Where is your head right now?
I’m asking you to think about what you’ve been thinking about. How many of you are absolutely, perfectly focused on worship? That is, when we sang, all you thought about was the song; when you prayed, all you thought about was the prayer; when I started preaching, you were rooted in the giddy excitement you always feel when a sermon begins.
Conversely, how many of you know that in the last half-hour or so your minds have wandered off into the past or the future? Maybe you saw a friend and started thinking about the warm words you exchanged a few days ago. (Or maybe the opposite happened.) Maybe your stomach rumbled and you started wondering where you’ll go for lunch.
The human mind is a time-traveler. Our bodies are always in the present, but our minds jump into the future or the past at will. In fact, it is very difficult to keep our minds perfectly in the present.
That’s not necessarily a problem. I’m simply describing a fact regarding how our minds work. Both the past and our vision of the future help us to make critical decisions. I mentioned last week, however, that James tells us our words sometimes betray our failure to keep God central in our lives. That idea is the core of our Scripture reading today, in particular when we consider how we talk about the future.
Again, a little context helps. Last week, I mentioned James wrote his letter at a time when the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. It helps to know exactly who the rich were; basically there were two classes of rich.
The first class was the landed gentry, people who did little work but profited from vast tracts of land they had inherited. Like plantation owners in the Old South, they had very high status in society. They also were sometimes criticized for cheating the laborers who worked their fields.
The second class was made up of merchants, who in James’ day were often richer than the landed gentry, but of very low status.
James was not being critical of wealth, just as Jesus was never critical of wealth. Both warned, however, of the incredible distraction wealth or the pursuit of wealth can become. James took particular note of the merchants, running from city to city and planning years in advance, with no acknowledgment of their own mortality or need to rely on God.
Jesus told a parable found in Luke 12:13-21 along these lines, although his story was aimed more at the landed gentry. A rich landowner, pleased with his abundant crops, begins talking about the future as if he is in control. He’ll tear down his barns and build bigger ones, he thinks, store the excess, and then take it easy. Little does he know that death will come for him that night, and he will face the maker his riches were intended to serve.
An interesting side note: When the Jews rebelled and the Roman army responded by destroying Jerusalem in the year 70, the Jewish landed gentry were for all practical purposes wiped off the face of the earth. Both Jesus and James were being prophetic in their teachings.
There’s a simple, very true cliché that Jesus or James could have used: “You can’t take it with you.” And if you can’t take it with you, why would anyone who believes in God pursue wealth with disregard to God? As one Christian commentary notes, such an attitude is the “sin of arrogant presumption.”
Learn to think about the future in the right frame of mind—with the right attitude toward God— and your relationship with wealth and possessions can become much more healthy.
James helps us to achieve the right attitude by giving us another simple phrase to keep in mind, “If the Lord wishes,” as in, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” In the South, we might say, “Lord willin’, I’m gonna do that.”
Similar phrases serve almost as a mantra in other parts of the world. You may have heard that devout Muslims will use the phrase “Insha’Allah” before making plans or beginning events with an uncertain future. Translated, they are saying, “God willing.” Interestingly, it’s not just Muslims who use that phrase. Middle Eastern Christians, for example, Coptic Orthodox Christians, use the exact same phrase, taking James’ advice as they look to the future.
Using such a phrase doesn’t mean they or we are simply surrendering to fate, succumbing to the weak theological notion that God causes every tiny event, good or bad. What they and we are doing is remaining mindful that as followers of Christ, we should make all of our decisions conform with God’s will for this world.
This is where James’ lesson becomes freeing rather than restricting. First, we put our minds in the present, that place I call the precious present because it’s the one place everything is very clear and real. If you’re uncertain about God’s will, you can go to Scripture now to seek God’s truth. You can pray now, staying with God fully until you hear from God. We encounter God in the here and now, when we allow ourselves to do so.
Understanding God, we then can look to the future with a big-picture understanding of what we know God will do. That’s what James is doing when he talks about riches rotting and gold and silver rusting. It’s a metaphor for a time when riches are useless, when there is nothing left but the loving relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ. We may reach it at death; we may reach it when Christ returns. Regardless, the time is coming, and no form of wealth or material possession has a role to play.
When we get our heads around these ideas, it’s not hard to understand how we should handle possessions and wealth. Certainly, God sustains us in this life, giving us what we need. And where we find abundance, we’re called to ask ourselves how God is leading us to use those riches to grow his kingdom.
The concept of tithing, giving 10 percent of our income toward the church’s work to expand Christ’s kingdom, fits into all of this, of course. Tithing has nothing to do with church budgets. As I’ve said before, if Cassidy UMC had a million dollars in the bank, I would still encourage you to tithe because you need to maintain that connection between your financial resources and God’s work.
The same goes for how we allot our time. In particular, I become concerned when I see Christians delaying their involvement in Christ’s work, waiting for the day when the education is out of the way, when the career is where it’s supposed to be, when all is settled and the future seems clear. That day never really comes—one of my regrets is the time I wasted thinking in such ways.
If you’re an investment-oriented person, think of James’ teaching this way: What better return is there than the eternal reward we gain from faith in Christ? And even better, it’s a return we begin to see right away in the changes Christ makes in our hearts.