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Anxiety for Two

Posted on 04 Mar 2018

March 4, 2018

Exodus 32:1-14

Matthew 18:20

Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman

We have just shared the peace of Christ, exchanging smiles and laughter, hugs and handshakes. I would like you to indulge me by getting up again and sharing not your peace, instead channeling your inner Eeyore or Grumpy, sharing a frown with those around you. Really work at it, how grumpy can you be? Can you scowl? Make humphing sounds? I invite you to stand and share crabbiness with one another.

Like people, communities have a personality. Ours clearly has a personality of good, natured openness because you all were willing to go along with me just now. The Israelites freed from captivity in Egypt were basically the opposite. They were a community of anxiety. They were afraid, all of the time.

When an individual is anxious or afraid, their body acts out of the brain stem portion of their mind, often called the reptilian brain. This part of the brain is all eat or be eaten, all reactivity and no thoughtfulness. Reactivity is essential for our survival. The fire alarm goes off and our feet start moving with little to no thought. A car swerves into our lane and our hands immediately move the steering wheel to get us out of harm’s way.

Reactivity has a place in our lives however our brains do not know the difference between momentary anxiety and chronic anxiety so they keep firing danger cues even when we are not in physical danger.

And when we live each day in fear, reacting to everything instead of being able to think about our decisions, our physical health and our emotional health are affected. We become grumpy and negative as well as anxious and afraid, and our families, our communities are also affected, because like all emotions, chronic anxiety, worry, negativity and fear are contagious.

When we smile at someone, they are likely to smile back and feel better, and when we scowl at someone, they are likely to feel worse, and they pass it on to someone else. Negativity is more contagious; so sadly, we are more likely to pass on our worry, unhappiness, and fear to others, which was exactly what was happening in the Israelite community.

God, with Moses, Aaron, and Miriam’s leadership, had led the people out of captivity in Egypt, and they were headed toward freedom in the Promised Land. When God safely brought them through the Red Sea and prevented the Egyptians from following, Moses and all of the people broke out in song. Miriam and the women danced for joy. The whole community praised God for the amazing deeds God had done for them.

And then three days later, they were in the wilderness with no water, and the people began to complain. Moses cried out to the Lord; and the Lord provided them with fresh, clean, sweet water to drink. And God said to them, ‘if you will follow my commandments, I will provide for you and keep you safe’. True to God’s promise, God led them to a place with lots of water and shady palm trees.

‘God is good’, they must have proclaimed, until a month later when they were again on the move, and the people were hungry. Complaining again, the people said, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3) The people complained, and again, God provided. This time manna, bread from heaven, to feed the people.

This people, this community, should have been the most faithful, rejoicing group ever. Look what God had done for them! God had brought them out of slavery; God had provided them with water; God had created bread to come from heaven to feed them each and every day.

They should have been the most hopeful, praising, trusting God community ever. They weren’t though. They were a fearful, anxious, grumpy group, passing their negative emotions around like a hot potato. So it should not surprise us that when their leader, Moses, went up to Mount Sinai to talk with God for six, long weeks, that their first reaction was to worry, was to go to a negative place, was to say, ‘we don’t know what has happened to this guy and we need someone to lead us. We need a new god.’

We understand why the Israelites were anxious. We get why they were afraid. With the end of Christiandom and the Christian faith no longer dominating society and culture, we, the church, also wonder where God is leading us. What will this new “land” look like? How will we get there? Will we have enough resources for the journey?

We get it. We understand the Israelites’ fear and anxiety. And yet, the wrong response to our fear, as individuals or as a community, is to react, to panic, to triangulate others, to blame, to turn from God and create a golden calf. These behaviors might make us feel better in the moment however they are not lasting solutions for our fear and anxiety.

Our healthy, faithful response is to turn to God and remember that God loves us. If you take nothing else away from this sermon, hear that. God loves you. God loves you in your fear and anxiety. God loves you even when your fear and anxiety cause you to be unfaithful. God loved the stiff-necked Israelites even when they made an idol and worshipped it. Ok, so Moses had to remind God that God loved them, but still God loved them.

God loves us, and God can transform us from people of anxiety and fear, from communities of anxiety and fear, into people of gratitude, faith, love, and peace.

And all it takes is one person. To transform a community of Eeyores into a community of peace, all it takes is one person.

In the case of the Israelites, that one person was the minister. Not Moses. He was their leader. Aaron. Aaron was the minister, the one whose family would become the priests taking care of the Temple.

Imagine, if when the people came to Aaron and said, “Come, make gods for us” because we don’t know if that fellow Moses is ever coming back, imagine Aaron had taken a deep breath and told them the story of their lives, the story of all that God had done for them.

Imagine if Aaron had taken that moment to remind the people of God’s promises, to remind them to not mindlessly react, to not be afraid, to not veer off course, but to go back to the vision, to the why, why they were out there in the wilderness – because in God’s love, God was leading them to a promised land.

Imagine if Aaron had been firm, pointing to the covenant, the commandments, the rules that guided their lives in community with God. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol,…. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Exodus 20:3-5)

Imagine if Aaron had firmly and kindly reminded the Israelites who they were and how they were called to behave and then had held that healthy boundary when the people panicked and wanted to make an idol to worship.

Imagine, if Aaron, the minister, had done any of those things, giving the Israelites, the community, a moment to breathe and quiet their reptilian brains.

Imagine if you, Christ’s minister, when faced with an individual’s anxiety and fear, when faced with a community’s anxiety and fear, remembered to take a deep breath of the Holy Spirit, remembered that where two or three are gathered, Jesus is there, and instead of taking on someone else’s anxiety and fear, you shared with them the peace of Jesus Christ.

Our families can be anxious; our places of work can be anxious; the organizations we volunteer with can be anxious; the church is anxious. Imagine you are that minister, that instrument, the one God is using to bring love, to bring calm, to bring peace to others and the world.

Too often, like Aaron, we think we are being kind when we give in to people’s anxiety, kind when we take on someone else’s worry. We think we are being helpful, good Christians; so we listen to them complain about someone else; we offer to mediate the problem (otherwise known as triangulation); we help them make an idol, passing the hot potato of anxiety on, keeping the cycle of anxiety in constant motion.

Imagine if we took a deep breath of the Holy Spirit, even engaged in one of the meditation practices I have been introducing you to, and held that hot potato of anxiety, neither reacting nor being afraid, trusting that Jesus was there with us in that moment.

God loves you, and you are that minister, called by God to transform the world, moment by moment, person by person, always with Christ’s peace.