What we can learn from Kalahari Bushmen and the father of John Wesley about anxiety, trusting God, and clinging to things
Homily for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
One night in 1709, close to midnight, a young girl, a daughter of an Anglican clergyman, was awakened by fire falling onto her bed from the roof, which was engulfed in flames. She ran into her parents’ room, and 15 minutes later the whole family stood watching with their neighbors as everything they owned—books, papers, furniture—went up in flames. One child, five years old, was snatched from the first just as the roof caved in.
It’s been reported that the clergyman’s first words were: “God’s house burned down, and that is one less thing for me to worry about.” That’s probably not historical, but here’s what it seems he actually said: “Come, neighbors, let us kneel down; let us give thanks to God! He has given me all my eight children; let the house go; I am rich enough.”
That story is remembered because the clergyman was Samuel Wesley and his five-year-old son was John Wesley, the cofounder of Methodism. But the spirit of Wesley’s response resonates with Jesus’ words to us in the Gospel today — and not only this Gospel, but the Gospel readings over the last six weeks as we’ve been marching through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Talking about what it means to be “poor in spirit,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Abandonment [or surrender] to the providence of the Father in heaven frees us from anxiety about tomorrow.” That’s just what Jesus tells us today: Why be anxious about tomorrow, what to eat or drink or wear? God knows we need these things! If we trust his providence, that is, the way that God works in and through all things for our good and his glory, then we have no cause for anxiety, which does no good anyway.
This is what it means to be “poor in spirit”: to put our faith in God rather than in money. To store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, where treasure doesn’t last anyway, as Jesus points out in another place in the Sermon on the Mount we haven’t read.
Don’t raise your hands: How many of you who were here five weeks ago when I preached on the Beatitudes went home and cracked open a Bible and read through the whole Sermon on the Mount, like I said? Remember, “Those who have never read the Sermon on the Mount cannot grasp what Christianity is all about.” Matthew chapters 5–7! Lent is coming. Go read it!
Trust in God or anxiety?
God’s word often presents us with either-or choices, stark alternatives: life or death, good or evil, hatred or love, arrogance or humility, immorality or holiness. Today Jesus tells us we must choose, first of all, between serving God and serving mammon, that is, money as an idol. But closely connected with that, he tells us we must choose between trust or confidence in God and anxiety. Anxiety is one of those things, along with immorality and arrogance and hatred, that we must turn away from in order to embrace God.
Now I’m not talking about people who have anxiety disorders. That’s not a moral issue. What Jesus is talking about in the Gospel isn’t a mental disorder, but a spiritual disorder to which almost all of us are prone. What will we eat or drink? What will we wear? Where will we live? Where will I work? What if I get laid off? What if I get sick?
Who will I sit with at lunch? Will I get into a good school? How will that be paid for? Will I ever get married? Will we ever get divorced? Will we be able to have kids? Will they get into good schools? Will they get in trouble? What will happen when I retire? Will my kids want to put in a retirement home? What will happen to my things when I die?
And the list goes on. An annual study of American fears over the past three years finds that our top fears include: government corruption; not having enough money for the future; people we love dying or becoming seriously ill; identity theft; and total collapse of the economy.
We live in anxious times. Maybe all times are anxious times, but some more than others. Some people surveyed said they were afraid of terrorist attacks; government restricting guns and ammunition; Obamacare; illegal immigration and demographic change — whites no longer being the majority in the United States.
Other people reported being afraid of police brutality; mass shootings; being unable to pay medical bills; environmental issues — global warming, pollution, species going extinct, overpopulation.
And of course the people who are afraid of these things and the people who are afraid of those things are also often afraid of one another.
Here at our parish, as a deacon, I can tell you that two issues people are concerned about — and that our bishops have spoken about in the last few weeks — are threats to religious liberty and immigration enforcement.
Many believers are anxious right now about threats to religious freedom: to the right to practice our faith and live our lives according to our beliefs without being punished by the state or banished from the public square.
Just this past week a number of U.S. bishops, chairmen of various USCCB committees — New York’s Cardinal Dolan of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput of the Committee on Laity, Baltimore’s Archbishop Lori of the Committee for Religious Liberty, and Venice, Florida’s Bishop Frank Dewane of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development — released a statement on religious liberty that says: “Over the last several years, to our great dismay, the federal government has eroded this fundamental right, our first and most cherished freedom.”
The bishops go to cite the Obamacare contraception mandate requiring all employers, even religious orders like the Little Sisters of the Poor, to provide contraception coverage to employees. And that’s just one threat among many to religious freedom in this country. So the bishops go on to urge the president to protect religious freedom and counter these threats.
Many are also anxious about current actions and policies from the federal government on immigration: “targeted enforcement actions,” “expedited removal” and so on. This is an issue that touches our parish as much as the first. Here again a number of our bishops, including our own Cardinal Tobin, have spoken out. A few weeks ago Cardinal Tobin wrote:
I understand the need for this nation to ensure safe and secure borders, and a safe environment for the people of this country. That is one of the roles of government. But I also understand that the church calls each of us to witness to the Gospel… Committing ourselves to welcoming and protecting immigrants and refugees transcends politics. Our Catholic faith teaches that we must assist the vulnerable and recognize the inherent human dignity of all – particularly those fleeing persecution.
It’s natural to be concerned about issues like these. But Jesus says: Have no anxiety about what God knows you need and what you can’t change by worrying anyway.
The monkey trap
Maybe you’ve heard about one way of capturing a monkey used by some indigenous peoples — the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert in southern Africa, for instance. Their method is to drill a hole in a giant termite mound that’s just the right size for a monkey’s hand and hollow out a space inside where they put seeds or whatever.
The money curiously reaches in and grabs the seeds, but now its fist is too big get out of the hole, and it panics and begins tugging frantically and screaming while the Bushman comes up and captures it. If only the monkey would let go of the seed — seed it can’t get out anyway — it could escape. But it doesn’t.
To have faith in God includes belief in God and in what he has revealed, but faith is more than belief. Faith is also trusting in God, relying on him, clinging to him. If we’re clinging to anything else, like that monkey with its fist in the Kalahari Bushman’s trap, then we’re not clinging to God. We’re not trusting in God. We’re not living by faith. And as long as we’re trapped in anxiety by the things we cling to, we’re vulnerable to the devil.
God wants to give us peace and contentment, whatever our circumstances and whatever may happen to us. But he can’t give us anything while we’re clinging to our anxieties, or the idols — money or whatever else — that we think will make us happy or solve our problems for us.
Trusting God means letting go of our anxieties, letting go of our illusion that we’re in control, and even if necessary letting go of whatever it is that we’re afraid we might lose. We must trust God with all the things we worry about, even if that means being willing to let them go.
“Let the house go, I am rich enough,” Wesley said as everything he owned went up in flames. He never could have said those words so easily if he were clinging to the house like the monkey in the trap — if he hadn’t long since let go of the house in his heart.
This is what it means to be poor in spirit: to recognize that nothing in this world ultimately belongs to us, that the Lord gives and Lord takes away, and blessed be the name of the Lord. Those words are easier to say than to live out — but in the end it’s much easier to live those words than to bear the burden of lifelong anxiety, not to mention resentment every time things go wrong or tragedy strikes.
Lent and letting go
This is part of the meaning of Lent and the common practice of giving things up — things we cling to, that we think we need, but often after six weeks we realize aren’t quite so indispensable in our lives as we thought they were. Let it go, whatever it is, for six weeks at least. We’re rich enough. Let the television go. Let the social media go. Let the alcohol or the caffeine or the sugar go. Let the meat go — certainly on Fridays, but maybe not just on Fridays. Think about it.
There is cause for concern — for religious liberty, for the welfare of refugees and immigrants, and many, many other things. But the Lord says: Be not afraid. Let go of all these things, stop clinging to your anxieties, and cling to the Lord, trust in him, have faith in him. Rest in God alone, my soul, as we sang in the responsorial psalm today.
If we cling to the Lord and nothing else, anxiety will have no power over us. What are we clinging to, you and I, that causes us anxiety, that keeps us from clinging to the Lord?
We have an image here of St. Pio, Padre Pio, who famously said “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.” Dare to trust in God and believe, in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich, that “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”
Note: This text of my homily corrects an error I made preaching it at St. John’s. In my opening anecdote I confused John Wesley and his father Samuel. I regret the error. — SDG