Rooted in Creation: Consider the Lilies
“The only Commandment I ever obeyed — ‘Consider the Lilies.”
This week our Rooted in Creation series continues with an excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is, among other things, an invitation to stop, listen and learn from the creation.
The lilies are trying to tell us something.
25“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? 26Look 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? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But 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? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
This text is part of Jesus’ longest and best-known sermon –the Sermon on the Mount. It comes early in Matthew’s Gospel. After the birth narrative, we hear a little about John the Baptist. Jesus is baptized by John, driven into the wilderness for a season and then launches his public ministry –preaching, teaching, healing and calling his first disciples.
By the time we get to chapter 5, Matthew’s Gospel feels like it is building some momentum. And then Matthew—who is very interested in exploring the continuity of Jesus with the Hebrew Bible—tells us that, like Moses before him, Jesus goes up to the mountain to deliver a new law to the people. And, like Moses on Sinai, Jesus does more than merely present a new law; he forms a new people. The Sermon on the Mount is constitutive of the people of God.
In this section, Jesus speaks to our anxiety about acquisition. Why do you worry about your life?
It is hard to add much to the words of Jesus. But in the spirit of our Rooted in Creation series, let me make two related comments.
First, this passage invites us to recognize all the ways we have bought in to the Myth of Scarcity.
(I owe that phrase to Walter Brueggemann’s wonderful essay The Liturgy of Abundance; The Myth of Scarcity. You can read it here).
The Myth of Scarcity is that belief, ingrained in us from the moment we are born, that there simply is not enough –not enough money, not enough resources, not enough for everyone to get their fair share. From our earliest age, deep in our bones, we are brought up to believe that there simply is not enough.
Our belief in scarcity makes us afraid, and fear can make us do some ugly things. We grab as much as we possibly can. We hoard and hold on to as much as we possibly can. We learn to be ruthless –not because we want to be, but because we think we have to be, because we truly believe that we do not have a choice. So we turn a blind eye to suffering, refuse to share our stuff, or even consider the needs of others. After all, there may not be enough for me and for mine. From family life to the federal budget, so many of our decisions are driven by fear; so much of what we do is determined by our deep belief in scarcity.
And the environmental impact of our belief in scarcity is especially pronounced. Our belief in scarcity leads us to hoard our resources and harden our hearts against those who have less than we do.
But notice (and I am still cribbing from Brueggemann here) how often the Bible speaks, not of scarcity, but abundance: Long before Jesus preached these words, when Israel wandered for forty years in desert places, God fed them with manna from heaven and water from the rock –abundance in a barren place. And in John’s Gospel, we have the story of so much water being turned into so much wine. A little later in the Gospel according to Matthew, five loaves and two fish will become a feast for thousands (with a fridge full of leftovers to boot).
Again and again, in the face of some need, Jesus will answer in an overwhelming way; Jesus will go above and beyond and then some; Jesus will provide far more than is necessary.
Can you hear what the Spirit is trying to say? Maybe scarcity is merely a myth. Maybe, in the economy of God, there is always enough, more than enough, abundantly more than enough. Maybe we do not have to worry after all. Maybe we can learn to walk a little softer on the earth.
Second, note the way that Jesus gets to this insight: Consider the lilies! He explicitly invites us to notice God’s abundance in the creation.
Why does this matter? The theologians who most influenced me (John Calvin, Karl Barth) tended to take a dim view of “natural theology” –that is, the attempt to figure out the truth about God through reason alone. Calvin and Barth insisted (in very different ways) that if we try to read our theology off of nature we will, inevitably, make God in our own image and more or less stumble into idolatry.
But! Calvin also believed we could see the truth in creation if we look through the lens of Scripture. (This blog post goes into more detail if you are interested). If we are shaped by the stories of God’s abundance, we will start to see signs of it all around us. Little by little, we will learn to let go of our fear and lean into God’s gracious provision for us and for the entire world.
Creation is speaking loud and clear about God’s abundance. But you have to be ready to notice it.
Having begun with Emily Dickinson, I will conclude with Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”