The Common Good

The Economics of Anxiety

One of the steadfast realities of following the lectionary is the predictable rhythm of its three-year cycle of readings. Preparing a sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday in 2011? You might go back to your files from 2008 to see what text(s) you focused on, what themes prevailed, what prayers and hymns were chosen for worship. You might -- depending on your congregation's current needs and challenges -- revisit, rework, recycle, as it were, the riches of the lectionary cycle.

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But because Easter is so late this year -- a day short of the latest date possible -- there was no eighth Sunday after Epiphany in 2008 or 2005 or 2002. In fact, the factors that determine the date of this prime movable feast are so unusual this year that an eighth Sunday after Epiphany is an astronomical and liturgical rarity. This means that, with a longer stretch of Sundays between Epiphany and Lent, we take in much more of the Sermon on the Mount, Year A's appointed reading for the Sundays after Epiphany. And this week's portion from Matthew 6 -- rare in the Sunday cycle but familiar in our hearing -- couldn't be more timely.

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" (6:25).

Worry characterizes our age. If you're not worrying -- contemporary logic seems to suggest -- you're not paying attention. The news that bombards us daily is packaged and presented with an often faux-urgency meant to exploit our fears and our already-frazzled nerves. We are an anxious people living in anxious times -- or so the politicians and pundits tell us.

But it isn't generic worry that Jesus admonishes against in the Sermon on the Mount. His is not advice for the self-improvement-seeking crowd. Indeed, the crowds gathered on the hillside to hear this unusual exhortation are told that the source of their anxiety is economic -- that they are prone to worry because they are preoccupied with security and acquisition. Strive instead, Jesus preaches, "for the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (6:33). Kingdom economics is not about acquiring and accumulating but about shedding stuff and sharing with others; it's not about security but about learning to live out of control.

This week we've watched crowds gather in Madison, Wisconsin to voice their disagreement with proposed economic policies that would affect public employees' wages, benefits, and collective-bargaining rights. Supporters of these policies (and the governor who initiated them) have made their voices heard as well. There are principled stands and reasonable objections on both sides of this contentious issue, but these are rarely given air time since media moguls know that what sells, what increases ratings and revenues and contributes to our culture of worry and fear, is an old-fashioned, good-versus-evil, political throw-down.

The economics of the kingdom seem absurd in light of this debate. The radical sharing and redistribution of wealth that the early Christians practiced (Acts 2:44-45) shaped a people given to gratitude and generosity, not anxiety. The refusal to obsess about food and drink and clothing -- the basic necessities of life -- made it possible to practice true gospel hospitality: does my neighbor (even my enemy) have enough to eat, drink, and wear?

This Sunday's lection from Isaiah reminds us of what makes gratitude and generosity possible and why worry is an affront to the God who blesses and saves: "In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people" (49:8).

And finally the Psalter reading this week -- like the Psalms generally -- speaks to the dilemma of our divided hearts: anxiety threatens to overtake us even as we desire to be a people "calmed and quieted" in our souls (131:2). It is this kind of raw honesty, confessed together in the worshiping assembly on this rare Eighth Sunday After Epiphany, that can give us the courage to "hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore" (131:3), and to do what Jesus asks: refuse to serve wealth and live anxious lives and strive instead for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.

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