The Kingdom of Anxiety

Paul K Hooker/ Baccalaureate Sermon

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

14 May 2020

John 14:1-7

The Kingdom of Anxiety

            Every New Year’s Eve I revisit a poem, entitled “Year’s End,” by Richard Wilbur, one of my favorite American poets. Wilbur reflects on the last fading hours of the year, as late December snow covers the landscape of his Connecticut home. He meditates on things overwhelmed and frozen by change, his mind wandering from image to image, across time and space. A New Year’s Eve party visible through illumined windows fast covering with frost in the deepening night. A freezing lake, trapping leaves from overhanging branches that, once fallen, are “held in ice like dancers in a spell.” Ferns and mammoths fossilized millions of years ago in the very stones on which they fell in death. Victims of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius at Pompeii, eternally engulfed in pyroclastic ash. Here is the final stanza: 

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.   

We fray into the future, rarely wrought

Save in the tapestries of afterthought.

More time, more time. Barrages of applause   

Come muffled from a buried radio.

The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.[1]

            We fray into the future. That’s it, isn’t it? We weren’t ready for this. We weren’t ready for the virus. We weren’t ready to be locked away in homes and connected only in the ether. We weren’t ready for the year—indeed, for a seminary career—to end so abruptly, with words unsaid and things undone. We fray into a future “rarely wrought/Save in tapestries of afterthought.” More time, we plead, more time. But here we are in the midst of it, at the “sudden end of time,” and while the world goes on its perhaps-not-so-merry way, we sit in this moment frozen in our anxiety, like leaves upright in forming ice, or fossils in stone, or bodies entombed in volcanic ash. 

            In John’s story this morning, Jesus’ disciples aren’t ready either. They must have thought some change was afoot, but they have no inkling of the apocalyptic volcano about to erupt and entomb the world they love. More time, more time. But there he is, in the midst of them, talking about going on ahead of them to the Father’s house to prepare their rooms, leaving them to catch up the best they can. There will be a place for them, he promises, and all they have to do is believe. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is believe. But on he goes, heaping symbol upon figure of speech, while the sudden end of time looms and the future frays before them. Until finally, Thomas—bless his anxious, literalistic heart—at last asks the question that always lingers on the lips of the left-behind: We don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?

            “I am the Way,” Jesus says, with a poet’s eye for metaphor, “and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We argue even now about whether one must believe in Jesus to follow this way to the Father. Let me confess my heresy: I don’t care. I don’t care who is saved and who isn’t, or if anyone is or isn’t. In such moments as these we are living, nothing could matter less. What I care about is the metaphor. Something about Jesus embodies a Way, something incarnates Truth, something enfleshes Life itself. As we stand fraying into an uncertain future, hopes unraveling and dreams growing ever more distant, I suggest that this metaphor is all we have: He is Way and Truth, and Life.  

            The mid 20th c poet W. H. Auden understood this metaphor. Auden’s long poem, For the Time Being, is subtitled “A Christmas Oratorio,” but I find myself straying into it at odd moments during the year—moments like this. Auden’s title speaks the existential truth: we are trying to figure out how to live “for the time being.” We live for the time being, between the promise of Christ’s heavenly kingdom and its as-yet-unfulfilled reality. We live for the time being, hoping for extraordinary blessing while trying to cope with ordinary cussedness. We live for the time being, while the anxieties of the present fray at the edges of confidence and hope, and the future unravels in the direction of despair. Auden wrote in such a moment. For the Time Being was published in 1944, as the world bled and died in the paroxysms of the Second World War. The poem’s characters are figures from the ancient gospel nativity scenes, but they are also very modern people dealing with very modern anxieties. Joseph waits in a bar for Mary, his date who never shows, and struggles to come to terms with how little he matters in his own story. Wise men follow the star to Bethlehem not as a pilgrimage of self-devotion but as a process of self-discovery. A liberal humanist Herod worries that all his enlightened good works will be forgotten because “reason will be replaced with Revelation.” Auden’s Narrator speaks for us all when he observes that “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.” Despite the Christ’s entry into the world, nothing in the world has really changed. “Here we all are/Back in the moderate Aristotelian city/ of darning and the Eight-Fifteen.” Auden knows what we know: somewhere the light of the Kingdom may have dawned, but it’s still dark where we are. We may have seen the power and pattern of the future, but for the time being we are frozen in the moment. To know the shape of, the hope of, the taste of the future, and not be able to reach it, to dwell in it, even to draw near it—that is the definition of anxiety. We fray into the future.

            For the Time Being closes with these famous lines:

He is the Way.

Follow Him through the land of Unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.

Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;

You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.

Love Him in the World of the Flesh;

And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.[2]

            Every time I read this poem, I am struck by the difference between the way I hear Jesus’ metaphor and the way Auden hears it. We hear that Jesus is the “Way” and think he means “the way out.” We hear that he is “Truth” and think he means to give us a club to quash all the falsehoods of our time. We hear that he is the “Life” and think he means “eternal life” or at least “life somewhere other than here.”

            But Auden is not offering us escape from this anxious world; he is forcing us back into it. Auden knows that, in the kingdom of anxiety with all its chaos, there is a fixed point, and the point is Christ. Christ stands ever and always rooted in that kingdom of anxiety, where people are fraying into an uncertain future and pleading for more time, more time. Auden offers no cheap cure for our anxieties. He knows that the resurrection of Christ may change everything theologically, but practically it changes nothing at all. Easter has come and gone, and yet here we are, still in lockdown, the economy still reeling, and all our saviors, medical and political, fighting each other for pride of place at the presidential podium. And yet, Auden says, there he is, in the midst of it: Christ the Way. Christ the Truth. Christ the Life.

            Christ is the Way that wends through strange lands, realms unlike anything you have been prepared to expect. Forty-one years ago, on an occasion not unlike this, the novelist Frederick Buechner spoke at my seminary graduation, and he quoted Tolkein’s poem from The Hobbit: “The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began….” Buechner was suggesting that we intrepid seminary almost-graduates were embarking on a great journey, not unlike the hobbit’s, full of challenge and also of joy. He was right, but in ways neither he nor we could imagine.  Seminary had prepared me to serve a Church that probably didn’t exist by the time I was handed my diploma and certainly doesn’t exist now. I have served a Church wherein dwell not the playful lap dogs of settled dogma but rare, sharp-toothed theological beasts that, though they have taught me much, have also taken more than a few bites out of my backside. I have had “unique” adventures—I use the adjective with tongue planted firmly in cheek—and they have made of me. for better and for worse, someone I could not have imagined becoming. And now I stand here, as if in a parallel universe, to say that all these things will happen to you, too. The Church is transmogrifying before your eyes, and to walk in its Way is not to stroll down a smooth-paved road but to blaze a trail through dense undergrowth. And yet, there he is, in the midst of it, like an overgrown but still discernable path through dark and unfamiliar woods, a road that goes ever on and on. He is the Way, a way as rare and unique as it is dark and fearsome. He beckons you to follow in his Way.

            Christ is the Truth that can only be sought with eyes wide open, willing to abandon notions you thought were true because you wanted them to be. Some truths—maybe even all truths worth knowing—carry you into anxious places, take you far away from comfort and farther still from security. Some truths you will cling to even as others call them lies, hoaxes, fake news. Some truths replace reason with revelation, even when reason was perfectly understandable and revelation makes absolutely no sense. Some truths force a choice between one hope and another, a lesser good and a greater, love or justice, knowledge or mystery. It is not an easy thing to seek the Truth. And yet, there he is, in the midst of it, in the center of a great city full of anxious hearts and worried minds, all seeking truth and all terrified of finding it. He is the Truth, even though knowing it neither resolves anxieties nor eases worry. He summons you into the mystery of his Truth.

            Christ is the Life, and if you would live this life you must live it in the flesh, with all the weakness and limitation and insecurity that pulses through your veins and bores into the marrow of your bones. Flesh is prone to the worst the world can do: viruses that attack like a mugger in the bushes, cancers that proffer death in the organs meant to give life, hungers that growl in the gut and yearnings that howl in the heart. But flesh is also capable of the best the world has to offer: joy that breaks forth in song, love that enraptures you at the very thought of the beloved, beauty that fills your eyes with tears of gratitude for the simple gift of being alive. And there he is, in the midst of it, like a bridegroom at a wedding feast, dancing with the pleasure that only flesh can know and angels are forced to envy, filled with love that commits to face both weal and woe with grace and equanimity, steady in suffering and expansive in hope. He is Life, brimful and overflowing with equal measures grief and glory. He welcomes you to the lusciousness of his Life. 

            He is the Way, the Truth, the Life: that’s all we have, my friends, as we stand here fraying into the future. It is also all we need. For he is standing here, too, in the midst of us, transubstantiating the hard bread and bitter gall of the Kingdom of Anxiety into the broken loaf and poured wine of the Kingdom of God. You will meet him here, at this banquet table, the wedding feast of these two Kingdoms. This table, which speaks to us of both suffering and hope, death and resurrection. This table, whose fare is more meager than that the emptiest cupboard can prepare, and yet more sumptuous than all the feasts of all the kings of all the anxious kingdoms of all time. This table, to which you have come, around which you have stood, behind and beside and before which you have and do and will serve your whole life long. This table, that gathers up past and future and transfigures them as the time being. This is where you will meet him—where you will always meet him—who is Way and Truth and Life, in all the anxious moments of all your todays and all your tomorrows. 

The Invitation

You will meet him at the table,

the One who, emptied of Himself, becomes

the Empty space within the heart of Silence,

where Beauty gathers all the world’s deep darkness

even now and fills it with the Light. 

You will meet him at the table

who calls to you in midnights of the soul

and bids you follow through divided seas

and cross the holy deserts of the heart;

even now you feel the ancient Fire.

You will meet him at the table,

who reaches out to heal the shattered ones, 

the dimming shards, the broken, disillusioned,

world-weary, hope long ago abandoned;

even now you see his wounded hands.

You will meet him at the table,

whom you know by many names, inscribed

across the intersticèd universe

or whispered in the smallest breath of love;

even now your lips dare frame their sound.

You will meet him at the table

whom Love now fractures open on the altar,

whom Judgment now decants upon the earth;

his brokenness is rendered up in Beauty

even now, as you take bread and cup.

You will meet him at the table.

He is the host, and holds this space for you,

you who only lately join the feast

and yet are welcomed into realms of Light.

Even now. See, all things are ready.[3]

[1] Richard Wilbur, “Year’s End”, in New and Collected Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1988, p. 302.

[2] W. H Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, p. 65.

[3] Paul Hooker, “The Invitation” from The Hole in the Heart of God, publication pending, 2020.