(Isaiah 48:8-16; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34)
This fall, I am participating in a pilot program in the First Year Experience program I teach in at Southern CT State University. It’s called the FYRE Project: the First Year Research & Artistry Project. Each professor chooses a subject to explore with his or her students. The students have to come up with a research question, then do research, analyze the results, make conclusions, and create something useful or artistic related to their conclusions. The hope is that students will get a taste of what it’s like to discover something themselves.
The subject I chose to explore with my freshman college students this year is “success.” I decided we would read and watch TED Talks related to success. I researched TED Talks related to success and chose four that we would read and watch.
One of those TED Talks is by Alain de Botton and is titled, “A Kindler, Gentler Philosophy of Success.” Botton is a philosopher that writes books for the general public. You can find his books online. In this TED Talk, Botton states,
“I think we live in an age when our lives are regularly punctuated by career crises, by moments when what we thought we knew – about our lives, about our careers – comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality.
It’s perhaps easier now than every before to make a good living. It’s perhaps harder than ever before to stay calm, to be free of anxiety. I want to look now, if I may, at some of the reasons why we might be feeling anxiety about our careers. Why we might be victims of these career crises, as we’re weeping softly into our pillows.”
Botton then goes on to discuss the reasons why we are anxious. The first reason is that even though we live in a democracy and think we are free from the kind of rigid social hierarchy that existed in previous times – with royalty, the aristocracy, the merchant class, and the peasants – we actually live in an unrecognized social hierarchy. Botton calls this unrecognized social hierarchy snobbery and says that the dominant snobbery that exists today is job snobbery. He says, “You encounter it within minutes at a party, when you get asked that famous iconic question of the early 21st Century, ‘What do you do?’ According to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses.” I’ve experienced this, personally! Have you?
The second reason for our anxiety is that we live in a meritocracy, which means, essentially, that we get what we merit or deserve. If things are going well for you, it’s because you earned it and deserve it. But, if things are going badly for you, it’s because you earned it and deserve it. We’re told that we can accomplish anything we put our minds and hearts to and for which we work hard enough. So, if we don’t accomplish that thing, it must be our fault. Think of Job and his friends, who kept thinking and saying that Job must have sinned if he was experiencing all the bad things he was experiencing.
Botton compares this to the attitude toward success and failure in the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, a very poor person was described as an “unfortunate.” He or she was, “literally, someone who had not been blessed by fortune . . .”. Botton says, “Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may unkindly be described as a ‘loser.’ There’s a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser, and that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods, it’s us. We’re in the driving seat.” If we’re responsible for everything about us and our lives, that creates a lot of anxiety!
The third reason we’re so anxious at this time in history is due to societal pressure, particularly because of social media, including newspapers and magazines. Everything about us is open to judgment and ridicule because there are so few places to hide. Privacy is going by the wayside. We live in a society in which there is an unrecognized social hierarchy, everything about us and our lives is our responsibility or fault, and social media presents all our successes and failures for all to see. We are exposed!
All three of these reasons are fascinating and enlightening – at least, to me – but it’s the fourth reason that really caught my attention as a Christian and a person of faith. Botton points out, “We are the first society in to be living in a world where we don’t worship anything other than ourselves. . . . Most other societies have had, right at their center, the worship of something transcendent: a god, a spirit, a natural force, the universe, whatever it is – something else that is being worshiped.” The worship of the self is, by definition, limiting, because human beings are limited. We aren’t God. So, if we worship ourselves then we are limited by ourselves. The horizon stops where we stop. We can’t get beyond ourselves and our world. And that’s just anxiety-producing, not to mention, depressing!
In our world, today, anxiety is ever-present, ready to attach itself to us as a parasite and feed off of us if we allow it to. Thankfully, gratefully, blessedly, we Christians have an antidote to anxiety: faith. And, we have a place to turn to when anxiety starts creeping around us looking for a foothold: scripture. So, let us turn to the scripture passage for today from the Gospel According to Matthew to see what Jesus had to say about anxiety.
"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? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' . . . Indeed, your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” (6:25-32)
Jesus tells his disciples not to worry. Don’t worry, first, because life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Don’t worry, second, because God will, of course, take care of you if he takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Don’t worry, third, because worrying does nothing to change anything. Don’t worry, fourth, because your heavenly Father knows what you need. Just don’t worry!
Why is it so important not to worry? Is it just so that we will feel better? Or is there another reason? Let’s look at the first sentence in the Matthew scripture passage: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (6:24). When we worry, we turn away from God to idols, especially money. When we worry and turn away from God, we serve another master, and, often, that master is money. If we’re worried about having enough to eat, we turn to money. If we’re worried about having clothes to wear, we turn to money. If we’re worried about having a place to live, we turn to money. We look to money to provide our needs and take care of our worries.
Now, of course, we need money because we live in a money economy. We get things by paying money for things. But, if we allow our focus on money to eclipse our focus on God, if we trust money more than God, then money has become our master. Worry invites the worship of money.
Trusting that God, indeed, knows what we need and is working to provide for our needs, is integral to remaining faithful. Once we stop trusting God, then we start trusting money. And, trusting money over God leads us to selfishness. We end up grasping and greedy, storing up treasure for ourselves in case of a future need. We stop being generous. We stop giving. We stop sharing. It turns out that trusting God is essential to being generous. Trust and generosity are linked. If we trust God, then we don’t have to hold onto what we have. We can let it go in service to God because we know God’s got our backs. Our heavenly Father knows what we need and will take care of us.
The simplest way to say all of this is, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:33). If we strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, we will attend to the most important things: people, relationships, justice, and the natural world. Trust allows us to strive first for the kingdom of God, which focuses us on the things that matter to God, which focuses us on loving his creation (both human and non-human), which creates heaven on earth, and, if there’s heaven on earth, then our needs are met; in fact, everyone’s needs are met! It is a cycle of gracious generosity, founded on trust in God.
Alain de Botton is on to something with his analysis of modern society. We do live in an anxious time for the reasons he states. Yet, by responding to just one of those reasons and worshiping something beyond ourselves – and, for us, that is the God of Jesus Christ – we get rid of all of the reasons to be anxious.
- Regarding the anxiety of a hidden social hierarchy, we know we are beloved children of God so it doesn’t matter what other people think of us when we tell them what we do for a living. We can be generous toward others, also, when they tell us what they do for a living, because we know they are beloved children of God, too.
- Regarding the anxiety of living in a meritocracy, we know that we, alone, are not responsible for ourselves and our lives, for God created us and works with us in creating lives that glorify him and bless the world. We can be generous toward others, also, when they are unfortunate, because we know that God created them and that God is working with them to create lives that glorify God and bless the world.
- Regarding the anxiety of exposure in social media, we know that God can use our failures and imperfections to his advantage, thereby redeeming us and using us to witness to the world about his gracious and transforming love. We can be generous towards others, also, when their failures and imperfections are exposed, because we know that God can use them to his advantage, thereby redeeming those people and using the to witness to the world about his gracious and transforming love.
By trusting in God, we become servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries, as Paul describes Christians in his first letter to the Corinthians (4:1). Our trust in God enables us to become living examples of the gospel, generously ministering to an anxious world, calm centers of peace and joy in whose presence others can rest. Jesus proclaimed, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Having been renewed in the presence of Jesus, may we now work with him to renew others. This is our calling as his disciples. May we fulfill our calling with trust and generosity. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, November 12, the Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost.
 Quotes in this sermon are from Alain de Botton’s TED Talk, “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success,” unless otherwise stated. https://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_a_kinder_gentler_philosophy_of_success