Look At The Birds
Today we’re thinking about these ‘Do Not Worry’ passages in Matthew (Matthew 6:25-34). First of all, why? Why are we thinking today about these passages in particular? I’ll begin by giving you the fastest summary of the Gospel of Matthew you will ever hear! We'll begin by thinking in terms of the story as we have received it, as it has been passed down to us, before we allow issues of historicity to enter the picture. - First, you get the genealogy of Jesus. Then all the Christmas stuff: his birth, the wise men, Herod killing children etc. Then John the Baptist, ‘Prepare the Way of the Lord’, then Jesus is baptised in the River Jordan and immediately he goes into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, and there he is tempted by Satan. Then he goes to the Sea of Galilee, and starts recruiting his disciples. Then we have a large section with lots of teaching, lots of healing, the bit where Jesus does his whole Jesus thing, then as we hit chapter 10 the threat dial starts getting turned up. Jesus says because of the fear in this world, we should expect resistance and persecution. Then, like you get in a film, we have a call back to John the Baptist, who reasserts his message that it’s all about Jesus. He was just the messenger to prepare the way for the one who was to come – Jesus! Then there’s a bit more teaching, some more parables, the mustard seed parable etc., then we have lots of miracles, the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus walking on water, healing various people. Then, finally, we hit the pinnacle of the story. Jesus goes into Jerusalem. He goes to the temple. He gets very angry and throws some tables around. Then we have the betrayal of Judas. The Lord’s Supper. The arrest of Jesus. The crucifixion of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus. The End.
In terms of the liturgical calendar we’re in the lull which happens every year just before we’re launched into the season of Lent – a reflective, introspective period, the period when Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. This period is to prepare us for the pinnacle of the story: the events of Holy Week, from Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, to his death and resurrection. So the liturgical calendar doesn’t follow the narrative arc of Matthew. Liturgically, one second, Jesus is in the wilderness, then it immediately fast-forwards through all his teachings, parables, and miracles (about three years), then, bang, we’re at the events of Holy Week. So this morning’s reading then, the Do Not Worry passages, are essentially to prepare us for the period of reflection which will in turn prepares us for the events of Holy Week. We can think of the ‘Do Not Worry’ passages as a frame through which everything that follows can be understood. A foundation upon which everything is built. A lens through which everything else can be viewed.
So now to the content of those passages, these teachings of Jesus. In a nutshell, Jesus says do not worry: do not worry about food, drink, your body, shelter, what you’ll wear. Because look, the birds don’t worry, so why should you? Do not strive for these material things, rather, strive first for the Kingdom of God, and let everything else worry about itself, because God is sovereign! Now upon a first reading of this passage it comes across as a bit odd, a bit counter-intuitive. You would have to be mad to not worry about food, drink, shelter, or clothing. You would not survive without these things! And so it’s not about not having these things, but rather Jesus is talking about not allowing these material things to define the orientation of our lives. You should live to live, not live to eat, or live to dress well, or live to acquire a better house, but live to live! And you achieve this living to live by recognising that you now inhabit a new paradigm! A paradigm which recognises that God infuses everything. A paradigm which is lived wholly in the present, as I’ve talked about many times before, not a future or past orientation, but a present orientation.
I’m going to talk about the resurrection of Jesus; I must begin by giving my standard disclaimer. The resurrection of Jesus, I feel at my core, at the most foundational level of my being, to have a deep and critically profound significance. The Myth of Resurrection, that a saviour figure has died and risen, seems intuitively to me to be woven into reality in some way beyond my comprehension. It’s obviously a recurring mythological motif which exists in many forms, in many other myths, and many other literary works. Think of the Phoenix, rising from the ashes, reborn! However, and this is a big however, that makes me an odd sort of Christian. I don’t believe the resurrection to be an historical event. But counter-intuitively, the reality of the myth is so critical, in a way it sort of trumps the reality! So how does resurrection relate to the ‘Do not worry’ passages? Remember, the ‘Do not worry’ passages are acting as the frame through which we are situating Lent and the events of Holy week: Jesus’ death and resurrection. So I’m not thinking about the resurrection in terms of it being an historical event, but rather thinking about it as a mythological happening with psychological implications.
In psychological terms, let’s think about our own lives. In order to progress psychologically, to grow as a person, one must release those things in our life which impede our progress. The tricky part is identifying what is impeding our progress, especially as the things which do impede our progress are often things which seem natural to us, enjoyable to us, or even dear to our heart. It could be a concrete thing, like Jesus says, an unhealthy orientation towards a material something - money, food, clothing, property, etc. - or it could be a deep-seated belief, an ideological orientation, a belief about the sort of person you are. So, we discern in ourselves, or with the help of others, what this something impeding our psychological progress is, and we let it die, which allows for a new dimension within us to spring forth. The odd thing here is we often are unable to see just how toxic that thing in our life was, until it’s released. We fail to see its negative effects. It is released, and then the scales fall, and we move into a new paradigm. It’s as if we’re given a new lease of life, as if a spirit has risen within us; now reality shows up to us revitalised.
So, do you believe in death and resurrection? Well perhaps you can see how the answer to that question can be both yes and no at the same time. Through the ‘Do Not Worry’ passages we are essentially given a blueprint by Jesus, which he later boils down to ‘I am the way’! The symbolic way! The way in which we commit ourselves to the voluntary deaths and rebirths of the self. Jesus’ way then is the way of progress, psychological progress, towards the full life Jesus speaks about. As a side note it’s worth reflecting on just how thin the line is between believing something to be true, and acting or living as if a thing is true. To illustrate this point, you can think about free will. Free will is probably an illusion. We act in this world as if we are rational agents, but countless things mean that we don’t operate as free agents. Our state of consciousness can vary wildly - have we slept enough? Are we eating well? Are we frustrated or angry? All of this stuff affects the chemical makeup of our brains, which affects the supposed free choices we make. On top of that there’s the impact of unconscious thoughts, and that’s before considering all the problems theoretical physics throw up for the free will problem. Is time even linear? Etc etc. Despite all this, everyone lives today their lives as if they have free will. We’re all willing to live as if is true, even if it isn’t. But the even weirder side of this is that it seems unlikely that human beings always perceived themselves to have free will. If you go back into our primordial past, our ancestors did not think of themselves as free agents as we do. They didn’t perceive themselves to be sovereign over themselves. You could look at it this way: everyone in the world today is a free will fundamentalist – we’re subjectively so utterly convinced of our own free agency that even if we’re shown the facts that free will is an illusion, at the core of our beings we cannot believe it. In other words, it’s possible to straddle that line between what we perceive as real, and what we treat as real. We’re able to do this so well that it ceases to become clear to us where the real ends, and the unreal begins. God herself straddles that line for me, as I am both, in a sense, convinced of God’s non-existence, and experience God’s immediate presence. Gods infusing of reality then, is a paradigm I, in a way, choose to believe, or at least I would have chosen it, apart from the fact I don’t have free will to choose.
So, back to the evolution of free will. As humanity’s collective consciousness, or collective psychology, evolved, the consciousness dial within humanity was slowly turned up. At first, the only beings sovereign over their own personhood as far as humanity collectively was concerned were Kings and Gods, or The God. Then nobles followed, then men, then through Christianity every individual’s soul was infused with sovereignty. Today, we take our individual sovereignty, our individual worth, so for granted that we cannot perceive how that was ever not the case. Our legal system hinges upon the idea that every individual is equal before the law. And when this is not respected, when individuals are treated as if they are not free agents, not treated as individuals who are actively determining the direction of their own lives, we feel intuitively wronged. However, and this is where it gets tricky, although Christianity on one hand empowers everyone with their own sense of sovereignty, there are several occasions in the New Testament when Jesus seems to undermine this claim, as he says that we should die to ourselves. You could read that as flying in the face of liberal religion as I understand it, undermining the claim that we each have individual sovereignty. However, in the light of this morning’s Matthew verses, through the ‘Do Not Worry’ passages, you’re able to reframe that sentiment in a different way. We should live to live. This is the way towards psychological progress. To not orientate ourselves towards food, money, or whatever, and not even orientate ourselves towards the betterment of our own psychological progress as the end in itself. In other words, ‘Individualism’ is a byproduct of living a Kingdom orientated life, not an end in itself. Instead of talking about obstacles to psychological progress, you could use the more religious word ‘idol’. When food, money, or acquisitions become our idol, we are unable to see the Kingdom of God present. We lack ears to hear. And ‘Individualism’ itself can be such an idol. If our own spiritual, psychological, intellectual progress becomes our end goal, our idol, it blinds us to the reality that Jesus describes, infused with love and divinity: a mindful, presently orientated state of being, always ready to release those dysfunctional orientations to clear the way for a new spirit, a new life, a new vitality. A newness which supersedes even that which we previously perceived possible. A newness which wells up within us from such an unexpected place. So unexpected such a paradigm shift can be, that we are left with only one appropriate response - to praise the spirit of God or Love which released it within us.
This next point is a bit more speculative on my part. It requires you accept my presumption that the resurrection was not an historical event. Assuming that, it begs the question where the idea of the resurrection of Jesus even came from. If the Gospels are not relaying to us an historical event, then why does this resurrection narrative motif suddenly explode onto the scene, after Jesus’ death, in the first and second centuries? Again, I think these ‘do not worry’ passages go part of the way in explaining that. Inadvertently, Jesus, in his teaching about releasing those dysfunctional orientations in our lives, creates the climate in which his own resurrection, in mythological terms, was likely to follow. Remember, Jesus’ death would have been perceived as a monumental blow. It’s likely that many around him believed he was on the cusp of leading a political revolution. Many believed he was the Messiah, the Saviour, the one foretold who had come to rescue the Israelites from bondage. And then he died. How heavily must that death have hung over them, blackened the horizon, and foreshadowed utter ruin for them. The significance of that death would have been the ultimate physiological barrier. It was not simply the loss of a loved one, it was the loss of all purpose, direction, and meaning. As Jesus died physically, so too, he had to die in the hearts and minds of his followers. And in doing that, in releasing the psychological baggage of his death, a new space is opened, a newness rises. His whole message about turning away from barriers, towards Kingdom Come, seems to take on a vibrancy, dynamism, a new Spirit previously unknown. Jesus’ whole embodied persona, teachings, manner, and life, in this new paradigm was subjectively more alive and present than it was prior to his death.
So, do you believe in death and resurrection? We strive for a present Kingdom, where like the birds and the lilies of the field, we shall not toil. We shall not worry, quibble, or plan, but live into a present reality, a present vision infused with the divine. And then the Kingdom will truly be present amongst us.