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February 16, 2020

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley using Matthew 6.25-end at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 16th February 2020, the Second Sunday before Lent.

Look at the birds, says Jesus, they don’t work for a living or save up, but still God feeds them.   Aren’t you worth more than birds? And the same with lilies, which finish up on the fire but are among the most beautiful things in the world. They don’t worry like you do, but don’t you think God will be even more concerned to clothe you?

I’m paraphrasing. But the gist is clear: God knows you need basic things? ‘So do not worry about tomorrow,’ Jesus says, ‘for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.’

I read the other day about someone who received an email from a Christian friend in China. It finished, puzzlingly, ‘May the Lord pickle and store you’. It turned out this was the internet Chinese-to-English translation for the traditional blessing, ‘May the Lord preserve and keep you’.

But does relying on God to preserve and keep us mean we can stop planning and saving for the future, for contingencies that might arise? And should we stop taking out life and house insurance? I don’t think so, especially with Storm Dennis around!

Jesus is well-known for his hyperboles, exaggerations to make his points. Like the impossibility of a camel getting through eye of a needle, or the extraordinary image of someone with a plank in his eye trying to see the sawdust in another’s eye. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus asks, ‘Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?’ Or else, with a different translation of some ambiguous Greek, ‘Can any of you by worrying add a single cubit (that’s about 18 inches) to your height?’

Here, I believe, is the nub of the matter. It’s not the making of provision for the future that Jesus is questioning, but the worrying about it – the angst, as people say. You don’t need to worry, Jesus is saying. Relax, God loves you and he’ll care for you.

Then he goes on to say: ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’. Sometimes, this can ring true.

Like in a true story, recently told by the Chief Rabbi. Picture Frankfurt in the 1930s, with the Nazi party taking control. An outstanding academic, Rabbi Joseph Breuer, takes a daily walk after morning prayers. He remembers the ancient Jewish teaching to greet everyone with a smile. But is eyesight his deteriorating badly. So, to be sure, he doffs his hat and smiles at everyone he passes: street-cleaners, shop-keepers, his students – everyone. Then comes Kristallnacht. The local Jewish men are assembled, and those over 60 are ordered to stand forward. Rabbi Breuer, being just 57, stands still – until an officer comes and shouts at him, ‘You’re over 60 – step forward’. Deciding it is prudent to obey, the rabbi steps forward and his group is sent home. It turns out later that the under-60s were deported to Buchenwald and Dachau. Rabbi Breuer has scarcely got home when there is a loud knocking at the door. It’s the Nazi officer who had shouted at him, and now he tells the rabbi to gather his family and leave Germany immediately. ‘Why are you helping me?’ the rabbi asks. ‘Perhaps you don’t recognise me’, the officer replies. ‘I was the local police constable, and whenever we saw each other, you always made a point of greeting me. I couldn’t watch them take you away’.

Greeting strangers with a smile is certainly a way of advancing the kingdom of God. And ‘all these things’ that Jesus promised would result was in this case no less than life itself for the rabbi and his family.

But sadly, it’s not always like that. Think of the civilians suffering so terribly in Syria. Can we really tell them God loves them and they don’t need to worry where the basic necessities are coming from? Some of them will be good people who’ve been advancing God’s kingdom, not necessarily by anything particularly heroic or dramatic, but by simple caring and generosity. How can we tell them that ‘all these things will be given to them as well’? Some might claim that Jesus was making promises for an after-life. But I don’t think so: it was basic food and clothing that he was promising.

So was it false hope Jesus was offering? Or was it another example of rhetorical exaggeration? I can’t fully explain. There’s only one thing I can offer by way of a solution, but it’s not an easy one.

Perhaps it’s up to us, God’s people, God’s agents, to do our best to see that the promise if fulfilled, to see that ‘all these things’ like food and clothing arrive for those who need them. The UK’s record of 0.7% of Gross National Income for overseas aid is a good start, provided it remains genuinely altruistic and not self-interested, of which there’s always a political risk. And there are magnificent projects initiated by Christian Aid and SightSavers and Practical Action, for instance, which the Government match-funds and to which we can contribute.

Then, when God’s agents get to work, Jesus’s promise starts to become real. Seek God’s kingdom, and the things we all need will arrive. They’ll arrive where they’re needed because we Christians, along with others, insist on justice and fair trade and generosity and are generous ourselves. Of course, we’re into politics and economics. But it’s still basically a matter of seeking God’s kingdom by simple generosity. Charity certainly begins at home, but equally certainly it doesn’t stop there.

So may the Lord pickle and store you. Or, if you prefer, ‘May the Lord preserve and keep you’. Our faith is that he will, and that he’ll enable us to help preserve and keep others. Look at the birds; think of the lilies.