Gospel: John 17:1-11
1st Reading: Acts 1:6-14
2nd Reading: 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
Here’s a joke about stress and anxiety to start us off this morning: Man goes to doctor. Says he's anxious. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world. Doctor says the treatment is simple. The great clown Terrifini is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up. Man bursts into tears: "But doctor . . . I am Terrifini.”
“Cast all your anxiety on God, for God cares for you.” This text from 1 Peter doesn’t say we don’t have anything to worry about. It simply says to place them in God’s hands and quit worrying so much. It also says it might not be that easy to let go of our worries, that it is a discipline.
Let’s start with the worries. People seem to have always worried. I guess it is the curse of having a memory. Even dogs and cats worry, sometimes. In the book of Acts, the Disciples are worried about Jesus leaving them and ascending up to heaven. They are worried about being alone. They are worried about the political situation of their occupied country. They are worried about being powerless. In 1 Peter the people are going through a fiery ordeal. They feel alone. They are threatened and enslaved. They are far away from friends and loved ones. In the Gospel of John, the Disciples are worried about all that they will face once Jesus has physically left their side.
Worry can serve a positive function in our lives. It can help us to take a good long look at our problems and take positive steps toward overcoming them and avoiding negative outcomes. On the other hand, worry can take over our lives and make us sick. All over the Bible, we are reminded not to be afraid. Worry and anxiety can keep us from living life fully, from experiencing the restoration, support, strength, and establishment of God.
We worry about a lot of different things, but underneath, our worries are probably not so different from the worries of the Disciples. We might be worried about our own health. We get worried about changes in our culture or world. We worry about the happiness of our children and grandchildren. We worry about what other people think about us. Underneath all this, we are really worried about being powerless and alone. We are worried about losing control. We are worried about whether our lives are meaningful.
When anxiety becomes the threat or the excuse, God reminds us of who God is. Yes, God is powerful and mighty. God has been and always will be. God is there to challenge and guide us. But we are assured, whatever else we fear, we don’t have to be anxious about God. We don’t have to hide from God. We don’t have to be anxious about whether we are acceptable to God. We can be in awe of God and impressed with God, but God says, the angels say, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news.”
Think of who God is. God created balance and order in this world for our own good and the good of all living things. God brings us back into relationship every time we wander off. God creates covenants with us to give us a transformed life, to make better people out of us, to give life to our communities. In Christ Jesus, we see even more clearly that God heals, feeds, mends, embraces, teaches, builds up, encourages, restores. God is so determined to give us this new life, that God gave the only Son, gave up everything, became completely vulnerable in our threatening world and showed us that there really is nothing to be afraid of. “The Lord is my strength, whom shall I fear?” Whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s.
The command not to fear or be anxious is not law, it is Gospel. It is not a rule, it is an invitation. If we are afraid of God’s wrath then we will only worry more. But instead God frees us from having to be anxious. It is an invitation to let go, to place our troubles in God’s hands, and to move forward free from anxiety and fear.
So how do we discipline ourselves to cast all our anxiety on God and let it go? How do we return our focus to be able to see the power and love of God everywhere we look and everywhere we go?
The first step might be to confront those fears. Write them all down where you can get a good look at them. Which of them do you have any control over? You might as well cross off the ones you don’t. How might you take reasonable steps to work through the fears and anxieties you can do something about? A community can be a good place to bring your fears. Discussing them with another person can help you get perspective on them and possible solutions that you haven’t thought of. Some things that tend to decrease worry that you might think are unrelated are taking good care of yourself, eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising, and getting plenty of positive human interaction, including touch.
It is so easy to dwell on the negative. Think of all the chemicals our bodies make and distribute. The ones that are sent out for worry and anxiety day after day can make us sick. But we can turn our minds to focus on the positive and our body chemistry changes. I am easily prone to anxiety. It is easy for me to picture all the things that are wrong with my world, my family, the earth, my church, and on and on. It begins to paint a picture in my mind of suffering and cruelty. All I feel when I see this picture is despair and hopelessness. I go over and over in my mind all the things that are wrong, dig those trenches deeper and deeper. The pathways of the mind get ruts in them. We get used to certain thought patterns and we get stuck in these loops.
The Disciples also got stuck in their sense of loss and despair. When Jesus departed, they stood there looking up for a very long time. Maybe they would have stayed there forever if a couple of angels hadn’t come by and asked them what they were looking for. These angels reminded the disciples that this was a temporary situation, that Jesus would be back, in fact Jesus was all around them especially in the community that had come to surround them and give them hope, who are named at the end of that reading.
When we are anxious, once we’ve faced our fears, Jesus invites us to look in another direction. Take some time to count your blessings. That helps construct a consciousness in our minds of all that is good in the world, our families, the earth, the church, and on and on. It is about acting to bring that neighborhood, world, or yourself more in keeping with the good world you can envision. That beautiful amazing place is the way that God sees the world and God is working through us and other people to help form the world more the way God sees it, where there is enough food to go around, where people share all things in common, where life is respected, where health and balance is restored, where folks are restored, supported, strengthened, and established.
I think that is what we wanted with our Reconciling in Christ statement. There are forces of fear in this world that would fear and discriminate against people we dearly love, who we know have value in God’s eyes, and who have added a richness to our lives. We could let those fears overwhelm us. But there are people who had a vision. It wasn’t just something they made up, but they took to heart the Biblical teaching that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that we might have eternal life. They could see this vision of a place where absolutely everyone was welcome to participate in community and worship God and serve God in safety and acceptance. And while the rest of the world might not be there and yes, it may be a work in progress which we have not fully reached, we are working toward God’s vision in this church which we know to be God’s church, which is a safe place for all who experience discrimination based on any differences between people. Let us leave fear and anxiety behind and live God’s vision in this church.
Look around at the different people here with different experiences and opinions and lives. All have worried. All have loved. All are seeking God. God brings us together to be strengthened, to be welcomed, to let go of our fears and anxieties, to live fully in the love of Christ, sharing that with our neighbors.