Lilies and Dandelions
Sep 25, 2018
By Philip Jenks
Synod-Deacon-in-Training at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Rye Brook.
“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 by one of these.” – Luke 12:27
This is a beautiful image, but I’m having a little trouble imagining it. Cows adorned the fields I knew in Central New York, not lilies. And even if you grew up in Westchester County, Connecticut, or one of the five boroughs, you didn’t see a lot of fields with lilies.
For me, a more telling metaphor is, “Consider the dandelions of the field. They spring up whether you want them or not, they resist mighty efforts to dispose of them, but their brief yellow blossoms nurture the endangered honey bees.”
My father did not live at a time when the very existence of honeybees was threatened. He saw his role as being the scourge of dandelions, which he hated. He thought they strangled more delicate flowers and infected the lawn like a yellow pox. I remember following him around the yard as he sprayed the dandelions with a pungent weed poison. I also remember that the dandelions, though they neither toiled nor spun, usually survived until the snow came.
But are dandelions weeds?
Certainly my father’s father did not think so. Grandpa Jenks raised bees and he was probably pleased to see them frolicking among the yellow blossoms in his yard. He also waited until the dandelion leaves were suitably tender and he ate them in a salad. I was 16 when Grandpa died and when I was in my 30s I started wondering if I remembered this correctly, but my Aunt Doris – Grandpa’s youngest child – confirmed that dandelion salad was often on the table when she was growing up. Also on the table was Grandpa’s homegrown horseradish, but only he touched it because it would make your eyes water as soon as you entered the room.
The point Jesus was making in the passage we read today is that God will take care of us and we don’t have to work for it. Grandpa Jenks probably didn’t know he was expanding the metaphor with his crop of dandelions, but in a way he was. God places the dandelions in the field and they neither toil nor spin, but they return God’s favor by feeding the bees and offering their leaves as food and, as I am sure it occurred to Grandpa, their blossoms for sweet wine.
Many of us, I think, would be more comfortable with a metaphor like this. It is not easy for any of us to “not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear ... (D)o not keep worrying ... Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Well, if we’re honest, we do keep worrying. All of us have grandparents or great grandparents who endured the Great Depression and had to work hard just to survive. Grandpa Jenks, who was also famous in family legend for consuming every part of a chicken, including its feet. He never stopped worrying about his life or the lives of his spouse and four children and he never let anything go to waste.
I’m sure most of us were told by our parents that the world does not owe us a living and if we’re going to have anything in life – in fact, if we are going to accumulate any earthly possessions that will enable us to survive and feed our families and give alms and help the poor – we’re going to have to work for it. How nice of God to clothe the languid lilies of the field. But at least the dandelions give something in return. And God helps those who help themselves.
Jesus never said that, of course, but he is also not telling us to sit around doing nothing while God takes care of us. God’s plan is that we will also help each other by selling what we have and giving it to the poor, and Jesus specifically orders us to “give alms.”
The writer of the Epistle identified with James goes even further:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:14-17.
That’s another way of saying that if one truly has faith, good works must follow automatically. There can be no good works in the absence of faith. And if faith is present, good works cannot be stifled.
That’s a sobering thought for any faithful Christian who has stepped over a sleeping homeless person or brushed off a hungry panhandler, as many of us do.
It’s also sobering to recall that Martin Luther disagreed with James, noting that it is the grace of God that saves people, not their good works.
Luther, who systematically excised biblical books he didn’t like (declaring them “Apocrypha”), didn’t care for James’ smug missive, which he called “an epistle of straw.”
Luther objected to the church’s habit of extorting “good works” from its beleaguered congregations for its own profit, and he declared a gospel of works was a tool of the devil.
Given the corruption of the church in Luther’s day, it’s hard to disagree with him.
In our day, however, James seems to be raising urgently legitimate questions: Many of us ignore human need far greater than we can imagine and assuage our guilt in precisely the fashion James warns us against: by praying for the desperate, as if to invite them to “keep warm and eat your fill.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 45 million persons in the U.S. live below the poverty line.
A recent United Nations report said that more than 600 million people worldwide are using unsafe water sources, almost one billion are living on an income of less than $1.25 per day, mothers continue to die needlessly in childbirth, and children suffer and die from preventable diseases. Hunger remains a global challenge, and ensuring that all children are able to complete primary education remains a fundamental, but unfulfilled, target that has an impact on all the other Goals. Lack of safe sanitation is hampering progress in health and nutrition, biodiversity loss continues apace, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to pose a major threat to people and ecosystems.
If you are a mother or child waking up hungry every day of your life, it is not easy to “not worry” about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. If you are a father unable to find work or decent shelter or a means of feeding your family, it is not easy to “not worry”.
This is a conundrum that Jesus puts before us: do not place value in “an abundance of possessions,” but trust God to take care of you.
But millions of our fellow human beings are living in hunger and extreme poverty, and to ignore them would be to dismiss them with the platitude James warns against: “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.”
I think the key to the conundrum is this: Trusting God to take care of us gives us the power and freedom to invest our lives in the lives of others, without worrying how this may have an impact on our own needs.
Jesus could have recited this passage from Isaiah 58:5-9 by heart:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say,
Here I am.
And all of us can recite Jesus’ own words by heart:
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. Matthew 25:40
Sometimes the fast that we choose – loosing he bonds of injustice, sharing our bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor and immigrants into our house – will have a definite impact on our own fortunes. But Jesus tells us: don’t worry about it. God will take care of you.
The words of Jesus we read today are his interpretation of another passage from Isaiah that Jesus knew so well:
“If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Isaiah 58:10-12.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America puts its succinctly:
“God’s work. Our hands.”
I think the only reason any of us hesitate to choose the fast of supporting the poor and victims of injustice is that the task seems so overwhelming. What can any of us individuals do to relieve the poverty and address the injustices of millions of our fellow human beings? This is simply an impossible goal.
I think we can be encouraged for several reasons.
One is that some respected economists believe that a nation as rich as the United States can eradicate poverty, and the nations of the world working together can – though not eliminating poverty entirely – eliminate the kind of poverty that is so severe it kills people. One of these economists is Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
Sachs is Professor of Sustainable Development at
Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs and a professor of health policy and management at Columbia's School of Public Health. As of 2017, he serves as special adviser to the United
Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Jeffrey declares that the elimination of poverty is within human reach. But it will take governments, institutions, and millions of individuals to make it work.
Another big reason to be encouraged is the determination of churches like ours to link our hands together to do God’s work.
Whenever we place money in the offering plates, we are sustaining the work of the church in obvious ways: paying the pastor and staff, maintaining the building and its property, paying the bills.
But we are also supporting local, national, and international programs to support justice and help the poor find a way out of their poverty.
If you have smart phones or computers, go to ELCA.org and click on “Our Work.” I think you will be amazed at the wide range of ministries you and I already support: relief and development, world hunger, refugee resettlement, disaster response, justice for women ministries, and so many more.
Also, check our Lutheran World Relief: LWR.org. Our hands do God’s work, and Lutheran World Relief strengthens our hands in times of disaster, providing families with sufficient, safe and nutritious foods via locally appropriate interventions because Limited or no access to food after a disaster highly compromises the livelihoods of families and communities.
Immediately after rapid response interventions, LWR supports local communities with sustainable recovery and works to reduce their vulnerability to future disasters.
Community engagement shifts the focus on people from being recipients of aid to being active players and leaders in determining their future. LWR provides emergency and transitional shelter to people affected by disasters.
The next time you ask yourself what you can do to help feed the hungry or reduce pain and suffering due to injustices or natural disasters, look at these Lutheran ministries to see what you are already doing, and do decide how you might do more.
ELCA.org. LWR.org. You can even make these web sites part of your devotional reading, because you’ll find a lot to celebrate on these sites, and a lot to thank God for.
Working together, we can be God’s hands. And we needn’t worry about whether we will be successful, or whether choosing a fast to feed the hungry will have a negative effect on our own security.
All we need to know is this:
God will take care of us.
And it is our Father’s good pleasure to welcome us into God’s wonderful realm.