Never Wear Your Collar on an Airplane

(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.

Airplane! (1980)

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.

Rambling in the presence of God

(Sermon for October 19, 2008 || Proper 24, Year A RCL || Exodus 33:12-23)

Moses is a bit of a rambler. I know, because I am a bit of a rambler, as well. If Dr. House were performing a differential diagnosis on “anxiety,” rambling would be the first symptom written on the dry-erase board. In my case, anxiety-induced rambling usually happens when I am attempting to converse with a woman I find attractive. In especially acute attacks, my rambling begins to sound like the dialogue in a Jane Austen novel. Much to my own chagrin, I tend to 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.”

Now, Moses is already married to the lovely Zipporah (whom he met at the well) so he doesn’t have to worry about accidently quoting Pride and Prejudice in conversation. Rather than rambling in the presence of women, Moses’ anxiety leads him to ramble in the presence of God. No one could fault him for being anxious. After all, the people of Israel have been grumbling about the good old days in Egypt ever since they stepped on the far bank of the Red Sea. The daily delivery of manna and quail and the water gushing from the rock don’t seem to have curbed their discontent. And just last week, they melted down all their jewelry to make a nice, little pet god, which, of course, broke one of those pesky commandments. Needless to say, Moses has his hands full. Add to all this the anxiety caused by a heart to heart with the LORD, and Moses breaks down into an acute rambling attack.

The way the book of Exodus structures the conversation we heard this morning makes this rambling difficult to notice. This is one of those instances where the Bible overuses the third-person singular pronoun “he” so that you’re never quite sure who’s talking. Here’s Moses’ first 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 the LORD 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.”

The LORD 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 calling and all of his anxieties to wash over him. He lets the LORD’s words sink in. He shudders at their impact. He looks up, and his next frenetic ramble dies on his lips. Instead, he says, “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 the LORD’s presence, Moses begins his work anew.

These are anxiety-ridden days. The presidential election is heading into the ninth inning. Unemployment is up and home-ownership down. The stock market graph looks like a heart monitor in the ICU. Add to all this the anxieties of work, school, and family, and rambling is going to be the least of our symptoms.

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 starting the sixtieth lap at Talladega. 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 review the grocery list and dwell on the need to get the oil changed and wonder how big a hit the investment portfolio took today.

But in our frustration, we fail to realize something. The grocery list, the oil change, the portfolio—these are just as good a place to start as any. Rather than seeing these things as intruding on our prayers, we can see them as entrances into authentic conversations with God. I don’t think God expects us to shut off our anxiety when we enter into prayer. Quite the opposite. God expects us to offer our anxieties as 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 anxiety directly, the LORD 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.”

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. But God whispers to the very core of our beings: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Moses continues to ramble. So God reminds Moses of the relationship they share. The LORD 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.

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 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 the LORD pass us by.

Footnotes

* This is one of those times when reading a sermon doesn’t give you the effect of the delivered message. To get said effect, read Moses’ bits like Dr. Cox from Scrubs. He is a rambler, also.