“Be not anxious”
I like to think
of this as “the anxiety gospel” but that runs the risk of adding to
the very anxiety that this gospel seeks to counter and counters, I think, so
very effectively. “Behold, the fowls of the air”. “Consider the lilies
of the field”. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God”. These are the
strong words – behold, consider, seek - that offer a compelling
antidote to our anxieties.
What is Jesus
saying here? He wants us to look at the world with new eyes. And it
makes a difference for us in our lives. To behold what he wants us
to behold, to consider what he wants us to consider, to seek
what he wants us to seek counters the paralysis of our fears, the terror of
our anxieties and even the anxiety about our anxieties.
“be not anxious” and he says it more than once in this gospel. He knows
our anxieties and how prone we are to being anxious, quite literally, about
“a multitude of things”. It is “The Martha Syndrome” as
diagnosed elsewhere by Jesus: “Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and
troubled about a multitude of things” (Luke 10.41). We
all have our fears and our worries, our troubles and our concerns, our
heart-aches and our despairs. And we can worry ourselves, quite literally,
to death about them. What are we anxious about? What are our
anxieties? Quite simply, they are our cares, the things which,
quite literally, occupy our thoughts. The first Books of Common
Prayer, 1549 and 1552, use the phrase “be not carefull”.
The King James Version of the Bible, some sixty years later, uses
the phrase “take no thought” to capture the Greek word about how our
thoughts are taken captive or occupied, possessed, we might even say, with
various concerns. The phrase, “take no thought”, became the version
in the Books of Common Prayer from 1662 onwards until 1959,
when in Canada the word “anxious” was introduced, a word which has 16th
century provenance in English but which has been given such a weight of
interpretation in the 20th century, no doubt, through the
influence of the psychology of Sigmund Freud.
are the cares which choke and oppress us, the cares which give us great
anguish of soul, quite literally, angst. Our problem, it seems, and
the cause of our anxiety is that we are often too careful, quite
literally, too full of cares about the wrong things and/or in the
wrong way. The cares of this world beset us but Jesus would have us view
the world and its cares in a new way.
But what is
that new way? Is it simply this threefold “be not anxious”
which Jesus keeps saying as if it were some sort of magical mantra?
Is Jesus saying, in effect, “Don’t worry, be happy!”, or for the war
generations, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag” or for the
contemporary culture, the affectation of cynical indifference represented in
the shrug word, “whatever”. In short, is the antidote to our being
“full of cares” simply to be careless? Does “be not
careful”, as the 16th century Prayer Books
accurately put it, really mean be careless? No.
And yet, we
have our cares and our worries, in short, our anxieties. We have
only to look at ourselves. We are anxious about “a multitude of things”.
There are all
of our anxieties about the deeply troubling and perplexing affairs of the
larger world as we contemplate the seemingly endless parade of death and
destruction by famine, war, hurricane and tempest, not to mention the
horrifying spectacles of terrorism. There are all of our anxieties about
the economy, about jobs, about whose getting what from whom, about health
care, about political life at every level of government, about our families,
our schools, our parishes, our environment, and so on and so on. We have
become, I think, a remarkably anxious people, fearful and fretful about
“a multitude of things”.
overwhelm us and even destroy us. Stress is our contemporary word for our
anxieties and already points to a shift in understanding. It is not what
we are anxious about so much as how we cope with such things. But,
regardless, there are “a multitude of things” about which we are
anxious and, hence, “stressed out”. The threefold “be not
anxious” of the gospel, however, is not the antidote to “The Martha
Syndrome”, though it offers a necessary check, a moment of pause, a
counter-assertion, from which we might then be able to receive the real
antidote. What is the real antidote to anxiety? You can’t get it over
the counter at the drug store. You can’t get it by a doctor’s
prescription. It is here in what Jesus says. “Behold”, “consider”,
“seek” are the strong words that are all woven around Jesus’ repeated
exhortation “be not anxious”.
What is the
antidote? It is a new way of looking at the world. These strong words
are all verbs of perception and desire. They signal a new way of looking at
the world. What? Birds and flowers? Are we to go out bird
watching and picking Michaelmas daisies? Well, yes, perhaps, but the
point is wonderfully captured in the third strong word, “Seek ye first
the kingdom of God”, which illumines for us what is being said in the
other two. You see, Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is discerned in
these little things. We are to see in the birds and the flowers the care
of the heavenly Father for every living thing and, how much more, his
care for us. We are to see in the natural world the Father’s glory as
recollection of God’s providence is the strong answer to our anxieties.
Why? Because it reminds us that God’s care and purpose for us and his
world override our immediate concerns and cares. In our anxieties we forget
that this is God’s world. We find our place in his world and not the other
How is this
new? In two ways. First, it means that the world is not merely the
stage for frightening and terrifying acts of raw, brute nature or for the
appearance of divine power as something which frightens and oppresses us.
There is a power and a beauty even in a storm but that power and beauty
ultimately belong to God, to the manifestation of divine glory. The
God-in-the-thunder-storm simply reminds us of the wonder of creation.
But if we are not alive to that wonder and respect it, then we are oppressed
by it. The world stands over and against us as an alien and frightening
force. We are not free in it.
means that the world is not simply there for us and our purposes. The world
is not simply full of useful things for human ends and designs. The
usefulness of nature is not the primary thing. In fact, this oppresses us,
too. We become slaves in a technocratic world when the world becomes for us
only what is useful to us. Once again, we are not free in it.
Jesus is not
primarily interested in the harvest-yield or the usefulness of nature;
rather he considers the inner faithfulness of each one of us. It is about
a taking delight rather than a making use of the things of
God’s world. It means our free enjoyment of creation, honouring the will
and purpose of the creator in his creation. It means contemplating the
Father’s glory in the simple being of the little things of creation. Does
not that, after all, also include us?
“O ye of
little faith”, Jesus says. You see, that is the issue. It is all about
how we see the world. God’s world or our world? Open your
eyes! “Behold”, “consider” and, above all, “seek”.
These strong verbs of perception and desire speak about ourselves as
spiritual creatures who see God’s will and purpose in the world and,
ultimately, see the world in God. This is the counter to our
preoccupations, to our carefulness, to our endless calculations about the
use of things as if the things of this world only exist if we find and give
a purpose to them. This is the attitude and tendency which we have to
crucify in ourselves, as the epistle suggests. We have to crucify our
desire to control and manipulate the world, otherwise we end up being
consumed by the use we make of things, consumed by our carefulness, serving
Mammon – worldly riches - not God.
What is wanted
then is a new way of looking at the world. It means not care-less–ness
but a childlike care-free-ness born out of a trust in God’s
providence. He wants something more and better for us. That something more
and better is signaled for us here in this place and in this service.
Here in this cross-shaped place we are embraced in the providence of God.
Here we are reminded of God’s providential care for us. Here we are fed and
nourished with “the bread of eternal life and the cup of everlasting
salvation”. Here we participate in what we proclaim. Signed with
the sign of the cross at the font in our baptisms we pass under the
rood, under the cross, to the altar where we are fed with
nothing less than “the body and blood of Christ”, if “the world
has been crucified unto [us], and [ourselves] unto the world”, so that
we can live in the One who reveals the providence of God, come what
may in the circumstances of our lives. Then, and only then, shall we “be