Saturday, 18 February 2017

Sunday Semon: Matthew 6.24-34 Worry and anxiety

Matthew 6:24-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

 I have a friend who lives with anxiety: the smallest thing can throw his equilibrium and lead him down paths of paranoia as he looks for some motive or outcome that’s designed to do him down. In his mind he has what I call the reverse Midas touch – and I won’t tell you what he believes everything he touches turns into. That’s not only emotionally challenging for him but it’s also draining for those of us he unburdens on. He looks inwards all the time and rarely seems to look outwards.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with that level of worry and yet I'm very much of the opinion that worry is a fact of life. Just take a moment to think about what your worries are.  It seems to me that worry is a continuum and we’re all on that line somewhere. Yes, of course significant events can push us further along that line but most of us live relatively worry-free lives in that we’re fed, we’re clothed, we’re housed, we’ve parented reasonable effectively and most of us have enough money to cope. We also live in a society that, whatever its shortcomings, has various social safety-nets in place for the most vulnerable. Where does that leave our personal concerns – the one’s we’ve just considered? How many of them I wonder, are just … well, a bit trivial in the wider scheme of things? So, I’ll share a couple of mine: we’re going abroad in the summer and I am worried how the falling value of the pound will affect our spending power. I’m worried because my younger daughter and her chap are moving back in with us for a couple of months and I’m worried that Ben-the-dog isn’t doing as well as his trainers expect in his guide dog training. They’re all valid worries but saying them out loud makes them seem what they are: a bit shallow.

Knowing that, of course, isn’t much of a consolation if you happen to be prone to anxiety or are going through a particularly difficult patch at work or with the family or have a serious health problem or an unexpectedly large bill. Being told to get a sense of perspective because other people elsewhere are much worse off than you is at best trite and at worst downright insensitive.

My mother’s mantra was always, “Remember the starving children in Africa.”

“O.K. I’ve remembered them. Strangely, that doesn’t make me feel any better. Now what?”

And how well do we take to the suggestion that we should count our blessings in times of personal trouble?

However true Jesus’ statement, “ … can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life span?” may be, and it clearly is because medical studies suggest that prolonged anxiety significantly shortens our lives, I wonder how someone really burdened and careworn with worry hears such a passage as this today.

This is such a familiar passage that I suspect, with very little notice, most of us could cobble together some spiritual insight: and yet over-familiarity runs the danger of leading us into lazy thinking and trite analysis. After all, we've heard this before and we pretty much know what to expect, so I've decided to go out on a limb a bit and approach this text in a slightly different way.

On Friday I was talking to one of the lads who regularly comes to chapel in the prison. I’ll call him Terry. He’s had a very rocky couple of weeks: he lost his job in the prison kitchens for stealing food, and therefore his major source of income; his partner has gone off with someone else: he started using drugs again and lost his two front teeth in a fight. (Those of you who watched last week’s edition of Panorama will have some inkling of what I’m talking about.) His take on things was very interesting. “I’ve hit rock bottom because I took my eyes off the Lord.” His main worry was not all the woes he faces but the fact that, in his own words, he had ceased to be a pillar for the Lord but had become, instead, a pillock for the Lord. He’s stopped looking inwards and is looking outwards.

His troubles had driven him to some extreme behaviour but his main concern was for his compromised Christian witness. His concern wasn’t what people thought of him but what people thought of the God he follows because, he feared, people judged God through his discipleship. “Call yourself a Christian?” Of course, that’s another sort of worry for him – you’d think - but no, “I’ve given it all to the Lord. It’s my only option. I’m back on track and I’m going to use this as part of my testimony of what God can do in your life.”

“I’ve given it all to The Lord. It’s my only option.”

I am often surprised by the spiritual insights these men have.

I’ve been spending some time in the prison with a man who murdered his wife. I’ll call him Joe. I’ve never met anyone as remorseful, and he has attempted suicide so is on a constant watch because he may try again. At the moment he sees that as his only solution. However bad life is in prison she’s worse off, is his reasoning, and he can’t rationalise that while he’s fed, clothed and warm, she’s lying in the cold ground. “There is no punishment good enough for me.”

He asked if I could take him to the chapel at the very time of her funeral and there is a short liturgy in a book Brunel gave me for those unable to attend a funeral. Distraught as he was, it was a profound experience for him and it has shifted the way he sees things: he wants to start coming to chapel regularly; he is starting to understand that God has forgiven him and that’s the first step to being able to forgive himself. There’s a way to go yet for him, and I’d be grateful if you’d keep both these men in your prayers, the men I’ve called Terry and Joe, but I use these examples because for me they illustrate today’s Gospel in a way that most of our lives probably can’t. For both of them the way out of worry and anxiety and, indeed, self-loathing, has been to turn to God: either to turn back to him or to begin that journey. Out of the depth of their experiences, their pain, their guilt, the messed up lives – theirs and others - and their bad choices, is a sense that hope comes through faith in God. They have started looking outward rather than inwards.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that to experience what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel needs each and every one of us to plumb the depths and I know that what I’ve said comes perilously close to saying, “Look, other people have it worse than you so get a grip”,  but the context of these stories shows how true Jesus words are when he says, “ … do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …. You of little faith …. your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness ….”  The Kingdom of God: our spiritual lives and how we live as disciples should be the focus of our concerns. Instead of turning our worries inwards, we should have a wider concern for how we bring God’s Kingdom closer to others.

For Terry, the witness that he was so concerned he’d compromised is part of bringing the Kingdom of God to others: he is striving for it for himself and for others – and prison is not an easy place to be a man of faith. For Joe, it’s about learning that no one is beyond redemption in God’s eyes and, as he undertakes a listener’s course, he will become the go-to man for other prisoners who believe that no punishment is good enough or who are deeply remorseful, to speak to and gain support from. That too will serve the Kingdom of God.

Can we take a leaf out of their books? Can we trust that despite our woes and worries God is in control? And if we believe that, can we leave those worries behind and concentrate on the job at hand, our witness as disciples and the part that plays in bringing the Kingdom of God closer? Looking outwards and not inwards.


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