Shuck and Jive

Sunday, August 15, 2010

God and Birds, Sparrows, Crows, Lilies, and Grass: A Sermon

God and Birds, Sparrows, Crows, Lilies, and Grass
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 15th, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 2:29-38

He used to say to his disciples, “That’s why I tell you: Don’t fret about life—what you’re going to eat—or about your body—what you’re going to wear. Remember, there is more to living than food and clothing. Think about the crows: they don’t plant or harvest, they don’t have storerooms or barns. Yet God feeds them. You’re worth a lot more than the birds! Can any of you add an hour to life by fretting about it? So if you can’t do a little thing like that, why worry about the rest? Think about how the wild lilies grow. They don’t slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into an oven, it is surely more likely that God cares you, you who don’t take anything for granted!”

Our Father,
Give us the bread we need for the day.

Jesus said, “What do sparrows cost? A dime a dozen? Yet not one of them is overlooked by God. In fact, even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Don’t be so timid: You’re worth more than a flock of sparrows.”

--Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), pp. 19-21. Luke 11:3; 12:22-28, 12:6-7, Matthew 6:9,11, 25-30, 10:29-31, and Thomas 36:1-2

The via positiva, the way of awe and wonder, is a spiritual path of delight. It is the path of joy. On this path, we recognize our nobility. We are human beings. We have consciousness, language, creativity, compassion, opposable thumbs. We are, theologically speaking, created in the image of God.

The via positiva is the celebration of Life. Yes!

This is not a path reserved just for the times when all is going well, when our stomachs are full, our health is vigorous, and our prospects bright.
No the via positiva is for times too when life is a struggle. Perhaps especially then we need the realization that God cares for the crows and the sparrows and will care for us too.

This is the time to breathe deeply, to look at what is around us and in front of us and to trust Life as a blessing. The
via positiva is what Wendell Berry writes about in his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Jesus lived a trust ethic and he taught his followers to live this ethic. Trust the universe.
  • Get your marching orders from the sparrows. God’s eye is on them.
  • Follow the lead of the grass in the field. Here today. Gone tomorrow.
  • Look for wisdom and guidance from the lilies who never toil or spin but are more beautiful than Solomon in his royal finery.
  • Think deep thoughts like the crows. They don’t waste intellect or time building barns or storerooms. And yet crows eat.
The opposite to trust is to fret and it simply doesn’t help. If it added an hour to life, there might be something to it, implies Jesus. But if worrying doesn’t help you live longer then why bother?

The reason Jesus needed to remind us to look at the crows, sparrows, lilies, and grass is because he knows how difficult (or at least how rare) it is to trust. Mostly we fear and fret.

We are like this poem from Jeanne Marie Beaumont.
It is called, “Afraid So”:
Is it starting to rain?
Did the check bounce?

Are we out of coffee?

Is this going to hurt?
Could you lose your job?

Did the glass break?

Was the baggage misrouted?

Will this go on my record?

Are you missing much money?

Was anyone injured?

Is the traffic heavy?

Do I have to remove my clothes?

Will it leave a scar?

Must you go?

Will this be in the papers?

Is my time up already?

Are we seeing the understudy?

Will it affect my eyesight?

Did all the books burn?

Are you still smoking?

Is the bone broken?

Will I have to put him to sleep?

Was the car totaled?

Am I responsible for these charges?

Are you contagious?

Will we have to wait long?

Is the runway icy?

Was the gun loaded?

Could this cause side effects?

Do you know who betrayed you?

Is the wound infected?

Are we lost?

Can it get any worse?
Do we fret and worry and fear? I am afraid so. And it is no use, preacher, telling us that to worry is a sin. That only gives us more to worry about.
Not only could it get worse, but I am sinning and making God mad because I am worrying!
But there are times when we, like Wendell Berry, “rest in the grace of the world.” There are times when our worries lift and we are present to Life. That is what Jesus is offering. He is offering a very practical method of how to "rest in the grace of the world", even if just for a moment.

One way to do that is to look around us and to practice the via positiva, the way of awe and wonder. Even if we don’t feel like we are trusting, we can act it and allow the feeling to come later. And if we can’t seem to get that feeling of trust from watching nature, we can read the poetry of those who do.

Emily Dickenson famously said there was only one commandment of Jesus that she could keep.
“Consider the lilies.”
She could do that. That is enough. If “Considering” sounds too intellectual, you can just stand there and stare with your mouth open. Like this poem from W. H. Davies. “Leisure”:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

That certainly is true.
A poor life this if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare.
Don’t just do something. Stand there.

There is another direction to this trust business. Not only are we to trust God or the Universe, the scandal, the crazy idea, is that the Universe (or God if you prefer) trusts us. One might say that was a mistake. But that is the story.
According to the biblical tradition, God trusted humanity, put them in a garden, showed them the critters, made for the man a sexy mate and said, “Be fruitful.”

God trusted the
homo sapiens not to trash the place. We are just about at the verge of finding out whether that was a smart thing for God to do or not. Trust us? The folks who managed to pump the Gulf of Mexico full of oil? But that really is the biblical narrative. God trusts humanity. God keeps hanging in there with all the fumbling bumblers. God trusts us and has entrusted to us the care of creation.

Even if you look at it from an evolutionary perspective, it is about trust. Human beings evolved and have thrived and have been the eyes, ears, and consciousness of the globe because we were successful at adapting and manipulating our environment. We are the smartest thing Natural Selection could come up with. And that is really funny when you consider some of the folks I went to school with.

The Universe trusts Life. The Universe has been at it for nearly 14 billion years, so I guess it is wise to trust its trust in us. It will be interesting to see. What a long strange trip it’s been.
That is the via positiva. Yes, it is to trust ourselves.

We are to trust that we are not a disease, a curse, or a mistake, but instead, a blessing. For whatever reason, whether you think God created humankind and put them in a garden, or whether you think we evolved through scratch and hassle, we are here today and we have great power.

I don’t trust our economy. Nor do I trust our technology. But I do trust humanity. I trust our creativity. I trust our capacity for compassion.

I trust that when the time comes, human beings will take the high road rather than the low one.
I trust that human beings will be neighborly and not nasty.
I trust that we will share and not hoard,
and cooperate rather than compete.

I trust that we will live to the best of what we might become.
The best will come out of us in times of change.

The poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe (GER-ta) wrote:
“If you treat a person as she appears to be, you make her worse than she is. But if you treat a person as if she already were what she potentially could be, you make her what she should be.” -- Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, p. 84.
Sometimes our worries don’t come true. Sometimes things do turn out OK.

That is what Sheenagh Pugh writes about in this poem with which I will close. It is called, “Sometimes”:
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.