Worry and toil

Text: Matthew 6:25-33 (“the birds of the air”)

As a child, I was charmed by the words of Jesus we just heard. He says that we should be like birds and wildflowers that neither worry nor toil.

But despite the charm of this image, I wonder about it. Birds are hardly idle. Most of the time, they seem frantically busy. Nor do they always have a gentle and easy life. Some birds are predators, others are prey; and all of them have an existence as harsh and difficult as any other living thing.

The first Sunday that I preached in my settlement charge seven years ago in Saskatchewan, I ran into a yellow flicker as I raced between services in Coronach and Rockglen. Later that day, the act of yanking the corpse of this beautiful bird out of the grill of my car made it difficult to see birds as models of a worry-free existence within God’s providence.

Similar thoughts come to my mind when I hear Jesus’ statement that the lilies of the field do not toil. All day long, a lily turns its leaves towards the sun and uses its energy to produce sugar. All day long, its roots use this energy to pull water and nutrients out of the soil. Lilies look beautiful to the human eye — that is, when they haven’t been withered by drought, flattened by hail, or eaten by bugs. But like birds, they hardly seem idle to me.

The natural world is intricate and beautiful; but I do not think it illustrates God’s providence in the way that today’s reading might suggest.

Jesus’ words highlight both the similarities and the differences between humans and other species. Like wildflowers and birds, humans are biological creatures. As such, much of life unfolds automatically. Every moment, the trillions of cells that make up our bodies perform innumerable chemical actions without any conscious thought. In this sense, we are as blessed and as gifted as the birds of the air and the wildflowers of the field.

But unlike birds or flowers, humans also have a level of conscious thought. Language-based consciousness is a key factor that has allowed humans to develop complex societies over thousands of years.

One part of our conscious life we call toil – the work of sowing, reaping and spinning; and of baking, butchering, and candle-stick making. This work is not instinctual or unconscious. It is the joy and burden of economic life, and it is also a key place where we confront anxiety and worry.

We worry about many things related to the economy. This past week, the Dow Jones Index declined 1,000 points, and commentators wondered if the long run of economic growth that began in 2009 might be ending.

Also this past week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its latest report. It warned that the burning of fossil fuels is leading to earlier and more drastic pollution of the world’s oceans and atmosphere than previously thought.

Then there are everyday economic woes. We worry if our grandchildren will find a career in a complex job market. We worry if we will have sufficient savings for a comfortable retirement. We struggle with the stresses of our jobs, which can include boredom, commuting, office politics, and a fear that our work may not be meaningful enough.

So, we humans who work to make a living have many worries. And yet Jesus tells us that we should be as free as the birds.

Despite their frantic activity, birds and wildflowers live and die with minimal consciousness. Their existence — intricate and astonishing though it may be – is powered purely by instinct and genetic programming.

I am not suggesting that Jesus wants us to live without consciousness. Instead, I believe he is pointing us to a higher level where we might live with the effortless flow of birds and wildflowers while staying conscious and awake.

Jesus calls this higher level the kingdom of God. It is a realm where we see our individual lives in the context of all of humanity and the entire web of life.

Waking up to the reality of this level raises us above the concerns of ego. Our egos may be filled with anxiety. But in the realm of God — which we enter through caring for one another, spiritual practices, and the work of outreach and justice – helps us realize there is more to life than the turmoil of ego.

When we realize that worrying cannot add one hour to our life, we can let the Spirit of Life flow through us unobstructed. This does not mean that we cease caring for ourselves and others. It means that we can love from a position of trust. Each of us is a fragile and mortal individual who will suffer pain, injury and loss. But we trust that what we hold sacred survives our individual existence; and from this trusting place, sometimes our worries disappear.

Regardless of pain or pleasure, each moment reflects the same miraculous beauty we see in the birds of the air and flowers of the fields; and so we grow in gratitude and generosity. We give thanks to God as Source. We give thanks for the Risen Christ who lives within us. We give thanks for fellow pilgrims who walk with us as we struggle in joy to enter the kingdom of God. At its best, our service to family, church and neighbourhood flows effortlessly from this gratitude.

We try to love each moment, care for our children, and work for peace with justice. We do these things because they give life meaning and joy.

Life is a miraculous gift for which we give thanks; and because we trust that Love survives our death; and because we can enter God’s joyful kingdom in any moment of awe, solidarity, or compassion, we are able to relax.

Jesus is a companion who helps us trust in the Source and Spirit of Life and Love; and as people of faith, we can become as free from worry as the birds of the air and the flowers of the fields.

May it be so. Amen.