Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sermons, Thanksgiving

Consider the Lilies

Oh, Jesus. So witty.

(A sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday B–November 18, 2012–Joel 2:21-27; Matthew 6:25-34)

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.”

This is not my nature. My sons have often referred me to a semi-famous headline on the Onion, “Area Mom Freaking Out For No Reason Again.” My nature is to fling myself headlong into the multitude of possibilities for the future and to worry creatively and almost aggressively about each and every one. And I’m not alone. This is the Era of Anxiety. You would think we had invented worry. We go to great lengths to soothe or medicate it. It’s almost comforting to know it’s part of the human experience, to know that on a long ago day in a faraway place, Jesus sat down to talk to people, and one of the things he talked about was worry.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

This assurance comes a long way into the Sermon on the Mount. It starts at the beginning of Matthew Chapter 5 and goes right through Chapter 7, and here at the end of Chapter 6, after much instruction about how to live faithfully, we hear these reassurances that are also cautions.

• Why do you worry about what you’re going to eat and drink? Just look at the birds.
• Why worry about what you will wear? Aren’t the flowers even prettier than even the fanciest person you know?
• God knows what you need. You’ll be okay.
• There will be worries every day, and there’s not much you can do about tomorrow while it’s still today.

In a time when natural disaster would not have brought a team from FEMA or Church World Service or the Red Cross, Jesus promised that whatever befell, God would be with us. Come what may, God will care for us.

Much like mine.

When I was a little girl, my father took a trip to the Holy Land and brought me the gift of a little Bethlehem Mother of Pearl covered New Testament, a Red-Letter King James Version. This is one of the first gospel passages I remember reading for myself:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30, KJV)

Fretting doesn’t help, but neither does a sort of mindless bliss. We’re not being called to a goofy “Don’t worry, be happy” attitude. This is not a promise that faith will make us prosperous and good-looking, sleek and well-fed. It’s a call to a deeper understanding. God is with us, come what may. Rejoice! God’s future holds, as the prophet Joel says, overflowing vats of wine and oil. God’s future holds plenty for all.

God’s future sounds great. The Hebrew people dreamed of such a time, when there would be enough for everyone and then some. Our Pilgrim forebears came to this country hoping for just such a world, a place where they could be free to worship God and make a life by that rule of seeking God first. We remember the good parts of their story when we celebrate Thanksgiving. We remember how the native people helped them. We give thanks for the freedoms we have.

I hope we do all that. I’m a little afraid the majority is looking right past Thursday to shopping instead. Why stop to thank God? Let’s get a bargain on those holiday clothes!

No. Let’s stop. Let’s breathe in thankfulness. We can do that. I said it before, and I’m saying it again, so I must mean it: God is with us, come what may.

I’m fine with that, in theory, right up until I have to face my own limitations.

I spent most of my life believing that somehow I could win love only if I did everything perfectly. If things were going wrong it was because I wasn’t “something” enough: industrious enough or kind enough or fit enough. The last of those worried me a lot, and about five years ago I undertook a campaign to become, well, perfect in that regard. Nine months into a new way of living, I was lifting weights at the gym and shoveling the driveway and wearing smaller clothes and feeling awesome…right up until the day I didn’t.

First it was a shoulder, and then a wrist, and then swollen feet and pain in my hands so severe I put down my knitting. One doctor and then another looked me over, and finally someone said, “I think you have Rheumatoid Arthritis.” By that time I was waking up in the morning with fingers so stiff I could not bend them.

The doctors assured me, there were new treatments, and I should not *worry.*

Do not fear.

I’m bad at that. I said to myself over and over again, “I’m sure God will find some way to make me useful even if I have to live with limitations.”

Which is my way of saying, “If I’m not useful, what am I?”

I don’t like being the person who needs the help. I like being the person who gives it. I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head, saying, “Make yourself useful as well as decorative.”

There were many months spent pondering, sadly, the words of this passage. I wrote at the time:

As I sit on the couch after a long day, with my hands in my lap, too stiff to type or hold a book, with knitting beyond hope for the foreseeable future, I am living my bad dream: I toil not, neither do I spin. Can I find some usefulness in this period of forced inactivity?

Ah, but there I go again. It seems the lesson is a different one. Perhaps it is enough to be, to simply be, whether decorative or not. God’s love does not increase in proportion to my good deeds or feats of strength or even my acts of compassion. God simply loves me, and you, whether or not we spin, whether or not we toil.

It was Thanksgiving of the same year that our food processor broke with a batch of squash soup still inside it. A crack in the lid made it nearly impossible to open. We poured the soup out through the food chute, but we still needed it, for pie dough and cranberry relish. We took the risk, but I had to let other hands wrassle the thing to liberate them. I had to let other hands chop and grate and mash and truss.

Consider the lilies. They toil not, neither do they spin. They don’t produce anything at all. I’m better now, four years later, but I still have days when I have to just stop. I still don’t like it. But I don’t think I’m less loved because of it.

We’re pretty sure the lilies Jesus meant were not anything like the fabulous lilies we bring into the church at Easter. More likely he meant wildflowers, pretty today, tomorrow thrown on the fire – finally useful. And yet God makes them decorative, in their moment, for their moment.

“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things!” (Joel 2:21, NRSV)

Wait, did that really say soil? Are you sure that didn’t say soul or something else?

Yeah. No. The assurance of God’s attention and love stretches to the lilies, even the soil, the earth itself. Nothing is too small. No one is too unimportant in the world’s eyes. God cares for all.

The pelicans in their temporary shelter.

Yesterday we started selling calendars to support our Pet Pantry. Standing nearby, I was delighted to watch people’s faces as they flipped through the pages for the first time and recognized their beloved pets, dogs, cats and even the Strawbridge goats.

And did you see the story about the pelicans pushed northward to Rhode Island by Hurricane Sandy? They’re being returned home to Florida. The first two made the journey by private plane, riding in containers similar to dog crates. Wildlife specialists, commercial fishermen and regular people who care came together to feed and care for the birds and to make sure they get home again. Their $2000 flight was paid for by donations from the public.

Even the birds of the air fall within God’s circle of care. So, “Do not fear, O soil.” Do not fear, dear souls. Be glad and rejoice. God is doing great things. Look at the pelicans of the air. Consider the lilies. In the name of the Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen.