(Sermon for Sunday, February 27, 2011 || Epiphany 8, Year A || Matthew 6:24-34)
A few weeks before he ordained me to the priesthood, the Bishop of West Virginia gave me one truly inspired piece of advice. You might imagine that this piece of advice dealt with the delicacy of liturgy or the intricacy of theology or the intimacy of pastoral care. No. Rather, his advice was quite a bit more practical and worldly. He said to me: “Adam. Never ever ever – no matter what you do – never wear your collar on an airplane.”
In the three years that I have been snapping the collar on, I have discovered the unerring truth behind this advice. There are two reasons why a priest like me should not wear his collar and black clerical shirt on an airplane. First, I will undoubtedly attract the attention of the one person on board who will feel compelled to sit next to me and tell me his or her entire life story. While this isn’t necessarily awful, I’d much rather read Ken Follett’s new book while in the air. I admit that this reason is a bit self-serving, but the second reason is more convincing: I’m not really all that great a flyer.
There’s something about traveling at six hundred miles per hour, thirty thousand feet in the air in a glorified hollow, metal cylinder that tends to rattle me. And there are not many things worse for passengers’ morale than a priest in his clerical collar who is having a mild panic attack during takeoff.
Better to travel incognito: a guy in a t-shirt and jeans having a mild panic attack during takeoff is much easier to ignore. Now, I’ve heard all the statistics. You’re more likely to have a vending machine fall on you, more likely to be struck by lightning, more likely to die in a motor vehicle collision than you are to be involved in a plane crash. But the statistics have nothing to do with my dislike for flying. I don’t have anxiety over that fact that the plane might do something as unlikely as crash. I’m not anxious that a bird might get sucked into a turbine or that the landing gear won’t deploy.
My anxiety comes from the simple truth that there’s nothing I can do if one of these things happens. I’m anxious because I have no control. I’m anxious because, once the cabin doors are sealed and the tray tables and seats are in the upright and locked position, I have absolutely no ability to determine the direction of my fate.
And this is most unnerving. When I connect the two metal parts of the belt buckle and the plane starts taxiing to the runway, my anxiety takes over. I bow to the anxiety and all I have left to me is an expected bout of intestinal distress. But you know what? Anxiety, as a state of being, is (when you get right down to it) a sin, a distortion in our relationships with God.
Anxiety happens when we give in to the temptation not to trust. Trust is a fundamental building block of any good relationship. When (for any number of reasons) our trust for one another evaporates, we lose the foundation of the relationship. The same is true in our relationships with God. When we give into the temptation not to trust that God fulfills God’s promises, our relationship with God becomes distorted. And anxiety is one of the unpleasant byproducts.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount by looking up into the air and speaking about the birds and looking down the hill and seeing the wildflowers poking up through the grass. God, he says, gives to these birds and flowers what they need to flourish. The birds have enough food, even though they do not plant, grow, or store their sustenance. The flowers display great beauty, even though they are here today and gone tomorrow. If God sustains these small, passing things that have no worries at all, then why are you worrying, why are you anxious, Jesus wonders.
On our honeymoon last week, Leah and I saw dozens of examples of Jesus’ illustration. Bumping along in the open air Land Cruiser on our safari in South Africa, we took in the grandeur of God’s creation and witnessed hundreds upon hundreds of animals eating and sleeping and wallowing in the mud. The trip was truly spectacular. I found myself agreeing with Jesus all the more. Of course, God’s relationship with me allows me to flourish as the elephants and buffalo and giraffe and zebra do.
Then we got into the propeller driven plane back to Johannesburg, which kept threatening simply to fall out of the sky, and my trust abdicated once again, only to be replaced by anxiety. Notice the odd reality at work in this example: I am less anxious on the ground because I have some semblance of control over myself. In the air, anxiety reigns because that control is gone. Now, if anxiety is the temptation not to trust in God, why would flying trigger my anxiety while being on the ground does not? In neither situation am I relying particularly on God. On the ground, I rely on myself. In the air, I don’t have that option, so I quickly notice the absence of my self-reliance. Cue the mild panic attack.
The loss of control confronts us with the stark truth that our tendency to rely on ourselves overwhelmingly trumps our tendency to rely on God. When we are in control, we can ignore the fact that we aren’t carrying our weight in our relationships with God. We aren’t opening ourselves up to God’s movement. We aren’t filling the role of trusting children. But when we go up in the air, our self-reliance vanishes and we cannot ignore our failure to join God in right relationship. We cannot ignore the fact that anxiety, rather than trust, fills the hole, which is left when self-reliance is not an option.
So, how do we fill the hole with trust instead of anxiety? Well, the short answer is that we can’t. Whenever our self-control or self-reliance or self-determination is threatened, anxiety will be the byproduct. Therefore, removing things such as self-reliance from the equation is the only way to move toward trust and away from anxiety. After Jesus talks about God’s care for the birds and flowers, he tells his disciples not to be anxious. And then he gets to the punch line: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Striving for God’s righteousness means devoting ourselves to living in right relationship with God. This relationship acknowledges that we are never really in control, whether we are on the ground or in the air. A right relationship with God is predicated on relying on God first, so that we can be open to God working through us. Holding up our part in this relationship means making an effort to take stock how much we rely on ourselves, how often we maintain lone wolf attitudes, how quickly we fail to trust when things get bumpy. Flourishing in this relationship with God happens when we notice ourselves falling into old patterns of anxiety, and, instead of giving in, we pray, we surrender our self-determination, and we trust God.
This is not easy. God knows my success rate is quite low. But over a lifetime of spiritual practice, of walking with God, of following Jesus’ path rather than our own, I believe that we can, with God’s help, overcome the temptation not to trust, the temptation that leads to anxiety. In today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah, an anxiety-ridden Zion cries out: “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”
But the Lord responds: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”
God has each of us written on the palm of God’s hands. God will not forget us. God is here and always will be. When we begin to trust this fundamental, immutable basis of our existence, we will find our right relationship with God. We will move from the floundering of anxiety to the flourishing of trust. Who knows: when I find this trust, perhaps I’ll be able to wear my collar on an airplane.