Text: Matthew 6:24-34
Within the final 10 verses of Matthew chapter six, Jesus mentions “worry” 6 times. Worry, Anxiety, take your pick translation wise. Worry, as in “Do not worry.” Anxious, as in don’t be.
In itself, telling someone not to be anxious can be predictably counterproductive. Like we know we’re not supposed to be anxious. We don’t want to be anxious. When we feel anxious we get anxious about that. We worry that we’re worrying too much. So it goes in the land of mental loops.
In Jesus’ teaching, he highlights food and clothing as primary sources of worry. These are basic human needs that far too few, past and present have had enough of. And, when we do have plenty of both, we manage to find other causes for anxiety.
Jesus points away from the world of humans. He points to the birds. “Consider the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns.”
Consider the birds.
Consider that humans have not always been sowing and reaping and gathering into barns. As best scholars can tell, agriculture is a relatively recent experiment. For the vast majority of our existence our ancestors were foragers, bird-like. About 13,000 years ago humans started relating in a new way with particular plants and animals. We domesticated them, or they domesticated us. In different parts of the world, we started doing less foraging of perennials, less roaming, and more planting of annuals, more settling – sowing, reaping, and gathering into barns. Even though food diversity and nutrition went down, food quantity went up, as did population. Towns and villages got bigger and more permanent. We cut or burned trees to plant fields in the rich soil, rerouted water sources for irrigation. Having food reserves, we specialized into a division of labor. And when you have barns full of food you better have a way to defend them. Societies became organized more hierarchically. With more ability to create and collect, trade developed and flourished. Keeping track of what’s in the barns led to accounting, which led to writing, and eventually there are Starbucks and smart phones and rumors of self-driving cars.
And lots of food and lots of clothes. And refrigerators, the mighty refrigerator. The little electrified barn in your house preserving what others have sown and reaped. How cool is that? Our own private mini-barn.
Consider the refrigerator.
Matthew 6:25-26 “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? Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet the Holy One feeds them.”
Consider the words of Gordon Hempton, Krista Tippet’s final interview of 2016 for her podcast “On Being.” Mr. Hempton has dedicated his life to listening. He’s taken his ears and recording equipment to some of the quietest, and sound-rich places on earth. He explains: “(Humans) have a very discreet bandwidth of super-sensitive hearing, and that’s between 2.5 and 5 kilohertz in the resident frequencies of the auditory canal.” He says that people often assume the human ear is adapted to best hear the human voice. But this is not the case. He points out that most of what he’s saying now, “except for the “s” sounds and the high-pitched sounds, fall well below that range.”
He asks, “Is there something in our ancestors’ environment that matches our peak hearing sensitivity?”
He answers his own question. Yes, there is a perfect match: birdsong.
It turns out that considering the birds is something we’ve been doing longer than we’ve been farming. It’s in our DNA.
And Why, Mr Hempton goes on, “would it have any benefit to our ancestors to be able to hear faint birdsong? Why would our ears possibly have evolved so that we could walk in the direction of faint birdsong?”
And he answers his own question, “Birdsong is the primary indicator of habitats prosperous to humans.”
“Isn’t that amazing?” Mr. Hempton asks his interviewer.
Consider that the birds of the air have their own ways of dealing with anxiety, and have established their own neighborhood watch system.
This year’s Winter issue from the Arc of Appalachia speaks of this. The Arc is based in southern Ohio and is committed to buying and preserving remnants of the Eastern hardwood forest. “Woodland sprawl,” they like to say. A text box on a page invites the reader to consider this: “Our native songbirds have an inter-species defense pact. When a hawk is sighted, each species alarm call is recognized by other bird species, who immediately repeat the alarm in their own dialect and pass it on to the next bird listening. The resulting ‘siren’ song races through the forest, reaching speeds approaching 150 miles per hour” (Winter 2016-17, The Arc of Appalachia: Recovery, p. 7).
Consider this cooperative form of security. “Do not worry about your life. Consider the birds.”
While considering the birds in the early 1960’s Rachel Carson found great cause for anxiety. Her research detailed that bird and other wildlife populations were being decimated by the widespread use of powerful pesticides, like DDT, and that the chemical companies had been deceptive about their dangers. She named her book Silent Spring. The title suggested that the birdsong which has accompanied us through our coming of age as a species was in danger of falling silent. It’s hard to consider the birds if there’s a silent spring. Her writing is seen as the beginning of the environmental movement. It also led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Consider the ways that 13,000 years of agriculture have brought us civilization and prosperity. Consider how the fortunate ones have no worry of where their food or clothes will come from. Consider that the same agricultural revolution that brought us refrigerators also brought us DDT, which threatened to silence the birds, that neither sow nor reap nor store into barns.
Consider what we’ve created in just a few thousand years. To quote Mr. Hempton: “Isn’t that amazing?”
Are we feeling less or more anxious than when we started this long-running experiment?
In the verse before speaking about human worry and bird foraging Jesus says: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.”
In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, mammon referred to wealth, or money, or property. The message about anxiety, birds, and lilies, and seeking first the Kingdom of God is all spoken in the context of economy, the complex network of relationships of giving and receiving, trust and reciprocity.
Mammon wasn’t considered evil in itself. In fact, the Aramaic translation of Hebrew Scriptures uses the word in Deuteronomy 6:5, which Jesus will later lift up as the greatest of all commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your Mammon.” In English we translate that as strength.
You shall love the Lord with all your mammon. With all your substance. With all you can muster.
You cannot serve both God and mammon.
In the Divine economy, mammon has a purpose of loving and glorifying God. Mammon can add to the abundance of creation. It can multiply that which it touches. It can add value. It can enrich the quality and diversity of life. It can reduce anxiety.
How are we doing with that?
Maybe God is the one doing the experimenting. Seeing how these humans do with the gift of Mammon – wealth, money, strength. Reminding us that mammon must always be put in the service of life, and not life in the service of Mammon.
The other greatest commandment Jesus will combine with the first is the command from Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself. In the Divine economy, the neighbor includes the birds and the lilies. The Holy One feeds them and they enthusiastically participate in the economy of life on which we’re all dependent. Economy and ecology become synonyms. One can imagine headlines on the front page of the business section: consumer contentment is up, birdsong is on the rise, the lilies are flourishing.
How about this treasonous thought: You cannot serve God and unfettered global capitalism.
These are anxious times. Here in the homeland there are promises of dedicating more resources to defending our own barns. Stripping away some of the laws that were on the side of the birds and lilies. Building walls around ourselves. Casting blame on a particular group of people and rounding them up for removal. These are actions born out of deep anxiety.
Consider how to resist an anxiety based economy without being overcome with the very anxiety we seek to resist.
Consider that we will need to develop a neighborhood watch system much like the birds. Such that when a member of our community is detained for deportation, and a family torn apart, a siren call goes through the network, and a rapid response team is ready to inject compassion and advocacy into the situation. The Central Ohio Worker Center is in the process of creating something very much like this throughout Columbus. They are hosting a dinner and fundraiser a week from this evening to invite a wider circle into their work. If you haven’t already seen it, we will link to it in the Tuesday announcements.
Consider your participation in an economy of life. Consider the exchanges, the giving and receiving of love and support and solidarity, that multiply and enrich the health of the community. Consider prayer as an essential act of loving God and your neighbor and yourself at the same.
Consider the great company of women and men who have sought first the kingdom of God. Consider that, 800 years ago, St. Francis was known to stop along the path and speak with the birds, much to his disciples amazement and delight. Consider that the current leader of the Roman Catholic church has chosen this name for himself. Consider seeking out his words at least once a week. Consider who else you need to listen to these days. Consider a place where you will look at and listen to the birds.
Jesus said: “Seek first the kin-dom, the global interspecies family, of God, and God’s righteousness and justice, and all these things will be given you as well.”