In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, I bring ecumenical greetings from the fifteen member denominations (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) of the Christian Conference of Connecticut, the state’s council of churches, to those gathered together here in this great National House of Prayer for All People.”
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight. Amen.
Psalm 147 is a hymn in celebration of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. It recounts the return in roughly 445 B.C.E. of the captives from the Babylonian exile and marks the date when the Israelites begin life again in their own promised land as God’s chosen people. Psalm 147 instructs the Israelites that it is God who makes possible the reconstruction, “The Lord builds up Jerusalem,” and God who “strengthens the bars of [the] gates” of the walls surrounding the holy city. Nehemiah underscores the matter when he emphasizes to the Israelites “this work has been accomplished with the help of our God.” This psalm also serves to remind the returning exiles that it is God who “grants peace within your borders.” Both the text and the context provide the backdrop for the sermon this morning in what I pray will be anything but a pretext for preaching about anxiety. For surely the Israelites experienced an abundance of anxiety while in exile—wondering “how long” it would last, and then, upon their return, worrying about restoring their nation upon ruins.
Under the title, “Peace within Your Borders,” taken from the appointed psalm for the day, I intend to discuss three headings, the nature of anxiety and the toll it takes on us, the relationship of anxiety to terrorism and the war we are waging on it, and, finally, the antidote to anxiety as prescribed by the Great Physician.
First, let me explain something about the nature of anxiety and the toll it takes on us. Anxiety is something we know about and all too well. Anxiety can overtake us without any warning. Suddenly, we are overcome by anxiousness. To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr on the topic, anxiety is known especially by your ordinary preacher late on any given Saturday night! That is to say, no one is unfamiliar with anxiety.
What is it we are so anxious about? Usually, we are less anxious about something in particular and more about everything in general. We may fear something in particular—heights or the dark—but we are not typically anxious about anything specifically. Fear and anxiety are not synonymous. Fears we can handle if we face them. By contrast, we do not know precisely how to deal with anxiety.
Further, we rarely know for sure why we are so anxious. Because we are anxious about our whole life, we find it difficult to define exactly what distresses us. Only when we stop to think for a moment do we get any glimmer about what is going on within us. Invariably, we know much more about anxiety than we do what we are anxious about.
The phenomenon of anxiety offers us material for reflection on the form it takes. Anxiety is like an incessant uneasiness. Living anxiously is like living this day as if it were the next—living today as if it were already tomorrow. As a result, anxiety breeds daily an enervating impatience in our lives that becomes hard to bear. Tomorrow creeps its way into today and the present disappears. Much of the time we are tardy to today’s concerns and some of the time absent from them entirely because we have become so anxious. We become bogged-down today in the overwhelming concerns of tomorrow. We live dreading tomorrow today—day after day. When a criminal is sentenced to life imprisonment the sentence reads “for life,” but the person who continually suffers from anxiety is also sentenced “for life.” Individuals can become “worried to death.” Out ahead of us is our own anxiety awaiting us, always eating away at us. Our anxiety, like the psalmist elsewhere said of his sin, is ever before us. Anxiety is in inescapable part of being human and there is no reprieve from it. W. H. Auden pronounced our time as “The Age of Anxiety.”
Anxiety is experienced poignantly as the awareness of freedom. Soren Kierkegaard analyzed anxiety closely and likened it to dizziness, “the dizziness of freedom”—a dizziness that quickly throws us off balance morally and spiritually. Experiencing anxiety, we become conscious that there are choices to be made, that options are open to us, that possibilities do abound, that there may well be contingencies unaccounted for, and that things can go any which way. In short, “anxiety is temptation’s shrewdest servant,” as Kierkegaard claimed. To experience anxiety is to enter into temptation. The psalmist was insightful: “Do not fret—it leads only to evil.”
Kierkegaard said that in a state of anxiety, we experience “the alarming possibility of ‘being able.’” Therefore, “sin presupposes itself” because anxiety tempts us to sin. Anxiety is actually the precondition for sin. Thus, anxiety, if not the original sin, is unquestionably the condition out of which sin originates. “[T]he alarming possibility of ‘being able’”—to do what? We are able to act morally—or otherwise.
Second, let us consider the relationship of anxiety to terrorism, the war we are waging against it, and the expectation for “peace within (our) borders.” Psalm 147 explicitly addressed the implicit anxieties of the Israelites concerning their “national security.” In verse 13, they are advised that it is God who “strengthens the bars of your gates.” Can anyone dispute the fact that we are living in a constant state of anxiety in this country since 9-11? Is there any doubt that the sense of homeland insecurity and the ensuing anxiety it causes is approaching epidemic proportions? Are we not, as the psalmist also said, a people “swept away utterly by terrors!”
The ubiquity of terrorism and the war against it creates all kinds of anxiety. When the whole metropolitan Washington, D.C. area could be terrorized by two demented snipers, when fallout sensors are being installed around our nation’s Capitol, when public health officials repeatedly implore us to prepare for worst case scenarios, we can succumb to “severe acute” anxiety. The sheer randomness of terrorism, the vague “sense of sinisterness” it engenders, “the feeling of being menaced” it begets, induces in us an intensified anxiety. The mere threat of terrorism is tormenting, and augments the palpable sense of foreboding “within [our] borders,” a poignant reminder of how our inordinate worrying already allows the terrorists to win. It compels Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to speak ominously about our prospects. “We know that it is no longer a question of whether [a major biological or even chemical attack] might conceivably be attempted, but more likely a matter of when.” There is patently only “peace [of a sort] within [our] borders” presently.
What can we say concerning our anxiety over terrorism in an age of weapons of mass destruction? Many years ago, the eminent American church historian, Roland Bainton, was taken aback by a question his eight-year-old grandson asked him. “You know what the difference between you and me is, Grandpa? You always knew you’d have a future.” Before the dawn of the nuclear age, it could have been argued, “the glory of anxiety is that we’ve all got a future!” Not so, anymore. In the words of Robert Jay Lifton: “Nazi genocide and the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki terminated [humanity’s] sense of limits concerning [its] own self-destructive potential…[its] assurance of living on eternally as a species.”
What could happen tomorrow casts doubt upon the human future because the inevitability of human history has been called into question today by the existence of weapons of mass destruction. The Church must come to terms with this new anxiety diagnosed by psychiatrists as “futurelessness”—an “anxiety related not so much to death as a fundamental terror of…unfulfilled life,” in Lifton’s terms. We gird ourselves against the terrible possibility of an abrupt end to the world as we know it by engaging in what Lifton calls “psychic numbing”—by casting out all thoughts about it and shutting down emotionally as well—because we “cannot afford to imagine what really happens at the other end of [such] weapon[s].”
In “these anxious and uncertain days,” as the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church rightly called them, we find ourselves wondering what will come next. Thus, anxiety is axiomatic of our time inasmuch as we do not know what will happen, when it might take place, where it could occur, or who is probably behind it. A condition of heightened alert occasions a deepened state of anxiety. We find ourselves trying to cope with what Jonathan Schell described as “chronic apocalyptic anxieties.”
There is a story told of an elderly lady who, upon hearing the grandfather clock out in the hall strike thirteen—runs into the living room to wake her husband up with great alarm, exclaiming: “Wake up, Pa! It’s later than it’s ever been.”
Have Christians and their churches, however, heard the wake up call? There is a clear refusal to confront this new reality of living in a terrifying time when weapons engender “shock and awe.” We are now working our “psychic numbing” capacities overtime. Yet, the development and possession of weapons of mass destruction is a moral and spiritual issue, a “political symptom of sin,” as John Bennett observed. Moreover, their actual use—by any nation, our own included—is a concern of supreme moral and spiritual significance. Archbishop Desmond Tutu bluntly asks: “[C]an any war ever be just again when we have such devastating weapons?” How come, then, the clergy of our country seem quiet and acquiescent? Why do the ordained of our land exercise so much caution and muster so little courage?
Our age is anxious due largely to “wars and rumors of wars.” Our nation’s policies cause us exceeding anxiety because we recognize they could bring about the very thing they seek to avert—the use of weapons of mass destruction and worldwide war. Our anxiety is compounded when considered in conjunction with our country’s incipient policy of preemption. And, our anxieties are multiplied dramatically when the policy of preemption is coupled with an oversimplified Manichean worldview, a newly militarized, alarmingly bellicose foreign policy, and the sanctimonious conviction of being on the side of the angels—as was disturbingly evident in the remarks delivered in this very Cathedral on September 14, 2001, by the President of the United States. It could lead to the temptation of announcing presidential intentions to “rid the world of evil,” as, again, Mr. Bush did in this very Cathedral, of delivering presidential ultimatums to “evildoers,” and of employing subsequently a taunting “bring ‘em on” rhetoric unbecoming a great nation. Lamentably, our anxiety over terrorism has led to extremism in policy. If we Americans are feeling such a high level of anxiety, then it does not take much imagination to appreciate how anxious the average Muslim in a typical Islamic nation must feel. As one Middle East resident summarized his region’s attitude toward America: “It is not you we are afraid of. It is your fear that frightens us.”
In his book, Christianity and History, Herbert Butterfield discerned “that through a distrust of Providence the gravest political mistakes…in one country after another have been due to…over-anxiety—the besetting sin of amateur politicians unaccustomed to the awful responsibilities of government.” “We are,” Butterfield warns, “flying in the face of Providence if we even demand too great security for the future.” It is not as if we are to live an anxiety-free existence, although it behooves us to recall, as one commentator concluded, “anxiety is inconsistent with trust in God…a subtle insinuation that God is either unable or disinclined to see to our welfare.” Nevertheless, “over-anxiety” creates confusion in a country, tempting it to lean more upon its own reading of “the clash of civilizations” but believe less the lessons the Scriptures would teach it about “the things that make for peace.” Be mindful of the fact that when the psalmist declares that the “delight” of the Lord “is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner,” what he really is referring to is the cavalry and the infantry. Any nation’s security is ultimately contingent on God’s action, according to Scripture. My own John Wesley wrote, “Thy strength consists not in thy walls, and gates, and bars, but in [God’s] protection.”
The historically unprecedented military might of the United States and its official policy to use it preemptively—maybe even wantonly—leads our nation into all kinds of temptation. When “the alarming possibility of being able” to rule the world appears to be open to us, we are clearly up against a most anxiety-provoking possibility, perhaps the greatest temptation known in human history. To experience such a temptation is to entertain the thought of worshiping other gods—power, wealth, hegemony. It is to be led down the road to idolatry, the path to “imperial perdition.” If the psalmist is to be believed, however, no combination of ethically suspect policy and morally repugnant weaponry will ever provide the protection we covet because only God “grants peace within [our] borders.”
The Order of Mass in the Roman Catholic Church includes the unison recitation of the Lord’s Prayer through the point where the petition “but deliver us from evil” is spoken aloud. Then, the priest alone interjects, before the last petition, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever,” this beautiful, additional petition on behalf of the people he serves: “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” In other words, the priestly prayer to be protected from all anxiety immediately precedes the affirmation found in the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer, a profound reminder that “the kingdom, and the power, and the glory” properly belong to God, not to any nation.
Third, let us turn our attention briefly to the antidote to anxiety as prescribed by the Great Physician. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus enjoined us: “do not be anxious about your life.” The injunction of Jesus to each one of us is “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” We should, Jesus insists, “[l]et the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” The antidote to anxiety according to Jesus is to “seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness.” Yet much of the anxiety that afflicts our “living of these days” probably can be attributed to the misplaced trust we put in the self-righteous, militaristic, kingdom-building tendencies of our own nation, seeking a security only God can grant, obviously oblivious to the unintended conseq