Matthew 6:25 – end
What is it that makes us different from all of those animals and birds that crop up so wonderfully in the first reading we heard? Time was when we imagined it was our intelligence. We humans can make tools! We can solve problems! We can change the world into what we want it to be. But David Attenborough and his colleagues taught us to observe more closely. They showed us apes selecting just the right-sized piece of stick with which to extract termites from a nest; and squirrels figuring out how to get to the nuts past all those obstacles, and beavers rearranging the landscape just by gnawing down a few trees.
Once, we imagined it was language. We can speak, and communicate complex ideas with words. Then some scientists taught a form of sign-language to a chimpanzee, and looked on, amazed while she taught her infant to signs. Once, we imagined that it was our sophisticated emotional life that made us different. Then we observed that elephants also grieve, and have rituals when a member of the herd is killed.
So perhaps what makes us different is our ability to imagine. We can solve abstract problems and imagine possibilities. We can think ourselves into someone else’s shoes, and imagine what life is like for them. We can reflect upon the past, and anticipate the future. And thus: we can worry! Worry is imagining the future, and not liking what you see.
Jesus says,‘Don’t worry. God is on your side. He knows your needs. He understands your concerns’. Yet we have elevated worrying to an art form. Take the weather, for instance. Dreadful, obviously. Storm Ciara made life miserable for hundreds of people across the country last week, with floods and transport disruption and power-cuts. It was well-forecast, and those of us who had hatches battened them down and cowered in anticipation. This weekend it is Storm Dennis. Years ago, we didn’t worry quite so much, because there was only one weather forecast each day, and it was usually little better than guesswork anyway. But now, we have an update on the weather every thirty minutes! ‘Stay tuned to the forecast’, they tell us. ‘Worry the whole day long’. Years ago, we simply looked out the window to see what the weather was doing. Now, we have reporters, whose job it is to stand in vast puddles or inundated streets or giant snowdrifts, and tell us how bad it is, and how much worse it’s going to get.
‘Don’t worry about what you will eat,’ says Jesus. We do, though. Either we take our magnifying glasses with us whenever we go shopping, so that we can read the half page of nutritional information printed in 4pt type all over the back of every packet we buy. Or, more likely, we ignore all that stuff because the print is too small and life is too short; but then worry about how careless we are, and what future medical woes we are storing up for ourselves. The vitamin and food supplements industry is worth hundreds of millions of pounds, although most experts would say such products are entirely unnecessary if you are eating a healthy, balanced diet. But are you, this is the question? Are you following this week’s dietary guidelines? Have you had your five portions a day? Probably not. How much saturated fat is there in a full English? Too much. Better pop another cod-liver oil capsule, to be on the safe side.
‘Don’t worry about what you will wear’, says Jesus. There goes another multi-billion pound industry. Half of the country’s economy depends upon people worrying about what they will wear, and spending money in order to buy this year’s range of new clothes. Now, speaking personally, I am immune to the dictates of fashion. I never worry about wearing the latest trend. But if you’ve got time after the service, we can discuss the merits of the different brands of Goretex jackets and waterproof trousers and lycra running gear. Whereas you see some people up on the fells in the sort of knee-length cagoules that Noah took with him into the ark! Where was I? Ah yes, not worrying about what you wear. It’s easy to mock those of us who worry about trivialities, when most of the time, for most of us in the west, life is pretty tolerable.
Yet some of the worries that we suffer from imagining the future are not so trivial. Pollution, climate change, global pandemic. The appointment tomorrow, the pile of unpaid bills, the news from Carol and Kieran; many of our cares are not easily laid aside, unless, ostrich-like, we ignore the evidence that stares us in the face.
I don’t think Jesus has these more serious anxieties in mind in what he says. He’s not advocating cosy complacency, nor suggesting that we live irresponsibly. He isn’t imagining that God will sort out the mess we make, the way mum cleared up our bedrooms when we were tiny. But he is offering our imaginations a different perspective. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God’, he says, ‘and the things you imagine can be seen in a very different light’.
Seeking the kingdom of God. What do we imagine the kingdom of God to be? We’re finding it hard enough to imagine what the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland might be, now that we are no longer members of the European Community. Kingdoms have governments, and laws, and economies and armies and schools and hospitals and pension schemes. Lots of stuff to worry about here, as we know only too well. But instead of using our imaginations to worry, Jesus would have us use them to hope: to hope for a better kingdom, a thus to work for a better world.
Imagine a kingdom where there is good news for those who live in want, then. Where those oppressed and worn down by their worries are set free. Where those who are blinded by the deceits of the world can once again see clearly. Imagine that, in the kingdom of God, those who mourn will be comforted. That those who hunger and thirst after what is right, and just, and fair: that these would be satisfied, and would hunger and thirst no more. That in such a kingdom, those who can rise above the hurts and unfairness in life that they suffer, these will also have mercy shown to them. In the kingdom of God, those who work to bring about peace will have no doubt but that they are God’s children.
Imagining with such hope paints our worries and anxieties on a wider canvas. It frees us from anxiety paralysis, in order to work at the world that already is. It requires of us an awful lot of imagination. But then, imagining is what we do.
© Jon Russell 2020