Text: Matthew 6:24-34
The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue is a long poem in six parts by W.H. Auden. The poem won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1948. It inspired a symphony by composer Leonard Bernstein and a 1950 ballet by Jerome Robbins. The poem deals, in eclogue form, (an eclogue is a poem in a classical style on a pastoral subject) with humanity’s quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world. In the poem, Auden highlights human isolation, a condition magnified by the lack of tradition or religious belief in the modern age.
When I chose the title, The Age of Anxiety, for this sermon I didn’t know of Auden’s poem. I was simply making an attempt to relate Jesus’ words in Matthew to our current times. Who wouldn’t agree that we are living in anxious and worrisome times? It seems there is so much to worry about. On a large scale we worry about the economy, nuclear war, environmental genocide, the danger of our country returning to a culture of resegregation, and the threat of terrorist attacks on our nation, just to name a few. On a smaller, yet intensely personal, scale we worry about our health, we worry about having enough money to take care of ourselves, we worry about our children and our families, we worry about our friends who are sick, we worry about job stability, and on and on. Our reality is that modern life is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, demands, and worry. For many of us, worry and anxiety are so commonplace they have become our way of life.
Now that I have introduced my sermon topic, I want to ask you to do a little exercise. Take just a moment and think about three things that you are worried about. Maybe you want to jot them down on your bulletin or just hold them in your mind. Go ahead. Now, take another moment and think about the fear that keeps your worry alive. For example, maybe one of your worries is about job security. Behind that worry may very well be the fear of losing your identity, or the fear of not being able to provide for your family. Or maybe you are worried about your health. But what you most fear is not being able to take care of yourself, or you fear that there will not be anyone around to take care of you if you are not able to care for yourself. For each of the worries you named, try to isolate the fear underneath the worry.
It’s a little harder to identify the deeper feelings that cause us to worry. However, most professionals who deal with helping people cope with worry and anxiety—or stress—will tell you that underneath all our worry is fear. Fear–real or imaginary–is embedded deep within our minds, bodies, and souls and on a day-to-day basis it can cause us to worry or feel anxious, or as the younger generation says, “stressed out.” Once acquired, the habit of worrying seems hard to stop. We’re raised to worry and aren’t considered “grown up” until we perfect the art. Teenagers are told: “you’d better start worrying about your future.” So, not only do we live in an age of anxiety and worry, we seem to think it is what we are supposed to do.
In our lectionary text, the writer of Matthew’s gospel offers a very different perspective on worry from that of our culture. The Greek word used in our text for worry is best translated to mean “split attention” or “divided concern.” The word appears six times—in one form or another—in the nine verses, relating to the very basics of human life: food, drink, and clothing. Matthew uses images from Israel’s past and from nature itself to make the case that worrying today only brings more worrying tomorrow, thereby creating an endless cycle of having to divide one’s loyalties between trust in God’s faithfulness and a fretful concern about life. The problem arises, however, not because a person needs all those things, but only because people worry about them and so divide their attention between God and the “stuff” of life. With that said, the real challenge in this text is found in verse 24 in the words, “No one can serve two masters.” From the get go, we are challenged to hear the Good News as a call to have one’s life radically reoriented so that God is the center around which everything else revolves. Not an easy task in the world in which we live. Even for those of us trying to live a life of faith, the pull to define God by the standards of our world and culture rather than defining our world and culture by God’s vision for humanity is strong and gripping.
In this passage, Jesus does not say, “don’t worry, be happy.” Rather, he is raising the question of where our priorities lie. What will capture and hold our attention, what will be so important that we will fear its loss or its destruction? In lectionary, a familiar debate arose: how much validity does this text hold for people who don’t have clothes to wear or food to eat? Sure, it’s fine for us to read and philosophize about it, but who is willing to say to someone who is starving or doesn’t have clothes or is homeless, “don’t worry.” If we allow ourselves to get hung up on this text being about whether or not we should worry about food or necessities, we are missing the much larger point that Jesus is trying to make:being singly focused on these things, these needs, prevents us from being present to and mindful of what God does provide us; and being available to God’s revelation in each moment and each day.
I don’t know about you but when I am worried or anxious about something the last thing I want someone to say to me is, “Oh, don’t worry.” It feels dismissive and uncaring. The truth is, I worry. I worry about the people I care for. I worry about our church. I worry about what kind of world my children and yours will inherit from my generation. But I will say again that I don’t think the message Jesus was intending was the dismissive, casual “don’t worry, be happy” message that is often the flip side of “if you’re not worrying then you had better start.” No, what Jesus does in this Matthew text is to remind us that at the most basic level we can trust in God’s care for us. He reminds us that when we center our lives and thinking in the present moment we become less anxious and worried about the problems of tomorrow. As hard as it is for us to believe or trust or even say out loud, Jesus is saying whether you have much, little, or none, life is more than food—more than the security we find in the accumulation of tangible things like cars, homes, televisions, the latest phone or gadget. Life is more than the security we hold on to in the accumulation of the intangible things as well, like status or power or privilege. Have you ever wondered why it is that those with little food or clothing or power or privilege seem to know this truth better than those of us who have more than enough to eat and closets full of clothes to wear and privileged status in our communities? Jesus says that life is more than these things. It is a hard word for us Americans, the wealthy people in the world, who seem to worry so much about having enough.
I told the lectionary group this week that I think this text is so hard for us because it asks us to live differently in the world—to go against the prevalent culture of our times. It asks us to reorient and define our lives by God’s vision for humanity, rather than defining God by the standards of our world and culture. Counter to our culture, the way, the truth, and the life is not about what you possess or how much you have; it is about how you live each day present to all that is. The call of today’s gospel is for people of faith to usher in a new age. Instead of perpetuating the age of anxiety, and allowing ourselves to be divided and distracted by coulds and shoulds and mights, our gospel lesson challenges us to know God is real; to live fully; to receive each day, each moment as a gift of grace.
Remember those worries I asked you to think about at the beginning? What would it be like not to deny them or ignore them or belittle them, but rather to ground them in the present moment of God’s love and care that is real? What if…?