July 27th Sermon on the Mount: Dealing with Anxiety

Dear Brothers and Sisters, 

It’s a good thing that mice fear cats.  It’s a good thing that crossing a busy road is frightening.  Fear is an emotion that helps to keep us safe from the things of the world that could easily hurt us.  Fire, firearms, explosions, tornados, sharp knives, poisonous chemicals, dilapidated old buildings and sheer cliffs should scare us enough to be careful.  But too much fear stops us cold.  When I was a little child, I was a few feet away from the backyard cage where my pet rabbit was nibbling at some food.  In an instant a large bird swooped down from the sky but was stopped by the chicken wire that covered the cage.  The rabbit shrieked and the bird flew away.  The bird never touched the rabbit, but the rabbit had died of fright.  My father said, he didn’t think it was possible, but we saw it. 

Too much fear can make you freeze.  Too much fear can cause foolish reactions.  Too much fear can kill you:  Like a man who ran into traffic to escape bees.  Fear can help you plan to avoid threatening situations, but it can also keep you in bed with the blankets pulled over your head. The modern word for persistent fear is anxiety. 

A long time ago, anxious people could benefit your community.  They would be the sort to make emergency plans and contingency plans, and they made excellent watchmen.  But a person with too much anxiety would isolate themselves and be a drain on their family and community while making themselves miserable. 

Sadness is another emotion that has its place.  A person should be sad if they are parted from a friend or family member.  Mourning is appropriate and sadness is a part of empathy, caring for others.  People who know sadness, see the value of kindness.  But too much sadness, like fear, drives people into isolation and a loss of joy.   Excessive sadness isn’t necessarily the same thing as depression, but that is what some depression feels like.  In extreme cases, severe sadness can cause a person to lose the desire to live. 

Extreme sadness is also lead to what feels like a complete loss of hope, called “despair.” 

It is hard to imagine a good and loving person who has not struggled with a good deal of fear and sadness.  Both fear and sadness lead people to look for answers.  Most people who were not raised in the church were led there because they were drawn to the light of the Gospel.  The people who look for spiritual light, tend to be people who are aware of their own emotional shadows.   Some of the most beloved passages of the Bible (like Psalm 23) are about God easing fear and comforting us while we are anxious.  Sad and fearful people understand the words “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you comfort me.” 

Matthew 6:25-34 (Good News Translation) 

“This is why I tell you: do not be worried about the food and drink you need in order to stay alive, or about clothes for your body. After all, isn’t life worth more than food? And isn’t the body worth more than clothes? Look at the birds: they do not plant seeds, gather a harvest and put it in barns; yet your Father in heaven takes care of them! Aren’t you worth much more than birds?  Can any of you live a bit longer by worrying about it? 

“And why worry about clothes? Look how the wild flowers grow: they do not work or make clothes for themselves.  But I tell you that not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers.  It is God who clothes the wild grass—grass that is here today and gone tomorrow, burned up in the oven. Won’t he be all the more sure to clothe you? What little faith you have! 

“So do not start worrying: ‘Where will my food come from? or my drink? or my clothes?’  (These are the things the pagans are always concerned about.) Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things.  Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things.  So do not worry about tomorrow; it will have enough worries of its own. There is no need to add to the troubles each day brings. 

So, in today’s reading, Jesus knows our anxieties, fears, sadness, and depression, but he encourages us to limit these thoughts and emotions.  He tells us that we can let go of present worries about food, drink, and clothing because God loves us and provides for us.  If we live by faith, God will bring us the help that we need.  Jesus does not say everything is fine or that everything will be fine tomorrow.  But what he does tell us is to focus on today.  Each day has troubles of its own, but do not let yourself suffer losses that haven’t happened yet, and don’t be depressed by the coming winter when you are still in the midst of summer. 

When we talk about moderation, we usually are speaking of food or alcohol, but Jesus is applying the idea of moderation to fear and sadness, to anxiety and depression.  Keep the faith and live day by day.  Let today contain the answers to today’s problems.   Planning for the future is fine, but no-one should be suffering tomorrow’s pain today.  Keep focused on the kingdom of God and let him supply your needs. 

And don’t confuse excessive fear with being a coward.  Most brave people have a great deal of fear, but they don’t let it stop them.  What we call cowardice is extreme self-centeredness and an inability to overcome a strong impulse for self-preservation.  It is really a stunted emotional growth that makes a person incapable of thinking of others as valuable as themselves.  What we see as cowardly is a particularly bad reaction for fear driven by a lack of empathy, loyalty, or devotion to anyone but themselves.  People with these severe personality problems should stay away from any kind of work that revolves around any kind teamwork or emotional content. 

When Jesus says, “don’t start worrying,” he is pointing out that anxiety is easier to fight when you nip it in the bud.  A person who is deeply affected by “anxiety” has a harder time to overcome it than some who resisted it from the start. 

I have spent many years wrestling with this passage because I come from a long line of folks with anxiety and depression.  My father and grandfather channeled some of their anxiety into their work as building inspectors, and Dad spent a lot of time coming up with ways to make the world a safer place.  He eventually wrote building laws about swimming pool lighting and elevators, because too many people were being electrocuted in pools or killed in elevator accidents.  Like a lot of pastors, I was first drawn to God by my sadness and fears. So, some of us must work harder to let go of our worries, but I can see that the best way to overcome anxiety is to trust God. 

One of the best ways to cope with anxiety is a practice of what is called “mindfulness.”   “Mindfulness” usually takes the form of meditation, but it can also be done in things like art or music therapy.   The main goal is to help a person think and feel in the present moment, without becoming distracted by thoughts of the past or the future.  It goes a long way to help people with what Jesus taught about concern about tomorrow’s troubles.  It can also help a person in their prayer life.

A question to ponder:  Once you make your plans for the future can you let them go a little.  Is it possible for you to say “this is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it?” 

Blessings, 

Pastor Rick