Sermon: Second Sunday before Lent, 16 February 2020, St Mary Magdalene, morning

Reading Matthew 6.25-34
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes

Pretty obviously the subject of today’s gospel reading is worry. Jesus mentions the word ‘worry’ six times in 10 verses. And be warned: I’m going to be using the word ’worry’ far more than six times in this sermon. I crave your pardon in advance for the repetition. All I can say is that, well, Jesus started it!

This particular passage always gives me pause to think because, to be honest, I’m a bit of a worrier myself.

Worry seems – in some degree at least – to be a matter of temperament. I for one would love not to be a worrier. Other people may worry less but I dare say that we all worry at least some of the time. So, bearing in mind these words of Jesus, is there anything we can do about it?

I suspect Jesus’ target in this passage isn’t so much worry itself. There’s almost what you might call a healthy kind of worry. We are finite, mortal, frail creatures in a very large and potentially dangerous world. It’s inevitable that we’re going to worry from time to time. Worry can be a force that motivates us to action. Sometimes, it may even save our lives. Worry, to some degree, may be an intrinsic and healthy part of being human.

What Jesus is offering is a way to deal with the worry that debilitates us, that diminishes us, that can paralyse us.

Now, worry is always orientated towards the future but Jesus isn’t saying that planning for the future is a bad move. Remember his words about the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. And he says something similar about flowers. They toil not, neither do they spin yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

Beautiful words but Jesus is emphatically not saying that we should refrain from sowing and reaping or from toiling and spinning. it’s precisely those future-orientated activities that make us human, though that orientation to the future also gives us, for better or worse, the ability to worry.

Birds are birds and flowers are flowers but human beings are something else entirely. Thinking about the future is what we do. The future isn’t the enemy. The enemy is debilitating, paralysing, excessive worry.

And so we come to the real crux of the passage: But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [i.e. all necessary things] will be given to you as well.

That seems to be Jesus’ solution to worry. Well, the first thing we need to know is what Jesus means when he talks about the kingdom of God?

My rough and ready definition of the kingdom would be that state of mind and that community where we love our neighbour as ourselves and where we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength – all in the context of God’s love for us. It’s the universal implementation of what Jesus calls the two greatest commandments. It’s the rule of God and the invitation stands for us to become a part of it.

If we strive for the kingdom of God as our priority then Jesus seems to promise, if not riches, then at least a degree of modest material provision.

But there’s a danger here. We may get to thinking that, if someone doesn’t have a degree of modest material provision, they must not be devout enough, they must not be striving hard enough for the kingdom – i.e. that it’s their fault.

In the words of the theologian R.T. France: how are we to maintain the relevance of this teaching to those large numbers of human beings, many of them devout disciples, who simply cannot obtain enough food?

That’s a tough question and the simple answer is that we can’t, so this verse about striving for the kingdom cannot be taken in a completely literal sense. We have to take it in a spiritual sense.

That said, I do believe that when we actively love God and our neighbour, we are going with the grain of ultimate reality, not working against it. We are working with God, not against God. And God is working with us and in us.

So, if we strive for the kingdom of God, things will quite possibly go better for us in practical ways – though not necessarily. But they will definitely go better for us spiritually just as surely as night follows day.

Put God front and centre, seek the kingdom, and your problems don’t magically disappear. We will still get sick, we will still grow old, we will still die, we will still suffer the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to – and so will those whom we love. And we will worry about those things. Nothing is going to change that.

But those spiritual blessings that seeking the kingdom brings us will help us to face the worries of life, deal with them and not let them overwhelm us.

And that’s because we are aligned with something far greater than ourselves and with a love far greater and more universal than we can even conceive of.

As Paul said: in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. And who, one should add, loves us still.

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