Freedom from Worry

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, December 2, 2012
Blair Pogue

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

            Last week I had the blessing of spending time with my family in California. I am close to my father Bill, an incredibly vital and special human being. When I think of my dad I picture him as a hospital clown, making people laugh who find themselves in unfamiliar and anxious circumstances.  I also picture an invincible Teddy Roosevelt-like figure charging up yet another hill.  Until fairly recently my dad was jumping off of cliffs with a mere chute in Mexico, riding motorcycles all over San Diego, going down to the beach for some sea kayaking, mentoring high school students, and helping out at a school for homeless children.  A couple of days before our trip and his 80th birthday my dad had a spell of vertigo.  It was so bad that he was reduced to crawling around his house on all four limbs to get from room to room.  My once unstoppable dad had a cane, was having trouble walking, and tired easily.  My mind raced forward as I thought about his death and what losing him would be like.  What would like be life without my dad?  How could I ever fill the huge hole he would leave?  How would his death reconfigure my relationships with other family members?  The thoughts and worries of future what ifs multiplied, transporting me from the present to the future.

            We are all carrying some sort of burden.  For some of us it is a present challenge – health issues, a relationship gone awry, job loss, financial worries, aging parents, an unhealthy job environment, a child who is struggling to find himself or herself.  Some of us are consumed by things we can’t control – the what if’s of the future: what will I do when my parent dies?  What if my child becomes ill?  What if I can’t pay my bills?  What if Congress and the Administration can’t come up with a budget compromise and we all go off the fiscal cliff?  What if a tornado transports my home to southern Minnesota?

            In an essay on anxiety in last Sunday’s New York Times titled “The Snake in the Garden” Pico Ayer shares a story about how worry consumed him during time away at a beautiful retreat center in California.  His fears that a friend would not like the retreat center he had raved about prevented him from making the most of his time there.  The essay explored why we worry so much about the future, and how that worry can consume us.  In the online responses to Ayer’s reflection one reader wrote, “is there another aspect to the human being that allows us to experience that bliss, that is to re-enter the Garden without the obsessive thoughts? And how do we find it and where should we go looking for it?

            One answer to that excellent question is to be found in today’s Gospel from Luke.  Our Gospel for this first Sunday in Advent, the official beginning of the church year, interestingly points to the end of time.  In the next couple of weeks we will travel backwards in time from Jesus’ second coming to the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable.  This first week of Advent the compilers of our weekly readings or lectionary transport us to Jesus’ return.  Why this strange move?  How can an apocalyptic scenario liberate us from at least some of our anxieties?

            Two weeks ago Morris explored with us the origin of apocalyptic literature, a genre appearing in Old Testament books like Daniel and tending to emerge from marginal religious communities undergoing persecution.  In the synoptic Gospels disturbing apocalyptic portraits of the future tell us that the earliest followers of Jesus were under duress.  They were being persecuted for their faith.  Time continued to pass and Jesus had not yet returned.  They needed a reminder that the God they worshipped and devoted their lives to was not only the God of the past, but would be with them in the present and future. They needed to know that God was trustworthy, and would accompany them through whatever trials and tribulations they faced.

            While our context is vastly different from that of the earliest Christians, we too struggle with the challenges we face – present challenges, as well as the challenges we anticipate in the future.  When Jesus instructs his followers to “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap,” the phrase “the worries of this life” jumps out.  Yes, the worries of this life do keep us from being attentive to God’s movement in our lives and in the world around us. Worry is so all-consuming that it can prevent us from noticing the signs of the times, the subtle changes taking place all around us. What is going on around us and what is God up to in the joys and struggles we face?

            One way in which apocalyptic literature speaks to us today is its promise that God is not only the God of the past, but also the God of the present and future.  Today’s Old Testament lesson affirms God’s fidelity to Israel.  The story of salvation history we repeat each week during the Eucharist is a story of promises kept.  It is a story of God repeatedly giving up Godself for the sake of the world.  Each of us has experienced God’s faithfulness, whether we’ve recognized it or not.  Throughout our lives God has been present, bringing healing, wholeness, and new life, sometimes out of failure and suffering.  The God who has been faithful to Israel and us continues to be faithful and is trustworthy.  The point of today’s Gospel is not to map out a historical trajectory, but to make clear that God is reliable, and present to us, come what may. Our future is in God’s hand, and it is a future we can embrace with confidence.

            When I hear the line in today’s Gospel “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” I think of the bent over woman being healed by Jesus and finally released from her suffering and physical deformity to look up at the heavens.  Before she encountered Jesus her focus was limited.  She could see only the earth, and her two feet on it.   When Jesus released her from her deformity her sight and horizons were expanded.  When Jesus healed the bent over woman he enabled her to see the world around her more fully.

What would our lives look like if we asked God to help us trust God’s promised future?   How might our trust in that future enable us to participate in it more fully?  God has promised us that we will share a future with God and others where the quality of relationships are rich and deep.  What would it look like if we were freed from whatever preoccupies and binds us, so that we could live in the moment and see that our redemption is drawing near