Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life….
“Do not worry,” says Jesus, or, as an older translation has it, “Do not be anxious.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that easier said than done. Not that I don’t try not to be anxious. Believe me, I try! But it’s hard! So many things can raise our level of stress these days and make us anxious or antsy or grumpy or fearful. And it can happen so suddenly. One afternoon at All Saints, when I was rector, I was preparing for a funeral. On the altar of that church there are these two huge, heavy candlesticks. Being alone that day, I tried to light the candles myself. But one of them simply would not light; so I picked it up, intending to set it down on the floor to see what was wrong. Accidentally, I picked it up by the candle itself, and the heavy candlestick suddenly dropped away and landed squarely on my big toe. Of course, it hurt like sin. When I told my wife about it later, her first question was, “What did you say?” Since people were coming in for the funeral, I managed to keep my conversation with the candlestick to myself!
Oh, that we might have the serenity of Jesus in the midst of all we have to contend with today. As I read the gospels and picture him in my mind’s eye, I find one of his most compelling and endearing qualities is his absolute and utter calm, his total lack of stress and anxiety. I see him lying in the stern of a small fishing boat in the midst of a ferocious storm, wakened from a sound sleep by the disciples and astonished at their stress and fear. I see him at the home of Mary and Martha, calming Martha down from her frenetic housework and her irritation at her sister for not helping. I see him walking through Jericho, looking up and spotting a nervous, guilt-ridden little tax collector named Zacchaeus, and calling him to come down from his tree. “I want to stay at your house tonight,” says Jesus. And that revolutionizes Zacchaeus’ life.
Speaking of houseguests, one time a bishop friend of ours from Africa named Alfred Stanway came to visit. Although he had often stayed in our home, this time we were in the midst of an extremely hectic schedule and so we had made reservations for him at a local hotel. But he would have none of that! Upon his arrival, as we were trying to explain the arrangement, he calmly brushed by us and headed upstairs to his usual room! So we cancelled the hotel reservation, settled down, and had one of our most relaxing visits ever. When we took him to the airport for the next leg of his journey, to northern Canada, the airport was completely fogged in. That made me very anxious and I asked him what on earth he was going to do. He was utterly unperturbed and said, “Let’s just pray about it.” So we sat down on a bench in the waiting area and he prayed a simple prayer about his trip, and doing God’s will, and trusting in God’s grace. A little while later, the fog lifted, the plane arrived, the bishop took off—and the fog closed in again!
Oh, that we could be that free of anxiety! I’ve done a lot of thinking and reading about the subject; and one of the conclusions I have reached is that there is enormous power in being as non-anxious as you can. You see a remarkable example of that as St. John describes Jesus’ encounter with Pontius Pilate before his death. Jesus has been indicted by the Jewish council and now is on trial before the Roman governor. Pilate is hurling threats and accusations at him and is thoroughly frustrated by Jesus’ silence. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” hisses Pilate. “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answers him with the utmost calm: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” (19:10-11) Now, it’s presumptuous to think we can ever be as totally free from anxiety as Jesus was; but to the extent we can, I believe we come that much closer to living our lives productively, as God would have us, and fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves.
But how? How can you and I become non-anxious—or at least less anxious? Jesus’ advice to the people in today’s passage is, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The more we focus on God and not on ourselves, the less anxious we become and the more we’re able to feel and trust God’s love and care for us. The result is that we feel that much better about ourselves; we have more confidence, more self-esteem. Hence we’re set free to relax and be who we really are. And our love for others is more open, more genuine, and less infected by self-concern and self-serving. It is all of a piece.
When we’re uptight ourselves, we make others uptight. When we’re anxious about our own self worth, we’re diminished in our capacity to honor other people’s self worth. And anxiety is very contageous. In his book A Failure of Nerve, the late Edwin Friedman, whose work on family relationships is famous, talks about families in which anxiety is pervasive and chronic. He says there is a kind of “herd instinct” in such families. Everyone is impatient, tends always to blame others, reacts instantly and adversely to criticism, seeks the “quick fix” to problems and has what Friedman calls “a low threshold for pain.” That kind of family, he says, tends to organize itself around its least mature and most dependent and dysfunctional member. Friedman even goes so far as to make these same observations about nations and societies, and to stress the urgency of mature, non-anxious leadership in these times. As anxiety is contagious, so is non-anxiety. Calm and confidence spread.
We saw a shining example of non-anxious leadership during the Second World War in Prime Minister Winston Churchill. As the bombs rained down on Britain in 1940, and the German juggernaut rolled inexorably across Europe, and defeat at the hands of Hitler seemed all but certain, Churchill uttered his most famous words, in the House of Commons: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on until the end….We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the landing-grounds; we shall fight in the fields and in the streets….We shall never surrender.” “The effect was electrifying,” writes Churchill’s biographer John Keegan. “A taut and anxious House put aside its fears and rose to cheer him to the rafters. His words, soon transmitted to the people, also electrified them. They caught a mood of popular disbelief that so great a nation should stand in such sudden danger and transformed it into one of dogged defiance.”
As you and I focus our attention and our allegiance on the Kingdom of God, and as we recommit ourselves to it, day after day after day, we begin to let go of our anxieties that are so driven by self-concern. We find ourselves more and more able to pick up the serenity of Jesus in today’s gospel reading. To be sure, we have a long way to go—at least I do. But as I’ve said before I get a lot out of the examples set by others. I call them “my heroes.” On this Memorial Day weekend, let me share one more story with you, again from England, during World War II:
During the Battle of Britain, a young soldier lost his life in a sudden violent attack. When the news arrived back home, the parish vicar received it first and had the sad duty of going by the house to bring word to the soldier’s wife. She greeted him at the door and asked, “Are you bringing me bad news that you come at this unusual time of day?” “I’m afraid so,” came the reply. “Is it about my husband? Is he dead?” “Yes,” he said, “I am so very sorry to bring you such sad tidings….” The young wife didn’t let him finish. She interrupted him and said, “Come in and let me make you a cup of tea.” The minister was astonished at her serenity, but as she served the tea she explained: “My mother taught me, when I was a little girl, that when anything dreadful happens, I must think of what I would be doing if it had not happened, and then do that.” Oh, for that kind of serenity! Strive first, dear friends, for the kingdom of God—and remember how much God loves you! Amen.