Friday, November 27, 2009

Anxiety or Thanksgiving

Sermon preached at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Rochester, New York at a joint celebration with the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, November 23, 2009: Matthew 6:25-33

I wondered if not worried would there be any different dynamic in our meeting together after the Pope’s invitation for disaffected Anglicans to come on over and bring some of your toys with you. Lunch with Kevin Mannara put me at ease about it, but as I was writing this sermon I had this sudden bout of anxiety—what if I wasn’t good enough? What if I became a living example of everything that is wrong with the Episcopal Church? You know what happens when irrational fear ceases us.

As in so many circumstances, I found myself faced with a choice. It is a choice we all face, and, one could make the case that it is one of the major choices Jesus places before us as his followers. It is a choice about reaction and attitude. It is the choice between anxiety and thanksgiving.

It is, at least for Americans, a nice twist of history that our civil Day of Thanksgiving comes at the end of our Church Year. Most years that means it sits as a kind of liturgical New Year's Eve. I think this is wonderfully appropriate--before we begin another Church Year, a day of reflection that pushes us in the direction of thanksgiving. It is a biblical bias, this attitude of thanksgiving, and a liturgical one as well, since it is the "Eucharist," the Thanksgiving, we celebrate Sunday by Sunday throughout the year.

Perhaps it is not anxiety that comes to mind as the attitudinal opposite of thanksgiving, but I think it is. It is my experience of human living, even the life of faith, that one of the most difficult things Jesus ever said is found in the Gospel reading this evening, "Do not be anxious about your life."

How hard is it? As hard as any part of life can be, to choose to be grateful rather than anxious.

Why? Well, one of the reasons is found in the vision of the prophet Joel, chapter 2. It is one of my favorite pieces of Old Testament Scripture. There is a bit of a refrain in it, "And my people shall never again be put to shame."

We are intensely, sometimes pathologically, afraid of being put to shame, of seeming to have not done our best, or to have let life get out of control, or simply look like "also-rans," if not out-and-out losers. And it makes us choose anxiety instead of thanksgiving as our attitude toward life over and over and over again.

It is so hard for us, even we professing Christian people, to get over this fear. It may actually be our biggest hypocrisy and what drives so many of our silly squabbles even among ourselves. How hard it is to grasp and accept the truth that we have nothing of which to be afraid or ashamed. Nothing. Jesus has come, lived all our fear, taken all our shame upon himself and banished it from the face of the creation. One way of looking at this choice we have to make between thanksgiving and anxiety is to simply ask ourselves, "This story that we are about to begin to tell again, of a babe in a manger, his gathering of people to table and telling their stories as stories of God, his death on the cross, and a people convinced he lived among them still, do we believe it's the Truth or not?" When we choose anxiety we say, "No, we do not believe it." When we choose thanksgiving we say, "Yes, we do."

Another way of putting this might be to remind you of another popular cultural thing this time of year, something I was raised on in the television age, "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer." I mean the great TV special.

That story as it's told in that version is about our anxiety about fitting in, being excluded when we seem to not fit in, our fear of ending up exiled to the island of misfit toys.

The Christian message is, of course, that that whole game is just that, a game, an illusion. We are, in fact, all misfits, all sinners, in traditional terms, all in need of love and mercy that is bigger than anything we can manage to bring about ourselves. None of us measures up.

Are we willing to accept that, and, in turn, accept an outlook on life that is dominated by thanksgiving, gratitude, and, yes, faith. Or are we going to continue to reject it and choose the way of anxiety, resist with all our might our exile to the land of misfit toys, and spend our lives worrying about whether or not we are OK?

We will, of course, even with the best intentions, teeter between the two. But seeking to be a people of thanksgiving is really the only necessity. "Seek," Jesus says, "and you will find." Seek to leave the way of anxiety and you will find the way of thanksgiving. You will arrive at the land of misfit toys and find it has been your real home all along.

I leave you with the last verse of a hymn which I would have requested we sing tonight if I had written this sermon soon enough--if I hadn't wasted time being anxious about whether or not I could be good enough and you would like me or not and perhaps think those disaffected Anglicans do have a point.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving

for the goodness of the Lord.

1 comment:

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