In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.
“Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed…for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
If you’re anything like me, then you’ll know what I mean when I describe myself as a recovering perfectionist. Throughout my upbringing, my family knew both times of plenty and times of very great want. Perhaps it was the product of being the firstborn, but while growing up I was a very anxious kid, with a tendency to worry. As an adult, a persistent temptation for me has been always to look out for what might happen, or ever to wait for the other shoe to drop. To be sure, the modern world has a great many matters with which we could be concerned; even a cursory glance at world events would give us more than enough reason to be apprehensive. But many of us do not need the distant specters of political strife, religious persecution, and economic disaster to fund our worry banks. For those of us who are persistently tempted by anxiousness, we can find sufficient fodder in our own friends, families, and finances. The Gospel lesson for this morning is there to meet us in such circumstances, in the times when we are harried by the conditions of life, when we expect that the worst is just around the next corner, when we attempt to stabilize ourselves or even when we are trying with all our might to conceal from others our own profound insecurities.
When we speak of anxiety in this context, though, we are not talking about any of the sorts of neurological disorders or psychological conditions that may afflict a person. The Gospel is not suggesting that those responding to trauma or who are experiencing an illness should simply get over it, nor is it an attempt to supplant the wisdom of the medical and psychiatric fields. Neither are we talking about concern in the sense of being diligent in the prudent management of those things for which we are responsible. The Gospel is not exhorting us to carelessness.
The nature of “anxiety” in Christ’s use of the term is concerned with a future over which the worrier has no control. There is no denial of the reality of concern; in fact it is taken for granted that concerns govern the sway and tenor of our lives. Rather, the passage speaks to the need to be concerned with the proper things, to shift our concern for the things of this world to concern for the things of God that constitute the term “the Kingdom.” Christ confronts the inherent foolishness in the assumption that stability and security can be gained from anything that is not itself stable and secure.
Anxiety as the Scripture warns against is, at its core, a product of vanity or pride. It is the active reliance upon ourselves as the ultimate source of safety or security. Whatever we openly profess to others or to ourselves, anxiety reveals our tacit and actual belief that we are the only ones who can help ourselves, and that if we don’t do so then no one will. As such it is a skeptical disposition of soul angled against the reality of God’s goodness and faithfulness to care for us. Eventually, this trickles down into a similar regard for everyone and everything else; if our ideas about the source of all things are so marred, how can anything else hope to escape? But all of us deep down knows that we don’t have what it takes to be the gods of our own worlds. This inner conflict produces panic, and then restlessness of soul. To attempt as finite beings to be all things in all places, we are bound to be tossed about to and fro until we become exhausted. At last, we collapse into despair. This is the tragedy of pride, and the ultimate goal of the Devil: to get us to attempt to be everything, so that we end up pursuing nothing.
Because anxiety is a product of pride, its defeat is in the corresponding virtue of humility. We must learn to view ourselves correctly as limited by things outside of our control. We have to admit that we in fact make lousy gods over our lives and then actively renounce that title. We learn to concern ourselves and act prudently with what lies within the abilities and place that God has granted to us. And we learn to trust Him, to remember the many ways He has been faithful, and to look for His provision for our ongoing needs.
The ability to translate this anxiety into a trust in God is presupposed by the Gospel lesson to be an attainable feat and is in fact accomplished through obedience to Christ’s exhortation to seek first the kingdom of God. By this He means the subjection of all things to the will of God both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, we are to trust that the God who managed to create and sustain all things in the cosmos down to the botanical structure of lilies in a field is, in fact, able to govern well in the lives of those in whom He uniquely stamped His own likeness, and over whom He has declared His love as a Father to His children. Outwardly, we are to practice and master this trust through obedience to God’s commands to love Him and our neighbor, rendering proper worship to God using our resources of time and treasure, and constantly looking outward for those whom we can draw into the fellowship of salvation. It is in such actions that we properly say the Kingdom of God is present among us and goes forth.
The ultimate icon of humility, this subjection of worldly concern, trust in God, and love for others is Christ crucified. The community formed around this icon is the Church, which exists in the world so to imitate constantly Christ’s humility, worship, and charity. Christ’s example is perfect and complete in His self-giving. But the Cross does not admit of degrees. St. Paul’s point in the Epistle is precisely this: the Christian life is defined by sharing in Christ’s crucifixion, and it will have all of us or none of us. Just as one cannot say, “I am kind of crucified,” one cannot properly say that “I am kind of a Christian.” The full expression of such a life as the one to which we are called may lead us to regard it as a hopelessly unattainable ideal, only to be found in some great beyond. But Christ’s message in the Gospel is clear: our Lord’s profound and singular trust in the Father is the very path set out for us to walk in right here and now.
To those of us who are anxious, God asks whether we will trust Him. Will we take Him at His word as it comes to us in Epistle and Gospel? Will we profess a faith in Him? Will we trust Him to bless our offering of ourselves, our souls and bodies? Will we then approach Him, and on our knees look up to receive of Him our daily bread, and in it find the source and sustenance of a life so stable and secure so as to heal our worried and wearied hearts? Will we then apply this pattern of giving up ourselves to Him in every detail of our lives, particularly in those scared and secret corners that we are afraid to show Him?
If we will turn again to the Father, if we will say yes to these questions, then let us hear our Lord and take Him at His word when He says: “Be not therefore anxious but seek ye first the kingdom of God.”
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.