A Sermon on Matthew 6:24-34 (Trinity 15 – September 12th, 2021)
Anthony G. Cirilla, Postulant
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.
I thought I was having a heart attack. I had been dozing on the couch when I felt my heart begin to pound in my chest. I could feel every beat, like a hand slamming inside of my rib cage. My hands and feet started to shake and a sense of doom came over me. I got up unsteadily and told my mother, who was now in the kitchen, “I think I am having a heart attack.” She was strangely calm and asked me why, and I told her my symptoms. Then she said, “I think we should call your doctor first.” That seemed odd, but she’s mom, so she knows best. So we called my doctor, and he asked what my symptoms were, and with a fearful voice I explained what was happening. Then he started asking me about my personal life. This frustrated me – I’m having a medical emergency and he wants to hear about what I’ve been up to? But then, out of my mouth came tumbling a fountain of frustrations – things that had gone wrong recently, disappointments about my future and in my personal life that had been piling up. And as I divulged these things and the flood of distress came pouring out, I started to feel better – my heart beat returned to normal and my body calmed down. “You were having a panic attack,” my doctor explained. I was shocked. Me? I’m a calm, confident, steady, hard worker and careful planner. I don’t get panicked. But, you see, that was the problem. I wasn’t facing my emotions, not really. Without intending to, I was just pushing down disappointment after disappointment, and not facing the fact that the negative emotion was building up. It was bound to burst forth eventually, and the panic attack was how it finally manifested when my body realized my mind wouldn’t notice or deal with the stress.
Now imagine if my mother had harshly rebuked me with Matthew 6:25 when I thought I was having a heart attack – “Don’t worry! Jesus said not to worry!” Would that have been helpful in my panic? Now I would not just be filled with anxiety – now I would be anxious that I was anxious, and I would panic over my guilt that I was panicking! This experience raises the question: how are we to take Christ’s teaching when stressful things happen, particularly as regards our finances but about our worries in general? Should we be racked with guilt that we are feeling anxious because our checkbook isn’t looking ideal and we have fears about having enough? Should we think we are disobeying Jesus when we plan financially, for our future and our retirement? No. No. Proverbs 21:5 tells us, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” In 1 Timothy 5:8, the apostle Paul tells us, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Scripture clearly teaches us to be judicious stewards of those obligations and responsibilities that come into our hands, as a part of gratitude towards God and service to our neighbors.
I know someone who says that when she struggled with worry, Christians around her told her that “worry is practical atheism” (thanks a lot!), instead of offering comfort. We may be tempted to hear simply a condemnatory tone in what Christ is saying, and we shouldn’t soften the fact that this is a command. But, you know, the fact that Christ is teaching this shows that he already knows we’re anxious. We need this teaching precisely because life throws us curve balls that catch us off guard, and we’re going to need to be prepared so we aren’t just bowled over by those unforeseen things. The teaching of this passage is not separate from its tone. Scripture makes clear the tone we should hear when we read, “Do not be anxious.” In Matthew 9:36 we read of Christ, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He doesn’t berate them for being anxious, but actively sets them at ease by demonstrating the care he has for them. It is from a place of compassion that Christ tells us not to worry, because he sees our rapidly beating hearts in the midst of trouble and wants to calm us down. So likewise when we see someone else having anxiety, the right response is not to condemn the fellow Christian for lacking faith, but to compassionately remind them of Christ’s teaching, in keeping with Ephesians 4:23, which tells us to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted…”
When I thought my heart was sick, my mom didn’t dismiss my feelings or tell me to just trust without reason. She told me to call my doctor first, with the belief that in talking to him I would find the help I need. She probably could see what I couldn’t, that it was unspoken and unacknowledged anxiety, but she knew that I needed to hear it from the right person and in the right way for the advice to help and not hurt. Although primarily about finances, I think today’s Gospel can speak to our anxieties in general, which always in some sense come down to fears about whether we’ll be provided for, whether we’ll be okay. So what advice does the true Doctor give in this passage, to help us to obey his command not to worry? I see six pieces of advice here which we can benefit from directly, adjusting our perspectives in practical ways. I won’t go into great detail, but note them quickly.
- First, we are told, “NO man can serve two masters… Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” We have to take a spiritual audit of our budgets. As it says in the offertory sentences, “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have I given thee.” There’s our financial budget, the main point of the passage – can we see that God, not mammon, is master there? But mammon is not our only idol. What about our time? Does our time budget reflect that Christ, not the clock, is in charge? And what about our emotional budget as regards our relationships? Do we see that our main goal in life is to please Jesus rather than to appease people we think might not like us if we were authentic about our faith? A false master in any domain of life will not give us the comfort we can get only from Christ, and if we are trying to serve two (or more), we’ll have more stress than we need to.
- Second, we are told, “Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment?… And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life?” In saying that life is worth more than the food that sustains us, I think that Christ is reminding us to more objectively take stock of what we actually need. Often we internalize messages, from our friends, neighbors, family, and the world in general about what we need – what kind of food, or clothes, or other things that, without them, we won’t be satisfied. If we have a clearer picture of what we really need, then we can reduce our stress when our budgets tighten and close out things we think we need but really only want. Demanding more than what we need is compared here to somehow making our lives unnaturally longer, over which we have no power. Realistic awareness of both our needs and limitations will relieve much more stress than we think.
- Third, we see Jesus teaches, “Behold the birds of the heaven… your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not ye of much more value than they?…. Consider the lilies of the field… I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these… shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” Something interesting that sticks out to me here is that Christ commands us to observe nature. We are blessed in the Branson area to have beautiful opportunity to do this. If you are not taking the time to let God speak to you through nature, you’re missing out on a wonderful dimension of His providential care. The great Anglican philosopher William Paley was so impressed with the design he saw in creation, that he believed simply studying the natural order was an antidote to atheism, so clear was the hand of Providence. The ducks on the landing have no shopping centers, no restaurants, no social institutions to help them accrue resources, and yet, even with a life-span of only five to ten years they are able to continue their species and even have time to have fun splashing in the water. God designed the ducks to take care of themselves without retirement funds, stocks, or bonds – God loves them, and made them with love. But that same God loves us more.
- Fourth, Christ says, “After all these things do the Gentiles seek.” Notice here that Christ points out that anxiety over what we think we need is common to all mankind. We can investigate our own thinking about what we really need by asking, “How does my thinking about what I need to be satisfied differ from someone who isn’t a Christian? Does my sense of what I need to have reflect Christ’s standards or the world’s?” This can help us to dispense with attachments that may look like blessings but are actually burdens.
- Fifth, Christ tells us, “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” This command is an extension of our first point, that we can’t serve two masters, but with a switch in emphasis – the first is about who should hold our attention in Heaven, and this one concerns what he is directing our attention towards on Earth. The issue isn’t that pursuing money, or friendship, or love, or a meaningful job, or a promotion, or even our hobbies are wrong. The question is if we can provide an account of how all that we do upholds our kingdom work. If it can’t, if we can’t honestly show that what we’re doing adds to our role in God’s kingdom, then we might consider that it’s actually slowing us down, blunting our consciences, hurting our testimony, and, in a word, making us less effective ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. A confused mission will always increase anxiety. If it edifies, keep it. If it clouds your vision of the master’s kingdom quest, let it go.
- Sixth and finally, Christ says, “Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Oddly enough I find this statement deeply comforting. It acknowledges that times will be hard. Being a Christian doesn’t offer exemption from the problems of the fallen world, the ensnaring devil, or the sinful flesh. We’ll still feel anxious over the evil of the day. I have already explained that I don’t think this passage precludes judicious planning, but I think it offers instead a very useful piece of advice: when a problem presents itself, break it down into increments. See what you can meaningfully do today. Don’t let the whole problem swallow you up, but rather use your calendar to schedule your stress. Meet it on the terms you’ve set, based on scriptural advice, instead of letting whatever makes you worried eat up your hours and days and weeks and months and years until the worry has dulled all sense of time. Don’t shoulder the burden of all of your responsibility at once – shoulder the day’s portion, and through prayer and by grace you will see it through. It’s no accident that this is the same chapter where Christ gives us the Lord’s prayer – ask for our daily, not our weekly, bread, because you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew.
So maybe even now you are thinking, “But I am still anxious. I don’t know if I’ll have enough, or if my efforts will be enough, or if I’ll be able to get through this situation.” You’re feeling little in your faith. You feel like you’re having a spiritual heart attack. Then you should call your doctor first, and you kneel before him and say, Lord, I am of little faith – I’m anxious for tomorrow and I don’t know how I’ll feed and clothe myself or my family, or if my loved one will return to Christ, or if my boss really appreciates the work I do, or if my neighbor will see me differently if I share the Gospel, or if this person who I love so much will ever get better from this sickness. I’m anxious, and my faith is only little. And with compassion, he will say, I know. Tell me everything, and I will unburden your heart, I will give you the peace that passes understanding. Let your anxiety be crucified on the cross with Christ, who himself there asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Our high priest knows our condition – he has felt it, he is tender hearted towards it, and all the anxiety we feel is an opportunity to share it with Him in prayer. He didn’t carry his cross the whole way alone, and we shouldn’t try to bear ours alone either – we should ask for help when we need it. And then we can be ready to help our fellow Christians, when they feel anxious too, to let them know they are not alone, because we’ve been there, and so with sympathy and empathy we can say, “It’s hard to avoid the temptation to serve two masters, to truly seek the kingdom first, to really consider the lilies of the field. But here’s how listening to my doctor helped me not to worry, and how I believe it can help you too.” And in doing so your master’s peace shall be added unto you. Amen.