We are by nature—as Episcopalians—creatures of habit. Exhibit A: The Book of Common Prayer. Since the Elizabethan settlement, which made normative the use of The Book of Common Prayer, by Act of Conformity, we have worshiped according to a very fixed liturgy. And that liturgical regularity carried over in the colonization of America. My sense is that Episcopalians are habit-forming people—either because we like the comfort of the habits that shape our lives, or because we have a more than average need for them to keep us sane and grounded.
The original vision of Anglican life imagined England subdivided into parishes that were of a size and convenience that anyone could easily attend the two Offices of the day: Morning and Evening Prayer. Then Sunday would have the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
The hope, and indeed, the intention of Queen Elizabeth (1st) was to bring her country—literally and figuratively—to their knees. As England emerged from the chaotic struggles of the Reformation—royalty and clergy had the same vision of social and religious harmony. They needed it. The Medieval era was called the Dark Ages for a reason. Education was not common among the people. There was widespread sickness and poverty.
The Elizabethan settlement cast a broad moral and devotional vision of an expansive church—the Church of England—which would serve all people with a consistent liturgy and a free, but ordered clergy. Habit, order, structure, discipline. In short, a stable context in which to live and discover God.
One of the first things I learned about being a parent was the need children have for routine. Now it's time to clean up; now it's time to eat; bathe, and go to bed. If a parent is consistent, a child can settle into those rhythms. They know on a level deeper than words can describe that they are cared for.
Of course we need to break out of patterns from time to time—at every age—or stagnation can occur. Evaluation, renovation, setting new patterns… As child grows the rhythms of life evolve. Bedtime gets later. Clean-up time gets shorter. But the setting of routines—once instilled—never goes away.
We do this, of course, to manage our anxiety. When the sun goes down there is nothing to guarantee that the sun will rise in morning. …except, of course, that it has happened every other day. But really, if you forget the past, and just think of the present moment, there is nothing to guarantee any of the structures we have in place except for routine. Nature gives us day and night, four seasons, but every other pattern is set by the human mind, and carried out according to mutual expectations.
We could, for instance, decide—I don't know how, but go with me on this—to adopt an entirely different calendar. 10 months make a year. And we could rename those months, and redefine how many days are in one month, and pretty much confuse everybody. The seasons wouldn't necessarily line up. I'm not sure how we would decide on the date of Easter, but that's been a problem for hundreds of years anyway.
What I'm trying to say is that we could change that. It's only by a commonly agreed pattern that we persist in "365 days make a year," because it takes anxiety away.
There are so many habits we depend on that we don't even recognize them as habits. I always watch NBC Nightly News. I am used to seeing Brian Williams in the evening. I am accustomed to hearing the news from him. I am accustomed to hearing his little jokes.
Change is, by nature, a threat. It forces your mind to adjust to a new situation. Sometimes that can be good…like if the coffee gets better. But sometimes it can be so jarringly unpleasant, as to make you wonder why you go there anymore…like if the coffee is bad! (I like coffee.)
I remember some time ago hearing a psychologist speaking on NPR about travel. And this person said that one of the reasons travelling is so exhausting is because it forces your mind to work in ways that it doesn't usually work. Especially if you've gone to a country that speaks another language.
You want shaving cream, but you have to find the store, find the aisle, and discern from all the options available what looks like the shaving cream. But see, when you're home, you're on autopilot. You don't have to think about any of that.
Our patterns, habits, routines say a lot about us, because they indicate a buffer we have created against anxiety. Good habits are routines that keep us grounded, and keep life running well. Typically good habits don't have a sudden payoff. They are investments we make that appreciate with time.
What we call "bad" habits can be a very subjective category, but basically they are habits that only seem to keep us from anxiety. They are "bad" because they seem to work in the short run, and then they fail completely with time.
Everyone has bad habits, and I don't know why. Well, I do. We have bad habits because we are not perfect. We do not make our decisions based solely on an intellectual judgment. Sometimes we are governed by how we feel, and when anxiety becomes difficult to manage with good habits alone, we turn to something that will instantly provide some kind of comfort.
It's one of the stereotypes of the Church that the pulpit takes on these sorts of topics. Perhaps not as much in the Episcopal Church, but in other Christian denominations, and the sermon is almost always a condemnation of the bad habit, and the people are made to feel shame.
I don't like that at all, because it assumes that we are able to control our lives, if only we would work harder at it—and honestly, that's just not true. Some people are very good at ordering their lives, and some people put their lives together with very short pieces of string. But everyone has failings.
People who come to church, typically, are trying to do the best we can, and we could all use a bit more healing and a lot less judgment. I think that is the tone of today's Gospel lesson. Not a judgment. He's trying to persuade.
Jesus says, "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?...It is the godless who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
Do you hear the tone that comes through the words? It's not a condemnation. Jesus is speaking persuasively. He uses rhetorical questions, "Is not life more than food? Is not the body more than clothing?" Of course the answer is yes. He's gently trying to unmask these common issues of living as being—on the whole, in the long run—inconsequential.
The clothes and food and drink are not intrinsically bad, but the obsession over them is an anesthetic—something to take the anxiety away. Concerns about food and clothing will always be a part of our lives, but Jesus says, "God will look after you. God knows you need those things. So spend less time on that, and more time on seeking God, and the habits that really do keep life in balance. Don't seek the gift. Seek the giver of the gifts.
The overall message seems to me to not trivialize this precious time we have on earth with our own appetites—which are really just habits we use to keep our anxiety at bay—but to focus on the Kingdom of God in which everyone sits down to eat and drink, not just us.
There are people out there who are worried about eating and drinking and what to wear, because they don't have anything. Some folks are in genuine anxiety. In the Kingdom of God, that is not the case. In the Kingdom of God no one is hungry or anxious, because needs are satisfied: food, drink, clothing, but also love, companionship, respect, dignity.
Jesus is not criticizing our need. In everything he did he was working to satisfy the needs of people. Feeding the five thousand, healing the sick. And he made no differentiation between himself and the poor—he lived with them, he was one of them. (Pause.)
Eventually, we will come to chapter 25 of Matthew's gospel. I looked it up on the calendar. On November 30th we will read about the end of Jesus' ministry, just before Matthew describes the events leading up Jesus' crucifixion. And we will read these words:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, `Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'" (Matthew 25:31-41)
Do not worry about what you eat and drink and wear. Worry about those who don't have anything to eat and drink and wear. I think that's what he's saying.
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