Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Trinity, September 9, 2018
“And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life? And why are ye anxious concerning raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.”
IS IT ME, or doesn’t it seem the world is spinning today faster than ever before in history? Each year flies past with increasing velocity, and the passing of the seasons in days rather than months. The changes we’ve had to accept in the last ten years have only been superseded by the changes we’ve been made to swallow in the last ten days. I can’t keep up with it. So I don’t.
There’s a song called The Gypsy Life about a hobo’s philosophy: “There is nothing in my head today, nothing awful there to bother or confuse me. Go ahead with what you have to say, I will listen as I listen to the news. I know the whole truth there is horrible. You must take it just a little at a time. Too much and you are not portable. Not enough and you wind up making silly rhymes.” He goes on to encourage an exit to the gypsy life where you mark your progress by the phases of the moon.
A merry-go-round in a child’s playground can be spun faster and faster until, if you don’t have a good grip on the tubular rails, you’ll simply slide outward and off, out on the sand. In much the same way, the world spins many people off its quickened rotation and into any number of emotional or mental disorders or alternate lifestyles. The homeless are often those who didn’t have a good grip when it started to really fly.
People take pills for mind and heart, as well as body pains. With my wife now a mental health professional, I’ve studied the subject more and find there are many disorders that fall under the heading of anxiety. These are as real as a heart attack, and not merely a weakness of character. Anxiety happens to normal people in an abnormal world. Some suffer such severe Panic Attacks that they can’t leave home, or go through a tunnel, or cross a bridge. Their hearts beat out of their chests to an unnamed fear. Others suffer Obsessive-Compulsive thoughts that drive them to perform rituals or routines. Folks who have endured shocks may, years later, still suffer Post Traumatic Stress in sudden terror of unbidden memories, triggered by sounds or sights. Some suffer Social Phobias, unable to be with others. Some have eating disorders and struggle with being so heavy or so thin it threatens their lives. People struggle with nightmares, waking or sleeping. When the Bible instructs them to “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! Be anxious for nothing,” Phil 4:4-6 it may not quite do it for them as intended.
We don’t understand it when someone suffers terribly from circumstances that don’t freak us out. We want to tell them to get hold of themselves, to believe that everything is under control. When that doesn’t work, we may resort to ridicule. Nothing could be worse.
But everybody worries. You don’t have to be in crisis mode to have problems enough to bite your nails or stress about your job, your home life, or relationships in crisis. A world at war, politics… I am amused by the Enterprise Record, what Helen Dreiss used to call The Daily Disappointment, because the front page often still has a photo of someone’s dog. Above the fold. And not the LA Times where the politics of the day—politics espoused by the LA Times—send your blood pressure soaring. The evening TV news is one long string of commercials and a stage show with weather.
St. Paul gave us a great prescription with his admonition to rejoice. He said that we should pray and let God in on the problem. If we do so, Paul says, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus… whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there is any virtue or praiseworthy thing—meditate on these… and the God of peace will be with you.” Phil 4
Jesus told people on a mountain not to worry. Food and drink, clothing and all our basic needs will come sufficiently. Will worry help us to live longer? He knew rather what doctors say today: stress will shorten your days. The birds of the air do nothing to make the plants grow; yet the Father sees that there is always enough for them to eat. Jesus asks, “Are you not of more value than they?”
We needn’t worry. Can worry get you any taller, or live a day longer? Do you stress about clothing? As a kid I used to obsess when buying clothes for going back to school. What shirt will make me acceptable? But we Americans have rooms full of clothes and can’t find a thing to wear. The fragrant flowers in the field don’t shop at Penney’s. They just unfold their natural beauty knowing God made them so. Won’t He make you even more gorgeous? Don’t worry about “What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”
There is no one in our nation who dies of starvation, and clothing freely given but unwanted is discarded on the streets every night. I’ve picked them up. Poverty is real, but of another kind than what people stress over. It’s poverty of the spirit people suffer from most. It’s what the prophet Amos warned us of, a day of famine “for hearing the words of the Lord. People stagger from sea to sea… to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.” Amos 8:11-13
Jesus admonishes us not to worry, but anxiety seems reasonable in our shocking speed of living. How does Jesus expect us to conquer our fears and every day battles in the 21st century, when He was speaking in the 1st?
His answer works today just as it did then. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” It doesn’t make sense, in marketing terms. Commercials all have answers for the needs they plant in our minds. ‘Buy more stuff. Finance it if you can’t pay now. Run up your credit cards. There’s no tomorrow. What does God’s Kingdom and Righteousness have to do with that iPad or drone I need right now?’
Seek God first. How can that help? Our minds, feelings, thoughts, considerations, values, hopes and dreams are all fed by what we see and what we hear. Pretty much everything that occurs to our thoughts comes in through one or the other of these two senses. That’s why your TV puts out only sight and sound. It captures our senses with what it wants us to see and hear. You can’t think about anything else when you’re watching the tube. Jesus says, and quite wisely, Seek God first. ‘But the remote is in my hand, the set’s on, and I just bought this 70” plasma. Haven’t even paid for it yet. Surround sound, too. Cable, 500 channels. Can’t sleep. Eating left over pizza in my Lazy Boy. All set. Seek God how? What’s on the History Channel?’
We’re over-stimulated. Over stuffed like that recliner. Full. Couldn’t eat another bite—of entertainment. But we try. Bored to death, and craving our souls to be satisfied with cheap, piped in programming, we’re like rodents that eat indigestible grain and, unable to take another bit, starve to death. We’re starving to death while stuffing ourselves with the wrong sights and sounds.
This little exercise could just save your life. Take the remote. Find the red button. Turn it off. Go to another room, take up a Prayer Book and Bible and open to Morning Prayer. Figure out the lessons in the front, and read them: Psalms, Old and New Testament. Word by word. Offer the prayers. Think about what you’re reading. Seek the Kingdom of God. Learn about His righteousness and make that your goal. God’s righteousness is His will. What does God want? Give Him that. Dwell a while in silence after you finish. It only takes about 15 or 20 minutes to read the office. Take another quarter of an hour reflecting on it, or asking God how He thinks you should handle your life’s problems. Give Him time and room to bring you answers. It’s amazing how well He does with the things that befuzzle you, how up to date God actually is. And just having put these burning issues into bigger Hands than your own takes away their terror. Things might just turn out okay.
Every day has problems. Why wouldn’t it? Life would be boring without a struggle, something to solve. We create mysteries and puzzles to solve, just to work that muscle in our heads. Today’s puzzles are enough to concern ourselves about. Tomorrow’s problems come with tomorrow’s answers. Jesus says not to project our worry into the future. What can we do about the future? Stay fixed on this day, and on the God whose Name is I AM.
Jesus, more than any other voice in the entire Scriptures, told us not to worry or be anxious. First He informed His apostles that they would be hauled up in front of judges and whipped. Then He said not to worry. In that hour the Spirit will give them every word they will need to establish truth. St. Stephen was given just that gift before they stoned him to death. Was he worried even then? Only for their souls, and his answer for that was that he prayed God’s forgiveness for them. Then he went to Jesus.
We say our world is a mess, and it is. Things will get worse, Jesus says. Wars and rumors of war are only the beginning. Nations and kingdoms make war, and earthquakes increase, volcanoes erupt, famines and tsunamis. Sounds like last night’s news. Today the Gospel is preached in every nation, as Christ said it would be. Eventually, it will be outlawed in every land. We all may be asked by squinty-eyed judges whether we follow the Galilean called Christ. If the times got any worse, Jesus said, even the most faithful Christians could fall away. But He said, let the Holy Spirit speak through you even then. Stick with Him, and you will be saved. Mark 13:5-13
It doesn’t help us to know how much worse things are going to get. Every day has enough bad news. But there’s that dog on the front page above the fold in the ER. Turn off your 70” wasteland and consider God once a day, even twice. Turn it all over to Him and let your life begin to flow into His stream. The answers He brings are different from those on CNN or FOX. Peace derived from the knowledge that there is a plan and that you’re in it, that things can only come out wonderfully because it’s God’s own design for your life, soothes the most savaged mind. Little by little, step by step, we get stronger in the Lord, and the world loses its grip on our hearts. Doesn’t that feel better?