Two weeks ago today, I went through Manhattan to visit a museum on my way to spend a couple of days at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. As I walked down Fifth Avenue, someone thrust an issue of what looked like The New York Times into my hand. Even though people rarely give you free copies of newspapers, I didn’t think much about it until later in the day when, in the solitude of my monastery guest house room, I opened the paper and saw this banner headline: “IRAQ WAR ENDS”. After I shook my head in disbelief, I saw the next banner: “NATIONAL HEALTH INSURANCE ACT PASSES”. This was followed by another, even juicier story: “USA PATRIOT ACT REPEALED”. I think that I began to sense that something funny was going on when I saw the next headline, “ALL PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES TO BE FREE.” And I knew I was really in parody land when I spotted this story, “CONGRESS RETURNS CIVICS TO HIGH SCHOOL CURRICULUM”.
As I looked closer at this faux issue of The New York Times, I discovered that it was dated July 4, 2009. Upon further investigation of the paper’s fine print, I learned that this prank was the collaborative project of a number of progressive organizations. Still, it’s hard to describe the shock of seeing a newspaper proclaiming the news someone like me wants so desperately to see enacted into reality. The war over? Health care for everybody? High schoolers studying Civics? I knew it couldn’t be true, but I desperately wanted it to be.
Now your ideal headlines might read differently, and you and I may differ on the political shape of our ideal dreams for America, but we all have those dreams, and in our best moments people all across the political spectrum can attribute the best motieves to each other. We all want our nation to incarnate the values envisioned by our founders.
The unreal experience of seeing the news one hopes for reported as fact even though you know it can’t quite be true mimics the Zen koan-like paradox of hearing tonight’s Bible selections read in sequence. We do not live by bread alone, says Moses, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. [Deuteronomy 8] Fair enough, but then Jesus and his brother, James, seem to be at odds with each other about the tension between doing versus being. Listen again to James—the apostle who was also Jesus’s younger brother:
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.--James 1
You and I social action types love to quote James—he also said “Faith without works is dead”—because he places such a sharp priority on deeds over intentions. If you hear the word but don’t act on it, you’re like a person looking in a mirror who forgets what they just saw—in other words, a narcissist with a bad memory. Those of us who hear the Gospel calling to us to do more than think good thoughts about the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the lonely, the sick love James and his emphasis on action because he emphasizes social responsibility.
But then there’s this comforting (but also troubling) teaching from James’s older brother, Jesus. Listen to this again:
Consider the lilies of the fields, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you-you of little faith? –Matthew 6
Wait a minute: I just heard your brother telling me that action is the central value of the Christian life. Now you’re telling me to be like a bird who takes food as it comes or a flower who receives clothing as a gift. On its surface, this teaching can be heard as a counsel to take life as it comes. It reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon I saw once of two men chatting at the entrance to hell. One guy says to the other, “I went with the flow and I wound up here.”
So we have dueling banjo brothers giving us seemingly contradictory teachings. How do we make sense of this? And what does it have to do with Thanksgiving?
The first thing I want to say before I say anything else—and not only because my wife, Kathy, is here listening intently to every word I say—is that neither Jesus nor his brother is telling those of us preparing for tomorrow’s feast that we don’t have to help with the cooking or the dishes. God may feed the birds and clothe the lilies, but part of striving for the righteousness of God’s kingdom does not entail sitting back and letting everyone else wait on you. At least not if you want to stay in your relationship.
Actually, if you listen to Jesus carefully, he’s not telling you not to act. Indeed, he ends this teaching using the most active verb in his vocabulary: strive. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness,” and all the necessary things of life will be given you as well. So just as his younger brother James can say, “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers,” so Jesus calls us to “strive for God’s righteousness”. The life of faith is a life both of contemplation and of action. We worship God both in prayer and in action. The desert mystics in the earliest days of Christianity were very clear about this. Even a hermit living in a desert cave in Egypt was supposed to stop praying if a hungry person came along. Attending to human need is the most authentically devout thing we can do.
But listen again to what Jesus actually says after he tells us about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field: “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? . . . Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ “ Jesus isn’t telling us not to act; he’s telling us not to worry. Even though many of us tend to think that worrying is actually doing something, Jesus and his brother James make a very sharp distinction between them. Staying up nights worrying about things—either my own personal well-being or that of the nation or the planet—does nobody any good. By fretting and fussing I may think that I’m getting something done, but I’m really like James’s forgetful narcissist looking in the mirror. The faithful person is called both to acceptance and to action: acceptance of the reality that I’m not in charge, and action in the areas where I can potentially make a difference. I know that God is going to put a Thanksgiving turkey in front of me tomorrow, but I need to participate in the process that brings that meal about. Losing sleep about what can go wrong with it is a self-deluding waste of energy.
And that brings me back, in a way, to that wonderful, weird fake New York Times I was handed on the street a couple of weeks ago. Sure, I want to see the war end, civil liberties restored, and the quality of our educational system transformed. But if I want to see that day come about I have to do more than hope and less than worry about it. The problem for all of us 21st century people, of course, is that our minds are constantly barraged with images of things we might worry about which we can never personally address. There is an awful lot of pain and suffering in this world, and God cares deeply about all of it. But our task is not to imitate God here. Our task is to let God be God and take on all of it, and to commit ourselves to acting in ways that are appropriate to our passions, gifts, and resources. We cannot solve everything, so we should not worry about everything. Instead, we should face into human need as it presents itself to us in the scope of our daily experience and strive, as Jesus would say, to make it right. God is God. We’re not. So we cannot fix everything, even by worrying about it. But we still have important work to do.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. God knows the world is a mess, and our hearts are called to open up to all those who are sick or lonely or hungry or lost or in any way up against it these days. But listen again to Jesus:
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 Creator knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
What Jesus says about worrying applies not only to the world we tend to fret over, it applies as well to you and me. Not only should we not worry about how all those fake New York Times headlines will come to be realized, so should we not worry about what will become of us. You and I are precious to God; and if God feeds birds and clothes lilies, will not that same God also take care of us. To be sure, we need to work with God and each other on behalf of others and ourselves, but worrying about what will become of us puts us through needless anxiety and scatters our energies.
Jesus came among us for a number of reasons, one of the chief of which was simply to show us that one can live an abundant life even in the midst of scarcity. We live that abundant life by pulling together, not apart. We live that abundant life by actively working for the well-being of ourselves and others and by giving up worrying about things that are beyond our control. How many beautiful days have you squandered by having your attention diverted from what was right in front of you? That is the kind of worrying that keeps us from living the abundant life which God offers us—a life of blessing and grace and renewal, a life lived in Thanksgiving for the abundant wonder of life which is present to us even when things look their scarcest
May all of us find ways, together and in our households and communities, to observe Thanksgiving this year as an opportunity to see the abundant blessings that are ours even in times of anxiety over scarcity. And may we find times, with Jesus and his brother James, to give up worrying and instead to be doers of the word, striving for peace, justice, and wholeness for ourselves, each other, and the world. Amen.