Readings: Genesis 1.1-2.3, Matthew 6.25-34
Well, that was the longest first reading I’ve heard for a time, but it’s all good, and to listen to it is time well spent. Time – specifically time present and time future – is what these two readings have got me thinking about.
Men and women in Libya are prepared to die under bullets and shells, not just because they find the presentintolerable, but to purchase a future for their country that they may never see. Meanwhile, our Government is, I hope, thinking a lot about the future, asking how we can wean ourselves off our addiction to oil – from hopping on a plane for a stag weekend in Amsterdam to picking up a plastic bag in every shop we visit – so that we are less reliant in the future on the likes of Col. Gaddafi or the less deranged despots of the region. Yet at the same time it’s had to deal with the present danger, and get British citizens safely home. And how the present can mock the futures we imagine. People who had left the city of Christchurch after last Autumn’s earthquake had in recent weeks begun to return and rebuild, and then the ground shifted again.
Yesterday I was in our son’s university department, and saw a poster advertising an event called ‘What Next?’ Here, at the start of a three-year course, there was already a prompt to consider the future, to meet recent graduates and see what they had gone on to do. Then I heard about one student who had already blown his entire student loan on a Christmas trip with the University skiing club. Now there’s someone who lives in the present. We humans have made such a good living on this planet because of our ability to handle the present while shaping the future. We start young: ‘Do your homework,’ your parents say, ‘or you won’t get your grades.’ You grow up, but the emphasis on the future is relentless: ‘Get it on your CV – it will help when you apply for job.’ ‘You’ve got a job offer? Check the pension arrangements.’ How I laughed when that was said to me at the age of 22 – I’m not laughing now.
All this is to increase security, to make those distant days (if they are still distant) a bit less unpredictable, and being preoccupied with the future says something about your security in the present: if now is a precarious time, if for instance you are sitting beside a loved one in Intensive Care, pension prospects are far from your mind. And why has climate change slipped down the rankings of public concern? Partly because of the aftershocks of the financial crash – what is frightening now tends to trump what might be terrifying in the future.
Those like our Yuletide skier who live for the moment might claim biblical support from today’s gospel reading, though they’ll need to choose their translation carefully. In the words of the King James Bible, Jesus says, ‘Take no thought for the morrow.’ If Matthew here gives us an accurate flavour of Jesus’ teaching, we must see these words addressed to his disciples in the wider setting of the peasant economy of Galilee. For them, ‘the future’ is not ten or even five years away, it is the next harvest, which – if it fails – will pitch them from poverty into destitution. And to them Jesus says, don’t think about tomorrow. It sounds a provocative, indeed an insulting thing to say. Now it is not the job of mealy-mouthed preachers to take the biting edge off the gospel, but here the King’s translators did not quite get it right. Their phrase ‘take no thought’ translates a Greek word that has a whiff of anxiety about it, and here the New Revised Standard Version has it better: Jesus’ command is not ‘Do not think at all about tomorrow’ – don’t plan, don’t provide, don’t even plant seed – but rather, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow’; still provocative for people in their circumstances, but not crazy.
Provide for the future, but don’t let it overwhelm the present. And how do we manage that? How to avoid worry about the future, that compulsion to pick up burdens not yet laid on us? How to avoid, in the words of Neville Ward, ‘playing morbid games with unborn time’? I find encouragement in today’s gigantic reading about the creation. They are the first words in the Bible, but we think they come not from the earliest phase of Israel’s history but from when they were exiles in Babylon in the 6th century BC. It was not the worst of times, but it was a hard time; it’s hard to live anywhere you don’t choose to be. Of course they dreamed of returning, but as well as longing for a different future they also contemplated the present, the teeming life of earth and water and air around them, the regularity of night and day, the rhythms of sun and moon that held steady even thought their lives had been turned upside down. They discerned a presence in the present: they looked at the sustaining forces of nature and found there signs of a sustaining God. It was all rooted in God, and so (despite their adversity) it was good. We find that impulse in Jesus’ invitation to the anxious: look at the birds,consider the lilies.
It would be so satisfying if I had some trick to pass on that would cure us all of this tendency to turn concern for the future into worry about it. How much energy it would save us, how much more attentive we would be to each other – only a couple of nights ago I failed to listen properly to someone I care about as my mind swam off to some worrisome thing that hadn’t happened yet – but it’s not that kind of issue: tricks are things that I do to control things better, and it’s my inability to control the future that is the problem. And anyway, the scripture readings today direct us away from having ‘I’ at the centre of it all. If I really do lookand consider as Jesus says, then in those moments I’m led beyond myself, I let myself be moulded by something other than me. It is a way of getting anchored in the present, not as a place of off-piste hedonism but as the only place that isreal, that exists outside my own mind, the only place where I can meet God.
Do not worry about tomorrow, says Jesus, but strive first for the kingdom of God. How might you and I respond to that? Perhaps by telling ourselves this: in the race for security, prudence must eventually hand on the baton to trust. ‘Tomorrow’ I will provide for as sensibly as I can; then I shall leave it, and all its possibilities, to God. God’s will is something I can only do today. God helps me to do that willnow. That is sufficient. For now, ‘tomorrow’ is not my problem.
Morbid games with unborn time: J. Neville Ward, The Use of Praying, Epworth, 1967, pages 71f. The sermon’s closing paragraph also owes much to this passage.