When Fear and Anxiety Strike

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie for Sunday, March 15, 2020.

Many of you remember the weekly columns that appeared for nearly sixty years under the pseudonym of Ann Landers. One of the things that I liked most about these columns were the correspondents who signed off with names like “Mystified in Memphis,” “Hopeless in Hoboken,” “Happy in Harlem” or “Sleepless in Seattle.” To each Ann Landers dispensed sage advice and common sense.

For two thousand years, the Bible has offered incredible hope to people who turned to it amid their concerns, worries, anxieties or challenges. There is no collection of wisdom greater than the Bible. The word “Bible” comes from the Greek word biblia, which means “books.” The Bible indeed is a collection of sixty-six different books that contain all that we humans need to know not about salvation. The Bible is the one book to turn to when we need to mend our soul.

The Good Book is for the young who want to know how to face life’s many assorted challenges, and it is equally helpful to the old, who want to remain young at heart. The Bible is the most enduring collection of wisdom, truth and light ever put into human hands.

I heard of a prisoner once, who felt utterly dejected as if his case was hopeless and he decided to hang himself in his jail. As he climbed up on his cot, he spotted a biblical quote scribbled on the ceiling by one of his former inmates. It read “Isaiah 43:1-3.” Unable to contain his curiosity, he asked for a Bible and read,

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers,
they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be
burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God. (Is. 43:1-3)

That prisoner is still alive. The Bible comforted him in his hour of need and it can comfort us as well. The Bible can not only comfort the afflicted, it can afflict the comfortable. It can topple kings from their thrones and remind us that those to whom much is given, much is expected.

While billions of people around the globe are deeply concerned about Coronavirus, we are blessed to have countless physicians, nurses, scientists, researchers, politicians and health officials working to solve this problem. If we take safe precautions we should be safe. For that reason, we decided to close Christ Church Greenwich for two weeks in an effort to help stop the Coronavirus from spreading. Your health is our first concern.

As Christians, we should not read the Bible for a little advice, but we should read it for big help and great insight into how to lead the life that Jesus invites us to live. The Good Book reveals to us all that God has done through the prophets, through the people of Israel and through the life of Jesus Christ and how God has brought people through plagues, floods, earthquakes, and storms. The best spiritual advice that I can give you is to read a little bit of the Bible each day. Reduce your intake of troubling news, and increase your consumption of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Just this past week as I participated in the 2020 Bible Challenge I read Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke:

Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? …. Stop worrying.
(Luke 12:25, 29)

Self-reliance through self-reflection is self-defeating. It can cause us to stew in our own fears, worries and anxieties. We are wiser to turn outward to God for wisdom as we make our way forward. Few places in the Bible reveal this better than St. Paul’s words to the church in Rome,

 ….we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:4-5)

These words are pregnant with meaning. Those of us who have been through great difficulties know how the Spirit can transform our suffering into endurance, our endurance into character, and our character into hope. St. Paul is speaking from experience. He faced a myriad of difficulties that we can only imagine. He wrote,

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten by rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.
(2 Cor. 11:24-27)

It was through enduring great suffering that Paul became one of the most amazingly resilient Christian leaders in history. Doing his best and being faithful did not protect him from suffering. Strong Christians in every century have suffered for living their faith and seeking justice for others. Suffering challenges our faith, and our hearts go out to anyone afflicted.

Anger is a frequent response to suffering. We may become angry at some people whom we would have expected to be there for us when we were hurt. We may be angry at God. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross knew that people who are dying or have lost a loved one move through a series of stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They move through these in no fixed order on their pilgrimage from suffering to hope. For Christians the cross is like the north star that guides us on our journey from suffering to hope. This is the long, slow work of God, which eventually makes us stronger, more resilient and more loving and compassionate.

There are few finer leaders in history than Abraham Lincoln. Yet, no one showed Lincoln more contempt than Edwin Stanton, who called him “a low cunning clown.” Stanton said that if a man wanted to capture a gorilla, he could find one in Springfield, Illinois. Despite his criticism, Lincoln made Stanton his Secretary of War because he was the most capable person for the job.

Time passed. Then came that fateful night when Lincoln was assassinated. Stanton stood beside Lincoln with his face bathed in tears. As he looked down at the silent, rugged face marked by lines from carrying the burdens of our great nation, Stanton blurted out, “There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.” God had transformed Stanton from Lincoln’s fiercest critic to his greatest supporter. Likewise, the long, slow work of God can transform our greatest defeat or challenge to our marriage, our health, our career or our nation and transform it into the gift that unites us and makes up stronger, wiser and more loving.

Be wary of preachers who will scare you and suggest that plagues, earthquakes, disasters or illnesses are the work of God who punishes humans for sinning. They are wrong. The Bible reveals God as the force of love behind all creation and that Spirit which unites us and helps us to heed our better angels. Love is a long distance runner. The slow work of God is at the foundation of all that is good in the world. St. Paul tells us:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Our lives begin in love, develop in love throughout our lives and end in love and when the love of God calls us home. The infinite reservoir of love far exceeds the abyss of death.

Do you remember when the disciples were on the Sea of Galilee and a storm arose and the wind was against them and they thought that they might drown? Jesus saw them struggling at sunset, but he waited until the fourth watch – between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. – to rescue them. He waited until their darkest hour. Then he came to them saying, “Take heart,” which means, “Have confidence.” “Take heart, it is I.” When Jesus comes, God comes with him.

Christians say that it was a miracle that Jesus came to the disciples walking on the water. But greater miracle is that Jesus comes to us walking across the ages to renew our confidence when the winds of life are against us, when the Coronavirus fills us with anxiety. “Take heart,” says Jesus. Have confidence. “Take heart, it is I.”

The Bible doesn’t tell us how to solve Coronavirus. But it tells us that God sees each of us as an infinitely precious person. And God sent Jesus, his only Son, not to scold or destroy us, but to be our Savior and Redeemer and to help us face our worst fears. So, whether we live in Memphis, Hoboken, Harlem or Seattle, we have reason to hope. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

God of the present moment,
Divine Reality who soothes the frantic heart;
bring hope and courage to all
who wait or work in uncertainty.

Bring hope that you will make them the equal
of whatever lies ahead.

Bring them courage to endure what cannot be avoided,
for your will is health and wholeness;
you are Holy, and we need you.

(Adapted from New Zealand Prayer Book, p. 765)