Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinityadmin | 4 September 2016
“Be not anxious”
We live, if not in interesting times, according to the familiar Chinese proverb, then certainly in anxious times. I do not need to chronicle the different things which belong to the anxieties of our world and day. Certainly it has been an anxious time for all of us in Windsor and for some far more than for others at the loss through fire of Edgehill. 2016, I have been saying, is the year of Edgehill referring to the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Edgehill Church School for Girls, an institution closely connected to this parish. And while Edgehill as an institution has been amalgamated with King’s Collegiate School since 1976 to form King’s-Edgehill School, the building itself still stood as visible reminder of times past and was an iconic structure in the landscape of the town. Some of our parishioners were living at Edgehill and have suffered great losses. I will keep you informed about what help might be needed for them.
So anxious times indeed. Yet, as Providence would have it, anxiety is the word that confronts us in the Gospel for today, though to talk about anxiety, it seems to me, only runs the risk of increasing our anxieties. The Gospel, however, provides the only and real counter to all and every form of anxiety. The word itself is of rather modern provenance, really only appearing in the 17th century and really only taking on a whole freight of meaning in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the phenomenon of existentialism and the psycho-analytic philosophy of Freud. The German word, angst, has entered into our ordinary discourse; this is anxiety weighted with a whole lot of other concerns, what I would call anti-philosophical assumptions. It has to do with how we see the world: as empty and meaningless, indifferent and even hostile to the human condition; in short, as almost evil, or as essentially good and wonderful, a place of beauty and truth because it is God’s world of which we are an essential part. That difference in how we see things makes all the difference for our lives.
It was not until 1959 that the word anxiety appeared in the Prayer Book Gospel reading for this Sunday. All of the Epistles and Gospels in English were taken from the King James Version of the Bible in the mother book of the Common Prayer tradition, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Before that the English translation of the Scripture readings in the English Prayer Books was derived from the Great Bible which, like the 1611 King James Version, too, was largely informed by William Tyndale’s English translations of the 1530s. Only the Psalms have remained in Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation in the Great Bible, probably because of their quality of memorability and poetic power. But what was the word in the Great Bible and in the King James Bible now rendered as anxiety in our Prayer Book? “Be not careful.” Wow!
That seems to run exactly counter to our contemporary world which is so often risk adverse and where the advice to all is to be careful. Think about that for a moment. It seems perfectly innocent and an expression of concern towards our children and one another to say, ‘be careful’. Yet it can also suggest and powerfully so that the world is a very dangerous place. I suppose that is obvious but it is but a small shift to go from the obvious dangers of a disordered world to seeing the world as inherently evil and bad, the world as something from which we would like to flee, the world as a fearful place, bereft of beauty and truth, the very opposite of a Christian understanding of the world as created and redeemed, as the place of learning to live here and now in the love of God and ultimately in the world in God, meaning heaven. Such a way of looking at things makes, I am suggesting, a big difference.
But what are we to make of this older translation, “be not careful”? It means not to be too full of cares. Doesn’t that make sense? Are we not easily overwhelmed by a multitude of cares and worries? Preoccupied and stressed, to use the common markers of the therapeutic culture? “Teach us to care and not to care,” the poet T.S. Eliot puts it in his poem Ash Wednesday, “Teach us to sit still.” He goes on to add a refrain from the Angelus, a Marian devotion. “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death/Pray for us now and at the hour of death.” The remembrance of who we are in the sight of God is a powerful counter to all of the forms of death and despair which contribute so mightily to our anxiety.
Learning how to care for things and for one another in the right way and to the right extent is a life-long lesson. Our Gospel provides us with a strong anti-dote to our being too full of cares, to our being overwhelmed with anxiety. Jesus bids us “behold the fowls of the air”, “consider the lilies of the field”, and above all, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”. This is ever so powerful. We live in a world where our disconnect from nature is a serious concern; we even have a diagnostic term for it – ‘nature deficit’. It is a concern for the digital generation which it is feared is too absorbed and obsessed with digital devices and is literally unaware of anything beyond their screens. And yet, paradoxically, they and all of us are anxious about the environment, especially about the human forms of our interaction with the natural world and our destructive capacities. In this anxiety there is the half-thought realization that our calculated use of the world, particularly through our utopian idealism about technology, often leads to greater problems.
Yet Jesus speaks directly to us about how to think nature, we might say. What is he saying? He is saying that the birds of the air and the lilies of the field are all part of God’s world, part of creation and the on-going nature of creation under God’s Providence. Seeing the world and ourselves in God is transformative with respect to our anxieties. To be recalled to God’s Providence is saving grace for the culture of anxiety.
The poet and preacher, George Herbert, in his classical treatise The Country Parson, devotes a chapter to The Parson’s Consideration of Providence which captures the theological wisdom of today’s gospel in its application to our lives. He notes that God exercises “a threefold power in everything which concerns man,” namely, “a sustaining power, a governing power, and a spiritual power.” “The sustaining power” has to do with how God “preserves and actuates everything in his being,” so that corn is corn and grows as such and not as zucchini or cucchini, which is a real concern! The governing power “preserves and orders the references of other things to the growth, as seasons and weather,” and other things, without which harvests, too, would come to nothing. But it is the third power which touches most directly and profoundly upon the meaning of the gospel. “The spiritual power” is that “by which God turns all outward blessings to inward advantages,” without which all that we have from the world is really nothing worth. “Seek ye first,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of God.” It has to have priority because all things are for the kingdom of God. The world exists for God and not God for the world. Our anxieties arise when we forget this simple yet profound biblical wisdom.
Jesus is not simply interested in the harvest yield or the mere usefulness of nature to us; rather he considers the inner faithfulness of a human being. What matters most is a taking delight rather than the making use of the things of God’s world for our own imagined ends and purposes. What is wanted is our free enjoyment of God’s creation. What is wanted is that we should see the Father’s glory in the simple being of the little things of creation. What is wanted is for us to open our eyes to “behold, consider, and seek.” It means to see the world in God and not in our endless calculated use and abuse of things. It means to crucify our desire to control and manipulate. We are so easily consumed by the use we would make of things.
The strongest of these strong verbs is “seek”. It speaks directly to the matter of human desire. It teaches us to seek what God seeks for us, to find our wills in God’s will. It is what we are given to pray by Jesus himself. In him God’s will for our humanity is written in large letters for us to read. Here in the sacrament he gives himself to us so that his life can live in us. So with ‘we in him and he in us’, we can be not anxious.
“Be not anxious”
Fr. David Curry
Trinity XV, 2016