Relax, the Lord is Near
Pentecost XXIV (O. T. 32); November 8, 2015
I'm feeling a little resistant today, both to the stewardship theme and to Paul's instructions. First, the stewardship theme: "free from the uncertainty of riches." Okay, I get it: as long as our basic needs are met, and we trust God to meet our basic needs, there is nothing more to be concerned about. Food, housing, and shelter are needs; for all we claim otherwise, smartphones, cars, and
going out to eat are not needs. I get that, but I don't feel it. It feels as though we need these things, and more besides, and so you and I worry about making ends meet, about paying the bills. I believe that I'm supposed to impress upon you the idea that if you and I let go of our attachment to what we think are necessities, but really aren't, and trust God to keep the promise to provide our needs, then we will be free.
But I need to work to feel it. There are still credit-card bills to be paid each month, and very little of what is on those bills is a necessity. And you and I know that money is uncertain. Benjamin Franklin said that only two things about life are certain, death and taxes, but the truth is your income could fall so low that you're not even paying any taxes.
There's still death; that's certain. We'll let it go for now; Ash Wednesday will get here soon enough.
Speaking of which: it was disturbing to hear on the news this week that the death rate in the United States has been increasing in one demographic group: middle-aged white men. Not young men, not old men, not men of color, not women, but middle-aged white men. The talking heads were speculating on why that is; apparently the suicide rate has gone up considerably in that group, as well as death from accidental overdose of drugs. What is the speculation? Economic uncertainty. Men still tend to be defined more by how we earn money and how much we earn than women are, and the last couple of decades have been uncertain. Women, younger men, and men of color are more accustomed to uncertainty, they say. They know that their source of income could disappear at any time and, although it is distressing, it is not something new to cope with. Middle-aged white men are used to feeling economically secure, and don't know how to cope in an uncertain economy.
Well, that's the speculation. If there's any substance to it, then it suggests that to be free from the uncertainty of riches may not only help you sleep better at night, but it may save your life. Perhaps the folks who want us to learn to trust God for our needs, and not to be concerned about anything else because we know it is optional – perhaps they are on to something. If I'm not feeling it, I can still learn it. It takes practice, and here's where the Apostle can help.
As I said, I am feeling a little resistant to what the Apostle said: Do not worry about anything. That little piece of advice – or, even stronger, admonition – is one of the least helpful things a person can say. "Don't worry." Does it really help you to stop worrying when someone says to you, "Don't worry"? I remember a time when our income was stretched real thin and the car needed repaired and I had no idea how we were going to pay for it. I fretted about that. And people told me not to worry and told me to cheer up and it didn't help a bit. Not a bit. I don't remember how we paid for it – but eventually we did and everything worked out. But telling me not to worry didn't get me to stop worrying.
Fortunately, Paul says a little more than that, and this is what can help. He doesn't just say, "Don't worry," but tells us why not to worry. And then he gives us something else to do instead of worry. The reason not to worry is "the Lord is near." The Lord has made the cosmos, the land and seas are bountiful: there is plenty to eat and plenty of shelter. True, our distribution system can be quite poor, leaving lots of people sleeping under bridges and wondering where to find their next meal. When we learn to trust the Lord, and to ask for what we need, then the assurance is we will find it. The people of God will respond to those who ask for help, and so we learn that we will receive what we need when we ask for it.
Those rare instances in my life that I didn't receive what I needed were times I didn't ask. Since I've never missed a meal, except by choice, nor ever been without shelter, I can speak only about missing emotional and spiritual needs. Yes, as I think about it, the times I haven't felt that I was getting all I needed for basic life maintenance, well, I wasn't asking – either of God or of the people of God. Paul does not merely say, "Don't worry;" he adds, "Ask for what you need."
You may have found that it is pointless to be told not to think about something. Whatever you do, please do not think about kangaroos right now. I know what you just thought about. It can make you crazy to have people just say to you, "Don't worry." Well, if I'm not worrying, what am I supposed to think about?
"Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." That's a lot to occupy your mind. I can't help but go with the analogy of food choices, since it's what I know. It's pointless to decide, "I'm not eating that anymore." Just to eliminate something doesn't help. Instead, I need to replace it with something. If I have a food that I just dare not eat, then I look for an acceptable substitute. I suspect the same is true of other substances that we struggle with: tobacco, alcohol, online addictions, and so forth. Don't just eliminate, but replace with something that's helpful. It was pointed out to me that it's important that the substitute not become another addiction.
A similar dynamic is true of our thoughts. "Stop thinking about next month's bill." That's useless advice. "Here, let me suggest some things to think about instead." "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."
I can think of very little more worthy of praise than the works of our loving and faithful God. There's a lot for you to think of, right there. Think about the time that Jerusalem was under siege and the people were frightened and hungry and ready to give up, and the prophet Isaiah told them to hang on, everything would be alright, and then a disease attacked the besieging army. Those who survived abandoned the siege and went home, and the people were saved (II Kings 19). Or think about the time a paralyzed man was helped into the presence of Jesus by his friends and Jesus, touched by their faith, healed him (Mark 2:1-12). Your spiritual exercise for this week is to think of one or two ways you have seen God at work in your life, so you have something "worthy of praise" to think about.
Likewise for the rest of the list. I'm not going to go through it, because you can do that for yourself; you can come up with things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing and so forth to think about.
Well, I don't want to try to act like an amateur psychologist, so I'd better stop. To be free from the uncertainty of riches is to learn to trust God. Trust is learned by experience, your own experience and the experience of others. You and I learn to trust God as we think helpfully: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church