Sabbath Day Thoughts — Matthew 6:25-34
Are you worried? If you are, you’re not alone. Let’s face it. These are worrisome times.
We are feeling worried about COVID-19. The Franklin County Health Department says that we have thirty-nine cases of COVID in Harrietstown this morning and fifty-six in Tupper Lake. Those are our highest numbers of the pandemic. While most of us are fully vaccinated and not at risk for severe illness, we worry about our senior seniors and friends with immune system compromises who face greater risk. We have concern for our kids who are still getting shots in arms. We think how tough this must be for our healthcare professionals—the hospital staff, nurses, and doctors who have spent the past twenty months on the front lines.
We’re also feeling a worried resignation that we’ll be dealing with the new coronavirus for a long time. Worldwide in the past week, cases have increased in 72 countries, with twice as many new cases reported here in the states in the past 28 days. In fact, the only two countries in the world that did not report new cases last week were the Vatican and Oceania—that’s a small cluster of south Pacific Islands. We don’t like what the experts have to say. Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, warns that COVID-19 won’t go away. It will simply become one of many viruses that cause infections, and there will always be a baseline number of cases, hospitalizations, and even deaths.
Related to the pandemic, we are feeling stressed about economics. The US consumer price index has surged 6.2 percent from a year ago in October. That’s the highest rise in thirty-one years. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said last Sunday that quashing COVID-19 is key to lowering inflation. If we can get a handle on this acute phase of the epidemic, then the surge in the price of commodities, like crude oil, should abate in the second half of 2022. But in the meantime, we are feeling the spike in prices at the grocery store and the gas pump. We may have also noticed a phenomenon that has been named “skimpflation.” Businesses can’t keep enough employees to deliver the experiences and customer service that we previously enjoyed, and so we are paying more for less. Service is slower at restaurants. Airline flights are being cancelled. Businesses have cut hours. To complicate matters, COVID has created supply chain issues. Santa might give us a raincheck this year as imported goods don’t make it to store shelves or we balk at the exorbitant price of the latest gift fads. Am I making you feel worried in writing about this?
As Jesus shared today’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, his friends and followers had worries of their own. Many people in the Galilee were subsistence farmers, always one crop failure or drought away from hunger. Some of Jesus’ friends were fishermen. The fish in the Sea of Galilee belonged to Caesar, but you could pay a pretty shekel for a license to cast your nets and earn your living. That licensing fee was substantial—the cost of about a third of your catch. A night when your nets were empty wasn’t just a waste of time, it was a threat to your livelihood. First century financial failure didn’t land you in bankruptcy court. It led to debt slavery, consigning yourself or your family to a period of conscripted labor. That sounds worrisome to me.
Jesus and his friends also contended with the constant anxiety of foreign occupation. Client kings, like Herod, were appointed to rule locally in the emperor’s stead, and they typically did so by living large at the expense of the people. Every major city in the land garrisoned Roman soldiers. The Pax Romana (Peace of Roma) was secured with an iron fist, and the law was swift and harsh in responding to civil disobedience. Jesus and his followers lived with the terror of crucifixion and public execution.
Beyond the poverty and the politics, there were religious problems. Even the Chief Priest in the Jerusalem Temple was a Roman appointee. Factions like the Pharisees and Sadducees divided communities with competing understandings of the Torah. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to see that these factions were lining up in opposition to Jesus. Already, his cousin John had been arrested in an effort to silence his prophetic voice. Already Jesus was anticipating his journey to Jerusalem and the rejection that would await him there. They may not have faced COVID-19, but Jesus and his friends had plenty to worry about.
Jesus’ words in our reading from Matthew 6 are a response to those worries. “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” Jesus called his listeners attention away from their worries. He invited them to instead attend to the present moment: the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. He pointed to pelicans skimming above the surface of the sea and to storks spirally slowly up from nests in the marshes. Jesus gestured to fields of anemones, bright blooms bobbing in the breeze that swept across the hills.
In the gift of the moment, Jesus called his listeners to remember their place in God’s good creation. The empire might be Caesar’s, but the world and all that is in it belonged to God. God, who brought the world into being, continued to care and provide for the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, and those worried first-century Israelites. Jesus reminded his friends that beyond Caesar’s empire there was a holy Kingdom all around them, like a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price. Long after Caesar’s empire would crumble, God’s Kingdom would prevail. It was to this eternal and unstoppable Kingdom that they belonged.
I like to imagine that as the crowd that followed Jesus listened to his words and attended to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, they felt better. Those worried furrows in their brows lost their crease. They took some nice deep breaths. Their hearts began to beat a little slower and their blood pressure fell. As they saw God at work in creation with beauty and power, something shifted within them. They remembered the eternal Kingdom that they served and the Holy One, who had brought them into being and would one day welcome them home. Heads nodded in agreement. An occasional “Amen” broke forth from grateful lips. Everyone went home that day feeling a little less worried and lot more thankful.
We, too, might feel less worried and more thankful if we took Jesus’ words to heart. I’d like to help us do just that.
First, we can make some time in the coming days to attend to the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, and the goodness of God’s creation. Stretch your legs with a favorite neighborhood stroll. Take to the trail. Park your car at Lake Colby and watch the sun set. Watch the rolling flight of the pileated woodpecker. Let the Grey Jays on the Bloomingdale Bog eat from your hand. Ponder the blooms on your Thanksgiving cactus. As we attend to God’s presence and providence at work everywhere all the time, we can trust that God is at work in and for us. We can know that God is with us, even in the dark valley of pandemic. God’s Kingdom always prevails.
Next, we can spend some intentional time with the Lord this week. Carve out ten minutes to sit with God in silence. You can begin by reading today’s gospel reading. Then, do some holy listening. In the quiet of the moment, you can count on your worries to rise up and greet you, as they often do when we actually sit still. Instead of allowing your cares to hijack your quiet time, hand them off to God. Use your imagination to put them in Jesus’ hands. He promises to take our burdens and give us rest. Take some deep breaths in that quiet space, and remember that God, who has worked in the past, will work again in your future.
Finally, once we are reoriented and centered in God, it’s time to get busy in service to that holy Kingdom that calls for our ultimate allegiance. Lace up your sneakers and run to raise money for neighbors in need with the Saranac Lake Turkey Trot. Find a nice, sturdy cardboard box for your Reverse Advent Calendar, adding a canned or dry good daily in December to benefit the Food Pantry. Serve the church in this Advent season by sharing your dramatic or musical talents to help me with a pre-recorded Christmas Program for the children and those feeling a little childlike.
I suspect that as folks travel for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, our COVID numbers won’t improve. We’ll still be wearing masks and minding our social distance. We’ll pay more than we should for that Christmas gift for someone special. When we get a gander at the price, we’ll trade our Christmas roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for ham or turkey. And yet, I have hope that in the coming weeks we may also feel less worried. We’ll consider the birds of the air, the balsam in the forest, and the billion stars in the Adirondack night sky. We’ll remember who we are and Whom we belong to. Thanks be to God.
Steven P. Eason. “Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 6:24-34” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
Richard Beaton. “Commentary on Matthew 6:24-34” in Preaching This Week, May 25, 2008. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/eighth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-624-34-2
Emerson Powery. “Commentary on Matthew 6:24-34” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 27, 2011. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/eighth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-624-34
Data Team, Lisa Charlotte Muth. “The coronavirus pandemic is far from over” in Deutsche Welle: Science, Nov. 19, 2021. Accessed online at The coronavirus pandemic is far from over | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 19.11.2021
Christine D’Antonio. “Pittsburgh doctor on pandemic: ‘We will be living with this virus, there is no covid zero’” in WPXI-TV News, November 14, 2021. Accessed online at Pittsburgh doctor on pandemic: ‘We will be living with this virus, there is no covid zero’ – WPXI
Shep Hyken. “The Great Resignation Leads to Skimpflation” in Forbes Magazine, Nov 14, 2021. Accessed online at https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2021/11/14/the-great-resignation-leads-to-skimpflation/?sh=6d93bf5d6c2b