Consider the lilies of the field Matthew 6:24-34
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
There are a few passages in scripture that jump off the page, ringing out with startling clarity. We have just heard one of them. It is unmistakably the original voice of Jesus of Nazareth. It shows us why Jesus has been an historical figure that humankind cannot ignore. It is all at once beautifully poetic, down to earth, and obviously true.
Stop trying to serve two masters. Do not worry about your life. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Consider the lilies of the field, the birds in the air. God has clothed them, and you, with beauty. Strive first for the kingdom of God, and you will have everything else you need.
Jesus is speaking about trust, about having the kind of peace that results from being centered in the right place. We all know he’s right. We can’t serve two masters, splitting ourselves into one person that is an ambitious materialist at heart, and another person who wants to walk in God’s ways. We know that we worry too much about things we can’t control. We know how beautiful the natural things of God’s creation are, and how if we could just slow down and enjoy them, we’d probably see the beauty of our own existence as well. We know that if we strive first for God, somehow everything else will fall into place.
And yet, even though we know all this, as we try to live into it, old habits re-emerge before we’re even aware that it’s happening. Before you know it, we seem to have no faith that God will provide; we serve several masters, we worry. We’re right there with St. Paul, who said I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do the thing I want, but the very thing I hate (Romans 7:14).
And so what interests me, as always, is how we live the things that Jesus teaches, how we move through our struggles to live this vision of trust and centeredness that Jesus offers us today.
I’ve learned much from psychology. I’ve been in therapy, my wife Susanna has taught me a lot about it from her professional experience as a therapist, and I’ve studied it a bit. Counseling and therapy usually work with one or both of two approaches.
One approach involves insight. We examine our personal history; we try to understand how relationships and events have shaped us, and how we have developed patters to cope with those factors. We find out why we feel and act the way we do.
Another approach involves behavioral change. We develop new habits that will be healthier, and in the process, we change our neurology so that these new habits become almost automatic. With behavioral therapy, we start the process of thinking and acting differently.
Both approaches - insight and behavioral change - can work, and sometimes one approach is more effective than the other. Surprisingly, in this gospel today, Jesus asks of us both insight and behavior.
First of all, Jesus asked Why do you worry about tomorrow, what you shall eat, what you shall wear? Why do you do these things? I think he wanted an answer.
So what is it that keeps us worrying about tomorrow? Is it fear that if we don’t control everything, all hell will break loose? What is it that keeps us from seeing the beauty of what already is, in creation and in our own life, and keeps us chasing after external stereotypes of success and beauty? Is it a deep sense of inadequacy, that we are hopelessly flawed? What is it that keeps us from striving first for God? Is it a lurking suspicion that God won’t come through, and that it is all up to me?
To answer these questions we need help, because the eye that is looking cannot see itself. We need honest people who love us, therapists, spiritual directors. By understanding our tendencies that prevent us from being the person God has created us to be, we have a better chance of moving out of those patterns and into new ones.
We might discover that for very good reasons, perhaps for physical or emotional survival, we learned to trust no one. Early on, we might have learned that if we don’t worry about tomorrow, no one else will, and we’ll be left all alone. Perhaps by focusing on money and appearance we were able to get some measure of that which we should have been able to get just by being who we are.
Insight about our history helps us understand why we serve two masters, why we worry and don’t trust, why we strive for all the wrong things.
But sometimes insight is not enough. For we can understand ourselves, and still be stuck. Here is often where the second approach of the therapeutic model comes in: behavioral change. Jesus uses the word strive: The Gentiles strive after tomorrow, they strive after food and clothing. Instead, he says, strive first for the kingdom of God.
It has been said that if you want to know what your real priorities are, look at your calendar and your checkbook. They will tell you where you put your time and money. It has been said that the thoughts we allow ourselves to think shape our reality. It has been said that the media we consume, the people we surround ourselves with, will determine and reinforce our values.
The things we put energy into are the things that we develop. If we strive for ambition and acquisition, we will end up with success and possessions. If we put a lot of energy into prayer and appreciation of creation and relationships, we will end up with a sense of God’s presence, gratitude, and friends.
So striving first for the kingdom of God has to do with putting some time, some energy into developing this in our life through prayer, study, conversations, solitude, worship. But there is also another aspect to striving first for God’s kingdom that is even simpler, easier to access.
Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite monk of the 17th century, a simple man who was known for his profound peace and faith which he found by working in the kitchen of the monastery, by repairing sandals. In his day, many were drawn to seek his counsel. His book, The Practice of the Presence of God, suggests a very simple behavioral discipline: he calls it “a little interior glance.”
If we give a little interior glance towards God at the beginning of the day, at the beginning of a difficult appointment, at the beginning of a hike in the desert, at the beginning of anything we do, it sets the tone, and we approach these things differently. If we begin our week by coming here on Sunday, the day of resurrection, if we open our minds and hearts to what we hear and see in this place, it will set the tone for our week.
This behavioral practice really does change how we think and how we act. Strive first for God, and then things will unfold as they need to. By beginning things with a little interior glance towards God, we strive first for the kingdom. By dedicating everything to the work of the Spirit before we do it, we regain our focus, we ground ourselves where we need to be, and everything opens up to God’s possibilities. Strive first for the kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you.
And so part of developing more of a grounding in our faith is behavioral change – practicing, in the moment, behaviors that keep us oriented where we need to be.
Jesus’ gentle and uncompromising words ring through the centuries, and it is the spiritual work of a lifetime to understand our learned resistance to his words, to gain insight about what obstacles to faith have been built up in us through past experience. It is also our life’s work to be intentional about how we live in the moment, to practice behaviors that keep us centered in God. Then, over time, Jesus’ words will no longer just be words. They will become the way we live.
Consider the lilies of the field, the birds of the air. To God, you are of even more value than they. So do not worry about tomorrow. Strive first for the kingdom of God, and you will have everything you need.