Despite the recent turn in the weather, the last couple weeks have provided us some of the most beautiful spring days that most of us can remember. Already the crocuses and the daffodils had made their appearance. Then, two weeks ago, came the flowering bushes and trees--the Japanese magnolia and the forsythia, the beautiful Bradford pears and now the redbuds--with the budding dogwood soon to blossom in delicate pinks and whites. The birds are also returning. The robins, especially, have been active in our back yard. The grass and the trees are greening, and all around us are signs of new life, the prodigal beauty of God's creation.
All of this reminded me of our New Testament text, one of my favorites, from Matthew's setting of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus tells us not to worry about our life, what we will eat, or what we will drink, or what we will wear. Look at the birds of the air, who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. Look at the lilies of the field, which neither toil nor spin, yet are clothed with gracious beauty beyond compare. If God can provide so gloriously for these, then surely God can provide for us as well.
The fact is, however, that this vision of freedom and beauty and delight in creation runs counter to so much of our daily existence. Every day we toil and spin. Many of us, at least, get up early in the morning, whether we feel like it or not. We get ourselves ready to go to work at jobs that provide us a living, whether we feel like that or not. We discharge all sorts of duties and responsibilities and obligations that bear down upon us, whether we have chosen them or not. Our days are consumed by the insistent demands that are placed upon us by the material and social conditions of our existence. Ours is hardly a grim existence--certainly not by comparison with most other inhabitants of this planet, for whom a bare subsistence existence is a constant challenge--but neither does our existence resemble that of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field so invitingly described by Jesus. Our lives are not nearly so effortlessly free.
Christianity has striven mightily to hold on to this vision of God's gracious and prodigal gift of life. We have all been taught that salvation is by grace working through faith, and not by works. Life is a benefaction, not an achievement. God's favor and blessing are not to be earned, they are freely bestowed. But can we really believe this vision of life? In Jesus' day, life must have been much simpler. The people of his day had to eat and drink and clothe and shelter themselves like the rest of us, but they did not have to worry so much about the future. They didn't have to worry about Social Security drying up. They didn't need to buy health insurance. They required no pension plan, no IRA, no 403(b) or 401(k), no profit-sharing or Keogh plan. There was no need to save up to put their children through college or to pay for nursing home expenses in their later years. Maybe it made sense in Jesus' day to tell people not to worry much about the provisions of life. People back then did not need as much, or want as much, or expect as much. People lived closer to the rhythms of nature. Of course, they also had poorer health than most of us do, and they died at an earlier age.
Our uncertainty about this vision of life in the providence of God is suggested by the story of the devout Presbyterian elder who, upon arriving outside the pearly gates, was informed by St. Peter that she needed to take the elevator to his left. As she stepped onto the elevator it plunged downward. When it came to a stop she stepped off into a dimly lit anteroom. Seated there were two very old men. The man on the right wore an academic gown and had a long beard. He was wiry with a thin face. The man on the left was heavier, with a round, chubby face. He wore a plain brown tunic. Quickly, she recognized the first man as John Calvin, the author of the INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION and the founder of Presbyterianism. "Is that you, Dr. Calvin?" she asked. "Yes it is," he answered despondently. "What are you doing here," she exclaimed, "you belong at table in the realm of God!" Calvin winced and said quietly, "Why don't you ask him? He helped get me into this."
The woman now recognized the other man as Martin Luther, the exponent of justification by faith and founder of the Lutheran churches. "Dr. Luther," she queried, "what happened? Why are you here?" Luther looked up at her with bitter sadness and said, "You'd better go next door and ask St. Paul. It's really all his fault." Taking a few steps into an even darker, smaller, dingier room, the woman sees St. Paul sitting on the floor rocking back and forth. "Oh dear!" she exclaims. "Whatever went wrong? Why are you here." St. Paul, hardly daring to look up, softly mumbles, "Works matter."
Oh yes, we would like to believe that life is a gift, that grace is free, that we can live by faith--but we are driven each day by the haunting suspicion that works matter, and that we really must do all that we can to make our existence secure. Of course, Jesus never said that works do not matter. His point was not that we could sit on our hands and let God and the rest of the world take care of us. Paul and Luther and Calvin did not think that way either. The real issue here is not whether we can get through this life without making any effort. Life in fact is filled with challenge, demand, and sacrifice. The real issue here is one of our basic or fundamental disposition. Do we recognize that life itself is a gift, or not? Do we trust in God's will to provide for us and our needs, or not? Do we realize that we cannot guarantee for ourselves a future, or not? Are we willing to live by grace, or are we caught up in the bondage and strain and toil of anxious, self-preoccupied, survivalist existence? Can we be grateful for all that God has provided, or do we only know how to worry about our future needs?
In the last verse of our text, Jesus says, "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." This is hardly a Pollyanna view of life. Jesus is not suggesting that we are "not to worry, everything will turn out fine." In fact, each day is filled with troubles and burdens. Therefore, we hardly need to go borrowing more than we already have. There is more than enough to keep us busy today. Moreover, if we try too hard to make everything come out all right tomorrow, we only create more trouble for ourselves today.
This last verse is a kind of addendum or footnote to Jesus' teaching about the birds and the flowers. It is a reminder that Jesus is not talking about a trouble-free world, a "once-upon-a-time" fantasy world that never will be. He is talking about a world in which what is given is more basic, and more important, than what can be achieved. He is talking about a world in which the conditions of our existence are already provided for, already bestowed. They are there for the birds, and for the flowers, and for us as well.
Usually, when we say that something is "for the birds," we are being dismissive of it. Why do you suppose that is? Do we suppose that the birds do not count? Do we suppose that anything that is good enough for the birds can hardly be good enough for us? On the one hand we look at the birds with enjoyment and envy and delight. On the other hand, we seem to think that our lives demand a very different sort of response to the conditions of our existence. We can hardly be so carefree as the birds. We must go to great lengths to make something of ourselves!
Jesus is trying to help us see things in a clearer, truer light. What we see in the birds and the flowers and all the beauties of creation is a manifestation of divine grace. What we see is a God who cares and who provides.
Among the stories and legends that are told of St. Francis of Assisi are those that convey his compassion and respect for the natural world. "When he would come on a vast field of flowers," it is said, "he would preach to them and exhort them to praise God as if they could understand his words. He would likewise exhort cornfields, vineyards, stones, fields, springs of water, green plants in gardens, earth, fire, and water to a praise and love for the Creator" [BROTHER FRANCIS, ed. Lawrence Cunningham (Family Library: New York, 1972), 93]. On one occasion it is said that he came upon a multitude of birds in a field:
(H)e went into the field toward the birds that were on the ground. And as soon as he began to preach, all the birds that were on the trees came down toward him. And all of them stayed motionless with the others in the field, even though he went among them . . .
The substance of St. Francis' sermon to those birds was this: "My little bird sisters, you owe much to God your Creator, and you must always and everywhere praise Him, because he has given you freedom to fly anywhere--also He has given you a double and triple covering, and your colorful and pretty clothing, and your food is ready without your working for it, and your singing that was taught to you by the Creator . . . And you are also indebted to [God] for the realm of the air . . . and He gives you the rivers and springs to drink from. He gives you high mountains and hills, rocks and crags as refuges, and lofty trees in which to make your nests. . . So the Creator loves you very much, since He gives you so many good things. Therefore, my little bird sisters, be careful not to be ungrateful, but strive always to praise God."
Now at these words of St. Francis, all those birds began to open their beaks, stretch out their necks, spread out their wings, and reverently bow their heads to the ground, showing by their movements and their songs that the words that St. Francis was saying gave them great pleasure [THE LITTLE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS, trans. Raphael Brown (Image Books: Garden City, NY, 1958), 76-77].
What St. Francis saw in, and said to, the flowers and the birds is obviously a sermon for us as well. What they showed him of God he preached back to them. It was a message of God's loving and providential care.
This morning we are about to proclaim a similar message in the act of baptism. Baptism is an action rich in symbolism and meaning. However, especially when we baptize a child, baptism is an expression of God's loving and providential care. It is a witness to what John Calvin and we Presbyterians have called prevenient grace. It is the grace that is already there, already provided, already on hand. It is the grace of life itself, but it is particularly the grace of being born into a caring and hospitable environment, to loving parents, to a household of faith, a family of God. In baptism we, the community of those who bear the name of Jesus, give witness to our understanding that such grace is present and active in our lives long before we can know or claim it. Indeed, we live by such prevenient grace.
Grace takes many forms, of course, not just the provision of the material conditions of our existence. Grace takes the form of community; it comes to us in acts of love; it expresses itself in gestures of kindness, in overtures of forgiveness, in the appreciation of an individual uniqueness, in the acceptance of a particular fault. Without grace there can be no family that stays together, no community that can be sustained, no life with others--and thus no life at all. So when we say that we live by grace, we are saying many things about what is necessary for human beings to live and flourish and attain the already given possibilities of their existence.
This morning our lesson about such grace has been delivered to us by the flowers and the birds. Some other morning that lesson might be delivered to us in another way, through the opening of some insight into the ways that human acts and relationships disclose to us the deeper realities of God's presence in our lives. Today, however, were we to play the part of St. Francis, we might say to the birds, "Come and be baptized!" "Come wash yourselves clean, and be refreshed and renewed." "Come celebrate and share the bounties of God's grace!" "Come, dramatize with us the truth that God provides for us a caring home, a sustaining environment, and a world of freedom in which to express the full range of our abilities, our gifts, our capacities for delight." "Therefore, my little bird sisters, be careful not to be ungrateful, but always to praise God." AMEN.