Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Anxiety, panic and fretting...on the Feast of Margery Kempe



Philippians 3.3–8a

For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

Luke 15.1–10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’


Today is the feast of Margery Kemp.  She was born in King’s Lynn in Norfolk in the late 1300s, a contemporary of Julian of Norwich. She received many visions, several of them of the holy family, one of the most regular being of the crucifixion. She also claimed to have conversations with the saints.

She was much sought after as a visionary, but she was also endlessly in trouble with the Church.  She was a bit of a campaigner, to be honest – who thought she knew better than the rest of her society about the things of God, and didn’t always know when to keep silent.  She was rebuked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was more than once imprisoned.  Nevertheless, Margery seems have experienced long periods of close communion with Christ, and developed a strong compassion for the sins of the world.  Her autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, recounts her remarkable life. She died towards the middle of the 1400s.

On the one hand, we might like to rejoice in Margery’s amazing and miraculous visions – which clearly sustained a great faith.  However, on the other hand, in our post-miraculous age we may prefer other explanations for Margery’s visions.  Thanks to modern medicine, and especially our increasing understanding of the mind, we know that hallucinations are often the result of some sort of stress or anxiety.  We also know that people who experience hallucinations tend to see those things on which they are most fixated.  So, people who live on a diet of horror movies will hallucinate horrible visions.  But those, like Margery, who focus on holy and beautiful ideas are most likely to hallucinate those things. 

These days, we might say that Margery was clearly a holy woman, who had spent much time in prayer and study, but who, when anxiety about the world overwhelmed her, tended to hallucinate visions of Godly things and people.  This is not uncommon.  There are even people who visit this church who claim to have visions or voices from God. 

Even in the non-scientific age of the Bible, wise teachers knew that it was important to treat such visions and prophecies with care.  St Paul taught that anyone with such apparent messages from God should bring them to the leaders of the church, for testing.  Perhaps Paul, too, was suspicious that not all visions come directly from God, but rather from the creative depths of the human mind – especially in times of great anxiety.

Anxiety is, of course, a normal human reaction to the changing circumstances of life.  It’s part of our natural protection mechanism – our ‘fight or flight’ instinct.  We cast around for threats to our security, or comfort.  We are on our guard…and that makes us anxious.  We become more alert…less likely to sleep…and therefore more anxious.  For some, the reaction to anxiety is to shut out the world, turn off the news, and bury our heads. For others, action is the name of the game.  We might try to allay our anxiety by joining marches to Parliament (which parliament rarely notices), or we might gain some relief by ranting about whatever worries us on social media.  For some, though, anxiety about the future manifests as hallucinations, either visual or auditory – stemming from a deep hope that God has the world under control.

In our first reading, St Paul describes the kind of anxiety that he has lived with, all his adult life.  There’s an almost Trumpian level of boasting on display as he talks about all the ways that he tried to work himself up into being acceptable to God.  He was ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church; righteous under the law and blameless.  (You can just hear Donald Trump at this end of that list can’t you?  ‘No-one has ever been more righteous-er than me!’).

There’s a lot of anxiety on display in today’s Gospel reading, too.  First, there’s the anxiety of the Pharisees and scribes.  They were anxious about this new charismatic preacher in their midst, who appeared to be leading people away from their way of doing religion.  They were anxious about losing their authority – losing their power base.

And then, in Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, his main characters display anxiety too.  The shepherd is anxious about his lost sheep.  So is the woman who has lost her coin.  Both the shepherd and the woman are offered to us as pictures of God. 

We need to be careful about making God in our image – but there is a sense in which Jesus sees God as being anxious about the spiritual fate of his children.  The Scriptures offer us a picture of a God whose whole being is anxiously focussed on the salvation of humanity. 

Ultimately, it’s God’s sheer passion – anxiety if you will – for his children which saves us.  Paul ultimately discovers that all anxiety about faith, all his chasing after righteousness was ‘rubbish’ compared to the experience of finding out that God loves us, anyway.  You may be interested to know that this passage of Philippians contains one of the rather more fruity uses of language, hidden away in the Bible.  The word translated as ‘rubbish’ in our Bibles is really much closer to a strong word for manure, beginning with shshsh!   Paul says that all his achievements, all the things he was anxious to please God about, they are all ‘muck and manure’ compared to the surpassing joy of knowing Christ – and knowing that Christ has done all that is necessary to save us.  We have no need to try anxiously to earn God’s favour – because he is already favourable towards us. 

So, to my anxiety, and to yours, I say this:  let us use the coming days to rest in the Lord.  Let’s take time to rest in the loving gaze of our heavenly father, to contemplate his teachings, and receive the power of his love.  Then, perhaps, freed from anxiety, we too might be given visions, or at least nudges from the Holy Spirit, about how we can play our part in building God’s Kingdom of Justice on earth.  Not anxiously. Not expending our energy on fruitless frustration and worry. But, calmly, trustingly, stepping out each day to play our part, in the place God has put us, in building the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

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