It may sound odd coming from someone who goes on endlessly about praying, but if there were a hit list of
words I could strike from the Christian vocabulary 'spiritual' might well be on the list.
Let me explain. Going right back to John's Gospel and before, we can little either-or lines contrasting 'spirit'
and 'matter', often referred to as 'flesh'. Spiritual stuff, we feel, is good, fleshly stuff rather questionable. It's
a misreading of John in particular, since he wrote to see of that sort of thinking, not to support it. But it has
real influence in Christian history: too many people start to believe that matter isn't important, or is evil and to be avoided. It has all sorts of funny outworkings, from the so-called 'dominion theology' of some extreme American sects – the world doesn't matter, so we can exploit it ruthlessly – to the extreme Puritan self-deniers who look down on everyone else. And even among ordinary folk like us, there's that feeing we ought to concentrate on being 'spiritual', that it somehow floating free of the nuts and bolts of the universe, if we're to be 'proper' Christians.
Today's readings take us down a different road. The OT reading reminds us of God's engagement with the world as its creator (compare and contrast, say, William Blake's take on the universe which saw it as the creation of an inferior half-god). Paul talks of all creation being “set free from the bondage of decay” - far from being a disposable and rather unfortunate by product, the universe is a place of wonder and beauty worthy of being redeemed. And then we come to the Gospel reading....
Every now and again there are biblical readings which make us cross. Viv used to point out the line in psalm 37, “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” and comment, 'Clearly he didn't get out much.'
The Gospel's instruction this morning not to worry about little things like food and clothing because God will look after us is deeply offensive to anyone who ever watches the news or opens a newspaper. Christianity – from this passage -appears to be a spiritual religion which is of no earthly use. Now we know that not to be the case, and that one of the great contributions of the Christian faith to the world has been a passion for social justice stemming directly from the belief that in God's eyes all people are precious, not just the fortunate. But what are we going to do with this peculiar claim about not worrying about food and shelter?
There are a number of ways round it. One thing's to remember that Jesus is talking to those who aren't living at the ragged edge of poverty: his audience is his disciples, and for the most part they're no better and no worse off than anyone else. It's also true to say that the extremes of inequality which we are used to seeing weren't nearly so bad all those years ago. Even the wealthy could get caught up in a famine. But there's one other thing to note. Apart from being a 1960's worship song which wore thin through over-use, 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God', is a key to unlocking another part of this reading.
The problem starts with the word 'kingdom' Whether it's through UKIP or following the Olympics, 'Kingdom' to us means a place, and I guess most of us think of 'The Kingdom of God' as meaning 'Heaven' So 'Seek ye first' makes us think more about 'Try and get to Heaven' than anything else. And so if we're trying to get to heaven, then we'll be fed and clothed and all the rest. So the passage becomes a bit of a rag bag. “Don't worry. Get to heaven and God'll look after you.” But 'Kingdom' is a lousy word to use as an English translation of the original. I don't think anyone would dare change it, but in making us think of a place, it misleads us. The Kingdom of God isn't some far-off place: 'Kingdom' I this passage means more like 'Rule, authority, reign'. We are instructed to long for the rule of God – rather like in the Lord's Prayer, thy kingdom come.
When we read the passage like this, it all hangs together. If we are living in such a way as tries to make the reign of God real on earth, the poor will be fed and clothed and housed. And doing away with anxiety? Being anxious is our fear that we are unable to control the future because we want to. Accepting that we are not in charge, and God is, means that we accept our creatureliness. Never easy, especially for those of us who long to have all loose ends tied up and the bridges crossed before we even know for sure there's a river to be crossed. But accepting the rule of God is to take ourselves and our neat little schemes out of the driving seat.
As we approach Lent, the little denials are fine, so long as we remember that creation is not somehow evil and to be avoided. To meditate on whether we are genuinely seeking to be part of God's rule visible here on earth is far more challenging than giving up the allsorts and the chocolate buttons. Or to quote the sevententh-century poet, Robert Herrick:
TO KEEP A TRUE LENT, by Robert Herrick
Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean ?
From fat of veals and sheep ?
Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
The platter high with fish ?
Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
A downcast look and sour ?
No ; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
Unto the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate ;
To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent ;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin ;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.
If we take this to our hearts, and seek the Rule of God ,and make it visible within us, then the hungry will indeed be fed, the naked clothed and the Good News preached to those who live in darkness. And a Gospel passage which at first glance insults the poor and the desperate will be seen for what it is: the challenge to let God break into His creation.