Birds, Blooms, and Bach” - Matthew 6:24-34 Cantata 51
This spring I had the chance to listen in on a conversation of 2020 graduates of my alma mater, Oberlin College. It was part of their virtual commencement weekend, sponsored by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Student speakers from a variety of religious backgrounds addressed the topic
“On Parting Again: Saying Goodbye During the Corona Virus Pandemic.”
I hadn’t really thought about what the pandemic was like for these graduating college seniors.
I remembered the formative relationships that I had built in college: professors, fellow students, and mentors, and how the final weeks of my time on campus and commencement itself
offered opportunities to reflect, give thanks, and celebrate.
It was clearly difficult for these students to get this same kind of closure.
In addition, the students reflected on something we have all experienced—
That once they got over the shock of leaving campus, their days were filled with sameness.
It was as if they were living the same day over and over, like the movie Groundhog day.
One student, however, talked about an antidote to this phenomenon:
watching the entire cycle of the birds nesting on his porch from his desk in the dining room.
In the first weeks of spring, he could see the bird nest forming; a little later, birds bringing worms.
And in the final week, he heard chirping, and saw baby birds in nest and eventually hopping around the porch. Nature doesn’t stop for anyone, he said.
The cycles of nature reminded him that life is resilient, irrepressible even--
and gave him hope that he wouldn’t be stuck in Groundhog day forever.
It was evident to me that for this young man, nature was a kind of sacred text,
pointing to God’s presence in the world.
The Bible does the same thing.
Psalm 19 proclaims, “The heavens are telling the glory of God,”
Jesus told parables about vineyards and fields, mustard seeds and fig trees;
he compared his ministry to free running water and shining light.
The epistle of Ephesians sets the salvation story in the midst of the entire cosmos:
Saying that in Jesus, God had “a plan for the fullness of time, things in heaven and things on earth,”
If you feel lost, scripture seems to say, look at the natural world around you:
It is a message from God to you that there is hope.
It’s what Jesus was saying today in his famous Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus was addressing a great crowd that gathered—
a crowd full of people desperate enough to follow an itinerant preacher from town to town.
He was on hillside outside town, and Jesus made an object lesson of the birds overhead:
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat… what you will wear.
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap… and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…
His gaze lands on the flowers on the weeds growing on the hillside.
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?
These signs from nature point to Jesus’ final words of reassurance:
Therefore do not worry what you will eat or what you will wear…
your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
Strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.
These words are not Pollyanna words of comfort.
Jesus lived in precarious times.
Most people in Palestine were peasants, living from hand to mouth.
Life was hard; most people lived only into their mid 30’s, and a third of babies died before their first birthday. People lived uneasily under pagan Roman rule and their Jewish-in-name-only puppet kings, the Herods.
Revolt was always close at hand.
Jesus and his followers lived these realities every day,
They faced the very real possibilities of hunger, disease, and violence on a daily basis.
There was perhaps a time in our lives when these fears could seem distant to us.
But the year of 2020 is another story.
For all of us, from the least to the greatest, have been affected by multiple destabilizing forces:
A global pandemic, a national racial reckoning, heightened divisions and threats of violence,
An ever growing number of families on the economic margins,
storms and fires exacerbated by global climate change.
I can feel the anxiety clutch at my heart just bringing it all to mind.
But perhaps the need I bring to this text in these uncertain times helps me
hear Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount more clearly than before.
I realize I always extracted Jesus’ words of comfort in this passage, took them out of their context.
But Jesus is actually making a larger point than my personal peace.
Jesus larger point is signaled by the single word, “Therefore.”
“Therefore, I tell, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or what you will wear…”
Jesus is concluding an argument here, an argument that is summed up in the previous sentence:
You cannot serve God and wealth.
Jesus concludes with the same idea, stated in a positive manner,
Strive first for the kingdom of God.
Times of struggle are times of possibility, because they offer an opportunity for true re-orientation.
Instead of putting time, energy and resources into things that don’t last,
As Jesus says early in his Sermon on Mount,
‘where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal’
Put your focus on seeking the God and God’s ways.
Which brings me back to nature.
Because nature is one of the sure fire ways to connect with God.
It’s sustenance of a different kind—a wellspring of the soul, a place to cultivate our relationship with God
The first aria of Bach’s cantata 51 states it well
Exult in God in every land!
Whatever creatures are contained
by heaven and earth
must raise up this praise,
and now we shall likewise bring
an offering to our God,
since in anguish and need
at all times has He stood by us.
Gazing at the sky at the end of an outdoor yoga practice, I recover a sense of childhood wonder—
How is the sky that blue?
Every leaf is illuminated with the light of the sun, the clouds shine in splendor.
It is enough in that moment to simply look up.
Like the college student said, “Nature doesn’t stop for anything.”
There is hope.
When has nature been a sacred text for you?
What practices help you connect with God, bring you hope and peace?
These practices are ways we are intentional about spending time with God.
So whether it is nature or music or knitting, helping others or listening well or being generous,
Dig deep into your spiritual practice,
And immerse yourself in God’s protection, peace, and grace.
We are God’s hands and feet in sharing that same peace and hope in a world that needs it.