SERMON preached on Sunday 16th February 2020 (Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 and Matthew 6: 25-end).
I was at Foxhill (our diocesan retreat centre) for a reader training day yesterday. All over the walls were stuck large pieces of paper on which were printed the records of conversations with refugees waiting in camps in France and trying to get to this country. One refugee said that he’d learnt 7 languages before he left home so that he could talk to people in every country he went through – but no-one wanted to even look at him never mind talk to him. Another, described going to a charity for some clothes when he had nothing and being given a dark blue jumper when he wanted black. The simple act of being able to choose what clothes he wanted was taken away from him. Another told of how he had been beaten up by the police because he couldn’t speak French. Their experiences of living far from home as refugees with nowhere to go were written up on the walls of Foxhill for all to see.
Our reading from Genesis describes the creation of the earth by God. It’s well known to us. What you might possibly not know is that it was originally addressed to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The Jews had been torn away from their homeland and taken to live amongst strangers. Unlike the refugees whose stories I read on the walls yesterday the Jews did have somewhere to settle, but it wasn’t home. They found themselves living among a people with a very different belief system, a belief system focussing on a number of warring small gods.
These opening words of Genesis were written to challenge those beliefs and remind the Jews of what they believed and the hope they had. It might have seemed to the Jews (torn away from their home as they were) that the God they worshipped had forgotten them, and that the tribal gods of the Babylonians were in control of their future, but Genesis asserts that the Lord is God, that he watches over his creation (which he calls very good) and that he will eventually bring it to well-being and ultimate fulfilment.
Since God calls the world in which we live very good what does that say to us about what our response to it should be? As human beings throughout history we have often lived in harmony with creation or some degree of harmony – but we have also often greedily exploited the natural resources of this world. Surely our proper response to the world in which we live is respect and reverence.
The thing is we are now seeing some very negative consequences of our use of God’s creation. St Paul in Romans 8: 18-25 tells us that this good and wonderful creation is new subjected to ‘futility by the sin of Adam’. It ‘groans in labour pains and is in bondage to decay’. A groaning creation in bondage to decay is not what God intended, it’s not how the story of this world was meant to be – and Paul knows it.
Global warming is becoming a very urgent issue. The temperatures in Antarctica are rising, the bush fires in Australia have been raging. In this country the two recent storms have put real strain on our flood defences. Paul’s words have really sprung to life in recent years and we can see for ourselves that relationship between human sin and the groaning of the rest of creation – with the corporate greed and violence of the human race threatening the future of both humanity and the earth as a whole. Jesus tells us not to worry about our lives, but we might wonder about that when we look at the challenges our world faces – with global warming, coronovirus, wars, homelessness, loneliness. We’ll come back to worry in a moment.
We are developing a good deal of awareness of environmental issues, a good deal of concern for the environment now (in the times in which we live) – which is good news. And that includes the Church of England. General Synod has recently voted that the Church of England should be carbon neutral by 2030, 15 years before the recommended date of 2045. It probably seems obvious to us that we should look after our planet, but that hasn’t been the case in the past. Partly lack of knowledge and understanding of the issues I think but also with attitudes towards the world in which we live (we might even say vices) which have been grasping, greedy and callous and which have had a detrimental effect on the ecology of the world. But these sorts of attitudes haven’t just sprung out of nowhere. They have arisen from a deeper problem which Jesus knew, which St Paul knew – and that is the hardness of our hearts which lead us to constantly turn to our own desires, our own safety; our own security.
If we focus relentlessly on our own concerns and pleasures, on buying stuff and hoarding it we might get a bit of happiness out of it, but sooner or later it turns out to be an illusion. A temporary fleeting thing which harms our neighbours, but also damages and corrodes our souls. The practice of giving something up in Lent helps to remind us that we don’t actually need a lot of the stuff which we claim we do. An over emphasis on ourselves can lead us to a distorted our view of the world in which we live and prevent us from enjoying its true beauty and wonder – which is God’s gift to us.
And it’s within the context of this fabulous world, on which we live and which God has given us, that Jesus says, ‘don’t worry’. He specifically says don’t worry about what you eat and drink – or what you wear either. These things are important but don’t worry about them. God knows our needs. Rather strive first for the kingdom of God, for what is eternal; strive first to do God’s will, and everything else will fall into place. If we worry about our food or clothes or whatever it might be then woven into that worry is fear, a fear that might lead us to envy of those who have more than we have, envy of people who can (for example) cook better than we can or who have smarter kitchens or nicer clothes.
Jesus also says ‘Do not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will bring worries of its own’. Jesus is realistic. He lived fully in the world and he knows that we live in the real world too, that life brings its problems (thick and fast at times). The thing is worrying puts us in a future, and a future which might never happen – when in fact we are actually called to live in the present. We are people formed by the varying events of our pasts; people who journey into a largely unknown future, but yet the present is where we live and move and have our being. What we have is life now, this minute. Life with its glories and wonders, but its challenges and its problems too. Jesus is saying deal with each day as it comes. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us. Jesus isn’t saying don’t plan for the future but if we divide our attention and allow our thoughts to stray too much into the future, too much into anxiety about coming events that might happen or that might not, then we are hurting ourselves and probably others as well. Mark Twain said at the end of his life, ‘I am an old man and have had many troubles, but most of them never happened’.
Rather Jesus invites us to joyfully contemplate and appreciate the good gifts with which God blesses us so that we are led to an outpouring not of resentment for what we haven’t got or worry about a future that might never be – but rather gratitude to the Giver for what we have got – and that includes each day with its possibilities to know joy, peace and love.
Learning to be grateful actually takes a bit of practice – and we need God’s help to do that, to overcome our preoccupation with self and instead attend to the things of God. If we seek the kingdom of God first we will find ourselves able to enjoy all the other good things of this world at a new depth (and that might include a delight in cooking, an interest in clothes) – and it certainly includes creation itself. If we practice gratitude we are free to respond to Jesus’ invitation to move beyond an anxious hoarding of God’s plentiful gifts, and instead to recover a self-forgetful wonderment and delight in God’s creation.
‘The lilies of the field neither toil nor spin’, said Jesus, ‘yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these’.
I’m sure you’ve had moments when something in the natural world has touched you or even overwhelmed you with a sense of awe. I was sitting at my desk yesterday and looking across the road at a tree on the green. Its treeless branches buffeted by the wind, stark against the grey rain-sodden sky with sea gulls being casually tossed past made for a few moments of everyday wonder. Just outside the vicarage here in Weston.
The exiles who first read Genesis needed that reminder of God’s almighty power and care for his creation (his very good creation) – and for them. Perhaps we too need to be reminded of the bigger picture in which our lives as Christians are set, that bigger picture where we are invited to put our trust in Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth who sent his Son Jesus who said, ‘don’t worry’ and who came to bring us life – and life in all its fullness.