I had been home from my pilgrimage to Iona for barely a week when I supplied at Holy Trinity, Crystal Springs, in the morning and then at St. Matthew's, Forest, in the afternoon. How did the compilers of the lectionary know?
Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34
I do not occupy myself with great matters, we said together as we read aloud from Psalm 131. I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me.
Truth is, though, I do occupy myself with many things that I consider great, in the sense of enormous. And I do occupy myself with many things that I didn’t think would be too hard for me, but that turn out to be much harder than I at first realized. Truth is, I simply occupy myself with many things, great and small, so that my calendar is filled with meetings and reminders and to-do lists.
I tell myself that the lists help, that they keep me organized, and they really do. I write everything down, to the point sometimes of writing down things I did but that weren’t on the list, just so I can check them off! But sometimes, there aren’t so many things checked off, and there aren’t so many hours left in the day, and then even the small things begin to look great – enormous – and I take one look at it all and think it’s just too hard for me.
I’ve wished I could be like the psalmist, who goes on to say, I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me. But there’s usually no room for stillness on my list, no space for stillness in my soul, crowded as it is with things great and small, with concerns real and imagined, with the weight of too much worry.
I tell you, do not worry about your life, Jesus said to the people who gathered around him on a hillside one afternoon. Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of your life? Truth is, some worry or anxiety is normal, even healthy, as the natural response of our body to a perceived threat or danger, the natural longing of our souls for wholeness. It can motivate us to make difficult and heroic decisions as we move through our lives. Too much worry, though, can paralyze us, making our feet as heavy as our hearts.
Be still, beckons not only our psalmist this evening, but also a wooden bench in the cloister of the abbey on the island of Iona, in Scotland. My companions and I had just arrived as pilgrims on the island, and though weary from our long journey, we were eager to explore. Looking back now, I am struck by how much of what scripture tells us this morning about God’s providence was waiting for us and whispering to us (or chirping and baa-ing, as it were!) even on that very first walk across the island. Be still, beckoned the cloister bench, and I marveled at its invitation, as though it were God’s very lap where one might sit like a child at its mother’s breast.
Iona is quite small, just three miles long from north to south, and only one mile across at its widest point. Within a few minutes’ walk, you can cross a sandy beach, enter a wide green pasture, and begin a steep ascent up a rocky hillside. The island has very few residents, and only a handful of pilgrims who venture beyond the walls of the abbey, so that on the beaches or in the pastures or up the hills, it is not unusual to have the experience of solitude. One of my companions described a feeling of having her worries fall away along our walks, unburdening her, so that there was nothing between herself and God. Iona is indeed a thin place.
There are, even on such a small island, countless flowers and birds to consider, as Jesus encourages us to do in our gospel reading. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed as one of these. There are beautiful gardens on Iona, carefully and lovingly tended; even more lovely, however, are the wildflowers growing in every place imaginable, and in some places entirely unimaginable. The grassy pastures are generously sprinkled with tiny white daisies, and though they were not yet blooming while we were there, the hillsides are painted with purple heather and the roadsides with yellow irises. Most remarkable, however, were the determined flowers that grew in the barest amount of soil in the crevices of rocks, buffeted by wind, sprayed by salt water, and yet blooming for all they were worth in pinks and yellows and lavenders and soft whites. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? The ravens on Iona might take issue with these words, as they seem to consider themselves of highest value! But they are just one among countless species of birds that call Iona and her neighboring islands home, including sparrows and wrens and puffins and eagles and herons and many, many sea gulls. Their songs are sometimes a quiet chirp or two, and sometimes a symphony across the island, where they ride the wind or hop among the wild daisies, delighted, it seems, to live in such a holy place.
I considered many flowers and birds on Iona, but it was the island’s most numerous residents – the sheep – who came immediately to mind when I first read this morning’s lessons. There are sheep of every size and color and description on the island, and while we were there it was still the season for lambs. Iona sheep are known for their tendency to produce twins, and if once then a thousand times our walks were slowed by our pausing to watch a mother sheep with two little lambs at her side. Simple wooden fences mark the boundaries of various pastures, but often the sheep are given the freedom to wander where they will. They might graze in their pastures or along the edge of a beach or in the yard of our hotel. Many sheep also grazed along narrow tracks of green grass that wound their way among heather and rocks up impossibly steep hillsides. Somehow they were sure on their footing, somehow they were sure that there would be grass to nibble all the way up and over the hill. Somehow they knew that farmers had placed troughs throughout the hills to collect rainwater for them to drink.
As pilgrims on Iona, guests on her sacred ground, it was often the sheep who shepherded us, guiding us across pastures or up hillsides. We followed the trails they had made, threading our own way through the heather and rocks to reach places where we could graze upon the grace of God. I realized atop one hill at the edge of the sea, sitting on a rock surrounded by wildflowers, listening to the waves and the gulls, looking out across pastures and sheep, feeling the cool wind and warm sun on my face, that being still, that quieting the soul, does not always mean being motionless or soundless. Even on the bench in the abbey cloister, one is aware of the shuffle of pilgrim feet and the whispered prayers of all who have ever visited its holy grounds. Even on the bench in the abbey cloister, you can hear the birds and sheep. Being still, then, quieting the soul, is perhaps simply being open to the raw, wild, present grace of God in our lives and on our journeys.
Listen again to our reading from the prophet Isaiah, offering God’s words to a people who were worried to the bone. They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture: they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down…I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. Our daily lives, with all their lists and obligations and concerns and worries about things we can and cannot control, are a journey, a pilgrimage. The ground we cover is sometimes as gentle as a pasture, and sometimes as difficult as an impossibly steep and rocky hillside. But look – flowers grow there, birds nest there, and lambs find sure footing. Life flourishes in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances.
So it is for us, Jesus says. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Not for one moment is Jesus suggesting that trusting in God’s providence will make life’s difficulties disappear. There are troubles and dangers and threats along our way, each and every day. Of all people who have journeyed through life, Jesus knew that. He urges us to consider, though, how God provides what we need to flourish in the most difficult of circumstances. Clothed in grace, fed with love, watered by the Spirit, we are strengthened for the journey and we radiate God’s present presence in the world. As a mother nourishes her child – how many times did we watch a mother sheep call to her lambs, who came running to drink her milk? – as a mother nourishes her child so that he may go out into the world to grow and learn and journey, so does God nourish us. So fed, even on rocky hillsides our footing is more sure, and we become shepherds for others who find the journey difficult, who are paralyzed by worries great and small.
Let us, then, be still. Not motionless, but still, open to the raw and wild and present grace of God. Perhaps then we, too, might learn, in the words of the poet William Blake, “To see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour…Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine. Under every grief and pine runs a joy with silken twine.” Amen.
All photos taken by me. There are a billion more where those came from, and I would be more than happy to share them with you!