Sermon given at Evensong on the Third Sunday before Advent 2021

‘Why pray when you can worry?’

The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon in Residence

Sunday, 7th November 2021 at 3.00 PM

‘Ah yes, why pray when you can worry?’ said my husband as I fretted.

‘Why pray when you can worry?’

Disarming, gently teasing words, which only someone who knows you really well can get away with and then only in a carefully judged context.

Jesus said ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me’.

His words are really important but need careful consideration. Without care they could be taken to imply a dismissiveness or sentimentality which is remarkably absent from the context in which Jesus spoke them.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me’.

Jesus is not saying that troubles won’t come. And don’t we know it. Whether it’s the unexpected phone call with devastating news, concern over whether this month’s rent or mortgage can be met, betrayal by one on whom we thought we could depend, or anxiety about someone we love who seems to have lost their way.

No, Jesus didn’t say that life would always be easy.

Instead Jesus said, ‘though troubles may come, don’t let your hearts be troubled’.

A troubled heart is one that cannot find rest, it is at dis-ease. Often, we experience it in the form of anxiety and worry. We will think a little about these very human, universal experiences and their impact, before returning to consider the context of Jesus’ words.

In most circumstances, anxiety is an automatic reaction to a threat, real or imagined. It can be beneficial, protecting us from harm by making us more alert, motivating us to action.

However, at an elevated level, or over sustained periods, anxiety can become paralyzing (the word itself is derived from a word meaning ‘to choke’).

‘To choke’. In times of anxiety have you noticed that as individuals we typically

  • find it harder to listen and to assimilate information without distortion;
  • our thinking becomes less clear and objectivity is diminished;
  • Our capacity to think creatively is constricted, as is our capacity to learn;
  • Curiosity is replaced with a demand for certainty;
  • Some of us withdraw; some of us engage in conflict;
  • We assign motives to other people’s behaviour and take things personally;
  • Feelings of helplessness or self-doubt are aroused;
  • our ability to tolerate or manage difference decreases;

In organizations, even Abbeys, and in society we may experience

  • a similar lack of clear thinking, and / or polarised thinking which limits the scope for creative solutions;
  • there may be an increased likelihood of blame and scapegoating of others;
  • we may lose direction and other important issues beside the matter in hand may get overlooked or sidelined
  • the rise of extreme views and positions

Does any of this seem familiar?

Ive said that anxiety can be a natural, even benefical reaction to circumstances. Difficulty arises when we habitually stay there—when worry becomes our home.

Turning to the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel, we find that the words of Jesus ‘Do not let your heart be troubled’ are not spoken on the sunlit uplands of carefree abandon.

Rather they are spoken as night deepens.

Previously Jesus told his disciples that trouble was brewing; that he would be put to death. They had found this nigh impossible to hear.

Now they were together on the night when he would be betrayed, arrested, falsely tried and, the following day, be crucified. Judas the betrayer had already gone out into the night.

In uttering the words ‘Do not let your heart be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me’ Jesus was preparing his disciples his friends for what is to come.

What might we take from what Jesus says to them to sustain us, when night falls and trouble comes near?

Perhaps we can draw on the radical example and accompaniment of Jesus. Jesus didn’t speak these words from the comfortable side-lines. Not long before and described as being ‘greatly disturbed in spirit’, Jesus wept at the grave of his friend.

Soon, this very night, Jesus would be wrestling in prayer; ‘let this cup pass from me’. Because Jesus knew trouble intimately he can say ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’ with authenticity. With authenticity and hope.

Speaking ahead of his death Jesus had said ‘Now my heart is troubled... yet it is for this reason that I have come...’

And in the garden of Gethsemene he would reach the profound centre of prayer; ‘Thy will be done’.

Jesus found a way marked by authenticity and hope which kept his purpose and destination in mind. This is not denial, but seeing reality. Seeing through it to his destination and determining to see it through. In the midst of trouble, He is our way, our example and our companion.

We might also find strength in attending to what he has told us of our true home.

Earlier I said that difficulty arises when worry becomes our home. When we dwell there.

Preparing his disciples for what was to come, Jesus reminds them of their true home within the encompassing love of God, whose house has room for all. We might remember that in the midst of the bitterest pain and injustice the theme of home, both heavenly and a place of freedom and dignity, was a profound one for African American Christians held in slavery. ‘I gotta home in gloryland’; ‘My home is over Jordan’ they sang and their descendants still sing today.

In the midst of trouble, Jesus, who came to dwell with us, also lifts us to dwell with within the love of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father who welcomes us, Jesus who has prepared a place for us and who sends the Holy Spirit; helper, companion, comforter, counsellor, who abides with us now and who will bring us all home.

Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled—believe in God, believe also in me’

On that essential foundation let me leave this pulpit singing under my breath the words of Irving Berlin: ‘There may be trouble ahead—but let’s face the music and dance...!’