Sunday 24 May 2020
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The Season of Easter lasts 50 days. Do a little math, and you’ll figure out that that’s 7 weeks, with one day left over. So today kicks off the last week of Easter, which will culminate next Sunday on Pentecost, when we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. On Pentecost we’ll also be welcoming our confirmands into membership in the church, so I encourage you to be back here next week to show your support for them.
In this last week of Easter we turn to the First Epistle of Peter. As I said a few weeks ago, the books of 1-2 Peter have never been favorites of mine. Before this year, I’ve probably only ever preached from them 2 or 3 times. But this season, in this particular context, they’ve spoken to me in a new way, and this is the fourth time in 4 weeks we’ve turned to tiny 1 Peter, near the back of the New Testament.
In the first week we talked about the divine grace that is expressed when someone suffers for doing the right thing. The next week we saw how God is bringing us together, like living stones, to construct a spiritual temple, the church, that is bigger and more lasting than any human building. Last week we considered how God calls us, through baptism, to be a people of hope.
In this fourth and final week, our message comes clearly in verse 7: “Throw all your anxiety onto God, because God cares about you.” I’m guessing I’m not the only person who needs to hear that today, right? Some of the rest of you are feeling anxious too? Maybe one or two of you?
I had my anxiety turned up a bit this week trying to prepare worship for you. We got some new guidance about how to be church during COVID-19, and it meant that it made more sense to produce worship from home rather than from the church building. But of course, that meant lots of preparation and lots of decisions. Where could we find nice backdrop to film in front of that was uncluttered enough to share with the whole world? And it needs to be a spot where there’s room to set up the camera, and room to set up a microphone, and room to set up the keyboard, and room to set up the computer, and room enough to set up all of the little gadgets that help them talk to one another. And how would we set up the sound? Which microphone should we use? Should we use the piano or a keyboard? And how could we get a clean audio signal from the keyboard to you but in a way that we could still hear it to sing? Lots of questions. Lots of decisions. Lots of fiddling and tweaking. And a fair amount of shift and packing in order to make the proper space for everything. In short, a lot of anxiety.
It really is remarkable how all-consuming this COVID situation is. On the one hand that’s obvious. After all, it is called a Global Pandemic. There’s not much that can be bigger than a Global Pandemic. But on the other hand, it should theoretically be possible to focus on something that isn’t very affected by COVID and to be able to temporarily put the health crisis out of your mind.
I’ve heard some people say they can do that when they’re gardening. Spending time outside, with your hands in the soil. You could almost forget that anything strange is going on. Except, of course, when a neighbor comes over to compliment you on your flowers and you have to be sure to stay 6 feet away. Or maybe you need to run down to the garden shop to pick up a few things, and you have to wear your mask and plan your visit so that it isn’t too crowded.
It seems to impose itself in every corner of my mind, in everything that I do. I want to pick something up at the grocery store. Can I wait a few more days? It would be safer to take fewer trips. I want to do some research for the sermon. I’m not supposed to go into the office, so can I get by with the books and resources that I have at home?
I can’t even read a book or watch a movie without it popping into my mind. The other night Melissa and I were watching the sequel of To All the Boys I Loved Before, a pretty standard high school romantic comedy. And then the bell rang in the movie, and suddenly everyone was out in the hallway passing from one class to another. I almost had a panic attack. What do you all think you’re doing crowding together in that tiny little space? I could actually notice my heart beating faster, my chest feeling ever-so-slightly tighter. And that’s from watching a movie. It’s silly.
I’ve been wondering for a while now how long it’s going to be before I can preach a sermon that isn’t focused on coping in the time of Coronavirus. This is the eleventh Sunday since the shutdown. I’m not sure when we’ll be ready to talk about something else, but I’m pretty sure we haven’t gotten there yet.
Now the worry is about when and how to reopen. And that really is a no-win choice at the moment. The United States has not had a very organized response to COVID-19. We haven’t done many of the things that would be necessary to make for a relatively safe opening. We still haven’t started producing enough protective gear for our medical workers. We haven’t started manufacturing enough reliable COVID tests. We haven’t developed a reliable system for contact tracing or hired enough contact tracers to do the job.
And so we are left with two completely untenable options. We could open things up now, let people get back to work. But if we do, cases and deaths are going to start increasing exponentially. If we just let coronavirus sweep the country, then we need to be ready for something like 3-7 million deaths. That’s not a cost that I’m willing to pay.
But the only other option, at least at the moment, seems to be perpetual quarantine. Unemployment is already up to 14.7%, the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. Calls to the federal emergency hotline for emotional distress are up about 1000% over this time last year. The coronavirus crisis is not just a communicable disease crisis, it is also a mental health crisis and a poverty crisis.
Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” And that is precisely what we are enduring right now. COVID is an event that is already here but is continually unfolding. It is simultaneously present and imminent. And it definitely has an uncertain outcome. And the uncertain outcomes of COVID touch nearly every part of our lives. It is a perfect recipe for anxiety.
First Peter tells its audience, “Throw all your anxiety onto God, because God cares about you.” Throw all your anxiety onto God. When our worries and our troubles and our anxieties are too big for us to handle, we know that they are never too big for God. God carries the cares of all creation. God wrestles the worries of the whole world. God is bigger than our doubt and stronger than our fear. And God can be counted upon to share any burden that we cannot bear alone.
First Peter continues: “Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your adversary, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your brothers and sisters are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.”
I’m not usually one to talk much about the devil, but it certainly seems like evil is on the prowl. And it’s not just the presence of illness and death. The adversary is eager to find ways to divide us. To convince me that my wellbeing is more important than someone else’s wellbeing. To persuade me that some people are expendable. To assure me that the people at fault are precisely the people I always blame for everything else. To get me to turn on my neighbor. To make me the predator, turn me into the one who devours others. The adversary is on the prowl.
Resist. Stand firm in the faith. Throw your anxieties on God, because you know that your sisters and brothers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world. These words have probably never been more true than they are right now. When has the human family ever been more united in enduring the same trauma, all across the world? Check your local paper. Coronavirus is on the front page. Check the national news. Coronavirus is on the front page. Check the news in China, India, Nigeria, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Korea, France, Mexico, Australia, Egypt, Germany, Afghanistan. Coronavirus is on the front page. People are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.
And people around the world are working to bring healing and comfort to that suffering. People around the world are doing their part. Medical workers are putting their lives on the line, some even coming out of retirement to help. Researchers are working as fast as they have ever worked. People are following public health protocols, even when it is difficult or annoying or inconvenient. Essential workers are putting themselves at risk to keep all of us alive. Other workers are going without work and struggling to find a way to survive. Food banks and other charities are finding ways to fill the gaps. Students are going without graduations. Musicians are going without concerts. Athletes are going without games. The grieving are going without funerals. We are all going without gathering. We are all going without what is normal. We are all doing our part. We are all in this together.
Throw your anxieties on God, 1 Peter tells us. But how do we do that? Throw your anxieties on God! Do it! Now! That doesn’t work, does it?
How do we throw our anxieties on God? It’s not something that can be done on command. You can’t just snap your worries away. It’s not something that takes skill. You don’t have to be a trained, spiritual professional. It doesn’t take any special secret.
What it does take is intention. It kind of has to be on purpose. It’s not exactly that you have to try to throw your anxiety on God. It’s not exactly that you have to decide to do it. But to throw your anxiety on God is intentional. It doesn’t happen without you.
Throwing your anxiety of God often takes time. You have to spend some time actually doing it. That might be time spent in prayer. It might be time spent in silent meditation. It might be time spent on a walk, time spent in nature, time spent singing, time in conversation with someone else. Throwing your anxiety on God takes intention, and it takes time.
It helps if you can name your anxiety. For some reason, a giant, nebulous blob of angst is much harder to throw than several neatly-packed balls of worry. Gather some of it up, pack it together, clearly label it, and throw it over to God. Then repeat. Throwing your anxieties on God takes intention, it takes time, and it’s easier if you can name your anxieties.
Finally, in order to throw your anxieties on God, you have to let go of them. You have to release them. You have to unclench your fist. You have to submit to God. Submission can be a problematic idea, but you know what I mean. You have to give over control to God. Throwing your anxieties on God takes intention, it takes time, it’s easier if you can name your worries, and God can only take them when you let go.
Throw all your anxiety onto God, because God cares for you. Throw all your anxiety on God. Will it make all of the problems go away? No. Will it make it so you’re never anxious again? No. But it will give God a chance to transform you. It will give God a chance to heal you. It will give God a chance to offer you grace and assurance. Which is what God wants to do, because God cares for each and every one of us.
So let us all have the courage to cast our cares on God, the serenity to release them, the faith to accept God’s gift of grace, and the compassion to share that grace with others. Amen.