Rev. Dr. Russ Daye

20th after Pentecost – Thanksgiving Sunday

October 10, 2021

Joel 2:21-27

Do not fear, O soil;
    be glad and rejoice,
    for the Lord has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field,
    for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
    the fig tree and vine give their full yield.

 O children of Zion, be glad
    and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain[
a] for your vindication,
    he has poured down for you abundant rain,
    the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

 I will repay you for the years
    that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent against you.

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
    and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[a] or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  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?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?[b]  And why do you worry about clothing?  Consider the lilies of the field, 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 he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  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 Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God[c] and his[d] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Tevita Havea in the chapel of the Pacific Theological college in Fiji almost twenty years ago is still fresh in my mind.  In the sermon, my colleague Tevita, who was from Tonga, talked about Tongans who lived generations ago on a small island off of the main island.  They lived with a particular challenge:  there was no source of fresh water on their little island.  The only freshwater spring was actually a little offshore and they would go out with vessels to collect the sweet water from among the salt.  Over the years, there were a number of occasions when the sweet water disappeared, and their buckets could only find salt.  As you can imagine, this caused much anxiety.

What struck me most strongly about this story is how these ancestors responded to the disappearance of fresh water.  They interpreted this calamity as a sign that they had somehow fallen out of favour with their divinity, that something about how they were living had placed them in disharmony with the spiritual order and this was being manifest in the natural order.  Instead of frantically trying to dig new underwater wells, their response was to come together as a community for a concerted time of prayer, discernment, repentance, and reconciliation.  As it happened, the sweet water returned, as did their sense of spiritual harmony manifested in the natural realm.

Now it’s hard to imagine a setting more different from this little tropical haven than the setting for today’s reading from the prophet Joel.  Joel writes to the ancient Israelites living on the dusty hills and plains of Palestine.  But Joel shares an important belief with those Pacific Islanders:  disaster in the physical world is a manifestation of disharmony with the spiritual order, with the Divine.  Israel has been ‘punished’ by drought and by plagues of locusts.  But, through a process of punishment, repentance, and re-harmonization, Israel has been ‘vindicated.’ The rains have come, the locusts have disappeared, and the store houses are full.

Now both of these narratives contain elements of anxiety, even existential threat, as well as disturbing depictions of punitive gods, but there is something underlying the narratives that is comforting.  The ancient Israelites and Tevita Havea’s forbears both looked deeply into their world and made the same conclusion:  there is an underlying cosmic order.  Despite the unpredictability of everyday events, despite the calamities and the vagaries of human experience, they could perceive an underlying harmony, an almost tectonic goodness, if you will, and they believed they had agency.  When they acted in concert with this order, they were blessed with well-being and the fruits of the world.  When they violated it, there were consequences.  While they might fear those consequences, they were comforted by the belief that humans were not without agency.  They were not subject to the chaotic expressions of a random universe or fickle gods who didn’t care about their fate.

This view of the world and our life in it has persisted for people of faith through the centuries.  Jesus’ words of comfort in Matthew 6, including his assurance, ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you’ are grounded in this very view.  In today’s world, however, it seems to be more and more difficult to maintain this perspective.  First of all, the worldview of cosmic materialism, which dominates western culture, refutes it.  There may be natural laws, but the creation of life was a chance event and there is no underlying moral order or spiritual realm that human beings can access to affect events in our world.  Our only agency lies in the application of technology.

And this view seems to be reinforced by the chaotic results of the application of technology.  The inventions that expand human agency – cars, airplanes, powerplants, industrial agriculture – have heated up the planet, destabilized its systems and ushered in calamities of biblical proportion.  And those who study the evolution of human technologies predict that even more dramatic changes are coming – even to the very nature of our species.  I want to read an extended quote from the magisterial work Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari.

Harari discusses the enormously consequential advances in the areas of genetic engineering, cyborg engineering (building machines and computers into our bodies), and artificial intelligence.  He goes on to say:

We don’t know where these paths might lead us, nor what our god-like descendants will look like.  Foretelling the future was never easy, and revolutionary biotechnologies make it even harder.  For as difficult as it is to predict the impact of new technologies in fields like transportation, communication and energy, technologies for upgrading humans pose a completely different kind of challenge.  Since they can be used to transform human minds and desires, people possessing present-day minds and desires, by definition, cannot fathom their implications.

For thousands of years history was full of technological, economic, social and political upheavals.  Yet one thing remained constant:  humanity itself.  Our tools and institutions are very different from those of biblical times, but the deep structures of the human mind remain the same.  This is why we can still find ourselves between the pages of the Bible, in the writings of Confucius or within the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides.  These classics were created by humans just like us, hence we feel that they talk about us…

However, once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new kind of process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend.  Many scholars try to predict how the world will look in the year 2100 or 2200.  This is a waste of time.

Ok, this is a lot to take in, but I think we can all agree on a of couple things.  First, the world is changing with breathtaking speed and this change is making life more uncertain.  Second, in times that seem more and more chaotic, it becomes hard to believe in an underlying order, let alone one marked by what the Buddhists call Basic Goodness.  Fortunately, Jesus’ preaching in Matthew 6 speaks to just such a time.  His listeners, first century Jews living under the weight of the largest empire in history which was ushering in change in every area of life – technological, cultural, political, spiritual – and imposing this change with great violence, would have been reeling in uncertainty as much as we are.

And what was Jesus’ instruction to them?  ‘Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. … can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? … But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Now Jesus understood as well as we do that just saying to someone, ‘don’t worry,’ doesn’t stop them from worrying.  So, what’s he up to?  Well, Jesus understood that the great temptation in times of chaos and danger is to be so captured by anxiety that we become hyper-concerned with ourselves.  We become self-focused, we hoard our resources, and we become obsessed with security.  When he says ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God’ he knows full well that we don’t enter the Kindom as individuals.  ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name …’  The Kindom ‘lives within you and among you.’  He is driving people into community and teaching that the underlying order is manifest there. And, by the way, it is dis-harmony within community that sends Tongans and Israelites and all of us out of sync with the underlying order.  In community is trust, in community is generosity, in community is our daily bread because we share.  Living in the blessings of community ultimately gives rise to the emotion that is the antidote to worry:  gratitude.  You cannot will away worry no matter who tells you to.  But you can turn from worry to generosity in a way that builds community – for which you will ultimately be very grateful.

Today’s reading ends with this instruction:  ‘do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.’  I actually prefer the King James translation: ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’

Life is changing at a pace that boggles the mind and twists the gut.  It is tempting to believe that by worrying about tomorrow, by perseverating on its dangers, we can predict it and set up our lives to be safe and comfortable then.  But that just causes anxiety to rebound when tomorrow doesn’t look like we thought it would. Let’s shift our focus to today, live in generosity and gratitude in a way that builds community and draws community down into the underlying order that our tradition promises is actually there.  In that order, in the Kindom, we will find strength and wisdom and courage and genius.  And when tomorrow brings the evil of that day, or just the chaos, we will have those things to draw on.  We may indeed need to analyze change, develop strategic responses and generate new technologies, but this work will be driven by gratitude and hope, not by anxiety and worry.  Worry is ingenious at causing us to be self-obsessed.  Gratitude is ingenious at building right relations.  And the genius and courage of those relations is the place from which we must operate to face what is coming.

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