If there’s one thing that rubs me the wrong way, it’s being told not to feel whatever it is I am actually feeling. I think this likely comes from an experience I had years ago when I was bawling my eyes out over something that had clearly upset me and my older brother, thinking he was helping me said “Don’t be upset. It all going to be okay.” But I was upset and telling me not to be upset was of no help whatsoever.
So today’s scripture reading, which begins with Jesus telling us not to worry, his words implying that everything is going to be okay, has often irritated me. I would much prefer Jesus say to us “I can see that you are worried and I understand.” I would especially like to hear him say that to us at this particular moment in history, because everything is not actually okay. Much is unravelling in our lives. There is division and fear in our land and many of us are worried.
Telling us not to worry is a bit like telling us not to breathe. We may not be worried 24/7 but there is definitely an air of anxiety in the land. Those worries are showing up in the deterioration of our mental health, in people protesting in the streets and in our sheer exhaustion from trying to keep ourselves safe and continually adapting to new ways of being.
If to breath is to live, then I think to live might be to worry, not all of the time but at least some of the time. Surely that’s why over two thousand years ago Jesus felt compelled to address the subject of worry, preoccupation and stress. It’s a topic is still relevant for us today.
But I don’t actually think that’s today’s scripture reading is really about worry. I think what’s being addressed is something much deeper and worry is just a symptom of it. What’s really at the heart of today’s reading is our human need for control. In case there’s any doubt about that, notice the things we are specifically being asked not to worry about: money, food, clothing and our material possessions, the things in life, that when we have them, make us feel like we do have control, the things that often give us comfort and a sense of security.
This week after the news about an underwater earthquake off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, I listened to a call in program on the radio about emergency preparedness. People were sharing all kinds of tangible ways they are preparing for “the big one.” My favourite was the person who had just about everything you could imagine needing following an earthquake water, food, matches, an axe to cut firewood, cash, a wind up radio, a pair of shoes under his bed and the tools to shut off his natural gas. Not only did he have all of these items at hand, he had also thought about the best place to store them in his house based on which parts of his house he assumes will survive an earthquake. The only thing that stopped me from having a full blown panic attack after I listened to how prepared he is compared to how unprepared I am was the thought that he might be away on a holiday when the big one strikes and all his preparations will be for nought.
There’s no doubt that storing up food, clothing and water can give us a sense of being in control of our lives in the face of the uncertainty of a natural disaster. That feels a whole lot better than doing and having nothing when things are spinning out of control. Let’s not forget the toilet paper fiasco of the spring of 2020. So by all means we should prepare for an emergency, but we should also remember we cannot control everything that happens in our world no matter how prepared we are.
Thankfully, what’s being asked for in today’s reading, isn’t really about living worry free. There are always going to be things beyond our control that make us feel anxious. Today’s reading is really about helping us to focus our lives in such a way that we mitigate our need for worry. What Jesus is actually inviting us into in this passage is what he refers to as the heavenly realm, the kindom of God. It’s a way of being where the focus is on what God’s focusses on, an existence where people look out for one another, where they share what they have, take what they need and leave some for others. And they do that, because they trust that what is needed will be provided. That trust helps them to let go of their need for control.
In one of the more challenging lines in this passage we’re told not to be like the Gentiles who strive after creature comforts. We’re really being told not to act like non-believers. The irony is that most of us do act like non-believers most of the time. We’re functional atheists. We might say we trust God to provide for our every need but when push comes to shove, we’re much more comfortable providing for ourselves, just in case God doesn’t come through in the end. It’s hard to live an open handed, open hearted life, especially when things feel out of control.
So Jesus gives us some really simple instructions on how to cultivate our trust in God’s gracious provision. All we have to do, he says, is pay attention. Look at the birds. Consider the lilies. Although it’s not explicitly stated, what’s being encouraged here is the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude, an attitude that helps us to notice the mysterious provisions that come our way in life, often completely unbidden.
Brother David Stendle-Rast, the Benedictine monk and interfaith scholar, famous for his teachings on gratitude says that one of the ways we do this is by building stop signs into our lives. I think for many people, the pandemic has served as a kind of stop sign. I regularly hear folks talking about the way the pandemic has forced them to stop and take stock of their lives. I also hear people talking about how with things beginning to open up, their lives have become busier again. It’s important for us especially as we begin to shift gears again, to build those stop signs into our lives, which is really what this weekend and what today are all about, intentionally stopping to notice what we have been given and to offers thanks.
In the traditional way of doing that, we pause to give thanks for the harvest. Before there were grocery stores, this is the time of year that farmers would bring in their crops. The canning and preserving would begin for the non-growing season ahead. The community would gather to give thanks that creation had provided enough, enough fruits and vegetables and fish and game to carry them through the leaner months. There was an honouring of the abundance of the earth and the sea and the sky because unlike us they knew they weren’t going to be running out to the Safeway for potatoes when they ran out. They knew they had to share their harvests with one another.
In her book “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks” Diana Butler Bass talks about how she spent a good portion of her life worried that she was an ingrate. Being grateful was difficult for her because she disliked the notion of debt, duty and required reciprocity that so often goes along with our expressions of gratitude. You know how that is. I invite you for dinner and then you feel like you have to invite me back. It can be very difficult to give and receive freely without strings attached.
So she set to studying the topic of gratitude and then more importantly practicing it each and every day. One of the many things she noticed is that gratitude is inherently social. She says it always connects us as individuals to others. In the worst of what that can be, it makes us feel beholden to one another, as I just mentioned. But in the best of what giving thanks can be she says it feels joyful. It makes us want to reach out to others to share our gifts. It deepens our awareness of our common humanity, of humility and blessing. It calls us to focus on and build the world that God envisions which is really what I think Jesus was referencing in today’s reading, focussing on the realm of God.
Earlier this week I listened to a reflection on Thanksgiving from John Snow who is the Indigenous minister for our region. He talked about how our thanksgiving celebrations harken back to the first gatherings in the eastern part of North America when many indigenous people came together to help settlers prepare for the winter months ahead. He talked the common bond that was forged between those communities when our ancestors came together to help one another survive. He didn’t mention it in his reflection but from other indigenous leaders I know that indigenous culture is a gift giving culture. That means it’s not transactional in the way that Diana Butler Bass says she has experienced white culture to be. There’s no sense of I give you something so that you give me something back. It’s a culture based on deep knowing about the way the Creator provides.
It’s true that there is much that is not okay in our world right now. So much is unravelling. There is division and fear and we are worried. Yet all around us creation is teeming with abundance, pulsing with possibility and we are part of it. We too are God’s great provision for one another and for the world. As we stop to give thanks this day, may our gratitude unite us, may it ground us and steady us for the uncertain times ahead.