Reflection and Prayers
Don’t worry? About a thing?!
This time last week, I was making my way back from Lincolnshire, having attended a wedding at the end of a 10-day break from work. I missed you all terribly, of course (!) yet I did manage to have a great time – most of it spent in Ireland where, in the company of a silver chariot – called Gertrude – and a beige chauffeur – called Clare! – we traversed over a thousand miles, reveling in scenic drives, beauty stops, and the occasional Irish pub. It is, quite simply, a stunningly beautiful country. Me being me, and Ireland being Ireland, alongside quiet coves, dramatic cliffs, and world-renowned causeways, we did soak up the religious side of the country, visiting the birthplace of St. Columba, speaking with pagans in ancient tombs on the summer solstice, being blessed by a priest in the last Trinitarian order church in Ireland, and climbing St Patrick’s mountain where, for the price of a steep ascent and a few Hail Mary’s, you can still get yourself a good deal off punishment for your sins!
And yet, it was not up a holy mountain but in a bustling city that I was confronted with the intensity and absurdity of some of our Christian practices when, on a tour around Belfast with a former political prisoner, I witnessed the reality of the religious divisions which continue to exist in that wonderful city. We were taken to the sites where men, women, and children were murdered, alongside the wall that still divided the communities on which murals alternatively celebrated the dead and those that killed them, all the while being reminded that the troubles were far from over – for gates still had to be closed and gardens still had to be caged, for people to be, or at least feel, safe.
It is, of course, a gross misinterpretation to say that the violence was caused by religion. The very fact that our fascinating guide used the terms ‘British’, ‘English’, ‘Tories’ and ‘Protestants’ interchangeably during his commentary revealed some of the complexities of the issues at hand…and yet, there is no doubt that certainty of belief and prominence of Christian identity did – and does – play a vital role in the divisions. Walking along The Falls or Shankhill roads, talk of pogroms and martyrs can be heard as memorials are tended, flags fly, and the presence of the cross or crucifix signifies which side of the wall – and the war – you are on. And though, thankfully, much has changed since that deliberately named Good Friday Agreement, whether on those streets or in Stormont itself, the battle for power, control, and dominance – of hearts and minds, law and land – is still very much at play.
All of which, I would say, has great resonance to the world into which Jesus was born. Empire occupation, religious division, talk of rebellions, collusion, debates about the law and the land…these were burning issues of the day which Jesus addressed – albeit in a poetic, provocative, prophetic kind of way. Perhaps nowhere more so than in the teaching we now call ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ – a small section of which, we will hear now…
Reading: Matthew 6:24-34
I wonder how those words were first heard. I wonder how they struck you just now. Perhaps you were taken by those opening words about God and wealth, wondering what it might mean to love one and despise the other. Perhaps the mention of lilies, birds, and grass led you to bucolic images of the Palestinian countryside. Or perhaps the call ‘not to worry’ jolted you out of a mid-service nap. After all, telling a crowd dealing with state oppression, religious in-fighting, and food insecurity not to worry seems a little insensitive. Even for us today, with our various privileges and comforts, advising us not to worry whilst inflation rises, wars rage, and the climate crisis gets all the more frightening, seems naïve at best. And even just within the context of church, anxieties seem to abound as many churches – Castle Square included – look towards closure whilst others – St David’s included – have significant changes with which to contend.
And yet ‘do not worry’ is the most frequently given command in The Bible. In some ways, it’s God’s motto or mantra. Leaving slavery in Egypt, only to be faced with a lack of food and water in the wilderness? Do not worry. Innocently minding your own business when a celestial being pops by to let you know you’re carrying the Saviour of the world? Be not afraid. Enjoying a meal with your mate, only for him to say how he’s about to be denied, betrayed, and killed but he’s somehow got it all in hand? Chill your boots! Or words to that effect.
Except, of course, the words that God, the angels, Jesus, uses perhaps shouldn’t be paraphrased such because I don’t think Jesus is telling the crowd, the disciples in the upper room, or us today to ‘keep calm and carry on’. I don’t think that Jesus was quite the trippy ‘don’t worry, be happy’ type either. In which case, what IS he saying in this passage?!
What do you think? If we had more time, I’d invite us to ponder this in stillness, or to discuss it in pairs…but before your heart sinks at the mere idea, I’ll tell you a bit about what I hear in Jesus’ words here.
Firstly – ‘Consider the lilies’. With lilies, grass and birds here – with wildflowers, ravens, and sparrows in Luke’s version – Jesus is inviting us to reflect on nature. To indulge in a bit of Springwatch. I think it’s no accident that Jesus words about not worrying are accompanied by an encouragement to meditate on the natural world. I think his call to look to lilies isn’t a million miles away from the current interest in mindfulness – an invitation to take a break from the screens in our lives so to breathe deeply, look at the beauty in the ordinary world around us, and there find some peace. To look out for the divine in the everyday, the blessings in our midst, to – as William Blake put it – ‘see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower’.
And I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus pointed to the smallest of things too – sparrows, grass, wildflowers – in this example, for this is often what he did. In contrast to the Empire that said then – and still does today – that bigger equals better, that might is right – Jesus says God’s kingdom can be compared to lost coins, tiny pearls, and mustard seeds. According to Jesus, then, the kingdom belongs to little children, five loaves and two fish are an abundance; and a donkey is more important than a stallion. Perhaps we need to be reminded of that as a church today. Perhaps we have too often followed the path of the Empire where larger congregations and bigger buildings are signs of success. Where we desire control and comfort. Where we hope for exponential growth and fear decline. I know I have.
But I also know that the times I’ve felt most alive and connected in my church life are often with a smaller, more intimate group of people. I can think back to evening services, Lent groups, and dining tables where I have felt God’s presence in a very real way. And the feedback I hear about smaller groups that meet in the park or at guild; that gather here on second Sundays or online at storytelling communions; that have met in homes, in pubs, or over a cuppa after a film screening tells me that I’m not alone in finding God in the smaller group. Is that one of the reasons why Jesus chose twelve disciples? Was he aware that we might learn better, participate more, feel more connected? I wonder, then, what would it be like if we stopped thinking of ourself as a formerly big church and started embracing the small, the intimate in our church life. Might that, in itself, help us to heed Jesus’ command not to worry?
Perhaps, for some of us, it would. Perhaps, for others of us, the anxieties lurk at a different level. And this might be where Jesus’ words about the gentiles could help us out.
Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
Okay, so I don’t think Jesus is using his sermon-time to have a quick pop at the gentiles here. Nor do I believe that he is saying that questions about food, drink, and clothing aren’t important…after all, he later says that whether or not we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, and clothe the naked will be more significant than our religious beliefs, practices, and affiliations when it comes to God’s ultimate judgment!!! (Matthew 25:31-46).
Instead, then, I wonder if Jesus is simply reminding his Jewish audience that the gentiles – perhaps a shorthand for those who are yet to know God – might strive and worry about the day to day; might get preoccupied by the bigger and better ethic of the Empire but those who have a relationship with God – those who have seen God’s goodness, known God’s faithfulness, felt God’s love – have no need to. It’s a concept echoed in modern-day psychology. That when, in childhood, our needs are met; when, in relationships, society or even in church, we feel seen and heard, safe and loved, we thrive or at least can cope with the slings and arrows of life with a greater resilience. Whereas when we experience trauma at an early age; or when we’re in a relationship, community or church where we do not feel seen, heard, safe, or loved, we are more likely to be anxious, to demand attention, deny our need for others, or to seek security in power, control, and material possessions.
All of which isn’t to say that it us unfaithful to worry. By no means! Our scriptures are full of examples of inspiring men and women who were honest about their worries. Think Jesus in Gethsemane, for example.
But what Jesus also showed in the garden that night…what he showed the following day on the cross, what he demonstrated the Sunday after on a road to Emmaus and throughout his time with us, is that we are to trust in God. That’s what I think faith is, more than anything. More than creeds and confessions; more than denominational differences; more than identities, affiliations, and the need to be right and mighty, it’s about trust. It’s trusting that God exists and that God is good. It’s trusting that we are seen and heard, safe and loved. It’s trusting that whatever befalls us as individuals or as a church – that nothing can take away that fierce, wonderful, world-shaking love.
Perhaps it’s only when we dare to believe this that we can let go of at least some of our worries. It’s only when we embrace this, that we can strive, not for our own power, comfort, or control – but for the things of the kingdom – for justice and joy, peace and prosperity, for the safety and shalom of all creation. That’s the world Jesus was inviting his listeners to step into. That’s the journey he beckons us on again today. For such a journey, I think we could do with a blessing and I can think of no better one than this from Jan Richardson which is entitled –
‘Beloved is where we begin’:
If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
—Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
Hymn: Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
Prayers for ourselves and others
God of grace, love, peace and joy.
We come to you now with our hearts heavy when we look at the mess we are making of your world. We see sadness and pain, hurt and damaging relationships, selfish people with power that threatens to become dangerous and dangerous people desiring power that threatens our world. We see things that make us fearful and concerned and make us think that life will never be the same again; we also see things that are happening that threaten the very existence of our planet and so few people are taking notice and it feels like nothing is being done to address them.
And yet with all this, plus our own concerns, worries, lives and situations, we come to worship and hear ‘Do not be afraid…I have called you by your name, you are mine’. This goes against all the terror, anguish, pain and greed we see around us. Do not be afraid. So often we hear this from people throughout the Bible and yet our first response when things get tough is to worry and be fearful and try to control and manage things. We know your way goes against the ways of the world. That you turn around expectations and surprise, excite, amaze and confuse us even when we know what can happen.
You have shown us your desire for the world, you have promised us more than we can ever imagine, you have shown us a different way to be. So we come, stilling our hearts, holding our fears before you and seeking your way.
We hold before you a broken and hurting world, people fearful and anxious, a world of hunger and pain, a world of grief and anger, a world where conflict abounds, with twisted ideologies and misguided beliefs, a world where leaders appear more concerned about serving their own interests than those of the people they are called to represent and be serving. This is your world, damaged and destroyed by us, corrupted and claimed by us.
But we know this is not the end, this is not how you intend it to be and so we pray for this world, in its diversity and delight, its random colours and shapes, sizes and personalities and we pray for the good of your love, the blessing of your presence, the power of your Spirit, to come. Through words and actions, events, activities, protests and petitions, rallies and relationships. This we pray for all those people, places and situations that need peace, justice, equality, hope, love and light and renewal. SILENCE.
We hold before you those people, places and situations known to us and those things that trouble us and we offer them to you in prayer. We think especially of our those for whom we have concerns and for whom we care. SILENCE.
Help us, in our own little ways, be bringers of hope, messengers of love and fear busters. Help us to lose the anxiety and live love. Help us to put aside material gain and focus on the best for the common good, to manage well all that we have but not to let it become our purpose in life. May our lives reflect your glory, be glimpses of your love and bring little nuggets of your kin-dom to the places we are and the people we meet.
All this we pray through Jesus who knew our fallibility and showed us that you can work with us and through us, so that your kingdom may come and your will be done here on earth, as is already happening in heaven. Amen.
Prayers written by the Revd Jenny Mills, the URC’s Secretary for Education and Learning.