Action! Verbing our Way into the Gospels: Look, Consider, and Shine! (Matthew 6:25-34 and Matthew 5:13-16)
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Inspired by Anna Carter Florence’s book, Rehearsing Scripture, we’ve explored a handful of gospel stories this winter focusing primarily on the verbs. So far we’ve practiced this strategy together on the final portion of the Christmas story from Luke 2, on a series of healing narratives from the gospel of Mark, and on the story of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, noting that the verbs in that text have formed the centerpiece of every Communion service ever since: he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave, he said. Last week at Breakfast Worship downstairs we even gave the kids a chance to act out the verbs in another gospel story. Jesus’ disciples are terrified to find themselves in a boat, out in the middle of a storm at sea, and Jesus himself is somehow fast asleep in the back of that boat. They wake him up, plead with him to help, he orders the wind and the waves to quiet down, and they do.
While I hope you’ll continue to enjoy reading biblical narratives verbs-first like this, we also know there’s more to the gospels than stories. In addition to all of his body-and-spirit-healing and bread-breaking and storm-calming, Jesus also does a lot of teaching. I wondered if the same strategy of focusing on verbs could help us at all as we read through Jesus’ lesson plans. So in our final two weeks of this series we’ll be looking first at excerpts from his famous Sermon on the Mount, today, and then, next week, at a couple of his parables or teaching stories.
Let’s begin with Matthew 6:25-34. I invite you to turn to it now (p. 884 in your pew Bibles) so you can follow along. There are plenty of verbs here but what intrigued me most about this text is how many imperatives, or verbal commands, it contains. So let’s read through and highlight those in particular this time. In the midst of all of the words on the page there, can you help me call out the verbal commands, the things Jesus tells his disciples to do or not to do?
In verse 25: Do not worry (about this whole list of things – what you will eat or drink or wear) … Verse 26: Look (at the birds, and how God takes care of them) … Down in verse 28, Consider (the lilies, how they grow, how spectacular they are)… Verse 31 again we see: Do not worry… What should we do instead? Verse 33: Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness (and all these things will be yours as well). And one last time in verse 34: Do not worry (about tomorrow).
Now if you had asked me to list the imperative verbs in this passage before I’d looked quite so closely, I’d have thought I already had them down cold: do not worry, do not worry, and – oh, right – do not worry. This is the famous “do not worry” passage, one which some of you have heard me say before I find endlessly convicting. What is this “do not worry” you speak of, Jesus? How exactly does one go about doing that? Or, more accurately, not doing that? Maybe it just goes along with personality types like mine that plan ahead and think ahead and tend to overthink, at times … but I hear Jesus’ instruction here, his command not to worry, and it’s been hard to know what to do with it all these years. Even though it sounds great, how exactly would I go about not doing something that comes so naturally to me? How do I step away from thinking ahead about tomorrow and all that it holds in store and all I could be doing to get ready for it?
Perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking all that’s going on here in this passage is a “what not to do” lesson from Jesus. After all, “do not worry” gets a lot of attention here, appearing three times in just 9 verses. But here’s what I noticed by reading this set of instructions verbs-first this time. Sandwiched in between the “what not to do” refrain there are some interesting “to do’s.” What are they? Look (at the birds), consider (the lilies), and strive (for God’s kingdom). Look. Consider. Strive.
I suspect Jesus isn’t really saying: “Deb, stop being yourself.” Nor is he saying “stop doing that thing you know you tend to do a bit too much of” without offering me a viable alternative. It seems instead that freeing myself from overthinking and worrying about tomorrow lies in those other three imperatives: look, consider, strive.
I don’t know how much success you have getting outside in a typical week, but I’ve recommitted myself to it over the last few months, and it’s been such a gift. Look at the birds, says Jesus. Consider the lilies. Let them instruct you in God’s provision and God’s artistry. In our context here in the Pacific Northwest, Jesus could have said: Look at the mountains, the evergreens, the cherry blossoms. Consider the waters of Puget Sound or Lake Washington. What does their beauty, their majesty teach you about the God who made you, too? What does it say to you that – no matter what’s going on in the human realm on a particular day – there they stand? Let those who have eyes to see, see. Receive God’s gentle reminders, as you look around you, that humanity with all its triumphs and tragedies seems to be one of ...isn’t it something like 1 or 2 million animal species on this planet? And then there’s all of the plant life… With that dose of humility, receive some comfort too. God’s bigger than whatever you have been worrying about. How do we know? Because – well, just get outside and really look… consider… How could the God who made everything not be able to handle the details of your life, or mine?
And then the final imperative in that same text: strive. At first it might seem like “strive” would go hand in hand with “worry” rather than its alternative. We know what it means to strive - to work and work and try and try and push and push… right? But wait, what is it Jesus asks us to strive for here? Not for the kinds of things we tend to strive for: a perfect family life or a perfect track record at school or at work or a perfect home or a perfect body weight or perhaps for more money or more friends or more achievements. No. Strive for God’s kingdom and its righteousness. Let the effort you exert be directed toward that cause. Live for God. Do as God commands. And the rest, says Jesus, will fall into place.
“Do not worry” can be a tough instruction for some of us to follow. But if this “what not to do” from Jesus is tricky for you too, focus on the “what to do’s.” Can you look, really look, at the seagulls, the salmon, the squirrels? Can you consider the lilies or the rhodies or Mt. Rainier? Can you set aside something that is adding undue pressure to your life, something unworthy of the energy, attention, and worry you’re currently devoting to it, and focus instead on something life-giving? Something that strengthens your relationship with God? Can you do something for someone else in God’s name, taking a productive step toward bringing God’s kingdom on earth?
Meanwhile, let’s turn back a chapter to Matthew 5, verses 13-16 which you can find on page 882. Another famous teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, this one about salt and light. I’ve heard bunches of sermons over the years, and preached them too, about the words ‘salt’ and ‘light’ here. And with good reason. If Jesus is going to use loaded images like these and compare his followers to specific nouns, we’d better know what those nouns are about, right? So we study up on how critical salt was as a preservative in the ancient world, as well as offering flavor, and we consider what lamps on lampstands would mean to those living without the benefit of electricity. And we think about these powerful metaphors of salt and light and how we might live into them as Jesus’ disciples in our own era. All of this is important. I don’t mean to discount it. But what do we notice this time through, reading verbs-first? Beginning at verse 13, what is the first verb there? Are. You are. I was all ready to make a big case for why this is significant – that it’s not an imperative, that Jesus is simply declaring something to be the case, vs. asking something of us – but actually in the Greek it turns out the same verbal form can be read as an imperative. Hmmm. So Jesus is either saying: be the salt of the earth, or you are the salt of the earth.. Interestingly, though, I couldn’t find a single English translation (out of the dozens that exist) that went with the imperative option. I’m guessing it’s due to the presence of the pronoun there in the Greek, or perhaps it’s due to the flow of other nearby verbs. At any rate, translators seem fairly confident Jesus is saying: you are the salt of the earth. So at least for our purposes today we’ll go along with the great cloud of witnesses who’ve gone before us.
In any event, the very same verbal form appears with the light metaphor in verse 14. The one we’re reading: You are. Which seems to imply You. Already. As you are. You are the light of the world. Certainly there are any number of ways God’s light in us can be hidden, or dimmed, but wouldn’t it be lovely if there are no requirements for us to put it there in the first place? If that’s entirely God’s doing? You are the light of the world, says Jesus, to us all.
We don’t find a verb that is clearly a command until verse 16, and what is that verb? Let your light shine. Shine your light. If the light’s already there – if that’s what Jesus just told us – then it’s not necessary to create light. God’s done that part already. We’re simply asked not to hide it. To get it out from under that bushel basket and to let it shine in such a way that others may see our good works and give glory to God in heaven. You are the light of the world. Let that light shine.
As an important aside, we’ve been talking a lot here recently about words like joy and energy, and when you add to that all this talk of being the light of the world and letting our light shine… I just want to be clear. None of this requires you to be peppy and cheerful every time you set foot in the door of this church. You don’t have to feel especially joyful on any given day – or pretend to feel that way – to be part of this congregation. Especially not pretend! We’ll share God’s light in exuberant, energetic ways around here at times, sure, but don’t ever underestimate the importance of bravely clinging to God’s light in a moment of darkness. Or the importance of holding God’s light where someone else can see it in their own dark season. For Jesus to ask it of all of us must mean there are as many ways to let our light shine as there are seasons and stages of life and personalities on this planet. So if the nouns feel like an awfully big responsibility sometimes (salt of the earth? light of the world? Did Jesus really mean me?), perhaps we can take comfort in what seems to be a simple present tense form of the verb ‘to be.’ You are the salt of the earth. You are light of the world. You are, because Jesus says you are.
One final note. The things we say here in this room? They have to make sense outside this room; otherwise, what’s the point? So let’s remember what’s at stake as we consider our verbs from Matthew 5 and 6 today. Don’t worry about tomorrow, Jesus? Seriously? With the world in the state it’s in? How could you expect that of us? Granted, Jesus’ invitation not to worry in Matthew 6 was about things like our food and drink and the clothes we wear, not about the coronavirus or our presidential election or escalating tensions between nations or the heartbreaking number of people living in tents along our Seattle freeways. We wouldn’t want to consider the lilies to the exclusion of paying attention. We wouldn’t want to keep our heads in the clouds or bury them in the sand and ignore the pain and problems around us. But could it help us maintain our sanity and perspective in the face of the world’s chaos just to step outside, now and then, and soak up the wonder of God’s creation? To do so long enough to catch our breath and remember who’s really in charge? Could it also help us not to lose hope if we busy ourselves with important work, striving for God’s kingdom by serving our neighbors in meaningful ways? And might it help us shine God’s light a bit more brightly in the darkness to remember that God put that light there in the first place? And put it in every other child of God too?
You are the salt of the earth, says Jesus, and the light of the world. Apparently in simple declarative statements.
Don’t worry, says Jesus. Perhaps not as a word of judgment but a word of reassurance. God’s got this.
Which would leave us with just a handful of imperatives (or instructions) from this morning’s verb hunt:
Look (at the birds). Consider (the lilies). Strive (for God’s kingdom).