“If I Fast From Fearful Thoughts, What Will I Have to Think About?”
Lectionary Reflection on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Heb 11:1-3; 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
All three lectionary texts have something to say about fear and anxiety.
The vision that came to Isaiah in the days of days of several kings of Judah after whom modern day parents do not name their children (Uzziah, Jothan, Ahaz and Hezekiah) was that the people were afraid of the wrong things. They were obsessing about proper sacrifices while sacrificing the wellbeing of the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. “Trample my courts no more.” What an eloquent imperative!
The prophet tells the people to wash themselves and make themselves clean, to remove the evil of their doings, to cease to do evil and learn to do good. The passage is not talking about giving up anxiety so we can trust God and prosper in our health, relationships and career. It is talking about giving up the kind of anxiety that focuses on perfection in things that don’t ultimately matter while turning a blind eye to the reality of suffering of those around us, to the ways we may be complicit with institutions and systems that collaborate in their oppression. Start being afraid, start being anxious, not about new moons and solemn assemblies, but about injustice.
The Hebrews passage says nothing at all about fear and anxiety. It only speaks of faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for. Faith looks forward, not backward. People of faith (like Abraham and Sarah) trust the promises of God, even when they have not yet been fully revealed to them. “If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.” (Hebrews 11:15) That reminds me of the Israelites yearning for a return to Egypt at the first sign of hardship in the wilderness. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3) Hebrews warns us to keep our eyes on the promised heavenly country God has prepared for us even when the present is shrouded in uncertainty. (Hebrews 11:16)
Our passage from Luke’s gospel starts out by telling us not to be afraid. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (12:32) It continues to exhort us to makes treasures for ourselves that no thief or moth can steal or destroy, treasures in heaven. Then comes a hypothetical scenario about the blessedness of the servants who are dressed and ready for action with their lamps lit when their master returns. In the scenario, the master is so pleased with their readiness that he has them sit down and he serves them. It closes with an obvious statement, that if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.
Every text is sandwiched between what comes right before and what comes directly after. What comes before and after clarifies the text in the middle. This one comes after Jesus’ teachings about not being anxious, but rather, focusing on God kingdom, assured that, when we do, all our needs will be met. It comes before the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants in verses 41 through 48. So to be a faithful servant means to focus on God’s kingdom and to allow one’s fears to melt away. That sounds reasonable. Yeah, let’s just do that. That is how we make indestructible treasures for ourselves and making them is what the master should find us doing when he returns. It is how we stay ready for his imminent arrival.
The problem is that we like being afraid and anxious. We almost need to be afraid and anxious. I lead a weekly prayer group of seminary students every year. Last year at Lent we were doing a unit on fasting. Since some of the class had health issues that made fasting problematic, I assigned them (and myself) the task of fasting from anxious thoughts for a week. One student raised her hand and asked, “Dr. McKenzie, if we fast from anxious thoughts, what else will we have to think about?” Everyone laughed nervously. She looked embarrassed because she hadn’t been kidding.
Fasting from anxious thoughts is unthinkable. Because we believe that if we don’t maintain our defenses, if we don’t keep anxiety patrolling the perimeters of our thoughts and lives , something bad will surely happen. It’s like carrying an umbrella so it won’t rain. The deepest faith many of us have is faith in our fears. And I don’t mean the fear of the Lord (the deep awe and reverence for God) that the Bible tells us repeatedly is the beginning of wisdom. I mean the faith that, as long as we are anxious, chaos will be kept at bay from our personal cosmos. I mean the faith that our anxiety forms a protective shield around our life. It results in the fear that, if I feel a moment of peace, it must be because there is something I’ve overlooked.
This passage from Luke tells us not to be afraid, but that doesn’t mean we are to be inactive. We are to be dressed for action, to have our lamps lit, to be prepared for the return of the master, to make purses for ourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven no thief can steal, no moth consume (12:33).
We are all wrong about fear. We think it is our protective shield. But fear is the thief. When we dwell on our fears, they become our treasures. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” 12:35. Faith is the genuine treasure we are to be accumulating, but we get it backwards when our fears fill our hearts and faith cannot gain entrance. The bad news is that we are householders whose homes are threatened by the fear that has come to steal our faith. The good news is that we do know when the thief is coming. The thief is at the door now. The thief is fear and anxiety. How can we keep our house of faith from being broken into by fear? Jesus tells us that if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. He is promising us the resources to keep fear from stealing our faith. He is promising to turn the tables and to empower our faith to steal our treasure trove of fear.
My doctor, who is Hindu, told me at my last checkup, as we were talking about the stress of modern life, “Live in the past and you will be depressed. Live in the future and you will be anxious. Live in the present with gratitude and you will be at peace.” From our Christian perspective the message is that that we need to be preoccupied, but not with fear and anxiety. We need to be preoccupied in the present with faith in God’s future.
Whenever our family orders takeout Chinese food, I collect everybody’s fortunes from their cookies and I tape my favorites to my computer. When I get tired of them, I take them down and put up new ones. We all need hobbies. The two that are up now from last week are:
“An unexpected event will bring you wealth,” and
“If you put up with small annoyances you will gain great results.”
I can’t testify to the truth of either at the moment: only time will tell whether they are false prophecies or true ones.
But, move over fear and anxiety, because here are some prophecies more reliable that fortune cookie fortunes. Here are prophecies we know to be true. They will leave no room for fear in our hearts and communities:
Strive for God’s kingdom and these things (food, drink, clothing will be given to you as well.”(Luke 12:31)
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. “ (Luke 12:32)
Alyce M. McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas