Fear, Love and Trust
Luther famously said there is no such thing as an atheist. Everyone has a god they worship, a master they serve, for whatever or whoever you put your trust in is your god. By this he meant that we all have something that gets us out of bed in the morning, that makes life worth living for. Whoever you put your ultimate trust in is your master and your god, whether it’s money, success, Joel Osteen or God. Choose carefully, though. You do want a trustworthy god that does not leave you at the altar.
The Gospel lesson today is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and these words are targeted first and foremost for his own disciples. Remember, they had all given up their livelihoods, their possessions, to follow Jesus into a life of essentially poverty. Understandably, sometimes their faith must have lagged when they thought about the good old days when they had material wealth and comfort. But they’re not alone. Human beings are prone to making gods of them, and it’s not just the materially blessed, either. Those of modest means can worship money and possessions just as much as the 1% as they covet these things from a distance. It is abundantly clear in scripture that money and possessions are the greatest competitor for the title of “God” in our lives, and it’s not even close. In fact, money is the most frequently mentioned subject in the Bible, which means it is a deeply spiritual subject. Biblically, money and possessions are treated synonymously, by the way. The word “mammon” means both money and possessions. So, what we do with our money is spiritual and theological in a big way! It is an area where we regularly get our gods mixed up.
Luther wrote that as our true god, we are to “fear, love and trust” God above all things. So, do we fear money? We fear not having money. For Luther and in the Bible, fear means “respect, a very reverent respect.” Notice the reverent respect we have in our culture for money and financial worth, which creates kind of taboo of sorts. For instance, how often do you hear people ask at parties, “So, how much money do you make?” or, “Some of us were just wondering, Bob, what’s your personal financial worth?” Never! We know in our culture that you don’t ever ask such a thing! When you think about it, it’s not terribly personal information – after all, it’s just numbers. Yet these numbers somehow measure more than just dollars, but our worth as a person, or our shame.
I’m not the first one to point out that this is a sign of money’s sacred status. And as something sacred, is it shrouded in secrecy as though it were the holiest of holies. And the more secret it is, the less chance our money has of being properly ordered in life. We do indeed “fear” money, make it holy, in the sense Luther and scripture meant it.
Do we love money? I do! Don’t ask me why I’m a pastor. I guess I’m conflicted. Anybody else love money? It’s OK, we’re among friends. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Ever heard of church stewardship campaigns that refer to “time, treasure, talents”? Think about it, even in the church we refer to money as our treasure! And if that’s the case, that’s where our hearts are. Yeah, we love money. But should we love things that can’t love us back?
And what about trust? If you serve money, or material wealth, or success, or power, or pleasure, do you notice something about all these things? They’re things, they’re concepts. We may trust them, but are they trustworthy? A Mustang convertible can probably be trusted to get you from point A to B, but can it be trusted to make your life worth living – to save you from sin, death and the power of evil? Not the last time I checked, but I haven’t seen the latest commericals.
Your success in your line of work, whatever it is, can probably be trusted to provide a paycheck for now, maybe open a few doors for you. But can it be trusted to make you whole as a person? Of course not.
The kind of trust Luther is talking about, where someone is your master, your “god,” requires two things. Then, and only then, can someone be worthy of your ultimate trust. First, that someone or something has to be capable of giving you what you need to be whole, and second, that someone has to have the character such that they warrant our trust, and are therefore trustworthy. A tall order.
When considered for ultimate trust – whether it’s money, things or concepts – there can be no trust here. For starters, these things cannot deliver to you what is necessary: a meaningful life, the defeat of sin and brokenness, a victory over death. But neither are they trustworthy, for the simple reason that things or concepts don’t care about you. Our money can’t love us the way we may love our money. And so, we will worry, because the things we value most, we cannot trust, either for what they can deliver OR for being trustworthy.
Oh, but maybe none of these things that seduce us are the real master. The truth is, we probably know that we can’t trust money or success as a god, but maybe our trust ends up being in the one who can put us in a position to achieve them – namely, me!
So, let me ask you this: how much can you trust in yourself to deliver on these things? How much can we depend on ourselves to be our own god? No wonder we’re worried! We should be!
If we trust God, we can rest assured that just as he clothes the lilies of the field with beauty, he will do the same with us. He will provide for the whole of our life and its destiny, not just food and clothing. This then is the basis for an entirely different way of living.
In dwelling in this passage this past week with some of you, one question people had was how can you just not worry, relax and do nothing, expecting God to provide? Well, Jesus never said do nothing, just don’t worry about it. Trusting in God doesn’t mean you won’t have a certain stress level making sure you’ve completed your assignments at work or school, run the errands necessary to connect the dots in your life, and tried to be a good friend, neighbor and family member. Life’s many demands require us to be efficient and use our gifts, not sit around and wait for God to make things happen for us. In fact, we’re called by God to act in these ways.
It’s been said that as Christians, we should pray like everything depends on God and live like everything depends on us. Now, there’s some truth to this. But a better version is this: Pray like everything depends on God, and live like everything depends not on you, but on God and you working together. Indeed, God’s MO in this world is to accomplish God’s will through people, so use your gifts, get up off the couch, you and God are partners!
And as you work together, trust that you are in the hands of a loving God who is trustworthy, who knows what you need better than you do.
That said, we all want to be realistic, and we all know that no matter how much we believe and no matter how loving God is, there are sparrows that fall from the sky, there are people who starve to death and some who face terminal cancer. What do we do with these realities?
First of all, we all have a very important calling as human beings to be God’s representatives on earth and take care of the earth and the people and living in it. So if someone starves to death, there’s a real strong chance it’s because human beings were negligent or uncaring. This doesn’t mean God is not trustworthy. It means God is self-limiting and entrusts the message of love and stewardship of the planet to we, the ones made in God’s image.
So, before blaming God for everything, we ought to look in the mirror as individuals and as a human race. Then get to work to be better partners with God in co-creating a more trustworthy world.
In the meantime, we are invited to consider the words of Jesus today. Trust, that even when things don’t go your way and there are basic things you are lacking and it’s painful, even then, trust that in the broader scheme of things, God is taking care of you. You will have what you need for the present. Restoration will come to you, if not completely in this life, in the next. The verses we read today must be read in the context not merely of this life, but of God’s promised future that extends into eternity.
Because this God is the real deal, complete wholeness and restoration can be accomplished with us. Because this God is trustworthy, we can count on God’s promise that our restoration will come to pass.
So we live in the tension between the now and the not yet. And as we do, Jesus invites us to consider how much God blesses us each day because God cares about us. And as we learn to trust in the providence of God for today and for the future, we will learn to worry less.
What does this have to do with stewardship? One who is grateful and trusting in God, worries less about oneself and more about others. This is the very wellspring of a generous heart. Amen.