Do not be anxious about earthly things

“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure”

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things.

This has always been one of my favorite collects, bursting with references to the ‘lilies of the field’ passage in Matthew and Luke, where Jesus says “do not worry about your life”.

But reading this admonition, to ‘not be anxious about earthly things’, feels different now, now when we are in the midst of so many things to be anxious about. Saying do ‘not be anxious about earthly things’ in the middle of a pandemic and a climate crisis feels like holding an umbrella in the middle of a hurricane, or a tiny flickering candle in a dark cave.

How can we not be anxious about earthly things? How can we not be anxious when the very earth that we live on is quaking under our feet, when the very air that we breathe is grey with ash and smoke? How can we not be anxious, living in a world that feels neither peaceful nor secure nor predictable?

This same sense of anxiety is where we find ourselves in the book of Exodus. The Israelites, wandering in the desert, are anxious. There’s no water, no food, just the hot desert sand and a march to a home that they’ve never seen.

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt”, at least we had food to eat then. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt”, because dying in slavery is, at least, a known quantity. It’s not the terror and trepidation and all-consuming anxiety of a new and uncertain world.

“Do not be anxious about earthly things” seems like the wrong thing to say to a group of anxious, hungry, exhausted people.

“Do not be anxious about earthly things” seems like the wrong thing to say to people who are suffering from, dying from, a pandemic.

“Do not be anxious about earthly things” seems like the wrong thing to say to friends who are evacuating their homes, who are fleeing wildfires caused by climate change.

“Do not be anxious about earthly things” really just seems like the wrong thing to say.

As perhaps some of you know, I grew up on a small family farm. And as my family sought to understand the why of local agrarianism, the why of what we did for a living, we continually turned to the works of Wendell Berry. A poet, essayist, and novelist of much acclaim, Berry spends much time in his work reflecting upon the relationship between humanity and creation, between people and the land.

And as we consider the question of anxiety about our world, Berry is, perhaps unsurprisingly, insightful. In an essay called “Leaving the Future Behind”, he talks about the debilitating effect that national and international climate change reporting has on individuals’ and communities’ ability to effectively respond. In other words, a constant barrage of information about huge issues we can’t immediately solve in like fashion, tends to leave us feeling as if we can do nothing.

He writes that the fear and guilt induced by these stories “can become a major distraction, not only from better ways of problem solving and better ways of thinking and working, but also from the local causes of climate change—which has, after all, only local causes.”(1)

This isn’t to say that these big fears, these anxieties, this present, and these predictions for the future aren’t real. They are real, or in the case of anxiety, are real reactions to things we experience. But as we ponder what it means to not be anxious about earthly things, Berry offers us a lens through which we can see the problem anew.

We can’t solve climate change. We can’t take better care of the creation we have been entrusted with without a multitude of individuals and communities taking action within their local sphere of influence. Like using a hammer on a screw, or a square peg in a round hole, our gifts and God-given talents are only useful to us and our world when we use them where they’re meant to be used.

God’s response to the anxiety and the future-focused Israelites reminds us of the limitations of our own anxiety and fear. God says—okay, yes, I hear you. You are afraid of the future. You would rather have died in Egypt. Fine. But you’re hungry. Let’s fix that first.

The Israelites, in their fear and anxiety, are attempting to see the whole scope of the problem. They’re thinking about the past and present and future and saying, ‘if only it had happened this way’. They are trying to make a statement from a bird’s eye perspective, from, if you will, God’s perspective. This is the same problem that the first vineyard workers run into in our Gospel lesson, as they attempt to play the role of God in deciding which wages are just, and which are not.

And in each of these passages, God reminds us that we are not actually seeing things from God’s perspective. The Israelites cannot see the promised land laid before them, cannot see the manna which will soon feed them.

But God can.

The first vineyard workers cannot see a world where pay is not based on merit, but on showing up and doing your part, however small.

But God can.

We cannot see the end of this pandemic, cannot see a world of justice and equality, cannot see a world in which creation is cared for as it should be.

But we have faith that God can.

Our call then, is two-fold. First, we must expand our imagination past the fear and anxiety that dominates our headlines and news cycles, reminding ourselves that fire and famine and pestilence are a real part of the story, but not the whole story. When we remind ourselves that we do not see from God’s perspective, we, as Wendell Berry writes, withdraw ‘our.. speculative, wishful, and fearful claims upon the future, [and we] significantly and properly reduce the circumstance or context within which we live and think’.

Because, paradoxically, the second part of our call is to go smaller. To not be incapacitated by our attempts to save the whole world, but to work within our corner of it. In doing this, we are, as Berry says, placed ‘within our right definition, our right limits, as earthly creatures and human beings… only within these limits that we can think practically, usefully, and so with hope, of our history, of what we have been and who we are, of our sustaining connections and relationships’. Only by going smaller, can we do the work that must be done.

So in the face of crisis, in a world and a planet which so desperately needs all of our diligence, care and compassion, what does ‘smaller’ look like?

In the much-beloved film The Princess Bride, our three heroes Wesley, Fezzik, and Indigo sit on top of a castle wall, facing a list of impossible tasks, which include fighting sixty men at the gate in order to then break up the prince’s wedding and exact revenge upon the evil Count Rugen, etc, etc. After listing what must be done, Wesley, who has just been revived from death and can’t even hold his head up straight, asks, ‘what are our liabilities’ and ‘what are our assets’.

What are our liabilities? What is the problem we’re responding to in our community? What’s at stake? What’s in the way of a solution? What are the things we need to learn to do this work well? Where do we need to be honest about our past shortcomings in order to move forward?

What are our assets? Who among us knows about, or is already working on this problem in our community, be it hunger or racism or creation care? Who do we partner with through Faith in Action, or who might we partner with in the future? Which of our individual and community gifts is the right one for this moment?

And just as our three heroes used these questions to literally storm a castle and save the princess, we too can ask these questions to restore our focus. To imagine a world that is God’s, and to see ourselves within our right limits, to focus on our corner of this good earth.

So grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, these fears and anxieties that are too big for us alone, but to love things heavenly—your story, and our joyfully-limited human place in it, that we may care for God’s creation with holiness and reverence, wherever we are planted, wherever we are called to serve.

(1) Berry, Wendell. “Leaving the Future Behind” The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2017. 70-72.

Preached at The Chapel of the Cross, Chapel Hill, 16th Sunday after Pentecost 2020.

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