By Joyce Hollyday
This sermon was offered at Charlemont Federated Church in Charlemont, Massachusetts, on June 20, 2021. The focus scriptures are 1 Kings 17:1-16 and Matthew 6:25-34.
As a young girl, I loved this Gospel passage from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It made me think of the bright purple violets that carpeted the field near my home every spring—and the pretty flowers known as Queen Anne’s lace, which looked like miniature doilies popping up here and there among them. It conjured images of meadow larks and wood thrushes, which were free to spend all day just singing, and redtailed hawks soaring lazily in the sky. God took care of them. And—if I was good and didn’t make any trouble—God would take care of me, too. I would have all the food and clothing I needed—and everything I wanted.
This was easy to believe, sitting in the First United Methodist Church on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, Pennsylvania—just a couple blocks from the chocolate factory that made our town rich and renowned, and not far from the amusement park, vintage theater, and golf courses that drew tourists from all over the world.
But then—when I was 13—Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. In wonder and horror, I watched the images that exploded on our black-and-white TV in the aftermath. People in Harrisburg—just 12 miles away—were setting fires and breaking windows and destroying their neighborhoods. In ominous, fear-laced whispers, people in my neighborhood, and in my church, warned that soon they would be coming to tear down our park and tear up our golf courses. When the adults around me used the phrase “race riot,” I thought they were referring to people racing to get out of the way of the coming mayhem.
I was confused, and I wanted answers. That summer I volunteered for a children’s program in an inner-city Harrisburg church. Many of the children who came didn’t eat breakfast before they showed up. Their parents couldn’t afford to feed them breakfast. I visited their crowded apartments, dangerous and decaying from neglect by absent, uncaring landlords. I saw the kids’ “swimming pool”—a fire hydrant that got drained occasionally, giving them brief respite from the summer’s oppressive heat as they splashed in the gush of water. I was one shocked 13-year-old.
It took me a while to understand that their life, not mine, was the norm in the world.
Exactly 20 years later, I thought of those children again. I was in South Africa, writing for Sojourners magazine, witnessing the evils of the system of racial hatred and segregation known as apartheid. I visited Crossroads, a huge settlement outside Cape Town, with acre upon acre of tiny, crowded homes hastily constructed out of corrugated metal, tarpaper, and cardboard. A little girl of about 4, her belly swollen from malnutrition, reached into a puddle of mud and sewage. She pulled out a filthy plastic bag, wrapped it around her head and pulled at the ends until she had something resembling a hairbow. Her younger brother played nearby with a crude push toy made from a piece of wire stuck through a rusty tin can.
“It’s a lie,” I thought—not for the first time. That birds-of-the-air and lilies-of-the-field stuff just isn’t true. Where is God’s care for these precious children? Does God care only about the ones whose parents can afford to feed them?
Often during the past year and a half—as we learned of millions of people worldwide dying of Covid, and millions more losing their jobs, and a staggering number of children going hungry for lack of school lunches—I thought of this scripture passage. I thought of it again two weeks ago when we here in Massachusetts were feeling the discomfort of a heat wave, knowing that people in the West and in other parts of the world are struggling through an inferno of drought and wildfires—brought on by climate change, and likely to get worse. As are the storms and hurricanes, like Claudette, which is barreling through the Southeast at this moment.
During that recent heat wave, when a few friends gathered for a time of scripture study and communion, I chose this Gospel passage for us to ponder. Despite my longstanding misgivings about it, I still needed its word of comfort and promise of God’s care. But it wasn’t comforting to all in our group—for reasons in addition to the existence of starving children—and it generated a lively discussion.
One person shared her concern that the passage can be interpreted to mean that we don’t need to work to address injustice and try to make the world better. Two people expressed being offended by the idea that human beings are ranked higher in a natural hierarchy and considered more important than flowers and birds. Another observed that the bit about the birds doesn’t quite ring true—because birds are usually very busy: flying places, or building nests, or digging up worms to feed themselves and their children.
That prompted me to examine the beginning of the passage more carefully. It says that birds don’t sow or reap, or—most importantly—“gather into barns.” This isn’t a statement about not working, but about not accumulating. It’s an invitation to override the fear that leads to worry about the future, which leads to taking more than our fair share.
Economists and pundits reminded us over and over that the toilet paper shortage at the beginning of the pandemic had much less to do with an actual lack of toilet paper than it did with some people buying up everything on the shelves. What was true then is true now of the world’s resources: There is enough. We live in a world of abundance. We just have a distribution problem. Many act as if it’s a world of scarcity—with a few people guilty of criminal accumulation, amassing obscene fortunes while many families struggle to feed themselves on minimum wage.
I have a friend who served as a chaplain at a Lutheran college in Washington state. At an orientation buffet for incoming students, she sat next to a student from Namibia. Unable to finish the food on her plate, my friend said, “I guess my eyes were bigger than my stomach.” The young man looked from her eyes to her stomach and was clearly confused. My friend asked, “Don’t you have a phrase in your country that means taking more than you can eat?” The young Namibian thought a moment, and then he said, “Yes. We call it stealing.”
What I’ve come to realize over the years is that this Gospel passage means the opposite of what I thought it did when I was a child. I thought it was about sitting back and letting God take care of things—and trusting that God would. I believed that if I just prayed, stayed out of trouble, and had enough faith, God my Heavenly Father—my only image for God then—would keep up his end of the bargain and watch over me.
But Jesus wasn’t preaching to an assortment of individual followers on that mountainside. His words at the heart of his most famous sermon were addressed to a community. The biblical translation I grew up with ends, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” What I didn’t understand then is that “righteousness” isn’t about personal piety, as I had been taught. It means right relationships—just relationships.
The inclusive translation I read from this morning makes it clearer: “Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides.” If we seek the reign of God—if we live by compassion and generosity and mercy—then the promise holds: All of God’s children eat, and all of God’s children have clothing and shelter.
In this morning’s story from the Hebrew scriptures, the hard-working ravens were busy feeding the prophet Elijah bread and meat, morning and evening. When he moved on to Zarephath, as God commanded, he spied a widow at the gate of the town gathering sticks in the time of famine, likely a gaunt and stooped figure. She was preparing to fire up the oven for her last meal. Elijah asked for bread, and the widow explained that she had only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug. She and her son would eat what was left and die.
But Elijah told her not to be afraid and asked her to make him a cake. How long had she saved this last crumb of sustenance until she and her son could no longer bear not to eat? And how could she explain to her poor, starving child that this stranger would eat it? Still, she responded to Elijah’s request, and her trusting faith and sacrificial generosity were rewarded. As the prophet promised, her jar of meal never grew empty, and the oil never failed, and her entire household ate for days, until the famine ended. A miracle of God.
I met some of that widow’s descendants in Nicaragua in 1983. I was there helping to establish Witness for Peace, a faith-based effort aimed at stopping the U.S.-sponsored war. Having received word of military attacks on the isolated road ahead, our delegation stopped and spent a night on the floor of a church in the small village of Ocotal. We shared the space with women and children who had fled from their scattered mountain homes, several widowed by the war. We fell asleep that night to the sound of gunfire in the distance and the cries of children up close.
We awoke before dawn, ready to press on to the Honduran border. The refugee women had arisen even earlier. Firewood was already stacked in the dome-shaped clay oven, and they were slapping out tortillas as a glint of sunlight appeared on the eastern horizon. They invited us to breakfast.
I was profoundly moved that these women shared everything they had with us, affluent strangers from the country that was financing the terror that was destroying theirs. Our communion of tortillas and coffee at dawn was a sacrament of generosity and faith. Those women didn’t know where they would spend the next night or where their next meal would come from. They simply lived each day and shared all that they had, watching out for one another—and for us. Trusting. A miracle of God.
In our Gospel passage, the alleged superiority of human beings is undermined by the irony that Jesus lifted up the supposedly less valued plants and creatures as the models we should emulate. As far as I know, the Queen Anne’s lace doesn’t spend a lot of time wishing it were purple like the violet; and the violet doesn’t envy the Queen Anne’s lace its height and intricate beauty. The birds haven’t gone on a spree building bigger and bigger nests. The trees still give up their berries and nuts freely.
As one member of our Bible study said, if there’s a hierarchy, it’s a hierarchy of responsibility. Human dominance and greed are the biggest contributors to our global catastrophe—especially here in the American empire. The birds and flowers know how to live, and we should pay attention. They just want to be birds and flowers, and it’s our responsibility to see that they get the chance.
So, friends, I invite you to catch the birds-eye view. Remember the ravens, who fed the prophet Elijah morning and evening. So may we feed the prophet within each of us: that part of us that weeps over injustice. The part that wants to speak truth and act to transform the world, whatever the risks. Whatever the cost. As the great leader John Lewis urged us, “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
I hope that the pandemic has taught us many things. Most of all, I hope it has taught us that we belong to each other. And that there is enough. If only we will watch out for one another, believing that what we have belongs to all of us and committing ourselves to the pursuit of justice, then the audacious promise of God holds true. Trust it. You will have all that you need. So will I. All of us sharing this Earth will. A miracle of God.
Joyce Hollyday is a pastor and author. Her most recent book, Pillar of Fire (Wipf and Stock, 2020), is a historical novel based on the bold witness of the medieval mystics known as Beguines. She recently moved to the mountains of western Massachusetts to grow old with a circle of activist friends.