Anxiety in the Pandemic Age

There are many reasons why we worry. The current times we are living in raise a lot of concern for everybody. It is unbelievable that we have lost 166,000 Americans in just a handful of months to COVID-19. To put this in perspective we lost over 58,000 Americans in the Vietnam War. We lost over 36,000 in the Korean War. We lost over 116,000 in World War 1. We have blown those totals away in just a few short months. Jobless claims have also been extremely high because of the pandemic we are currently in. We are living in anxious times. It is easy to be in a perpetual state of anxiety and fear.

During the month of July, I saw first-hand the efforts being made to help those in Loveland who desperately need the basics of life when it comes to food and education. Our youth group participated with the NEST which is a mission that stands for nutrition, education, safety and transformation. Each week I had a different group of teens who would help to serve this mission in its efforts to continue to provide good food and educational tools to continue the mental and physical growth of the low-income kids in our community. The CEO of NEST, Evangeline DeVol, took time out of her schedule each week to share her story and vision for caring for the children and families within our community who are trapped in poverty and struggling just to make ends meet. I had the privilege of hearing the story 4 times! Each week if she left out a detail I would chime up and remind her to include it. This is a Loveland resident who could very easily keep to herself and ride out this pandemic and be just fine through the whole process. Instead, God laid it on her heart years ago to take care of the poor children who desperately need the basics of life and help to have a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty and excel in their education. Instead of being consumed with worry for herself, she has used her giftedness and blessing to be a blessing to others. And this is just one example of ways in which we can overcome worry.

Today’s passage comes out of a famous section of the Gospel of Matthew that we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is talking to a group of people who we see in the end of Matthew 4 are the poor, the suffering, the sick, the hurting. These are a group of people who have a lot to worry about. These would not be considered the middle-class or upper-class. These are people who are used to living day-to-day not fully knowing where their next meal might be coming from or what they may wear in the upcoming days ahead.

Our passage today comes from Matthew 6:25-34. But here is the deal. Verse 25 begins with a big THEREFORE! So, what that typically means is that we need to see what came before our passage. Let’s just look at verse 24. It says:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Jesus just finished a topic in which he defines what is our treasure. What is the difference between material treasure as opposed to spiritual treasure? What should our focus be on? He points out that where our heart is, that will also reveal what we treasure. If we store up treasure on this earth, it will depreciate in value, it could be stolen or destroyed, what seems to be important for me to have right now may be meaningless later. Instead, Jesus is encouraging his audience to focus instead on making investments in spiritual things, investing in the lives of others, caring for others, loving others. The pursuit of selfish materialism is contrary to a life of service. Jesus makes it very clear that either we serve ourselves or we learn the value in serving others. With that said, he now says THEREFORE!

So let’s take a look at our passage for today. It begins with:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

I don’t know about you, but lately I have found myself to be in a perpetual state of worry. I worry about this virus that is hurting and killing fellow Americans. I worry about how ministries are surviving during this time we are in. I worry about my daughters starting new jobs in the medical field. I worry about my son who is trying hard to juggle 3 different jobs. I worry about my youngest son who I am going to have to take to Ohio State on Monday and drop him off. Now my other kids were a little bit easier to drop off at college but considering all that is going on I am a bit more nervous about this drop off. Don’t get me wrong. I am extremely proud to be a Buckeye parent. And I am really looking forward to visiting the campus and familiarizing myself with the local cuisine. I want my Ohio State Dad t-shirt! And as a bonus there are a lot of kids from the youth group who are also going to Ohio State so I am looking forward to checking in with many of them on my frequent visits. But I am nervous this time around because of this dang virus and how it may or may not impact schools on every level this Fall. I pray that we quickly find a vaccine and are soon able to resume our lives back to a somewhat normal state of living if that is even possible.

Jesus sets us up in the passage by saying first of all that we need to stop worrying about our life. Then he goes into two specific categories that were very relevant to his audience. He talks about food and clothes. Now we live in a society where most of us eat for pleasure rather than for survival. And many of us are blessed to have a lot of clothes so much so that we tend to be fashionable and trendy here in Loveland. But keep in mind that Jesus is going after the heart here. Is God the God of our abundance or has our own wealth become our God? We can’t serve God and money.

The first illustration that Jesus uses relates to birds. He reminds us that birds, unlike humans, do not worry about what they are going to eat and drink. Birds do not store food away in barns. They are not in a perpetual state of worry about where their food is going to come from. Yet, even though they are just birds to us, God cares even for them and makes sure they are feed.

Just last weekend I went up north to visit my in-laws and parents. My in-laws live in a condo in Vermilion. They have made their backyard into a little bird sanctuary. I was able to sit out on their back patio drinking my coffee as I watched several birds pick away at their bird feeders while the squirrels ate the crumbs that fell into the grass. I was also easily entertained by the hummingbird that frequented their feeder. The many birds I was able to watch were not worrying about their next meal. They were not stressed out about where the food was coming from. They simply enjoyed the food that was available to them. Jesus points out that when it comes to value, are human being not more valuable than birds?

When we think back to the Creation Story we are reminded that when God created humans he marked that as the pinnacle of his creation by stating that it was VERY GOOD. And God empowered humanity to rule over the creation, birds being part of that creation. We were created in the image of God. God created us to be in relationship with us. This was the intent we see in the Creation Story. So to look at what Jesus is saying is that we are valuable to God and He cares deeply for us.

Now how do we rectify this passage with the fact that there are quite literally people every day who die of starvation and preventable diseases? I am reminded of a quote from Ghandi in which he said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Greed and the hoarding of wealth is a real problem today when you consider that God expects those who are blessed to use that to be a blessing to others. If we have the means and resources to help others, the last thing we should do is hoard it for ourselves. There are plenty of resources to meet the needs of everyone. The question is, are we the type of people or church willing to show care and concern for others in the same way that God takes care of the birds?

God cares for you. He cares for your physical well being as well as your spiritual development. All that we have is a gift of God to be used as a blessing from Him and to be a blessing to others. If you need food assistance I would like to think that the church would be the first thing you would think of. Not that we have warehouses of food stockpiled in the basement of the church, but we are connected within the community to take care of those who are in need. We are connected with the LIFE food pantry, Loveland Initiative, Milford/Miami Ministries, the Goshen Food Pantry, and the NEST. Many of our local churches support these ministries to help provide food and supplies to sustain families in need.

Jesus goes into his next illustration by looking at the fields, possibly even looking around in the very context of where he is speaking. He says:

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

Now Jesus takes a look at nature. He is admiring the landscape of where he is speaking. He talks about the flowers of the field. If you are a person who takes advantage of our bike trails or canoeing down the Little Miami River, we are constantly reminded of the beauty of nature. To watch the seasons pass with all of the beauty around us is a awesome experience to behold. One of my happy spots is to be up North to admire Lake Erie and the beautiful sunsets up there. God’s creation is just amazing when we stop for a moment to appreciate his creativity and wonder. But in this passage he is talking about the beautiful fields that are here today and gone tomorrow. We are reminded of this with the cycle of the corn seasons in our state. As a native, die-hard Ohioan there is something about traveling up 71 or 75 and being excited about the various stages of corn fields! I know, “Nerd!”, right? But it is always a little bit shocking in the Fall when you have gotten used to gigantic fields of corn stalks one day, then to see empty fields that have been mowed down the next. Here today, gone tomorrow. Do I lose any sleep over it? No. It is just the cycle of life for plants.

For years now I have teased my wife that she is a plant murderer. There have been many Springs where we go out and buy flowers, or I should say SHELLY buys flowers. She then proceeds to plant them with all the good intentions of having a bountiful harvest of flowers throughout the Summer, only to have her life get busy with other things where the plants die a horrible death of neglect. But I am happy to report that the cycle of death and destruction has been broken with the Summer of Covid-19! She has done a fantastic job of caring and loving all the flowers she has planted this year. Now in a few weeks or months they will all be gone as we head into the Fall and Winter. But it was a good year for plants on the Russ homestead! I suppose I am not allowed to move forward without showing you some pictures so here you go.

Jesus uses this analogy to point out that in nature very little has to be done to see magnificent beauty which is here today and gone tomorrow. And the beauty of nature far surpasses even King Solomon in all his splendor. If the natural world is taken care of by God in such a profound way will he not make sure we are clothed? Grass is worthless when compared to the greater value of people created in the image of God. He will care for us. He will provide for us.

So once again, many of us do not wrestle with the miniscule amount of clothing we have, wondering where we will get our next outfit. Instead, if you are like me, you have an excessive amount of very nice clothes, or in my case, jeans and t-shirts. If there is one thing that every youth pastor has an over-abundance of it is most definitely t-shirts. Every significant moment in the life of a youth group is marked by a fashionable t-shirt. Confirmation = t-shirt! Mission Trip = t-shirt! My spiritual growth can be measured in t-shirts. But once again, if we are blessed with a lot when it comes to clothing, are we hoarding what we have or allowing it to be a blessing to others? Make it a habit to regularly go through your closet and get rid of things you don’t wear anymore so that it can be passed on to someone else and be a blessing to them.

Then Jesus wraps up this section of his talk by stating that:

  31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Jesus hits hard here about where we are focused. What is our priority? Are we in a perpetual state of worry and anxiety with all that we have going on? Jesus calls us out on the fact that that is actually pagan. Not only that, but it is unnecessary because our heavenly Father knows what we need. So he is telling us not to be consumed with that. Instead, Jesus gives us our #1 priority which is to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Now what does that mean? When some think about what Jesus means by kingdom they think of heaven and the after-life. But I believe that Jesus established His kingdom here and now when he went to the cross. He is inviting us to be a part of his kingdom work RIGHT NOW! We are to live into the fullness of His kingdom now! This is an important message for us to hear as we are currently in a political season. Jesus is on His throne. I know that some of you are not comfortable with hearing this but our nationality is as temporal as the grass of the field but his kingdom is now and forever. That helps to put things in better perspective at least for the next couple of months here!

One of my most favorite authors is N. T. Wright. He is our modern-day C. S. Lewis. In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, he states that:

It is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’s followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice. . . . To put it another way, if you want to help inaugurate God’s kingdom, you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus’s saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project. (p. 204-205).

Our consuming priority is to live as kingdom people in the present. How do we do this especially during a pandemic?

Well one way we can do this which is modeled for us all throughout the New Testament and church history is small groups. Believe it or not, in the New Testament there was no such thing as a church building! They all met in small groups! This is how we know each other, how we learn to pray for each other, and how we care for each other. While the church wasn’t established until Jesus’ resurrection, I believe that Jesus saw the need for believers to trust in God and care for others. Our first priority, above all else, is to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. A kingdom needs a people. And these people become the church. This is Jesus laying the foundation of what becomes the church.

While we attempt to begin opening up the church I know that there are many of you that are just not comfortable yet getting together in large crowds until a vaccine is found. I get it and I don’t blame you. But we have the resources and technology to meet in small groups. That has never stopped. Every Friday I look forward to seeing the Facebook post of the Men’s small group that has been meeting on Zoom. I literally zoom in on the picture to read the names of all the guys who are a part of that morning small group and find hope as a pastor that they are finding a way to continue meeting together.

I really do believe that this is the greatest way for us to pursue His kingdom and his righteousness; by living and sharing life with others who can pray with you, hold you accountable and be a source of encouragement and love for one another. All of you need to be involved in a group. Even if it is just meeting with a few church members in your neighborhood in your home or online. Do not be like a caterpillar and cocoon yourself away from those who can help you grow spiritually. Don’t hide in your house consumed with worry about all that is going on. We need each other. More now than ever. We are relational and spiritual people of which it is necessary for us to be connected in a way that promotes growth. Spirituality was never meant to be a solo experience. It is meant to happen in community. Sometimes I wonder if the American church has been so preoccupied with building bigger buildings for mega-congregations that God is teaching us through this pandemic that we need to invest in relational small groups more so than bigger arenas and sanctuaries.

This Fall we want to kickoff a variety of small group opportunities for you to get yourself involved in. And just because I may have a list for you to choose from does not limit you. If you feel led to start your own small group, then do it! Let me help you, let me resource you, let me pray for you but let’s do this! Our target date that we would like to launch all small groups is the week after Labor Day starting on Sunday, September 13. Many of you who are already leading a small group have talked with me about what you are doing for this Fall but if there are any others interested in starting a small group in your neighborhood or with some affinity group then please call me or email me this week as I would like to add you to the list of small group offerings and make that available to our list. I can not stress enough the importance for you to make a plan for how you are going to continue to grow spiritually especially as we head into the Fall. Who can you learn with? Who can you pray with? How can you learn to serve together? Pray about it and let’s get back to being the church. While it is not ideal, we have technology today that people have never had in the past. Let’s take advantage of that if you don’t feel comfortable meeting in a small group in person. If you do want to meet in a small group, the church building is available to you. Just call and schedule a time and a place for your group to meet.

With all that being said, let me end with one more passage from Paul as he wraps up his letter to the Philippian church. He tells the church in Philippians 4:6-7:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

So, let’s not focus so much on what we DON’T have and focus instead on what we do have. We have each other. We have God. He is a big God and can take on all our prayer requests, our concerns, our grief, and our lament. In exchange for all of that we receive his peace! That’s not a fair trade! But that is the generosity of our God. He takes away our anxiety and gives us His peace, which, by the way, transcends our feeble attempts to try and understand everything and helps to guard our hearts and minds, our emotions and our intellect, in Christ Jesus.

Fear not church. Let’s kick this anxiety to the side and live into the kingdom He has called us to be.

Amen.

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