solving each riddle, to get the clue we need, is to see the danger and the reward here. The tricky part of this riddle is to see how worry is not dangerous. It’s not helpful, but worry is not ruinous. Each of these seven riddles has an element of ruin. In this one, though, the ruin is not clear. It is not as clear as you cannot serve God and wealth or where your treasure is there your heart will be also.
In this riddle the ruin and salvation is not one thing, but a harmony or balance of things. It is not an either/or: don’t judge lest you be judged; it is a both/and. You must find the balance of time and care. Today is enough (time); God will care for you (providence). Finding the balance of these is salvation. Having too much or too little of these- that’s the ruin.
At the heart of the teaching about clothes and food and worry is the need for balance or moderation. Without balance and moderation ruin is likely. Worry then is not the real danger; it is a symptom of immoderation.
The classic term for this challenge is gluttony. The idea of balance is not only in teachings of Jesus, but also in the powerful philsophy of Epicurious and Lucretius. All things that matter are to be enjoyed in moderation.
People like to mock Epicureanism as weak or permissive. Yet, this is the most profound challenge. For it is not enough to simply understand that time is fleeting or that God will provide; you must also find proportion. Moderation and balance are not a little bit of everything, a kind of dabbling; moderation is not slow and steady wins the race. It is understanding what is good (seek first the kingdom of God) and knowing what is measure of good you need, at this time.
Right now we are not in a time that feels moderate, if moderation is bland or mediocre. Big challenges; big fears; big questions. Moderation may feel incredibly off base. Yet, again, what if moderation, or balance, is neither easy nor simple? And what if balance in times of great challenge is when we must find profound strength to match great risk?
I heard this in the voice of a dear friend who called a few weeks ago. Jeanne is a retired child psychologist, someone who gave her entire life working for children in rural poverty. Doing what she did over the course of decades required patient persistence, a steady balance of give and take.
Yet, before she did this, she spent time in the mid-sixties in Chicago working with the urban poor; she marched with Martin Luther King Jr., she was “on the front lines” of the Civil Rights Movement.
There was something in her voice, a hunger and a fear. I got a sense from our conversation that she was looking back, looking back over the course of her life. Part of the backward glance was to compare the radical times of the 1960s with the decades spent in the North Country working with hurting, poor children. The patience of decades working with the rural poor stood in contrast to the activism of her life in Chicago. One was patient and slow; the other was fast and furious.
She said, “I am not sure I really made a difference, back then, marching, protesting, speaking out. What did it really do?” I felt Jeanne was struggling with how the challenge of today doesn’t find an answer in the patience that guided her career with kids. She was looking back to a different moment, a different demand of balance.
And then she said something that will guide me. “I am not sure being involved really changed things, but it sure changed me. It made me a different person.”
Jeanne is a cancer survivor, a widow, a woman who fought her entire life for children in need; she is a bit salty shall we say. Yet, this moment, this time we are in is calling her to dig deep, to find the voice, the resolve, the determination to stand up, speak up, be counted. It is as if the normal challenge of balance has been replaced with something she saw once and has now come again.
The riddle of the birds and grass and time and providence: this may be inappropriate right now. Such simple things. Yet, the key to the riddle is not found in the sparrow or the grass, but in the idea of balance and trust and moderation. It is matching the need with the challenge.
Our lives are lived on a very mundane level. Don’t worry about tomorrow is good advice. Yet, when tomorrow is as ominous as it feels today, then so must be our resolve. To achieve the balance here is not to make less of the challenge, but to match it.
The mystery is that God will provide the strength be it spring grass or pandemic. What God will provide for us is freedom to trust no matter the circumstance.
That is what I took from Jeanne’s backward glance. She was looking for a match, a balance to the challenge of today. Most of her work was done in the silent, patient perseverance of decades building trust in very broken people. Yet, such quiet patience was not the demand of the day in 1968 and it is not the demand of the day in 2020.
If we stand up, speak up, it could be easily countered with the critique, what did you accomplish? Did you really think a prayer vigil would undo centuries of systemic racism? No. I don’t believe it will.
But it will change me; it will change you. The challenges of today will be met, not in silence or patience, but with courage and clarity and voice. The weight to balance the scale changes, but the need for balance persists. Amen.
- Philippians 4:8 - 9
- Matthew 6:25 - 34