23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 9, 2018

Recently, I read a very funny account of a man’s annual visit to his primary care physician. The man appeared at the appointed time and was handed a clipboard of forms to complete. The forms asked him to verify his name, address, and insurance information. Then, the forms listed numerous symptoms and physical complaints; the man was asked to check all that applied.

Reading down the list of symptoms, he grew increasingly anxious. Some of the symptoms were obviously not problems for him (pregnancy, for example). Some of the symptoms sounded like indicators of rare diseases (tingling in the extremities), and others sounded like routine experiences for a man his age (difficulty concentrating). Reading the list of possible symptoms caused some of the symptoms to occur (seeming to have less fun). By the time he reached the end of the list of symptoms, he was very worried that he might have any number of serious medical conditions (ABCD Syndrome – it’s a real thing, google it).

Reflecting on his experience, the man decided that the biggest health issue he faced was not physical but spiritual. He came to the realization that he had become entrapped in a way of thinking that led inevitably to worry and fear. We live in a world that gorges on a steady diet of anxiety. Nations are anxious, national leaders are motivated by personal concerns, corporations are driven by worry, and individuals absorb the whole spectrum of fear generated by all those around them.

If fear had a monetary value, every person on the planet would be fabulously wealthy. There is no monetary value to fear, however; nor is there any real benefit to it. The fearful will argue vehemently about the validity of all their fears, but their arguments are based only on the fears they feel obliged to justify. As in the case of justifying a violent response to a violent provocation, the circular logic of fear is compelling but completely fallacious.

A couple of weeks ago, I described three good reasons to go to church. Today, I’d like to add a fourth: the faithful and hopeful message that the Scriptures proclaim. We live in a world that gorges on fear and anxiety, despite the fact that these forms of spiritual nourishment poison the soul. The Scriptures proclaim a redeeming alternative to living in constant fear of our fears.

In today’s first reading, God instructs the prophet Isaiah, “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.” (Isa. 35:4)

Life in this world can be very complicated, but there are a few simple truths that govern every person’s life. One of those simple truths is that faith and fear are mutually exclusive commitments. This reason for this dichotomy is simple: faith (or fear), is the result of a person’s choice. Very often, we have no choice about world events; we always have a choice, however, about our responses to events in our lives.

One of the very good things that regular church attendance can bring to your life is a regular reminder that it’s not necessary to be carried passively along by the tide of fear and worry in the world.

If you are disappointed by your family or friends, if you feel threatened by world events, if you are anxious about money, if you are distressed by your weaknesses and failings – welcome to the world estranged from God. Good and/or evil in a person’s life has very little to do with the presence, variety, or intensity of good and/or evil influences around that person; rather, a person’s goodness, or lack thereof, is determined primarily by the person’s response to what goes on around that person. With regard to the destructive presence of worry and fear in one’s life, one’s well-being is less a function of the number of fear-inducing factors in one’s life and more a function of how one chooses to react to them. The saving response to fear is expressed in God’s words of encouragement, “Fear not!” (Isa. 35:4)

If you don’t want fear and anxiety to run and ruin your life, you can choose to view the world differently: you can choose to view the world as the place where the faithful await God’s vindication. Fear is the hallmark of the unredeemed world; faith is the alternative that God offers to a world suffering from self-inflicted mortal wounds.

I realize that my words above will sound like utter nonsense to those of you whose lives are ruled by worry and fear; this is true because worry and fear are self-fulfilling prophecies. If, however, you would like an alternative to the burden of fear, try hearing Isaiah’s prophecy as also self-fulfilling (for those who trust). “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.” (Isa. 35:4) You’ll hear that message proclaimed only here!

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