August 2, 2020

 “High Anxiety”

Philippians 4:1-9

 

Today’s topic is so appropriate for the world in which we live today - How do we deal with Anxiety? Those of you who were on my pastor nominating committee will recognize the following illustration if you have good memories J When I first read today’s passage in Philippians, verse 6 popped out at me. “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Quite a statement isn’t it? Have NO ANXIETY about anything.  It made me think of an old movie starring Mel Brooks, “High Anxiety”, where Mel plays a very nervous Psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Thorndyke. Thorndyke relives some tense scenes from a number of Hitchcock thrillers - Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds, and of course, as a result, he is full of high anxiety. He even sings a song about it…

 

High Anxiety -- whenever you're near,
High Anxiety -- it's you that I fear.
My heart's afraid to fly, it's crashed before.
But then you take my hand, and my heart starts to soar.
High Anxiety -- it's always the same.
High Anxiety -- it's you that I blame.
It's very clear to me, I've got to give in!
High Anxiety -- you win!

 

High anxiety can be a real issue, especially in days like these! First, we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic with COVID-19. Infection numbers have been increasing nationally, here in the state of Oregon and rapidly increasing in Jackson County as well. Death and disease are all around us. Nothing feels like it used to. I get anxious going to the grocery store, running out on the street, or hiking with my wife trying to navigate my way around others with proper social distancing.

 

Nationally, we are a nation in crisis, not just due to an out of control virus. Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III wrote in Sojourners last week, “America as a nation stands on the precipice of what Rev. William Barber II refers to as “the third reconstruction,” a moment in history when the zeitgeist of the nation clashes with the myth of our history. The nationwide unrest, witnessed from Maine to California, is part of America’s reckoning with a lie this nation has refused to acknowledge. As a nation, racialized thinking and white supremacy is part of not only our history but saturates all of our institutions.We find ourselves struggling for the soul of this country. There are still protests in the streets over the death of innocent Black people at the hands of police. The President has sent federal troops out in the streets. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has more than doubled since 2016, according to a poll released by Yahoo News. America is taking down its Confederate monuments, renaming its sports teams, and athletes are taking a knee - something that just a couple of years ago received a huge pushback from our nation.

 

Economically, the nation is expected to report a huge economic hit, with a huge plunge in consumer spending, as people stay home rather than shop, travel, or gather for large events. The economy has sunk at roughly 32% of the annual rate in the April-June quarter. That, my friends, is triple the worst ever recorded economic plunge, which was only a 10% drop in 1958.

 

In addition, our nation faces a looming presidential election where one of those running has not said whether he will accept the results of the election or not and is now trying to find a way to delay the election, unprecedented in America’s history. This feels like the 1960s 2.0!

 

Locally, in addition to our concerns over the virus, a devastating and ongoing hit to our local economy, we can say hello smoke and fire season!

 

There’s even stress and anxiety in the church, a place we once found solace in meeting together. Now we are forced to meet online, to help make sure the virus does not spread, and the flock is safe. Even prior to the virus, there was plenty to create anxiety, with all of the upheavals and changes going on in a number of Protestant and Catholic communities across this nation. Consider we were well into the midst of planning some possible next steps for our own congregation, trying to figure out how to be the church in the 21st century. We had even formed 4 working groups, along with an oversight team to help us move the process along, to help us consider what is next for us as the body of Christ here on the corner of Walker and Siskiyou... That has all been put on hold as we try to regain our footing in the midst of this pandemic. Our own congregation and the Christian church in America, in general, faces an anxious future, to say the least. Gosh - I think my heart rate is increasing…may be feeling a bit short of breath…feeling anxious. Perhaps Mel Brooks was right, and we should all learn the song…

 

From a faith perspective, how are we to live in such times? Where can we find hope to help us? The answer from this passage is that faith in God is just what is needed in anxious times such as these, and this has been true for centuries when people all over the globe have faced difficult times. Paul’s passage to the church in Philippi gives us an anchor, some hope for finding peace from anxiety over our loved ones and our future.

 

First some background on this passage from Philippians. Now consider that in those days, since they had no Bible per se, what was often read during a worship service or gathering was a letter. In this case, in chapter three, Paul is coming to the conclusion in his letter to the church. Paul is summing up his emphasis on righteousness obtained through Christ and living in a manner pleasing to Christ. As chapter four begins, he reminds them to stand firm in their faith. But then imagine as Euodia, seated at one end of the common room of a home, and Syntyche, seated at the other end, hear that they are urged to agree in the Lord! Apparently, Paul had received a letter from the congregation, to which he was responding, and in that letter, the conflict between these two was mentioned. What would it be like for me to mention a conflict between two persons in this congregation, right in the midst of worship (not that ANY of us have any conflicts with each other in our congregation, right?)

 

Yet for Paul, life was to be worked out together as part of a larger community, for Paul found hope and strength in the midst of that community that worked towards reconciliation and forgave each other, united in the Spirit of Christ. So, he called upon another in the congregation, named Syzygus - meaning yokefellow - to come alongside the two women and help them to work out the conflict, and lay aside their differences.  By the way, these two had apparently worked side by side with Paul to bring the message of Christ to others. (A good thing for us to keep in mind when we consider Paul and his understanding of the inclusion of women in ministry...)

 

Then, recognizing this strife even within Christ’s community, Paul says we should “Rejoice in the Lord, always!”  Then he re-emphasizes it - “Again I say, rejoice! For Paul, even in the midst of community dissension, there was reason to rejoice, because the spirit of Christ was present, offering new life. He then calls the community to be tolerant with each other - perhaps some had sided with Euodia, and others with Syntyche. Yet Paul reminds them that the presence and power of Christ is at hand - in their midst to help, which is why they should rejoice.

 

So, although there was hope in the community, there was also human strife within that community, which meant that the people of that time and place still did not necessarily find peace in the midst of worship. Good thing our congregations all have that all worked out now and live as harmonious, loving perfect families of God…Right?

 

Then comes the main focus for today’s sermon - his call for them to have no anxiety about anything, - easier said than done! How is this possible? How can we be free from worry? How could this group of first-century Christians, who were being persecuted for their faith, quarreling and bickering, and struggling to separate themselves from the faith with which they had grown up, have anything other than high anxiety?

 

 Paul’s answer is twofold. First, Paul says we can be less anxious through prayer - He says, “but rather in all things by prayer and asking, and with thanksgiving - let your requests be made known to God.” Prayer is a proven banisher of foreboding. Worry won't occupy the same space as prayer. "Let your requests (worrying concerns) be known to God."

 

I have a personal example for you of how prayer can help. A couple of weeks ago, Susan needed to work from home while caring for her husband. I offered to bring her computer to her. So I picked up the computer and drove out to Medford, listening to the news on MSNBC - much of it was dour and contentious. By the time I got to Susan’s, I was feeling anxious about our nation. Unfortunately, although I got the computer, I forgot her keyboard and mouse. SO, I got back into the car, turned the radio back on, and was fed more bad news. I got back to the office, picked up the remaining parts, and got back into the car for my second trip back to Medford, again listening to the news. After I dropped off the remaining parts at Susan’s house, when I got back into the car, the Spirit said, “How about you drive back to the church in silence?” I did so, and felt a little better when I got back to the office, but still anxious. I remembered this particular passage of scripture and felt led to list all of the things in my life that were blessings from God. Then I listed all of the things I was anxious about and prayed to God about them. By the time I was done praying, I felt some peace as worry distanced itself from me.

 

Then comes the second imperative - THINK. Paul says, "think about...whatever is true...honorable, just...pure...pleasing...what is commendable, do these things."  Thinking provides a way out of a problem and through a bad circumstance. Think about and focusing upon things that are of God, things that are holy, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, rather than focusing upon the news and commentaries on FOX, CNN or other news networks, - which quite frankly are mostly negative, sensationalized, and can scare the heck out of us these days! (Although I do find NPR to be a source of news which rarely gets my blood pressure up) That does not mean, by the way, to bury our heads in the sand and not pay attention to what is happening in the world. But in order to keep things in perspective, after reading the paper, or checking in with the news on television, it is good for us to remember our place of grounding-faith and our hope in God, so that anxiety does not rule the day.

 

The pay-off for these imperatives is "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding." This remarkable inner peace applies especially to the phrase, "do not worry," for worry (or anxiety, as some versions have it) dispels inner peace and contentment. This peace "transcends every human heart," as Moffatt's translation puts it, "it surpasses all our dreams; it can perform more than human plans can accomplish."  

 

The peace that comes through prayer, which the church can know, the sense that all is ultimately well, does not have its source within - for as Euodia and Syntyche demonstrate, there is dissension within.  Nor can that peace come from outside the church - for there is opposition to the Christians in Philippi. Peace can only come from God through Jesus Christ. Paul says that peace will guard hearts and minds - almost as if a guard or sentry were there standing up and thrusting his spear in case worry or doubt entered the heart or mind of a believer. As one shares concerns with God in prayer, and thinks about what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable, little room remains for worry, Paul seems to be saying. Or in our case right now, in a time of global medical catastrophe, a looming likely quite nasty presidential election, concerns over wildfire and smoke, worries about our local and national economy, and worries about our own families and congregations, inner peace from prayer and thinking upon things of God can steer us away from anxious thought.

 

So Paul says: "Do not worry - be happy!" Theologian John Wesley said: "I dare no more fret than I dare curse or swear." Good for you Paul and John! But for us, lesser mortals to be told not to worry and fret is like telling someone with a bad head cold not to sniffle and sneeze. Presbyterian pastor Harold B. Walker says, “Worry is thinking that has turned toxic. It is jarring music that goes round and round and never comes to either climax or conclusion; worry leaves you in a state of tensely suspended animation. When you worry, you go over the same ground endlessly and come out the same place you started. We all worry--and worry a lot. We even worry that we worry, and wish we could stop worrying so much, so we worry more about it...It's our chief preoccupation--especially in the dead of night when worries wing their way into the dark bedroom and keep us awake and anxious…High anxiety - YOU WIN!

 

This is going to take some practice, isn’t it?

In her poem, “Conversation at Midnight” Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote,

“There is no peace on earth today save peace in the heart

At home with God. From that sure habitation

The heart looks forth upon the sorrows of the savage world

And pities them and ministers to them; but is not implicated…”

 

We need Paul's wisdom for today, just as it was needed in first-century Philippi, and for every century that has followed.: "Do not worry," he says, and then he provides the double attack against stewing about things: “Pray about what's eating away at you, and think loftier thoughts than forebodings." 

 

Prayer can take us from that place of constant worry, that place of tensely suspended animation, and bring us a peace that the world cannot offer, nor give. We need to become as practiced at prayer, as we may be at worrying.  Dutch evangelist and author Corrie Ten Boom said, “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?”

 

May faith, prayer, and God’s wisdom guide us, so that we indeed may know peace and comfort - for God is at work in this scary world, and is with us in all places and in all times, in times of great joy or great anxiety, and peace of mind is always available to us. Alleluia! Amen.

 

Prayer - words from the hymn “Give to the Winds Thy Fears” by Paul Gerhardt, 1656

“Give to the winds thy fears; Hope and be undismayed: God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears. God shall lift up thy head. Through waves and clouds and storms God gently clears the way; Wait patiently; so shall this night soon end in joyous day. Leave to God’s sovereign sway to choose and to command; So shalt thou, wondering God’s own way, how wise, how strong God’s hand! On God, the Lord rely, and safe thou shalt go on; Fix on God’s work thy steadfast eye, so shall thy work be done.”

 

The hymn we are about to sing - Do Not Be Afraid hymn-In 2017, The National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) conducted a hymn survey in which 3,000 participants ranked their favorite hymns. David Haas’s “You Are Mine” was number four on the list. Written in the early 1990s, this hymn is now included in fourteen current hymnals across numerous denominations. The words are based on texts from Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know…”; Isaiah 43:1b, “Do not fear…you are mine”; and John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (NIV*). The hymn’s text is written in God’s voice, assuring, comforting, and encouraging – “I am with you,” “Come and rest in me,” and “I love you and you are mine.” The themes of this hymn are God’s care, strength in troubling times, baptism, and confirmation. You Are Mine is a reminder that no matter where we are and how anxious we may feel, God is always there, calling to us, and inviting us to follow” (The Faith We Sing: Worship Planner, 55).

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