(I wrote this in February, 2011, when I was serving as a part-time associate pastor in a small Chicago parish and it seemed that I was not going to receive a full-time call anywhere)
“Be careful what you wish for” is advice that I long ago learned to heed in my preaching life. I don’t know why it should be that Scripture passages to which I’d given little thought can spark the richest homiletic expression I’m capable of, while others that have warmed my cold days, kept me rapt for hours, or ruined nights of sleep tend to call forth weaker efforts. Whatever the reason, I’ve seen this happen while I’m still young enough in my preaching to have many such texts left to bring into the pulpit.
There will be one less of these on Sunday, however, as I finally have to grapple with Matthew 6:24-34. This is the famous passage about the birds of the air, nor sowing nor reaping nor warehousing, yet fed by their heavenly Father; and the lilies of the field, nor toiling nor spinning yet arrayed more beautifully than Solomon in all his glory. Do not worry, Jesus says, about food or drink or clothing, because the gentiles worry about those things and your Father knows you need them, but seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and these needs will be given to you as well. And finally “Take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow will take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” I’m not a KJV neurotic anymore, but I go back to it for this verse. For one thing, it follows the Greek word order more closely than modern translations (English, while never as syntactically flexible as Greek, was a lot more flexible back then). And for another, it has a grandeur that the NRSV doesn’t even bother approaching in its rendering (“Today’s trouble is enough for today;” the Son of God stamping a Hallmark card).
The old version will also always come to my mind first since it’s something my mother has long been fond of saying. She married into a family of worriers, and I am no different, so it’s typically been a seasonable admonition. Anxiety is constitutive of our human condition. It’s presumably no accident that the world’s religions and philosophies contain numerous parallels to the words of Jesus here.
And yet this week’s passage is what some of my contemporary colleagues might call “unhelpful” (itself betraying an interesting unstated premise–that the words of Jesus are rightly expected to help us). I won’t do that. I am not humble enough to contend with God, at least on my own behalf. The morrow’s troubles are nothing compared to true suffering anywhere in this world, and if my own vocational path has lacked a birdlike intuitiveness the fault is surely my own, and I have no complaint against a God who might seem to have tempted me to just such a pass. However pious we try to make such accounts of ourselves, however, they are at heart a matter of pride–a retreat back into human anxieties and human solutions, human shortcomings and human exertions.
So I’ll take the pulpit this week as someone whose faith, such as it is, is open to being tested by this passage that I so love. Apart from all the worries that can hardly be avoided–about the state of the world, about what will happen to our foster child, about the people I love–there is the worry of one who has gone through a rather lengthy ministry apprenticeship only to find, at its putative end, a state of insecurity as drastic as its beginning. I can hardly say how tempting it is to scrutinize years of badly-paid preparation for the missed opportunity, the bad decision, the unopened door that would lead away from what appears now, and very persuasively, as a dead end. But that is only to tour the very human cul-de-sac of worry and faithlessness that Jesus is at the very least trying to point us out of.
On Tuesday as I tried to preach to myself as a preparation to preaching for others, I turned this passage over and over. We go out once a month with The Night Ministry, bringing a meal. This time we were bringing a Gatorade cooler of soup to Pilsen. Nobody makes a big deal about it, but a remarkable little community gathers to make this happen. There are some who can’t show up to cook or distribute but leave their contributions of food in the church refrigerator throughout the week. Others trickle in between work and other commitments. We don’t co-dependently whip each other into a lather of piety and we don’t spend our time dissecting the problems of the poor. When we meet the Health Outreach Bus, no one has to prove income or residency or legal status to receive any of the services. It’s Pilsen, it’s 9:30 at night, it’s February, and if you want a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee, here you go. Your heavenly Father feeds the birds, and are you not of much more value than they? I was out with two first-time volunteers, who bore with the peculiar courtesies of the Pilsen stop quite cheerfully. The crowd was smaller than usual but friendly as always–no wheedling an extra bag or pleading on behalf of a car full of children parked just out of sight. At the end we were literally walking around handing out the last two dozen bags of fruit, bread, and cookies, like leftovers at a Bone Lake Lutheran potluck.
I washed up the pots and pans by myself at church after distribution was done. When a pastor is working alone at church at 10 p.m. while his wife and children are asleep eighteen miles away, he is likely feeling one of two things. On Tuesday I was granted the good one, the rare peace that slips up on you unawares in the process of doing something tedious. A preacher will preach to an empty pot if he needs to, to a urinal or a two-year-old or a pile of rocks. And why not? If Jesus is to be believed, humans are no good at receiving the Word and birds and lilies don’t need it. Some things can only be done for their own sake, for the eternal now in which the bird is always filled and the lily arrayed in unfading glory.