Sunday, May 04, 2008

"Age of Anxiety" - A Sermon for Easter 7

As a sort of epilogue, here's what I ended up preaching this morning. In order for certain things to make sense, the title that appeared in the bulletin was "That They May All Be One," and it was a communion Sunday.

1 Peter 5:6-11

The first thing we need to do is change the title. After two weeks away and some mild sleep-deprivation, I’ve been slow to come up with something to say. And since the bulletin had to be run by Thursday, I was feeling a little pressed for time.

Likewise, even though John 17 appears as the focus text this morning, we need to back up to 1 Peter 5. This is a chapter—an entire letter, really—about suffering. The writer has a lot to say about suffering, as he addresses the actual suffering that his community was going through.

When times get really hard, one understandably wonders a couple things. First, you may wonder whether you’ll eventually crack under the pressure. One may try to resist breaking down completely in frustration, anger, or depression. One may try to resist complete emotional shutdown.

You may also wonder how long any particular hardship will go on; you may wonder how long you’ll need to endure it. At times, there’s a clear limit: perhaps the end of the day, or someone coming in to relieve you somehow. At other times, there seems to be no end in sight.

Finally, you may wonder where God is in all of it. How is God helping? IS God helping? When will God help? WILL God help? These are all ways that we become anxious about hardship, about difficult moments.

After acknowledging the hardship, the writer of 1 Peter also has a lot of encouragement in the midst of it. He has a lot to say along the lines of remaining steadfast in faith. He has a lot to say about trusting God’s presence. He has a lot to say about trusting in the one who raised Christ. He has a lot to say about trusting that the community is set aside for God’s mission, and thus God has not abandoned them.

And then we come to this chapter, where he returns to the theme of hardship when he says, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”

There was a lot of anxiety in that age, and there’s a lot of anxiety in this age as well.

That’s our new title, by the way: “Age of Anxiety.”

There’s plenty of anxiety to go around.

We may have anxiety about the state of the world. We may feel anxiety about wars and rumors of wars, tensions between countries or entire regions. We may have anxiety about people of different religions seemingly always at odds, with extreme fringes of those religions resorting to violence.

We may have anxiety about the state of the country. We may have anxiety as the presidential election becomes increasingly divisive and heated, as it always seems to do. We may have some anxiety over a byproduct of this year’s election being the topic of race, and how much misunderstanding and anger still exists between different racial groups.

We may have anxiety about church-related things. The United Church of Christ has come under increased scrutiny over the past few weeks because of the inflammatory words of Jeremiah Wright. Some may have anxiety about how that affects other local churches such as ours and members such as ourselves (by the way, if you want to talk about that, stop by the office or buy me coffee or something…I need coffee these days).

We may have anxiety about any number of personal concerns: life transitions such as graduation, employment, finances, disease, birth, death.

There really is plenty of anxiety to go around. And what does the future hold for any of it? What can we expect tomorrow, or even an hour from now? Will we crack under the pressure? How long will this anxiety last? What is God doing in the midst of all of it?

Then here’s this verse again: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” I wonder how his original community reacted to that. How many took it to heart, and how many blew it off, saying, “Do you really know what we’re going through?”

Surely the writer didn’t mean it in some sort of dismissive way. He didn’t mean to minimize the hardship and anxiety they were feeling. He didn’t just throw it out there like a pithy piece of advice to “just pray harder” or “just believe more.” Here is a community trying to stay together, trying to maintain their trust in God and each other. The writer knew that.

Here is a community with plenty of anxiety, plenty of opportunity to crack under the pressure or abandon their faith. The writer knew that, too.

This piece of advice to entrust our anxiety to God doesn’t happen by itself – it doesn’t stand alone as something to print on flowery greeting cards at Hallmark or Berean. It comes after a long description of suffering, a long acknowledgment that yes, there are some bad things happening; some real gut-busting kinds of things that we can’t shake by trying to think good thoughts. These are things that may keep us up at night or that we carry through the day.

But we don’t need to carry them by ourselves. That’s what the writer of 1 Peter is getting at. He encourages his audience to trust God with their anxiety. He also encourages them to trust each other with them. He reminds them that their brothers and sisters in Christ are going through hard times and anxieties as well.

This community is told to share anxiety with God – to share, to commune. They’re told to share anxiety with each other – to share, to commune.

That’s how this table works. We are sharing ourselves – our joys, our sorrows, our anxieties, our dreams – with God, and with Christ our host. And we are also sharing with each other. We are sharing the good news that Christ is present and resurrected.

Here we are given these real, tangible elements. Here are things that we can chew and things we can feel in our stomachs. Here are physical things that can show us spiritual things. Here are gut-filling things to help us through gut-busting things.

Here we are told that God is with us, and that our fellow believers are with us. Here, we are told that our anxieties are meant to be shared just as we share Christ – that we may all be one.