3/2/2014 Do Not Be Afraid!

Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany (Ordinary Time)
Isaiah 49:8–16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1–5; Matthew 6:24–34

From the ForeWords archives in 2011:
Anyone who has ever worked as a copy editor will probably testify to the same life-changing character trait: even minor grammar and vocabulary errors annoy the heck out of us. One of my own happens whenever someone uses the word “anxious” when what they really mean is “eager.” I don’t pretend this is an earth-shattering issue, but it’s part of who I am.

Granted, my own fairly thick Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary slips in “eager” as a synonym for the third alternative meaning for “anxious” but even then it appears to reserve it for rare cases (as an adverb, no less). I take that as guidance to stick with the first two meanings, unless extreme measures are warranted. (Hey, I’ve already warned you copy editors can be peculiar folks, so just keep that in mind. I could go on and on about the use of “since” when “because” is a far better choice, but that will have to wait for another day and blog posting. Be warned.)

Word choice matters–and not just to copy editors. Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus addressing the question of anxiety and the kind of consuming hand-wringing that detracts from more important matters:

“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?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. –Matthew 6:25-34 NRSV

My initial response to that is to be reminded of that great contemporary philosopher, Alfred E. Neuman, whose face has proven to be all-too-easily morphed into George W. Bush or Barack Obama (and that’s just for starters). There’s also that disgustingly memorable tune by Bobby McFerrin from 1988: “Don’t worry. Be happy!” It’s cute–at first–but just try to get that tune out of your head once it’s firmly planted inside.

On the other hand, I can’t ignore my childhood upbringing (and I suspect yours, too) and the way a fable attributed to Aesop was drilled into my consciousness and the paramount need to be like the sensible ant and not the carefree grasshopper. And, too, I somehow rose to the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America, so being prepared at all times has been a guiding force. So that leaves me with the obvious question at this point: Is Jesus playing the dual role of Alfred E. Neuman and Bobby McFerrin and advising us to be more like the grasshopper? Or would it be better to turn to the Hebrew Scriptures and the Book of Proverbs:

“Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-9).

No, I’m not going there. It’s a false choice.

To better understand Jesus’ words we need to return to the verse immediately preceding the above-quoted passage in Matthew: “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.” The real issue here is whether we choose to devote our life to accumulating earthly wealth (obviously what empowers the “kingdoms of this world”) or to heavenly wealth (what empowers the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven”). It can’t be both.

Now, Aesop and the writer of Proverbs were both right: It’s good to be like that ant–careful, wise, frugal, prepared. Put this fable in the New Testament and the ant would be described as a wise steward. It’s just that we get the issue wrong, for it’s not about being either careful or carefree. There’s a time for both, certainly. It’s more about whether we are driven by the need to acquire more and more of the limited (therefore scarce) resources of this world or the unlimited, abundant resources available from God.

Scarcity inevitably creates a sense of fear (What’s going to happen to me if I don’t have enough?). In turn that will lead us to be devoted to those who will, or at least promise to, protect us. On the other hand, abundance produces freedom.

The trouble we face is that virtually everything about our secular world is undergirded by scarcity. We need look no further than the current budget-slashing steamrollers in both state and national capitals right now. And because nobody wants to even raise the topic of increasing revenues, the conversation becomes solely about cutting spending, reducing deficits, eliminating social programs–without much concern for who’s going to get hurt as a result. That’s classic scarcity thinking (well, I’m a bit hesitant to call it “thinking” but I can’t quite find another word to put in there at the moment).

Christians traditionally have uttered this basic faith statement in worship: Christ has come. Christ will come again. In the meantime we exist in between those two spiritual realities. Therefore, it could be said that we are here because God wants us here. And if God wants us here then the choice of whom we will serve should be a simple one. Simple, yes, but often not easy. For there are utility bills to pay, mouths to feed, bodies to clothe, human beings who need shelter.

Many, maybe most of us are getting all that done for ourselves and our families. However, we need not look far to find others who have little food to eat, clothes to keep them warm, a roof over their head, or comfort from the fear that is always stalking them. Remember the words of the prophet Isaiah that all our names have been inscribed on God’s hands (Isa. 49:16). If that be true, then our love, compassion, and responsibility for all God’s children must be as abundant as God’s love, as well.

Thanks be to God.

What-was-Paul-Thinking-beachmed-200x300My book, What Was Paul Thinking? (Isaac’s Press, 2010) is available at both Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com in print ($10) and e-book ($5.99) editions. If you’ve ever wondered just what Apostle Paul was getting at (and let’s face it, Paul can be hard to understand and appreciate at times) this is a good place to start.

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About Rich Brown

Rich Brown is a writer, blogger, editor, and publisher. His most recent book is "Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile" (Isaac's Press).
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