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Of Ravens and Lilies

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 8/11, Animal Sunday in the Season of Creation at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The gospel was Luke 12:22-31.
 
Today we worship with the entire living family on Earth. We celebrate birds, animals, reptiles, and all living creatures. Wisdom functions in the readings to help us perceive God’s creation in a way that is not self-serving. We see Jesus’ teaching and creation interacting together to teach the disciples to trust their heavenly Father for everything.

I had a professor who always said that when we see a “therefore,” we need to find out what it’s “there for.” Prior to today’s gospel was a dialogue with a man from the crowd, which led to Jesus’ parable of the rich fool. Our first verse summarizes the gist of Jesus’ teaching. First of all, he tells the disciples to not worry about food and clothing. It’s not like the old saying, “Don’t worry. Be happy” because there is good reason to be happy—the loving care of God.

If one is worrying and fearful it is because they have a view of God that is at odds with Jesus’ theology. Jesus presents a series of arguments supporting this assertion. First of all, such anxiety is based on confusion; distress concerning food and clothing show an inappropriate view of human life, which consists of much more than these things (4:4). The second argument comes from the natural world. In argument three, Jesus observes the failure of anxiety as a game plan for securing the future. Jesus’ fourth argument returns to observation of the natural world.

Jesus’ first argument is why the disciples should not be anxious. Life and body are synonymous. They’re mentioned separately to draw attention to the totality of a person’s being and what is needed to support human life. People shouldn’t worry because these are things for which the disciples have already been taught to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. They expect in this prayer that the character of God as Father is such that he will provide for them (11:1-13).

Please note that this teaching of Jesus does not address those who have no food to eat, no clothes to wear and no place to live. This is the message to those who have plenty of everything and yet spend their lives trying to acquire more and more. Jesus’ disciples can refocus their energies on who and whose they are rather than on what they have and how they will get ahead.

Jesus moves to his second argument illustrated from the natural world. He calls us to consider the ravens and later on, the lilies. Consider means “perceive, remark, observe, understand, fix one’s eyes and attention on.” Anxiety is superfluous for those who agitatedly seek to secure their livelihood. Anxiety is useless. Here Jesus heightens the force of his argument by his choice of examples.

Ravens neither produce nor store their food, yet God provides for them. A raven is not a bird of prey but was considered a “rapacious unclean bird” (Olsthoorn, Jewish Background). Jesus attempts to engage his audience in reading the signs of God’s gracious presence all around them. If they can do so, their understanding of God will be reshaped and the character of their lives reformed.

Jesus’ third argument is the failure of anxiety as a game plan for securing the future. By pointing to the lilies and grass of the field, Jesus hopes that the audience will see the gracious hand of God. Jesus insists that the splendor of Solomon couldn’t compare to that of the flowers.

Now Jesus draws attention to the grass and its short lifespan. The grass carpets the ground with fresh-smelling green growth and then withers and is thrown into the oven as fuel for the fire. Wood is scarce in the Holy Land. Here is another example of God’s care. If God can cause the grass to grow and thrive, no matter how short its lifespan, then surely God can care for human beings.

Why would God our Creator value us differently than lilies or ravens or grass? Maybe it’s because of what we’re capable of or what our potential is. That potential can be either negative or positive. For example, we need laws about drinking and driving because we are all too liable to harm others. 

God’s concern is shown to all creatures: tho those whose beauty is appreciated by us all, like the flowers of the field; to those despised by some and considered unclean, like the ravens; and to those whose life is short, like the grass. God does not discriminate in his care for creation.

Jesus’ parting reference is to those of “little faith.” His message here is based on the possibility that just maybe some will see with the eyes of faith what is otherwise hidden from view. Jesus shows evidence of God’s generosity and care in the world all around him. He can, therefore, counsel this alternative approach to life in our world. It is one of faith in God’s restoring activity.

Having “little faith” is not necessarily a bad thing. At least there’s some faith. It is a hopeful sign that they will be able to understand this message and then orient their lives to that which, apart from faith, seems utterly foolish.

The climax of Jesus’ argument sets before the audience distinct alternatives: the life of sustenance-seeking and arrogant worry on the one hand and the life of the kingdom of God-seeking on the other. Jesus pits the preoccupation of “the nations of the world” against the promise of God’s care of those who trust in him as their father.

Jesus’ final exhortation is to strive for the reign of God. “Striving” is an appropriate term in the sense of setting one’s heart and life on the pursuit of something, but not in the sense of anxious struggle. It is determined by the object of the quest, in this case, God’s kingdom.

The quest for security is the activity of those who have no awareness of God as Father. Such people engage in arrogant behavior, acting as though they can be self-sufficient, characterized by their anxiety. The practices condemned are rooted in a false understanding of God’s character.

Those who know God as Father know God as the one capable of and committed to providing for his people. God’s plan is for us to live as faithful children of God and children of Earth. This includes the entire world and all creatures who live interdependently as part of it. Knowing this liberates us from the consuming concerns of self-security. We are liberated to orient our lives completely around generating in word and deed God’s restorative project.

The message of the gospel redirects our attention from the awesome wonder of the natural world to human attitudes regarding our well-being in that world. Just as Jesus wanted the disciples to learn from nature, so too we may understand that animals aren’t anxious, flowers do not worry and the grass is not disturbed by its short life, but continues to grow.

Why is it so difficult for us to see how through the mysterious workings of Earth, God provides for our basic needs as well? Our problem is that we want more than we need, so we exploit and hoard at the expense of Earth itself, of other humans and other forms of life. God has called us forth from Earth and sustained us as part of the Earth community. Why are we anxious? Where is our confidence? Remember our Lord promised, “These things will be given to you as well”—all the things we need in this life!

Jesus has given us three reasons that the disciples are to trust in God for the basic necessities of life. Number one, it’s a matter of priorities. Life is more important than grasping for more and more, better food and clothing. The life Jesus speaks of is not merely survival, but the quality of life God intends for God’s people—abundant life, life in the kingdom of God.

Secondly, the kind of faith that is being called for is that of trust in God as the Creator of all. It’s not a matter of how strong our faith is, that if we have enough faith, we will never be hungry or homeless. Look at the early Christians and how they suffered for Christ. They were hungry, in prison and were killed for their faith. Does that mean their faith wasn’t strong enough—NO. This means that the hungry and homeless today cannot be blamed for not having enough faith.

Some of the things that concern us so much are not all that important. We have not given enough attention to the truly important things: family, friends, a more just and peaceful society or our own personal, intellectual and spiritual development. Remember when materialism threatens to control us, Jesus says there’s more to life than that.

How would we change if we were as concerned about God’s kingdom as we are about the size of our next paycheck or the next step up the career ladder? What value would we give to reconciling broken relationships, sharing the gospel of God’s love and working for peace and justice for the oppressed? Seek God’s kingdom, but don’t add the kingdom to a list of things about which to be anxious, making it a work.

Dogs exemplify for us what it means to want to be with someone. When Ray and I lived in Rhode Island, Ray’s Seeing Eye Dog was Abby. She wanted both of us to be together in the same place. She couldn’t decide who to be with otherwise. I was finishing my undergrad work and would be in the den, while Ray would be in the living room watching television. Abby would come into the den for a few minutes and spend time with me. Then she would leave the den and go into the living room to spend time with Ray. She did this the entire evening until I joined Ray in the living room and she could finally settle down. You could tell she was thinking, “Finally! Now I can rest.” Her great desire was to spend time with her people.

Our new pet dog, Jessi, is much the same way. She has a hard time deciding who to spend time with if we’re not in the same place. If we leave to go somewhere and she’s home alone, we can hear her crying, “Arrarr.” Thankfully no one lives nearby. The point is that God has been described as the Hound of Heaven. God wants to spend time with us.

We humans need to come to see our place and role in the universe as completely dependent on the habitats, flora and fauna of Earth, all of which have intrinsic value independent of human needs and wants.

Now may the power of Christ reach deep into our hearts, our minds, and our bodies to heal our wounds and through us to bring health and security to Earth and to the creatures of Earth.  
Amen.

Resources consulted
Dianne Bergant, The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary
Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke
R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX: Luke, John
Joel B. Green, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke
Leah Schade, Nick Utphal,  letallcreationpraise.org

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