Text: Luke 21:5-19
Working with Mahan Siler, the former pastor of Pullen, was one of the greatest gifts of my ministry. For those of you who knew Mahan, I don’t need to say anymore about why that is so. You know the kind of pastor he was. For those of you who came after Mahan’s tenure at Pullen, here’s how I would describe him: he has the folksy charm of Andy Griffith, the physical appearance of Steve Martin, the heart of Mother Teresa, the wisdom of the Dali Lama, and the presence of…well of Mahan. As a pastor, he had the ability to challenge and to comfort all at the same time. He extended grace and acceptance to all of us as he cared for and nurtured our spiritual lives. There is no one that I have learned more from or whom I respect more as a minister than Mahan Siler.
And yet, there were times, just a few, when he would drive me absolutely crazy. One of those times that was fairly consistent was when he would say to me, and he said it often, “Nancy, it’s important as leaders that we have a non-anxious presence. You’ve got to stay non-anxious.” I can remember thinking, “What does that even mean?” Life is full of anxiety. Like when you get that phone call from the doctor saying that your test came back positive and you need to come back in for another procedure. Or you learn that your job is in jeopardy of being cut as the company you work for contemplates downsizing. Or you come home on the coldest night of the year to find that you have no heat and the repair person tells you that it can’t be fixed, that you need a whole new system; and the bank account is already in trouble. Or how about the anxiety you experience when you feel like you don’t fit in at school or can find a group of peers that will accept you for who you are. There is a lot of life that produces great anxiety. When you see your children hurting and struggling and there’s nothing you can do. Or when you set a goal of 300 pledging units by December 1 and on November 17 you only have 210. Anxiety is a part of the human experience. And so many times, I wanted to look at Mahan and say, “Now would be a good time for you to be a little anxious.”
I thought of Mahan’s non-anxious mantra when I read the lectionary text from Luke. In every line, you can almost feel the anxiety jumping off the page. There is the talk from Jesus about the destruction of the temple. “…the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.” Imagine what those listening must have thought about such talk. The temple was considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the Roman Empire. As the house of God, its destruction would seem be to the end of the world in the minds of the people. Think about the anxiety that these words would have elicited in the hearts of those listening. It would kind of be like me saying to you this morning, “This week our church will be destroyed and when you arrive next Sunday it will just be a pile of rubble here at 1801 Hillsborough Street.” Anxiety.
But Jesus didn’t stop there with his anxiety producing speech. Listen to the next part of the text. “They ask him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware [just that word can make you feel anxious] that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” His words are cryptic. He alerts the disciples that lots of folks will come peddling warnings about the end. It’s as if he expects the Hal Lindseys, Harold Campings, and Tim LaHayes of the world and so he warns us about them ahead of time. There’s a lot of anxiety out in the world about the end time. The last time it was predicted that the end of the world was to take place, Karla and I were in New York. It was May 21, 2011. As we walked down a Manhattan Street there were random people yelling and carrying banners about the end of time—waving newspapers and quoting scripture. For me, New York is anxiety producing enough without being there when the end of the world is being proclaimed. The world now, just as then, is full of moments of anxiety being played out in public spaces.
Jesus goes on… “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plague; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.’” Not sure this is the kind of leadership Mahan was talking about when he said, “As leaders, we have to maintain a non-anxious presence.” In fact, to this point in the text, Luke 21 sounds like a timetable about the end of the world, as many have interpreted it. It is all fear, catastrophe, worry and anxiety.
But the text takes an unexpected turn. As Jesus is warning his listeners about the persecution they are likely to face, he shifts focus. He says, “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
I will give you words and a wisdom. There is no question that Luke is responding to the crises of early Christian communities and addressing the words of Jesus to them in their hour of doubt and need. This letter that begins with fear and anxiety actually turns out to be a letter of comfort and courage—an invitation. Jesus is actually saying in this Luke passage that no matter how bad things get, or how anxious you might be, or how heavy your worries may feel I will give you words and a wisdom to live by. I will give you words and a wisdom that in the presence of your fears will be enough to sustain you. This week, I loved the moment in lectionary group when someone blurted out in the middle of conversation while pounding their finger on the page of their Bible saying, “I want that. I want the words and a wisdom. That’s what I want.” It was such an honest moment. I want that—I want to trust that in the moment, when it’s all on the line, that someone or something will give me what I need.
As frustrated as I would get with Mahan when he would start talking about being a non-anxious presence I knew that what he was saying mattered. Not for the purposes of being some great leader; but rather, for the purpose of living a faithful and abundant life. You see anxiety takes us out of being present to the moment before us. It robs us of being present to ourselves and to others. But most of all, it keeps us from being present to God and to God within us. Anxiety blocks our ability to hear the words and the wisdom that God has already put within us. And when our minds and hearts are distracted with worry and fear and anxiety we cannot hear that still small voice speaking to us God’s wonderful words of life and wisdom. Remember the words of that old hymn:
Christ, the blessed one, gives to all, wonderful words of life;
Sinner, list to the loving call, wonderful words of life.
All so freely given, wooing us to heaven;
Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life;
Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.
Those words, wonderful words: I will be with you always. In the light and in the darkness I will give you words and a wisdom…All so freely given, if we can only have the presence to listen and to hear and to stay in the moment before us.
I have found for myself and in counseling others that it’s not helpful to tell someone to not be anxious. Many of us suffer daily from anxiety. And others of us are living with the anxiety of waiting for that test result or trying to figure out where we’re going to get the money to buy a new heating system, or just how many family pledging units will support our budget, or the anxiety of not knowing whether our child will survive the darkness of being an adolescent. It’s all so real. And, Jesus says, “I will give you words and a wisdom.” In other words, I will give you all that you need to stand strong and make it through.
I want you to do something for me. I want you to think about that thing in your life that is causing you anxiety—that thing that is worrying you or has you afraid. Hold it for a moment. And then hear Jesus saying to you, “I will give you words and a wisdom.” I will give you all that you need to face this day. You can trust, I can trust, we can trust that God is present giving us what we need. Why does a non-anxious presence matter? It matters because ultimately it frees us to be present to God and to the only life we have—the one precious moment.
Every today, every tomorrow has two handles. We can take hold of it with the handle of anxiety or the handle of faith. May each of us reach out for that handle of faith.