Sunday, 13 December 2009

Be anxious for nothing

Advent 3 year C Sermon 09 Luke 3:7-18 Phil 4:4-7

What’s with those readings set down for today? Paul’s call to rejoice and be anxious for nothing…right after John the Baptist’s dire warnings…to repent…

Well let’s see how Paul’s words might work for us this Christmas.

Next time your tummy’s in a knot because you just don’t have enough time to shop for Christmas presents...
Just remember to…Rejoice in the Lord always!

Or next time the one you love…gets grumpy and irritable and bites your head off…just try quoting Paul’s words to them…Honey…‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone.’

And when you’re standing in a long queue at New World on Christmas Eve… I mean one of those looooong queues that goes right back to the milk and butter section… Just turn to the teenager behind you… who’s trying buy grog underage

… and whisper in his ear…‘the Lord is near! Don't be anxious about anything.’

Words to live by… right? All we have to do is make our requests known to God… in prayer and thanksgiving…and a feeling of peace and joy will flood through us…Uh… yeah ok…maybe for a wee while…but… the very next time we’re worried or frustrated…UP come those same old anxieties again. Something is wrong…

So what’s at the root… of these continuing emotional difficulties…Why are they so hard to get rid of? Why do we get bogged down in the same old emotional patterns…why can’t we just be happy…

Jesus was clear about why. Didn’t he tell us these emotions of ours…are actually pretty good indicators…of where we’re really looking for happiness? Didn’t Jesus say, ‘For where your treasure is… there your heart will be also.’

Ding dong…Now right there is exactly where the call to repent comes in. The one we heard in the other reading. John the Baptist…and later Jesus…are essentially saying… You’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places…they’re talking about surface happiness… haa hee happiness… but the kind of happiness that brings lasting fulfilment and contentment.

They’re saying Turn away from those things that are never going to make you happy…and turn back to God and God’s prescription for happiness. That’s what repentance really means.

But the problem is… some of our programmes for happiness have been wired in so early in life we can’t even remember. And before we can rejoice and receive God’s peace…they need to be rooted out.

Paul was as confused about this we are… wasn’t he when he said in Roman’s 15… I don’t understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

That’s why even for a great apostle like Paul …spiritual formation a process...and not the instant wiping out of our entire emotional history.

And in the call to repent…what John and Jesus knew in the first century…took modern psychology 2000 years to figure that out. Sometimes the sins we need to turn away from aren’t even ours…they’re the sins of our fathers or mothers…or teachers or peers. And sometimes they didn’t even know they were sinning against us.

One of my study leave mentors a priest with a Phd in psychology[i] explains this is easier to understand when we remember… that of all newborn mammals…none is more helpless than a human baby…who is completely dependent on the welcome they get…when they arrive in the world…

Thomas Keating says…The best a human baby can do to make its basic needs known for food and affection…is cry…loudly…But suppose a baby’s born into a world that’s not welcoming at all…where mum or dad wish they hadn’t been born. Now that baby’s likely to have emotional difficulty accepting life at all…

But in the next stage of our development…by time we’re two…we can do a lot more than cry to make people aware of our needs for pleasure and affection and appreciation.

We have an understanding of our own separate existence. We begin to want our own way…and so at this stage our desire for control develops.

But suppose a child lives where there can be no control…where their survival is in question…where violence is the order of the day…or where sickness or starvation or the danger of losing a parent…are ever-present?

Such a child will find it harder and harder…
to give emotional consent to any goodness and beauty in life or in the world. Because they have not known it.

Or maybe a child is born with some disability, or finds themselves in competition with big brothers and sisters for food or attention…in these circumstances they could develop lifelong feelings of inferiority.

When the needs of a child under two are frustrated they have no way to discern why it’s happening. They only have their feelings to go by…so if their mother is sick and can’t give them any affection…they have no way to explain it. All they feel is that their need for love is being frustrated. And this could lead to recurring feelings of fear or hostility… later in life

And even if we never experienced serious emotional trauma in childhood…we’ve all been through this time of vulnerability… and we all carry with us…wounds that can get in the way of receiving the peace of God…

Sometimes if we’ve been deprived of security at a early age…then the things… that symbolise security in our culture…can exercise enormous control over us.

And if this is true…when we can’t obtain the symbol of security we desire…the car…the house…the money…the partner…the image…or the prestige we want…

then we can experience very strong emotions…of grief or anger or jealousy…

if we feel insecure enough…our needs grow into demands…that finally ingrained as ‘shoulds’…bearing no resemblance to the virtues of the Gospel.

And in the pursuit of absolute security we come to expect ourselves and others… to conform to our demands whether they’re realistic or not. Unconsciously we need to control everything and everyone. And instead of a programme for happiness we’re pursuing a prescription for misery…because it can’t possible work.

And all this happens when our emotional lives are stuck…at the level of a two year old and we don’t even know it.

But wait there’s more…if we make it through toddlerhood unscathed…in the years between four and eight…other programmes for happiness begin to develop…and this is a time when children take on without question...the values of their parents…their teachers… and their peers.

The years between four and eight are when… our sense of who we are and what we’re worth…develops according to the approval or disapproval of those around us. When we live up to their expectations…we feel happy…if we don’t… then we sense their disappointment… and we feel bad.

And if we’re not aware of it these feelings can come right back in adulthood when we’re faced with disapproval.

But the good news is a few years later… at eleven or twelve… we finally arrive at the stage of development when we can think and reason for ourselves…what a relief…and this stage lasts for most of our lives…and if this were the end it we’d only seek happiness in rewarding places from then on.

But the bad news is…instead of using our rational intelligence to grow…we tend to harness our reason to the old programmes for happiness we bring with us from childhood…and we commit our intelligence to pursuing pleasure or absolute security or control and power…

And we rationally believe if we can only get enough of what we desire…finally we’ll be happy. I’ll give you an example … of the successful business magnate… who has a hundred million dollars in assets…and is still not satisfied. They make a million dollars a day… but their craving for more is insatiable. The nature of their emotional programming is this…when I have enough financial security…then I’ll be happy

Or for others if I can just get enough pleasure I’ll be happy…if I can just get enough control…over people…maybe even God…then I’ll be truly happy…[pause] …but they can never get enough because it doesn’t work.

Didn’t Jesus teach us riches and security and pleasure can’t actually deliver the goods…and if we think they can then we’ll always have a gnawing unfulfilled hunger…for happiness.

And most of us are unaware these programmes for happiness…are running inside us…influencing our decisions…our relationships…even our spiritual life. And meanwhile powers and principalities of greed and lust in the world can take full advantage of our insecurities...because we’re unaware of them.

And this brings us right into the heart…of the problem of the human condition. The problem addressed head-on in the Gospel… by John the Baptist and by Jesus.

With the call to…repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.’

Jesus and John are not talking about the need to perform harsh religious rituals of self-punishment. They’re talking about… changing the direction in which…
you’re looking for happiness. Remember Jesus said…happy are those who…are poor in spirit. Happy are the merciful…the peacemakers…

And this explains why we can bring everything to God in prayer and still feel frustrated…anxious and fearful…because we're still aiming our efforts in the wrong direction.

You see in spiritual terms…it’s not enough simply to experience conversion…and intellectually choose the values of the Gospel. Conversion is only the starting point…

the real work of our salvation… is to name and dismantle these futile programmes for happiness…and replace them with the virtues revealed to us by Jesus.

But we can’t do it on our own we need God’s help for the process of change to occur. And if we won’t consent to God’s help…well… our misery making programmes will just keep running beneath the surface…till they’re activated all over again by frustration… fear… or failure.

You know when you and I come to church… we don’t pretend these futile old programmes aren’t there.

We accept that one way or another… whether it’s our fault or not… we’ve all fallen short …and we all have wounds that need to be healed…we’re all in need of the great physician.

The work of repentance is to allow God to bring these things to the surface so we can name them and let them go. What follows from the call to repent…is the call to consent. To consent to God’s transforming action in us…And learning to consent to Gods work in us… is my theme for next week.

And if the Body of Christ…if the Church…
is really going to have a show of helping to change the world… the process of change has to first happen…in the hearts of each one of us…through the divine therapy of the Holy Spirit… only then as a community of faith can we can effectively play our part in God’s transforming work in the world.

[i] KEATING, T. (2006). Open mind, open heart: the contemplative dimension of the Gospel. New York, Continuum.

KEATING, T. (2008). Spirituality, contemplation, & transformation: writings on centering prayer. New York, Lantern Books