Prayer and Anxiety

Sermon for Sunday, October 18, 2020 || Proper 24A || Exodus 33:12-23

Today I’d like to talk about prayer and anxiety. You can probably figure out why these things are on my mind since we are less than three weeks from a presidential election, cases of covid-19 are spiking in our county, millions of people are out of work, many are on the verge of eviction, and the governor of Michigan was recently the target of an attempted kidnapping by a group by domestic terrorists. And that’s like ten percent of the stuff I wanted to put in this introduction. Whew. Deep breath.

Okay, prayer and anxiety. First, let me tell you a little bit about my dating life before Leah and I got married. I promise this will connect to the rest of the sermon. So, in the rare instance where I actually stocked up enough courage to ask a woman out, my fairly well-developed communication skills would be replaced suddenly by a rambling ball of anxiety that is basically every character Hugh Grant ever played. In especially acute attacks, my rambling began to sound like the dialogue in a Jane Austen novel. I would use phrases like “would that you were amenable to my ardent affection” and “how diverting it must be to tarry in the presence of such loquacious interlocutors.” Thankfully, I met someone who found my Jane Austen-inspired Hugh Grant monologues endearing, rather than creepy, and we’re coming up on 10 years of marriage in a few months.

I mention this because in this morning’s reading from the book of Exodus, I think Hugh Grant should be cast as Moses. In this passage, Moses is also a rambling ball of anxiety, except his anxiety has to do with being in charge of a huge nation of people who are stuck in the desert and who are grumbling about the good old days in Egypt and who are already tired of the manna from heaven and who just melted down all their jewelry to make a little golden calf pet god. Needless to say, Moses has his hands full. Add all this to the anxiety of having a heart to heart with God, and we can commiserate with the incoherent word salad spilling from Moses’s lips. It really helps to read Moses’s dialogue like Hugh Grant.

Here’s Moses’s first anxious ramble: “See, you have said to me, `Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, `I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”

And God says to Moses: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

But Moses apparently doesn’t hear this, because he is already halfway into his next ramble: “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

God responds: “You have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

I imagine Moses hearing this and slumping to the ground, allowing the full weight of his anxieties to wash over him. He finally lets God’s words sink in. He shudders at their impact. He looks up, and his third anxious ramble dies on his lips. Instead, he says simply, “Show me your glory, I pray.”

And the LORD says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD.’”

So, after the LORD takes the necessary precautions to keep Moses from overexposure, the glory of the LORD passes Moses by. Moses, safe in the palm of God’s hands, feels the presence of the LORD. Moses’ anxious rambling ceases. Secure in the knowledge that he is in God’s presence, Moses begins his work anew.

These are anxiety-ridden days. I mentioned ten percent of the reasons earlier, and I’m sure your own anxious minds began filling in the other ninety. Thankfully, Moses is not the only person with whom God has the kind of conversation we’ve been discussing this morning. Oftentimes, when we come to God in prayer, our minds are already racing down the highway of anxiety. We just can’t slow down, can’t shift into a lower gear. We get frustrated because our prayer time becomes just another opportunity to plan two weeks worth of groceries so we don’t have to go to the store too often. Our prayer time becomes just another moment to dwell on the safety practices of the oil change place or wonder what the rollercoaster stock market is doing to our retirement savings or fret about all the assignments for the kids’ distance learning.

But in our frustration, we fail to realize something. The grocery list, the oil change, the school work—these are just as good a place to start a prayer as any. Rather than seeing these things as intruding on our prayers, we can see them instead as entrances into authentic conversations with God. I don’t think God expects us to shut off our anxiety when we enter into prayer or stiff-upper-lip our way through our devotions. Quite the opposite. God yearns for us to offer our anxieties as our prayer.

Moses rambles about the people and finding favor in God’s sight and the nation of Israel. Rather than addressing any one manifestation of Moses’s anxiety directly, God speaks to the very core of Moses being: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” In other words, God says, “Moses, you are still going to lead the people. I’m not going to let you off the hook. But, remember, please remember that I am with you, and you can find rest in me.” Here God is the mother who wraps the tearfully frustrated first grader in her arms, squeezes tight, and then sends him back to the math assignment, while the mother God remains ready to encourage and hold again and again and again.

When we offer our anxieties to God in prayer, we acknowledge that the sources of those anxieties have power over us and keep us from being the people God calls us to be. Our anxieties make us afraid or sheepish or exhausted or sad or angry or all of the above. In this roil of emotion, God whispers to the very core of our beings: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Still this isn’t enough assurance for Moses, and I doubt it’s enough for us most of the time. Moses continues to ramble. So God reminds Moses of the relationship they share. God knows Moses’ name and Moses hears God speak that special, holy, intimate divine name that the Israelites wrote down but never spoke aloud. In revealing this special name to Moses, God invites Moses into a deeper relationship. This name God reveals is a name that speaks to the foundation of all that is, and in speaking the name, God helps Moses center God’s presence as the foundation of Moses’s being.

When we offer our anxieties to God in prayer, God gives us the opportunity to notice that God has heard what our hearts have been divulging. Through all our rambling, God is speaking God’s name to us, inviting us to that deeper, foundational relationship, in which trust begins to mitigate anxiety.

Finally, Moses stops rambling. He realizes that God is with him, bearing him up as the waves of anxiety crash over him. Moses asks to see God’s glory. All the goodness and the glory of the LORD pass him by. When we acknowledge the anxieties weighing on our hearts, we can begin to hear God speaking peace to us in the midst of those anxieties. And we, too, can settle into the cleft of the rock, rest in the palm of God’s hand, and feel the presence of God in our midst. And we can begin to breathe again.


Season 3, Episode 3:
Stranger Things: This is My Son, the Beloved

In Season Three, we are looking at facets of identity, and our third episode looks at one element of the great Netflix shows Stranger Things. How does parental belief shape the lives of the shows protagonists? Plus, in our book club we tackle chapters 6-9 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

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