Anxiety & Faith | Matthew 5:1-16
This week has felt dark.
This past week before the time changed felt so dark. The days and days of rain certainty aren’t helping, it was 9 am before if felt like daylight outside and by 4 or 5 it’s already dusk. For these past few weeks I’ve noticed the darkness in an especially intense way. Maybe that has something to do with the state of the world too.
As we embark on the final days of our national decision making process, our anxiety levels are palpable. It feels as if we are on the verge of a collective panic attack. In an article in The Atlantic magazine this last week, journalist Laura Turner writes,
“the 2016 election is taking a toll on everyone. The turbulence of this time of national transition can cause anxiety that makes day-to-day life more alarming, but people’s existing fears can also be inflamed by what they see happening in the election. This creates a sort of feedback loop between personal and national anxiety.”
In a survey of teachers and educators the Southern Poverty Law Center found that minority students are “concerned for their safety” and the American Psychological Association found that over 50 percent of Americans feel that the election is a “very or somewhat significant source of stress”.
As we count down the days there is a desperation in the air for it to “just be over” so we can figure out how to move forward. I leaves me wondering, what will “moving on” look like? On Wednesday will we all wake up and suddenly the vitriolic rhetoric we’ve been wading through for the better part of the last year will have evaporated. Will our workplace and family relationships return to bland conversations about the weather and sports? Are we naive to assume that Thanksgiving dinner table conversation will be respectful, upbeat and positive? Am I simply pessimistic in my concern that what has been unleashed in this season will not simply go back in the box and quietly return from whence it came? The ugliness that has been given a spotlight is not new, it has been lurking in our culture all along, but this political season it has been given equal airtime, will it simply slink away back into the shadows?
The folks in first century Jerusalem knew something of political unrest and rhetoric. Weighed down with debilitating civil wars, successive droughts, rapid urbanization, religious massacres, and crippling taxes the Jewish people were hungry for change and starving for hope. Jesus spoke to these anxieties often. Theologian Marcus Borg writes,
“[Jesus] saw people as anxious to receive what they believed they deserved, anxious about holding on to what they had, anxious about social approval. It became explicit in Jesus’ famous words about “the lilies of the field” and “the birds of the air”. Five times in that passage, in which Jesus invites his hearers to see reality as marked by as cosmic generosity, he asks “Why are you anxious?” Anxiety about food, clothing, length of life, and “tomorrow” was, in his view, typical. ...according to Jesus, what was needed was an inner transformation of the self at its deepest level. “Blessed are the pure in heart”, he said, “for they shall see God.” The fruit of an anxious heart heart, concerned about its own well-being, is bitter. What is needed is a new heart, a pure heart, for such a heart produces good fruit.”
Our anxieties, as well founded as they may be, do not produce or perpetrate a culture of love and compassion. Anxieties do not push us to reach out in our community and seek out those in need. Anxieties are built on a culture of insufficiency. Our anxieties rise when, as a good friend coined, “our want-monster” comes out. I am not going to demonize anxiety, anxiety disorders, or genuine fear over not having basic needs met. There is a time and place for a healthy does of anxiety in our lives. But to live in a state of constant anxiety, to allow anxiety to rule decision making is to allow our perceived needs and wants to trump the true needs of others. Even in the best of cases anxieties’ power is in isolation, the more we isolate the greater our anxieties rise.
In Matthew 5:1-16, Jesus is preaching about the ways that God breaks through our anxieties, the ways that the Divine shows up, the people who are included and welcomed in the Beloved Kin-dom. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, “Blessed are the pure in heart”, “Blessed are the peacemakers”. He is saying, yes, you have reasons to be anxious, you are persecuted, and you are struggling, but there is a better way to live in the world.
This text is often read in such a way that we assume that the kingdom of heaven the He talks about is the etherial, pearly gates, after-death kind of heaven. But what if the Kingdom of heaven He is talking about was there and then and is here and now. We are the Kingdom of heaven, we, the poor in spirit with our doubts, the mourners with our depressive anxieties, we that are hungry for justice and righteousness, we the peacemakers and rabble rousers, we are collectively the Kin-dom of God. Right here and now. How would that change our anxiety level? How would that change how we live in the world? If we could live as a bright and brilliant city on the hill caring, loving and sharing with each other, how might the world be changed on Wednesday morning?
Who ever wins, whatever initiatives pass or fail, how will you be a reflection of Divine light when you wake up on Wednesday morning? Whenever Jesus talks about anxiety the alternative he offers is “faith.” Marcus Borg, says, “As the opposite of anxiety, “faith” is not what is commonly meant by “belief.” Obviously, people then and now could believe that God exists and still be anxious.” The faith Jesus speaks of is a deep and radical trust, a trust in each person’s inherent divinity, a trust in the beloved Kingdom, a trust that regardless of what happens on Tuesday we are all humans, divinely created, beloved, and worthy of dignity and respect. It is a heart thing, a heart trust, a “pure in heart” trust. A trust that we are inextricably linked and we desperately need each other.
On Wednesday morning, what if we each woke up and could trust that Kingdom of God is here and now, in our relationships with our neighbors, those right next to us and those across the country. Together, we are lights of hope, love, and faith shining forth on even the darkest and rainiest of days.