Anxiety and Faith
By: The Rev. Laura Brekke
Faith. When I read today’s Gospel passage I am struck by the juxtaposition of anxiety and faith. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus counsels the disciples in the first verse. Here he acknowledges that fear is a real and present companion for his followers, then and now.
We need to hear this reassurance often. Do not be afraid. With “Brexit” and the possibility of a global recession looming, with xenophobic politicians spewing hate across television, with acts of international and domestic terrorism shaking our sense of security, we need to hear Jesus’ voice calmly inviting us to lay our anxiety and fear at the foot of the cross. Do not be afraid. In the lectionary text last week, Jesus gives the examples of the lilies of the field—who have no anxiety about market shares or college loans—who worry not, for God has provided for all their needs. “But God so clothes the grasses of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—ye of little faith!” (Luke 12:28)
Jesus followers were anxious. They were worried. Worried about Roman oppressors hurting them and their families. Worried about where their next meal will come from, and how they’re going to provide for themselves and the future. Worried about God’s anger. Worried about the state of the world, full to bursting with injustice.
Let me tell you something: I know a thing or two about worry. I was brought up on the firm ground of Murphy’s Law: If it can go wrong it will, so plan for the worst and hope for the best. But mostly just expect the worst. Brene Brown calls this the constant fear of doom anxiety, and it is a powerful block that keeps people from taking risks, from being authentic and vulnerable. I have caught myself daydreaming about getting married and having kids, but the day dreams aren’t happily ever afters. Someone always gets cancer, or dies tragically, or runs away. I don’t want those things to happen in my daydream future (or real-life future!), but my anxiety—my fear—invades my imagination and I cannot believe that I could have happiness without doom hard on my heels. Better to expect the terrible – cancer, illness, and suffering than to be blindsided by it.
Except, living in a constant state of anxiety steals your joy. When you are always worried, always waiting for the shoe to drop, you cannot fully appreciate the moments of happiness as they arrive. Holding my newborn niece is marred by my worry for the world she’s born into. Rejoicing with a friend’s pregnancy is tainted by my anxiety over all the health problems pregnancy can cause. Life is always bittersweet, since you mar your happiness with the overhanging sense of dread. And that fear is not what God desire for us. That fear—that need to control the variables to prepare for the potential doom–that’s not the freedom that Jesus gives us.
When Jesus tells us “do not be afraid,” he invites us to divest ourselves of our fear and our control. Sell our possessions, give the money to the needy, for those things will not save us. Our control over our wealth will not save us. Only God, whose good pleasure it is, will give us the kingdom. We cannot replace anxiety with inactive calm. We cannot replace fear with our desire to control outcomes. Fear must be replaced by trust and faithful action.
The second part of our Gospel reading us about action. It’s about being alert for the Master, even when we don’t expect him. I am again reminded that faith and action cannot be divorced. If we are to live in a way that is fearless, then we must do the work of the kingdom that God promises to give to us. We must have our lamps lit and be dressed to serve. We must be about the work of the faithful—of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and setting the captives free—even when we don’t feel like Jesus is going to come knocking anytime soon.
Faithful action is the result of laying down our fear and replacing it with trust. We trust that the Master will come, so we ready the house. We go about the tasks that the Master left for us to do. And if we are caught up in our faithful action when the Master return we will be blessed. In Jesus’ parable, the slaves who were up ready to serve the late-returning Master were rewarded with the Master cooking them a meal—a countercultural gospel indeed! We are reminded that we will not know God’s timing, so we should expect God always; work and live faithfully always. In this we shall be blessed.
We cannot control the world. We cannot manage terrorism away. We cannot protect ourselves by moving our global investments from Great Britain to India. We cannot protect ourselves from every act of gun violence, or every mutinous cancer cell, or every painful heartbreak. We have to loosen our grip on control, and listen to Jesus words, “do not be afraid.” Fear must turn to trust, and trust must grow into faithful action, building the kingdom that it is God’s good pleasure to give us.
The Rev. Laura Brekke is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently serving as a Campus Minister and Director of Religious Diversity at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit Catholic university in California. Her research and programmatic work are focused on interfaith dialogue and intersectional identity. She studied History and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and earned her Masters of Divinity form Emory University. When she’s not hurrying across campus, she is an avid reader, writer, and book reviewer.