Toorak Uniting Church

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Old Words for a New Day: The Age of Anxiety

Matthew 6: 25 – 33
Pentecost 13
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
26 August 2012

 Elijah Pierce, (1892-1984) Sermon on the Mount
Elijah Pierce, (1892-1984) Sermon on the Mount

"So I tell you, [says Jesus] don’t worry about your life. What you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear." Easier said than done. I reckon we live in the "Age of Anxiety". In fact, I think that many of our most powerful institutions - the media, advertising, the economic, political, educational and even medical institutions - seem to encourage us to live in a sort of state of perpetual anxiety. I wonder if there has ever been a time in history when people have been more worried, anxious, restless, apprehensive and generally ill at ease. Of course, during times of war or depression, anxiety levels in society rise and also we don’t feel anxious all the time and not all people are anxious, but there does seem to be a prevailing spirit of anxiety in our society – here in Australia and much of the western world.

Don’t Worry, be Happy
Well, there is a simple answer and it comes in a simple song sung by Bobby McFerrin:

Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don't worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don't worry, be happy......

Ain't got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
Don't worry, be happy
The landlord says your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don't worry, be happy
Look at me I am happy
Don't worry, be happy

But just being happy we know won’t sustain us when the big crunches come in our lives. At our Church Council meeting last Thursday evening we spent some time reflecting on the theme of sustaining Hope. We came to the conclusion that we all need more than just positive thinking, optimism and being happy in our lives. What we need for the tough times and the everyday times is a hopeful disposition - a hopeful spirit – something that underpins our lives and grounds us when things fall apart. At that Church Council meeting we used a quote from the last president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, who said:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

It is not just happiness or optimism that we need in this age when those with power try to create anxiety in us, we need that which sustains a sense of hope, joy and trust.

Eat, Drink and be Merry
Aren’t they remarkable words that were read in Matthew’s narrative earlier? They come as close to "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die" as you can get. They are counter-intuitive; they are subversive words, particularly in our culture of investment and planned economic management. It’s enough to make a financial planner quake in his boots, or at least be very anxious. Did you hear them when they were read?

Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

It goes without saying that food is essential to life and that it is probably necessary in our society to wear clothing, but what I think is being said here is more about what sustains the meaningful life; what is life-giving and how we can live without this dreadful sense of worry and anxiety that robs us of life in all its fullness.

I came up with a saying recently that I suspect isn’t original and that is, "I don’t want to live life haunted by the past or daunted by the future". That seems to me to be what worry is. Worry is something that comes from the past and haunts me; makes me fearful and anxious. But the future, what is yet to come, can be equally fearful and I worry about what will happen. And you know when you live haunted by the past and daunted by the future you miss the only place where you can experience true joy, hopefulness and trust, and that is in the present moment.

I have noticed that there is a plethora of cooking shows on TV at the moment. Who would have ever thought that you can put together the two words Celebrity and Chef. I always thought the chef was the guy you never saw who was working in the kitchen. Anyway, maybe the image of food and eating is helpful to understand that living in the present moment is what will give life its fullness and meaning. In the passage from Matthew’s gospel, it’s not food that’s the problem, but the worry or the fixation on it that creates the anxiety. It’s not the body that is the problem, but the anxiety about its shape, its age and even its health that moves us from the centre of the full life to the edges. And it’s not clothing that is the problem….Ummm well, maybe clothing is a bit of the problem. You know the shop-till-you-drop philosophy. It’s of course the obsession we have with what covers the body when we can care so little about what’s inside and I don’t mean by that our internal organs, but what we might call the soul, the inner life and the true and authentic self.

Alan Watts the Buddhist scholar wrote in his book the Wisdom of Insecurity a reflection on this issue of food and the importance of understanding it in the present moment. He said this:

What is the use of planning to be able to eat next week, unless I can really enjoy the meals when they come? If I am so busy planning how to eat next week that I cannot fully enjoy what I am eating now, I will be in the same predicament when next week's meals become "now". If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations [of what is to come], I am but dimly aware of this present [moment].

God and Life exist only in the Present Moment
Friends, we all know that it is not easy to live fully in the present moment. And of course that doesn’t mean we don’t reflect on the past or plan for the future. What it means is that we don’t settle for the surface experience of life; or for the superficialities and trivialities that undermine our joy and fulfilment in life. If this is the age of anxiety, then I suspect the next age will probably be the age of triviality. But seriously, for me what the words of Jesus that we have read in Matthew’s story mean for us in this new age of the 21st century is that we must put first things first, and that our anxiety will be lessened when you recognise that there is a bigger picture and a larger presence that underpins all of life. The words of Matthew’s gospel may sound a little foreign to our modern ear, but listen carefully to the wisdom in this paraphrase:

Why do you have so little trust and worry so much about everything? You worry about what you eat, what you will drink, what you will wear. Surely God who is the source of all life knows what you need. So get your priorities right and seek God’s way and justice first, and then things will fall into place. So don’t waste your time worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry enough about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own, so live today fully.

Life and God exist only in the present moment. I recall a professor at Boston College while I was doing a course in adult education there. He was fond of saying, "the past only exists in our memory and the future exists only in our imagination. But the present on the other hand is the only moment that truly exists". Surprisingly the same is true of God. The ancient Hebrews understood that the Holy, the Divine, the Sacred, that which we call God, is in the present tense. God was the "I am." God wasn’t the "I once was," nor the "one day I will be," but rather "I am". It means that we encounter the living God in the here and now, in present-day life. We may read stories of God in the Bible, but what counts is how that read encourages us to experience the presence of God now.

Worrying about the stuff of life reduces us. Putting less important things before the most important things makes us fearful. And living as if everything depends on me and as if there is no ground of being holding and sustaining me creates in me fear and anxiety. However, when we live into the present moment and we sense that life and God can be trusted and that there is joy in the ordinary moments of daily life and that, regardless of the tough times I may go through, I am sustained by hope, then anxiety is abated and life in all its abundance can emerge.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

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