Beast of Burden

by Jason Micheli

Length: 24:20

1 Peter 5.7-11  (click to see Scripture text)

September 6, 2020

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Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.

Earlier in the pandemic, towards the end of the Lenten season, a friend and clergy colleague sent me a draft of his sermon. He asked me to edit it and offer him feedback. The lectionary text for that Sunday was the Gospel of John’s account of the raising of Lazarus. Likely, you know the story. Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, send out a plea to Jesus, “Lazarus, your friend, has fallen ill! Come quick, Jesus, so that you may heal him!” 

But Jesus takes the scenic route, John reports, and when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is already four days dead and stinking in the grave. “Lord, if you had gotten here my brother would not be dead!” Martha snaps at Jesus. 

The sermon draft began, like a lot of sermons begin, with a “sermon illustration.” 

My friend, the preacher, started out by telling a long story of a recent death, funeral, and burial in his congregation. I highlighted the entire story in the document file he’d sent to me, and in the changes tracker I typed, “You don’t need any story for this sermon.” 

After I sent the revised sermon back to him, he called me. “What do you mean I don’t need the story for this sermon?” 

“That’s not what I wrote,” I said. “I wrote that you don’t need any story for this sermon.”

“Alright, but what do you mean I don’t need any story for this sermon? You’ve said it before— I need to hook the listener somehow, don’t I?” 

“Not right now,” I replied., “We’re already hooked. Thanks to COVID-19, we’re all— every one of us— living the Martha and Mary story. Thousands of loved ones are dead who didn’t have to die, and we’re all grief-stricken and upset with Jesus Christ who was ‘late,’” I said.

“You don’t think I need the sermon illustration?” 

“No, we’re all living the sermon illustration. Every Sunday right now— it’s like preaching a funeral,” I explained. “You don’t need to do anything extra to intensify the emotional stakes of the scripture.”

———————-

We’re all living it, the sermon illustration. 

Likewise, you don’t need me today to supply you with a slice-of -life story to connect you to the text or explicate its relevance for the real world. 

Neither do you need me to expend much exegetical energy unpacking the word the Apostle Peter has for you in verse seven today, μεριμναω. 

Anxiety. 

We’re all living the sermon illustration for Peter’s preaching today. We’re all living the same anxieties, and those anxieties are all front and center for us. We’re anxious about our health and the health of our loved ones. We’re stressed about our jobs and our businesses. We’re worried about the economy. We’re concerned about our kids going to brick and mortar or virtual online school. We’re distressed about the state of our democracy and disturbed about the upcoming election. Some of us, according to the New York Times, are anxious about not suffering as much anxiety about the pandemic as our neighbors. 

What’s wrong with me, we’re worried, that I’m not as worried as the other guy? Maybe I’m not taking the coronavirus seriously enough. 

We’re all living the sermon illustration. 

Since March, reports the Washington Post, anti-anxiety medication prescriptions have spiked to 34% of all Americans. 

Over one-third of us are medicated for anxiety. 

Prescriptions for sleeping pills, meanwhile, have risen 40% during the pandemic. 

Possibly that number is driven by the fact that your Apple Watch now has the power to make you anxious by tracking not just your steps and calories, but the quality of your sleep. 

Three-quarters of all Americans fret the economy will crater into a Great Depression, again. A majority of Republicans think the election will be rigged. A plurality of Democrats worry the election will be suppressed. 

We’re all living the sermon illustration. 

According to Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes— and Why (a book whose title makes me feel anxious about my preparedness inadequacies), 40% of all patients recently examined by a San Diego medical practice all exhibited the same strange symptoms: face rashes, eye and throat irritations, chest tightness. 

Turns out, in their corona-anxiety, these patients all had dramatically overused bleach, disinfecting their houses with undiluted bleach as many as four times a day. At least, they didn’t drink it. 

We’re all living the sermon illustration. 

In fact, says the Atlantic magazine, we’re so anxious right now that we’re making our dogs anxious too. Man’s best friends are also being medicated for anxiety at unprecedented rates. 

———————-

Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.

That word, μεριμναω, anxiety,— the other place it occurs in the New Testament is Jesus’ Parable of the Sower where Jesus warns his disciples that the anxieties of this world threaten to choke off the Word that God has sown in the world. 

In the parable, God is the Sower and Jesus is the Word God has sown in the world. 

The anxieties brought to us by a fallen world, in other words, can prevent Jesus Christ and his gracious work for you from taking root in your life and producing fruit. 

We’re all living the slice-of-life sermon illustration. 

And, on the one hand, Peter’s epistle and Christ’s parable are proof that anxiety is nothing new. 

On the other hand, though, as Philip Alcabes argues in the American Scholar, what is new and uniquely exhausting during corona-tide is our anxiety of culpability. An epidemiologist and professor at Hunter College in New York, Alcabes writes:

“Part of the strangeness of the Coronavirus Era is how much higher the stakes feel. If I don’t do yoga or meditate for stress reduction, don’t drink green tea for the antioxidants, and don’t remember to change my Facebook password every three months (I don’t), I may nonetheless remain confident that both the world and I will muddle through. But if I should be wearing a mask when I go out for a walk and I don’t, will I get coronavirus and die? Worse, will I have contributed to the catastrophe by spreading the virus to others? 

Suddenly, civilization seems to be on my shoulders. 

Yours, too.

It’s not just frustration I feel, but also the anxiety of culpability. It’s not only the sudden awareness of the closeness of death that makes the Coronavirus Era so disconcerting. It’s also the fear of committing a terrible, tragic mistake.

Radio and TV news reports and many newspaper stories make error seem not just consequential, but disastrous. Scenes of hospitals in northern Italy are photographed as if they were charnel houses. What exactly went wrong in Italy—why the case-fatality rate there is so much higher than elsewhere—it remains to be understood, but the scenes are offered as an object lesson without an object. 

Someone did something wrong. 

The patient wasn’t diagnosed immediately, and now the hospital staff members have been exposed. The soccer match was played, the kids went to the beach together, the nursing-home visitors weren’t screened, the café remained open after the lockdown order, the waiting room was full … Fault was happening everywhere, but nowhere recognized, and the result is visual, striking, reminiscent of The Seventh Seal, but many-fold, refrigerator trucks for bodies and a multitude of coffins.

Trepidation persists. All of this, the social distancing and the masks and the hospital tents in central park—if it does make a difference, can it possibly be sufficient? It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the disaster will keep unfolding remorselessly until some unknowable stopping point. How much virus is in the air isn’t knowable, but anxiety can float everywhere, with the persistent sense of error—error by local officials, error by national planners, error of one’s own.”

The anxiety of culpability is overwhelming. 

———————-

So-called solutions to anxiety, from yoga to virtual therapy, have become a cottage industry during COVID-19. Peloton’s stock has doubled during the pandemic.

Today the Apostle Peter sounds like he’s offering his own solution to stress, exhorting the elect to community, the Church, to cast all our anxieties onto God. The word cast can be translated variously as “put, give, throw, or turn.” 

Each of those verbs suggests an action on our part, but it’s an action that implies a more fundamental inability to act. 

The word cast that Peter uses here in his epistle refers to the act of putting a load onto a beast of burden. 

To cast your anxieties onto the Lord— it’s more than “letting go and letting God.” 

It’s a giving over to God. 

It’s the confession that you need God to be more than your co-pilot. 

You need Jesus to take the wheel (as Carrie Underwood sings in Peter Kwon’s favorite song). 

To cast your anxieties onto the Lord— it’s to recognize that you don’t need God as your partner. 

You need him as your Deliverer. 

You don’t need him as your example— your life coach; you need him as your Savior. 

As Paul Zahl says, the most basic definition and form of prayer is one word, “Help!” 

To cast your anxieties onto the Lord is to cry out to the Living God, “Help!” 

Like we pray in morning prayer every single day, “O Lord, make haste to help us…preserve us with your mighty power so that we might not be overcome by whatever adversity faces us this new day.”

And don’t forget, the Apostle Peter is no stranger to anxiety. 

Peter knows how anxiety can choke the Word God has sown in the world in Jesus Christ. 

As a disciple, seeing Jesus walk on water, Peter’s performance anxiety nearly drowned him. 

And Peter’s anxiety over protecting Jesus first led to Peter saying “No” to the notion of a crucified savior to which Jesus responds with “Get behind me, Satan!” 

Later, even though Christ had commanded His followers to put away the sword and turn the other cheek and love their enemies, Peter’s anxiety over protecting Jesus prompted Peter to conceal and carry a sword into the Garden of Gethsemane. 

Peter knows about anxiety. 

Peter has already lived the illustration to his sermon. 

But Peter, who denied Jesus as the cock crowed— just as Jesus had predicted, also knows something about not being able to execute what you intend. 

“Lord, I’ll never betray you!” Peter had sworn just hours before he insisted three times, “I do not know the man.” 

As St. Paul observes in his Letter to the Romans, the Law is powerless to produce what it commands. 

So we persist in doing the very thing we wish not to do, and we persist in not doing that which we want to do. 

As much as anyone, Peter knows that exhorting you to cast your anxieties on the Lord doesn’t empower you to do it. 

Chances are, because the Law elicits in us the opposite of its intent, being told to cast your anxieties onto the Lord will only make it more likely that you’ll grab ahold of your anxieties with a still, tighter fist. 

———————

Fortunately for us, Peter today is not offering us advice, “I always find it works if you cast your anxieties onto the Lord.” 

This isn’t a strategy for dealing with you worries, “Have you tried casting anxieties onto the Lord?” 

This isn’t a spiritual solution for overcoming anxiety, “If you give your anxieties to God, they’ll go away.” 

This isn’t another ought or should of the Law, “A good Christian ought to cast their anxieties onto the Lord.”

The Law, Paul says, only accuses us. 

Cast your anxieties onto the Lord— this isn’t another ought or should. 

Jesus Christ is not only the friend of sinners like us, He is our beast of burden. And Peter’s word today is Good News. It’s Gospel not Law, promise more so than command, for whether you are successful at laying your burdens on the Lord or whether you still have just as many sleepless nights, the Good News of the Gospel today is that the God who was for you in Jesus Christ, bearing all your sins in His body upon the tree, is the same God who is nevertheless at work in you. 

God is at work notwithstanding our ability or inability to cast our anxieties on Him. 

Why?

Why is God at work for you and in you regardless of how well you give over your anxieties to him? 

It’s simple, Peter says today, because he cares for you. 

He cares for you, and maybe that simple fact is the only lasting antidote against anxiety. 

It’s the same word, μέλει, care, the disciples use when they’re caught in a storm at sea and Jesus is asleep in the stern. 

They wake him up and Peter pleads, “Teacher, do you not μέλει that we are perishing?!” 

Today, Peter answers his own question. 

Jesus cares for you. No matter how loose or tight your grip on your anxieties, God is at work in you, because He cares for you. Which shows how the cliche “Let go and let God” is not only bad theology, it’s not the Gospel. It’s not the Gospel, because it implies that God first requires your successful cooperation. 

But the Gospel today is that God’s care for you is not conditional. 

It’s not determined by your ability to cast your anxieties onto him. 

God’s operations are His prerogative, and God’s prerogative, Peter announces today, is to meet you more than halfway and take your anxieties from you.

All too often, liberal Protestants like ourselves are guilty of implying that Christ is not risen and that it’s all on us to continue the work of the Kingdom movement begun by the dead Jesus. 

But Peter’s here today to remind us, maybe us most of all, that we have been elected by a Living God whose word is powerful to bring into existence the things that do not exist and, even, to raise the dead to life. 

And no matter what sort of job you’re able to do with casting your burdens onto Him, the Living God— the God of all grace, Peter promises today, is at work to restore you, to support you, to strengthen you, and to establish you. 

I can only speak for myself, but that’s a load off. 

As the archangel says to Ransom in C.S Lewis novel Perelandra, “Be comforted…It is no doing of yours. You are not great…Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad.”

———————-

Philip Alcabes concludes his article on the anxiety of culpability in the American Scholar by writing,

“At a time like this, it is easy to feel remorseful for not having paid attention to the most baleful predictions, in particular to the Cassandras who had been forecasting a pandemic like this one for many years. But someone is always forecasting a scourge. When, since Jeremiah, have they not? It’s not in human nature to heed these warnings fully—and often I’m grateful for that deafness. How would we live decently if we were constantly as afraid as the Cassandras want and seem to need us to be? As afraid as we are now? It’s so hard to keep in mind that the human problem, always, isn’t how to avoid death; it’s how to live.”

I’m still not sure if I bought the right kind of face mask, or if the one I wear is the kind that Duke scientists now say are worse than no masks at all. 

I’ve stockpiled hand sanitizer, and I anxiously study the ingredients to make sure they’re not the sort that studies now show are lethal. 

I have one son doing online education and another son who is doing his freshman year in-person, and I have no idea if we’ve made the right choice for either.

We’re all living the sermon illustration. 

But it wouldn’t be a Christian sermon, it would not be the Gospel, if it didn’t end with a promise. 

So hear the Good News:

In Jesus Christ, by your baptism into His death and resurrection, you have already died the only death that matters. You live, therefore, with death behind you. 

But that’s a promise, not a solution. 

Chances are, if you’re like me, it’s not a foolproof antidote to anxiety. I’ve logged thousands of miles on my wife’s Peloton during the pandemic, but in terms of anxiety I always end up in the same place. 

“Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. You are not great. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad.” 

No matter what cares and worries you’re still clutching— or still have you in their clutch— the Living God, the God of all grace, is at work to restore you, to support you, to strengthen you, and to establish you. 

God is at work to take from you all that would work to prevent Him from taking root in you. 

God is at work so that you can rest in His grace. 

1 Peter 5.7-11

7Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8Discipline yourselves; keep alert.* Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters*throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Jason Micheli

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