2 before Lent

Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews

‘Do not worry about tomorrow.’ As commandments from Jesus go, it’s one of those I find hardest to follow. ‘Do not worry about tomorrow’, says Jesus. And I want to say, seriously, Lord? Have you seen the state of the world? My Twitter feed reads like a sort of litany for the end times. How am I not supposed to worry about tomorrow, with President Trump and Steve Bannon in charge at the White House, when I live in a country that has just closed its doors to refugee children, when I work for a Church that can’t make up its mind about its LGBT members? What are the lilies of the field going to teach me about all that?

 

Well – and bear with me on this – I think they are going to teach me not to be afraid. Listen to what Jesus says: ‘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?’

 

Jesus is telling us that our safety does not lie where we think it does. We might think it lies in achievement, or reputation, or having enough money in the bank to pay the rent, or in the power and influence we wield. We might think it lies in shutting the borders, building a wall, changing the tone without changing anything else because maybe then you can secure the unity of this fractious body. But Jesus tells us our security lies elsewhere. Our security lies in being created and known and loved by God.

 

Considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air reminds us that we are part of God’s good creation. And if we are part of it, then so is everyone and everything else, too. That reading we heard from Genesis wonderfully affirms humankind as created in God’s image. We are given a dignity and an identity that is inalienable. Neither politicians nor prelates can take that away.

 

But it is a dignity and an identity that carries with it responsibility. Alone of all the creatures, God gives to human beings dominion over the rest of creation. And we have misunderstood what that means and mistreated that trust pretty much ever since. Dominion does not mean domination. The one to whom dominion finally belongs is God. And in Genesis we see how that dominion is exercised. God’s power is inviting and creative. It is not coercive and exploitative. When God gives us dominion over creation, it is an invitation to share in his purposes for it, to help creation reach the goal for which it is made, which is to be united in praise. The vision of heaven in the book of Revelation has all living creatures united in the worship of God. The Psalms too riff on this theme. Psalm 148 proclaims:

 

Praise the Lord from the earth,

you sea monsters and all deeps;

Fire and hail, snow and mist,

tempestuous wind, fulfilling his word;

Mountains and all hills,

fruit trees and all cedars;

Wild beasts and all cattle,

creeping things and birds on the wing;

Kings of the earth and all peoples,

princes and all rulers of the world;

Young men and women,

old and young together;

let them praise the name of the Lord.

 

When the birds of the air are grounded with wings slick with oil; when the mountain lions are hunted as trophies; when the songs of the elderly and the very young are silenced, we damage creation. When we do that, we mistake dominion for domination, and we treat creation as a commodity to be exploited, a resource to serve us. As we do when we deny the image of God in each other.

 

To know yourself created, known and loved by God is a wondrous thing. And it’s a very freeing thing. If we know God loves us, that gives us a security that puts a stop to the anxious urge to keep creating ourselves in an image we think others will like, or that God will prefer. It tells us that we are already loved – that we don’t need to drive ourselves into exhaustion trying to prove we are worthwhile or loveable. It says that we are not a mistake, an anomaly, a problem to be solved. We have an identity and dignity given to us by God, an identity that comes to fullest expression when we grow in that image into the likeness of Christ.

 

At the end of the creation account in Genesis 1, God looks at everything he has made. The whole of creation is held in his divine gaze. ‘And indeed, it was very good.’ Our call is to learn to look at the world and each other from that Godward direction. To see others as created and loved in God’s image is to give them space to be who they are, which is not always the person we might want them to be. This means not seeing someone else as a project for improvement, or for relating to only insofar as they are useful to me. Looking at the world from this perspective means a refusal to instrumentalise, to see others as commodities to use or discard or befriend or exploit as seems best to me. It means I don’t get to dehumanise those I don’t like or approve of, turning them into caricatures or monsters, even while I can protest the views and actions they espouse.

 

And seeing each other as God sees us creates a sense of solidarity. It helps us to learn how to share space, share resources, share ourselves. The other option is to remain locked up in our fear, frightened that someone different might sneak in. When I begin to realise that I am one among many, I make space for others to exist and flourish as well. Someone else has needs and wants and hopes and fears and vulnerabilities, too. Someone else is made in the image of God, and loved by him from eternity. I am in this together with them.

 

Consider the lilies of the field, says Jesus. Well, extrapolating a doctrine of creation takes one very instructive lily. But there is a lot to be gained from doing just that. Filling your lungs with the scent of the lily, listening as the blackbird hymns the dawn, reminding yourself that you are part of this wondrous, beautiful, hurting creation which is made and loved and known by God – that’s how we start to remember who and whose we are.

 

Then, ‘do not worry about tomorrow’, says Jesus. For nothing can shake that identity. Act from it, absolutely: work to ensure that human dignity is honoured, that the created order is well cared for; that our churches get better at being signs of the kingdom. Lament and protest and act when the goodness of what God has created is denied or diminished. But don’t worry. This creation that God makes in love is held in his love and destined for it. Genesis tells us that even the chaos does not lie outside God’s creative action. We live in an anxious world, and we are part of an anxious church. But ‘do not worry’, says Jesus, who withstood all that the world and the devil could throw at him, and prevailed. Do not worry – but rather live out your identity as image-bearers so that others may learn that they are created and loved and known by God, too, and that the whole creation may find the true freedom for which it is made – the glorious liberty of life with God.