A Reflection on the Matthew 6:24-34 by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy
In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus repeatedly says “Do not worry, do not worry do not worry.” Have no anxiety. Not about your money or your life, or your food or drink, not about your clothing or even your tomorrows. You cannot accomplish anything with worry, we are reminded. It does not give us control over anything, and worry and anxiety can only make us slaves to the false gods we think will give us the fast fix. As a therapist I am intimately acquainted with the wages of anxiety. Worry and stress, allowed to run rampant through our bodies narrows our arteries, swells our waistlines and shortens our lifespan. It is hard to quell those anxious thoughts, especially when they come calling in the wee hours, taunting us with worry about life, finances, health, and the future. All things that seem so very important. All things that we can do nothing about by worrying over. All things that we am sometimes tempted to evade by doing what one of my therapist friends calls the “spinning behaviors” of things like spending or gambling or drinking or working to exhaustion. All things that can easily become our masters if we allow them to.
I am a worrier by nature. I was raised to be one by the combination of an anxious mother who, in striving to protect me from all things that might possibly harm me, completely unintentionally gave me the message that the world is a really scary place and my religious upbringing and it’s metaphors for God. When I think back on the God-metaphors of my very strict Roman Catholic upbringing, they are much more related to the idea of a God as judge who kept track of sins. The God of my upbringing who was not a God of comfort but one of judgment. If there was a “father” God, he was a stern and exacting father, not a gentle one, and certainly no “mother” metaphors for God himself would ever have crossed my mind. Fortunately for my tender soul, I did have Mary for that. She was the one who nurtured me, the one to whom I took my fears, cried my childish tears, begged intercession with her son Jesus and even with God on my behalf. If there was any soft place to land in those days, it was with the God-bearer, who was also the bearer of most of the religious warmth I experienced as a child. “God is love” was a term I had heard, but at best it was a corporate kind of concept, and had no bearing on me personally. I had no sense of myself being beloved of this stern and distant God. And unlike my Protestant friends, I lacked the mitigating influence of “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Our Catechism studies were focused more on the knowledge of making sure we did not disobey God’s laws by sinning. The metaphors were less about a loving relationship than they were about pleasing an exacting taskmaster. Learn the rules, do things right and He will be pleased. Mess up and you have to do things to earn your way back into favor. When we did pray for God to intercede in our lives it was from the mindset of a God that was outside of time and space and nature.
There were spatial-relational metaphors as well Humans were “down here” on earth and God was “up there” in heaven, a vast distance away, not only in time and space, but in the sense of interrelationship. God that “swooped in and swooped out” arranging things to His purposes. God was in charge, giving or not giving you what “He saw fit.” Like the master of the machine, He could alter your little life at any moment by throwing a new switch. If we complained too much that things were not going well, we were reminded that this world was really not to be our focus, because everything that mattered was going to take place in the next, anyway. Suffering here, our own, and others, was for some greater good, “earning our crown in heaven” and thus could be offered up to this God who “counted our sufferings as stars in our crowns.” It seemed there was a vast gap between man (sic) and God. Those who breached that gap were special, set apart, saints and martyrs, certainly not ordinary mortals like me. Other than the lives of those saints and a few Bible stories, I was not exposed to a lot of Scripture growing up, so I didn’t really get to hear the rest of the story until a whole lot later. Given that I felt that God was far from me, judging me and or moving impersonally in and out of my life to arrange things to His own almighty purposes (missing the almighty grounding in love factor) is it any wonder there was a rather significant amount of spiritual anxiety! Of course we know that those limited metaphors for God that I was raised with are not in tune with the biblical view of the divine nature. The idea that God is in complete control of everything, with creation having no power, plays into the idea that God is outside creation and misses the point of just about everything that we learn in scripture about the dynamic, loving and absolutely relational nature of God.
This view of God that I grew up with is problematic far beyond the production of spiritual anxiety in small in Catholic girls. As the Rev. Rick Marshall writes, “If God is omnipotent, and the nature of that divine power is coercive, it leads to metaphors of a unilateral “strong” God, a Dictator, a Warrior, an Emperor, one who uses force, even violence, as a means to divine ends. If one is called to represent and emulate this God in the world, it then means to embody this kind of coercive power that leads to wars and rumors of wars. An ultimate religious act can then be often an act of violence. Waging a war in God’s name, or harming another in God’s name is often justified as an act in tune with God’s nature. Of course this is a caricature of male power. The traditional theology view of God has become part of the problem of our world. Bullets and missiles and phalanxes of troops “inserting’ themselves, “dominating” the enemy, “penetrating” into hostile land; “Shock and Awe” is the measure of success. It is a patriarchal world where domination is the rule. Male over female, master over slave, adult over child, rich over poor, human over creation, Father God over the world. It creates a world filled with fear and anxiety.”
These stories and the emotions they engender can become our masters. We can so easily become their slaves. The metaphors we live by, the stories of our lives are what feeds them. So very far back in time God was telling a story of love and faithfulness, of covenant and relationship. Not a God who is far from the Beloved people, but of one who has “inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” Not a God who is outside of human life, distant and detached but who holds us closer than a mother. A God who is intimately connected to us in love, “closer to us than we are to ourselves.” These metaphors change things! These metaphors make it possible to consider the lilies and the birds and the grasses. They make it possible to consider that I, that we, are beloved, are called, not in spite of some sinful human nature, but because our humanness is so wonderful that God in Jesus desired to become part of it, into relationship with a God who has loved us from all eternity. The one Isaiah knew, and Moses and David. The one known by Ruth and Naomi, Rebecca and Leah. And Mary, my own comfort in the scary years, all along, she knew too, that the other story was the real one. This is the story that Jesus, too, knew, the God with whom he was intimately joined and could tell with unique authority. As for us, sometimes we need to remember, to take time to stop and remember to breathe and heed the wisdom in Jesus’ words to us today. It’s healthier that way for our bodies, our minds and our spirits.
Marshall, Rick, Process and Faith Lectionary Commentary, Proper 3, 2008
The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy serves as one of three priests (all women) on a Total Ministry Team in a small congregation in rural Minnesota, where she also works as a clinical psychologist at the community mental health center. She has taught as an adjunct faculty member in the Psychology department at the local University. She enjoys being active in the Diocese, serving on the Commission on Ministry, as Secretary for her Region and as Communications Coordinator for the Diocesan MDG Team. She is a self-defined “liberal, evangelical, feminist, mystical, mindful, slightly Anglo-Catholic leaning Episcopalian-by-grace.”