There is something so strange about the turning of the leaves each Autumn. From the perspective of our culture and our lives, there is something almost shocking about the leaves turning from green to yellow and orange and red.
It happens every Autumn, of course. As the temperatures begin to drop during the day, and the temperatures begin to drop over night, the production of chlorophyll slows down in the leaves. As the production of chlorophyll slows, the deeper colours of the leaves are slowly unmasked, and some new colours are created. The hills of our city and the parks of our city and the streets of our city become a canvas alive with fire and light. For just a few short weeks our world takes on new and remarkable character – we observe a beauty we could hardly have imagined just a few short weeks ago.
But why would I say that this changing of the leaves is strange? And why would I say that the turning of the leaves to yellow and orange and red is almost shocking from the perspective of our culture?
In fact I’m not the one making this suggestion. Rather, it is Jesus who thinks that that this remarkable alteration of the landscape will be shocking to us – it is Jesus who thinks we are in some sense alienated from what is happening in the world around us.
In our passage, Jesus says to his disciples, to those who listen to his sermon on the mount: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
Jesus says to his listeners: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow – they neither toil nor spin.”
Jesus could very well have added, for us, this morning: “Look at the leaves in all their glory – look at this living fire of orange and yellow and red, dancing in the wind, floating to the ground. These leaves have not laboured to become beautiful.”
What do all of these things have in common? What do the birds of the air, and the wild flowers of the field, and the leaves on the trees have in common? They have at least this in common: that for all of their beauty; and for all of their colours; and for all of their flourishing; and for all of the delight they offer us; and for all of their fragility and vulnerability; for all of this – they are not anxious – they make no plans for the future – they are not stressed about how they will survive into next week – they are not worried about next year’s growth or next year’s migration or next year’s transformation. What all of these things have in common is that they display none of the anxious planning that is so much a part of our culture – they exhibit none of the managerial control that so defines our society and our lives.
In this part of his sermon on the mount, Jesus is doing a remarkable thing. He is setting up a contrast between two cultures. On the one hand he speaks about human culture, his own culture and our culture. And on the other hand he speaks about the culture fo the birds and the flowers and the leaves.
And Jesus is saying: “We have something to learn from this other culture. We have something to learn from the chickadees that dance through nearby branches – we have something to learn from the Deptford pinks growing in our meadows – we have something to learn from the gorgeous leaves that float down from the trees.”
They don’t worry about tomorrow.
They aren’t obsesses with securing their future.
They don’t stress about how keep themselves beautiful.
They don’t try to control where they will grow or where they will flit or where they will float.
If we can speak of the natural world in terms of human characteristics for a moment, we could say: The birds simply trust God’s provision. The flowers leave their nourishment and growth and future to God. The leaves float trustingly on the wind of God’s grace. The birds and flowers and leaves have become, in the hands of Jesus, a parable of the kingdom.
The New Testament scholar Richard Dillon puts it like this: “The birds and flowers have become images of our estrangement from the beneficent rule of God.”
The birds and the flowers and the autumn leaves have become a reminder that in so many ways we don’t’ trust God’s provision for us. Rather,
we trust our own capacity to plan;
we trust our own capacity to provide;
we trust our own capacity to secure the future;
we trust our own capacity to clothe and feed ourselves.
In so many respects we have forgotten the one who holds our lives and our future in his care. But Jesus’ point is not only that we overlook the care and provision of God – not only that we fail to trust the future God provides to his people. That rebuke would be strong enough all in its own right.
His additional point is that when we place our trust in ourselves we are very often defined by anxiety and stress and worry. In fact, these are two sides of the same coin. Our exaggerated sense of our responsibilities and an exaggerated sense of our capacities goes hand in hand with anxiety in trying to secure everything we need.
In the middle of all of this, Jesus asks a question to try and get us thinking rightly about all of the stress and worry and planning that characterize our lives. He asks this diagnostic question: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
And the answer Jesus assumes for this question is of course “No.” “No, we can’t add a single hour to our span of life.” In an ultimate sense we cannot secure our futures. The future is beyond our control – the future cannot be tied down – the future will not succumb to our managerial charms. Certainly, we can pretend otherwise – and we often do pretend that our lives and futures can be managed and controlled – we often pretend we can guarantee that we will be clothed and fed for the duration of the year or of our lives. Yet even as we pretend in this way, most of us realize, when we stop and think about it, that it would not take much of a crisis to expose the lie that our lives and future can be secured. You see, life can be controlled and life can be managed – right up to the moment when life suddenly can’t be controlled or managed any more.
Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life. No.
In a way, what we’ve offered so far this morning is the easy message. In general it’s a negative message:
See how we try to control what is beyond our control.
See how we have failed to trust God’s provision.
See how estranged we are from God’s beneficent provision.
But Jesus doesn’t only offer a negative or judgmental word to us. Far from it. The teaching of Jesus is, first and foremost, a positive invitation to trust God; an invitation to be set free from stress and worry; an invitation to rediscover the assurance that God is present to support and bless – to provide what we need for life.
A few weeks ago our family went down to a small farm near Huntingdon. In the months of June through October we get a basket of vegetables each week from this farm. And every year in September we go down and spend an afternoon working at the farm – picking potatoes or digging carrots – and we share in a potluck supper with others who are members of that CSA farm.
This year, while we were out in the field harvesting carrots there was a commotion with some of the kids off near some trees. I went over to see what was going on and it turns out that Tabea had found a chickadee that had somehow become stuck to a clump of burrs on a bush. The burrs were stuck to the bird’s wing and its belly and it was immobilized there on the bush – there was little doubt it would die in pretty short order if we did nothing to help it. Tabea ran to get scissors from the house and when she got back we cut the branch from the bush.
And then we worked – Tabea, another girl, and me – to gently remove the burs from the bird. I held that fragile and tiny bird in a gloved hand as it pecked at my fingers and struggled with it swings. We cut away little bits of branch, and pulled the burs from its feathers as gently as we could. The last bur was the most difficult – it was lodged firmly against the chickadee’s chest. But with some persistence we were able to finally remove the last burr, and as we did so I released the bird and it flew away.
Those few moments on the edge of a field – those few moment with adult hands and children’s hands fussing over a precious bird – those few moments of wanting to see it thrive and flourish – that moment of care is a parable of God’s loving care for the smallest of creatures – and a deeper parable of God’s care for those God has redeemed and called in Christ Jesus.
Jesus says to his disciples, and to anyone who will listen to him: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
Jesus adds: “But if God so clothes the grass of the field and the lilies of the meadow, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?”
If God cares for the birds and the flower and the trees with such tenderness, will God not also care for you – provide what you need – put food on your table – put clothes on your back – provide the enough that you need for life.
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’… Your heavenly father knows that you need all of these things.”
Jesus offers an invitation to do the hardest thing: offers an invitation to trust God – to let go of our presumption of control over our lives and our survival and our wellbeing – to realize and to trust God’s loving sovereignty over these things.
In that sense, this passage becomes an invitation to pray humbly that we would develop this capacity for trust. To pray longingly that we would become like the flowers that neither spin nor worry. To pray deeply that we would be able to live as carefree and trustful as the red and yellow leaves that float each year from tree branch to ground.
The possibility of a deeper trust in God’s provision lies necessarily down this path of prayerful encounter – down this path of prayerful reaching out to the God who is with us and for is in Christ. If we are not developing an ever-deeper appreciation of God’s nearness to us – an ever-deeper awareness of God’s life for us – then it is hard to imagine how we could grow deeper in our trust in God’s care and provision.
Jesus adds a final word in this series of reflections – a word that is as challenging and as hopeful as any of the words he has yet spoken in this passage.
Jesus adds this word in teaching his disciples: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
For Jesus, one of the reasons that we are preoccupied with securing our future – one of the reason we are so busy managing our lives – one of the reasons we planning for a secure and comfortable retirement – one of the reasons we have lost touch with God’s gracious provision for us – is because the kingdom of Jesus has been displaced from the throne of our lives and imaginations.
Which is to say that the path toward a deeper trust in God not only involves our turning away from self-preoccupation and self-assurance – and the path toward deeper trust not only involves our walking the path of prayerful intimacy with God – but it also involves our pursuit of the ways and kingdom of Jesus.
“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
When we serve those who are perpetually hungry, it becomes much harder to obsess over our cash flow and resources. When we reach out to those who are displaced from their homes, it becomes much harder to be preoccupied with how we will pay for our next renovation. When we listen to those who are lonely or afraid it becomes much harder to fixate on our capacity to control our lives.
A deepening trust in the truth of God’s provision – a deepening trust in the care of God – takes place at this point of intersection:
As we turn away from our self-preoccupation and self-assurance.
As we reach out prayerfully to the God who cares and blesses.
As we turn to our neighbour in the love of the risen Jesus.
A simple recipe in many ways – and one that we can learn from the birds, the flowers, the autumn leaves in all their glory. Thanks be to God. Amen.