By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 6:25-33
We are all, I imagine, familiar with the Dr. Seuss story How the Grinch Stole Christmas! In the story, the Grinch wrongly assumes that the joy of Christmas depends upon having stuff – good toys and games, holiday decorations and festive food. But he discovers, of course, that the Who’s in Whoville don’t need stuff to have joy on Christmas morning. Now, while the Grinch was unsuccessful at stealing Christmas, there is an even more threatening culprit seeking to steal Thanksgiving.
It is anxiety or worry.
Now, let me say two things at the outset of this message:
Now, it’s important for us to monitor our level of anxiety… perhaps now more than ever… because we are living in anxious times. Did you know that America is in the midst of an anxiety epidemic? From 2016 to 2017, 36% of Americans surveyed said they were experiencing increased anxiety. That number jumped another 40% over this past year. Currently more than half of the U.S. adult population reports feeling especially anxious about health, safety and finances. Mental health experts observe this rise in anxiety as deeply connected to our 24/7 news cycle and our divisive politics.[i] It seems as if media, marketing and politics now rely upon our anxiety as primary drivers to shape our lifestyles, decisions and mental perspective. But, as followers of Jesus, we are called to live differently; to live in a counter-cultural way; not enslaved by worry, but liberated by trust.
This morning’s scripture comes from what is known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In that “sermon,” spanning chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus explains what it means to be a citizen in the kingdom of God (not a citizen of the ancient Roman Empire or modern America); to live with attentiveness to God’s presence and priorities. Jesus begins his teaching with beatitudes, pronouncements of blessing, which were as counter-cultural in Jesus’ time as they are today. An affirmation of faith from a worship resource book illuminates the meaning of those beatitudes, affirming that it is good – not bad – when we live from a posture of:
So this morning I want to say a few words about the effects of worry on our lives and the lives of others; as well as two spiritual practices that can help us overcome needless anxiety.
First, how does worry impact our own life? Well, one of the most serious effects of anxiety – of worry – is that it prevents us from noticing our blessings. Worry prevents thanksgiving. Worry robs us of thanksgiving. When we worry, we become fixated on the past and the future; we ruminate about regrets and we worry about an imagined and dreadful future and it blinds us to the present. That’s the second effect of worry. It prevents us from being present and aware of what is happening around us. When we live in the past or future, we become blind to the gifts of the present moment. We have to be present and aware to experience the blessings found in each moment. But far too often, our bodies are in one place and our minds and hearts are somewhere else and so things happen around us – things as simple as a beautiful sunset or a stranger holding the door open for us or a child waving from a passing car – and it doesn’t even register because we aren’t in the moment, we aren’t fully present, we fail to notice. To succumb to worry means we have abandoned the present moment in favor of a dreadful future existing only in our minds… well and the minds of pundits, politicians, advertisers and news broadcasters.
When Jesus taught this sermon he was seated out of doors. There were likely birds and wild flowers in the environment around him and so he calls attention to what surrounds his audience. He says, “Study the birds of the air; examine the flowers of the field.” And I think it’s still true today. If we are fully present to what surrounds us, we will discover abundant expressions of God’s faithfulness and generosity and our trust in God can grow.
So, worry has two negative effects on us: it robs us of thanksgiving and it robs us of time by blinding us to the present moment.
But our worry also harms others. The natural response to worry is control. When we become anxious, we try to control our surroundings, including the people within them. But, when we trust God, we don’t need to work so hard at trying to control others; which is a form of aggression and violence. When we rely on God’s care, we are freed up from that anxiety and able to offer ourselves to others without fear. Our individual worry makes the world a more violent and aggressive place. But, our trust in God makes the world around us gentle and compassionate space.
Worry is about a lack of trust and – as people of faith – we want trust, don’t we? Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t about believing in God’s existence. Being a disciple of Jesus is about trusting in God’s provision made known to us through Jesus. Worry and trust are polar opposites.
So, what’s the fix? How do we grow our trust?
Well first, we count our blessings. Counting our blessings requires us to live with awareness; it requires us to be present to the present. We can’t count something we don’t notice; something we’re not aware of. So counting our blessings is a way of training ourselves to live in the moment and pay closer attention to what is happening around us; it trains us to notice the signs of God’s faithfulness that we might otherwise overlook. Look at the birds; look at the flowers; look at the sunrise; look at the dog with a wagging tail who’s excited you’re home; or the child giggling at a silly joke. Look and see and taste and feel. Count the blessings you taste: this week, things like turkey and pumpkin and apples and cranberries. Count the blessings you feel: the hug of a friend or family member, the brisk fall wind on your face. Count the blessings you hear: music and geese honking as they fly south and crisp fall leaves crackling under your feet. By being fully aware and counting the blessings around us, our trust in God will grow and crowd out anxiety. Worry and gratitude can’t really occupy the same space. So, if you want to drive out worry, begin with gratitude.
Secondly, be generous. Just before this morning’s scripture verses, Jesus teaches on the topic of generosity. He says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is generous, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is envious, your whole body will be full of darkness. Friends, people unwisely believe that accumulating more stuff and more power will make them secure. But it won’t; it will only make them want more stuff and more power over others. Our only real security is in God and trust is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. If you are anxious and fearful, the best fix – ironically – is to push yourself to take a risk. Now obviously I’m not suggesting that you give away your whole monthly paycheck or make yourself available to people 24/7. But if you are fearful that you don’t have enough of something – if you are anxious because you feel you don’t have enough money, enough time, or get enough attention from others – then, give some of it away. Experts note that taking a risk and investing in others is one of the most effective ways to overcome worry and anxiety.[ii] That’s why Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that, if someone wants your cloak, give them your coat too. And if someone compels you to go a mile for them, go a second mile. Generosity toward others grows our trust in God; it grows our reliance on the sufficiency of God’s providence.
Friends: don’t let worry rob you of Thanksgiving. Rather, grow your trust in God by counting your blessings and sharing them with others.
[i] See https://www.sciencealert.com/americans-are-in-the-midst-of-an-anxiety-epidemic-stress-increase Based on survey results by the American Psychiatry Association which can be found at: https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/apa-public-opinion-poll-annual-meeting-2018
[ii] See https://www.sciencealert.com/surprising-scientifically-backed-tips-to-manage-anxiety
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