June 17 Sermon

“Alert But Not Anxious”                                                                                              Exodus 4:10-17
Rev. Sean Weston                                                                                                   Matthew 6:25-34
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
June 17, 2018

The late Rev. Peter Gomes was a highly respected preacher who served at Harvard’s Memorial Church. He writes about a time that he preached on today’s gospel passage at an exclusive girls’ school in New York City. He thought that Jesus’ words about not worrying would help in a place filled with anxiety and achievement. The sermon seemed to go well, he thought, which is usually the first sign that a mess is on the way. Indeed, it was. Gomes continues the story:

“At the reception, the father of one of the girls came up to me with fire in his  eyes and ice in his voice, and told me that what I had said was a lot of  nonsense. I replied that I hadn’t said it, that Jesus had. ‘It’s still nonsense,’   he said, not easily dissuaded by an appeal to scripture. ‘It was anxiety that  got my daughter into this school, it was anxiety that kept her here, it was           anxiety that got her into Yale, it will be anxiety that will keep her there, and  it will be anxiety that will get her a good job. You’re selling nonsense.’”[1]

My first reaction when hearing this story is to be mad at that man, angry at him for celebrating anxiety, angry at him for encouraging his daughter’s anxiety. It is people like him, I think with anger, that contribute to the mental health crisis that is just under the surface in society.

As a general rule, first reactions aren’t great. My second reaction is to be more honest with myself about my relationship with anxiety. That’s much scarier than being mad at another person, because the truth is that anxiety is a huge part of my life. Anxiety has been behind a lot of my achievements, too. I am among the 40 million adults in this country who live with an anxiety disorder. Managing my anxiety is among my most constant life tasks. It requires treatment and time and money and has always affected those closest to me. I wondered a lot if I should share this with you this morning because these are things that we have been taught to keep quiet, lest we be judged. After all, I’m pretty good at keeping it under wraps. And pastors can lose their pulpits when we admit such things. But the things we hide become things we are ashamed of. Church must be a place of healing and not shame. If I want this to be a community where we can share honestly about the things we struggle with, I must lead by example. So yes, if I’m honest, when people say silly things like “do not worry about your life,” even if that person is Jesus, part of me wants to join that angry father and say “you’re selling nonsense.”

  • When Jesus asks: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” I respond: It is, but try living without food and clothes and see how much more life is left.
  • When Jesus says: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Parent feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” I respond: Yes, the birds don’t farm but they spend a lot of time building nests and finding food. Plus, when’s the last time the birds had to worry about the first day of school or making good grades or health insurance or making rent?
  • When Jesus asks: “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” I respond: Probably not, but knowing that doesn’t really make me worry any less.

I don’t think I’m alone. It’s easy to hear these words from Jesus and think of them as fairly clueless. Jesus’ “solutions” to anxiety can seem like anything but. The problem is that I don’t think Jesus is clueless. In fact, since I think Jesus is the Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us, I think Jesus offers us better ways of living our life than we would come up with on our own. So, natural as it may be to ignore his words and move on, the faithful thing to do is to look again.

Jesus knew anxiety. He knew what it was like to be homeless and have nowhere to lay his head. He knew what it was like to anticipate pain – the pain of abandonment, of betrayal, of imprisonment, of torture, of death. But he also knew something that can many of us spend a lifetime trying to learn: God can be trusted. It is possible to look at the world and see more than fear. It is possible to look at the world with faithful imagination. To see God as loving parent and not distant tyrant, to see a world where the first are last and the last are first, a world where the meek inherit the earth and peacemakers are saluted, a world where a little rag-tag group of Jesus followers are salt of the earth and light of the world.

That world is what Jesus called the kingdom of God. A world where God is in charge, where everybody has what they need. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus told the religious leaders that they could find that kingdom here and now: “the kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within and among you.” When Jesus invites us to look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, he is inviting us to pay attention, not to glance but to look deeply. To remember that the world is filled with beauty and grace and wonder and love. To imagine that maybe, just maybe the people and forces we think are in charge don’t have the final word. That maybe, we don’t need to anxiously claw our way through. Maybe the world is created by a God who wants nothing more than to pour love into our lives. There is a lot more than meets the eye, Jesus says. There is more to the world than the anxiety and pain. Look for the More. Look at the birds and the lilies and the trees. Look for the signs of life and love. Seek first the kingdom of God, Jesus says, and you’ll find everything you need.

Anxiety tells us that we have to control the world around us in order to be okay:

  • If only I just made a bit more money
  • If only my partner just had more time for me
  • If only my boss would really appreciate my contributions
  • If only I had a bit more space
  • If only I was in better health
  • If only we had better politicians
  • If only the roads were in better shape

But none of us can force any of those things to happen, either with sheer force, frantic action or intense worrying. And, if something does improve, anxiety will just replace one worry with another. Jesus was right when reminded us that worrying doesn’t really fix anything. The only thing we control is ourselves. We may not be able to change what is going on around us, but we can change what we see and how we respond. We can learn to see signs of God’s kingdom. We can learn to have faith.

Faith tells us that the world is under God’s care, and God can be trusted. Such a faith is not about escaping the world. Just the opposite: it is about being alert: aware of the world around you and where God is working in the world. Learning that we can be part of God’s work while giving up the need to always get things right or control what happens. Learning to trust that even when things aren’t okay, they are somehow okay. If that sounds difficult to you, that’s because it is. Moving from anxiety to trust is in many ways the most basic part of growing in faith. It is a journey that begins as infants, dependent on others for everything, and ends at death when we lose all control and give ourselves into God’s care.

Such a faith requires imagination. It requires the ability to see God in the daily things of life, in the small moments of joy, in the ways we give and receive love. If we learn to believe that the world is under God’s care, and that God is carefully tending, creating, building, growing, feeding, loving, then we too will approach the world with care and creativity. We will grow. Anxiety and worry will calm down. Not go away. But calm down. Others will experience God’s love in us. Think of Moses, the great worker for freedom. He freed the Hebrew people from slavery. But first he had to work through a mountain of anxiety, which he could only do once he trusted God’s promise to be with him along the way.

The journey towards a mature faith, one that is alert but not anxious, looks different for everybody. But I wanted to jumpstart your imagination a bit, so I developed this little guide in your bulletins with suggestions of small things you can do each day – starting today. It will also post to our website and be emailed out later today. Maybe you could invite a friend to join you. I’ll be joining you, and I’ll try to post about my experience on our church facebook page. I’d love to hear about your experiences too. Not everything will connect with everybody, but I hope something does, something you might integrate into your daily journey.

I also hope you know that if, like me, you need more help than a one-week guide in dealing with anxiety or anything else, I am available to lend and ear and help you find what you need. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

There is goodness everywhere, if we can learn to see and believe. Despite all the voices from within and without that say otherwise, God is worthy of our trust. Thanks be to God.

[1] Peter Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 179.