“Do Not Be Afraid” Lk 12:32-40
First, the Bad News. Missiles are in their silos. Vast militaries around the globe are armed and ready. Ebola is on the rise again, along with diseases like measles that we thought were eradicated. There is terrorism, both homegrown and international. There is an opioid crisis which emerges from the darkness of our time that makes people want to escape into drugs. There are refugees and immigrants greeted with hostility wherever they go. There is the poisoning and erosion of what we call the environment—a euphemism for the truth that what we are really poisoning is home, is here, is us.
Of course, the Church has its own darkness and demons, and I’m not just talking about child abuse scandals, though surely those too. The media often features religious crooks, kooks, and vaudevillians, saying they represent Christianity. And unfortunately, there are many churches so out of touch or closed in on themselves that we might wonder not only if the church will survive but if it even deserves to survive. As a character in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters puts it, “If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”
Now the Good News. It is into precisely this context the word of God comes to us this morning: “Have no fear little flock. Have no fear. The Father has chosen to give you the kingdom.” But we DO fear. Our world is sick with fear which alternately paralyzes us into inaction and causes us to act out in inappropriate ways. In this respect, we are not so different Abram in today’s lesson from Genesis. In today’s reading, Abram, the shining forefather of three of the world’s major religions is not standing strong, facing the future with confidence rooted in courage. Oh no. Abram is curled up in a fetal position in his tent, unable to cope with the strains of aging and hopelessness. And what is God’s word to him? “Do not be afraid.”
Does God not know, not see, how terrible and terrifying the world is? Does God not understand that when we step into movie theatres, concerts, shopping centers and even churches we are potentially in danger? Just this week I received a letter from our insurance company inviting us to host a seminar preparing our congregation for an active shooter situation. How do we respond? How do we pray about this?
I find it heartening that when God comes to Abram in the midst of his agony, Abram doesn’t shake off his misery and say, “You’re right, God. Nothing to fear here.” Oh no! Abram scolds God, accuses God is being entirely unreasonable and unrealistic! Abram reminds God that angels once announced that he and Sarah were going to have a son, but that—though he has children by various slave women—he still has none by his wife Sarah. Abram holds nothing back from God. He pours all his feelings and struggles, uncensored, into God’s lap. Abram models prayer for us, showing that we don’t have to be pious and organized in our prayers—being sassy, vulnerable, and brutally honest serves just as well.
God assures Abram that no matter what difficulties he and Sarai face, no matter how ridiculous and seemingly impossible they are, God will be there with them and will keep God’s promises, while never hinting that this faith journey would be easy. In fact, God mentions that some of Abram’s descendents would be strangers in a strange land, and some would be slaves. But God promises they will exist, shining like bright stars in the sky, and that God will accompany through everything. “Don’t be afraid.”
Jesus’ disciples knew this story about Abram and the stars. They were Abram’s descendents, and heard stories about their great forefather in faith from the time they were little. They knew that the Hebrew people–Abram’s children–had indeed been enslaved by Egypt, and they themselves were living in that moment under an occupying, oppressive government. They were terrified, fragile people, who were descendents of terrified, fragile people, just as we are. We too are encouraged to lean into God’s promises, trusting that God is bigger than our fears.
And yet, what does that mean about whether or not to have congregational training in case of gun violence? Part of me acknowledges that the vast majority of us are more likely to die of diabetes or stroke or heart disease or cancer or accidents than from a shooter in the sanctuary. Yet part of me thinks of the nine parishioners in Mother Emmanuel in Charleston, shot during Bible study, and of First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, TX, and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, where congregation members were shot during worship. Isn’t it better for us to be prepared just in case?
As Christians we profess that death and evil are not the greatest threats. They do not triumph in the end. Again and again, from Abram to the disciples to you and me, God tells people of faith not to be afraid—not even when there are legitimate reasons to fear. Is training our congregation for an active shooter really about saving lives, or is it caving in to the powerful and widespread fear lobby that tries to keep us anxious and on edge, turning us against one another, against other communities, races, religions, and nationalities? Fear of others is a deception that traumatizes, terrifies, and contributes to depression, anxiety and isolation. Fear of others creates a demand for more weapons and structures and product that PROFIT directly from fear. Has anyone seen advertisements for those bullet-proof school backpacks that cost $119?
If this congregation wants to prevent mass slaughter by active shooters, maybe what we should do instead of hosting a self-preservation program is take on the fight to turn military grade weapons into plowshares. Why not actively engage in advocating for a ban and recall of assault weapons? This action would be wider-reaching, longer-lasting, and more likely to reduce the frequency and possibility of gun massacres. Of course, such action would require more of us than passively listening to an instructor.
The truth of the matter is that we cannot prevent death, no matter what we do. Death will eventually come to us all, just as it came for Florence Cook last Sunday. In the face of that ultimate reality, God says, “Don’t be afraid. It is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom.” We are God’s own.
When Jesus calls God Father, he isn’t saying that God is a male parent. When Jesus calls God Father, he’s communicating to his disciples that God is one with the authority to bequeath land and property, someone who could grant to his children all his possessions and power, as well as his own name. Jesus is telling his followers here that God does not hoard that power, but is delighted to share everything with us. Even our name—Christians—shows that we belong to Jesus Christ.
So we can stand at the foot of the cross, or in the face of the shooter, because death is not our greatest enemy. We don’t live under its rule. We are children of God, citizens of God’s reign, members of God’s own household, alongside the “great cloud of witnesses” we heard about in the letter to the Hebrews. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Nothing. God is here right now, no matter how scared we are. God is with us this morning in bread and wine. God’s is sitting near you, within your siblings in faith–despite the fact that their faith may be just as humble and tenuous as yours. God’s presence is here in this Bible, our family book of faith stories. God’s presence permeates this place, saturates it, drenching us with goodness and mercy, forgiveness and hope. It is a treasure God delights in giving to us.
What are we going to do with this treasure? In some ways, we are doing it now–gathering to praise God, to share stories and the sacrament, to revel in the gift of being God’s family together. Jesus says that where our treasure is, our heart will be also, so it seems probable that the more we gather together to experience God’s love for us, the more we will find ourselves wanting to do so. The treasure will keep inviting us back, not because there is nothing to fear, but because love is more important than fear.
It is also true that we are called–as Sarai and Abram were called–to carry God’s promises to others. God’s grace is a treasure we cannot hoard. We have to leave this place, to share with others who hunger for bread and thirst for living water. Again, where our treasure is our hearts will follow, so if our treasure is God’s work (inside and outside these walls), the more we partner with God in it, the more joy we will find doing the work. By faith, the people of ULC went out, not knowing where they were to go, but only that God was leading them. And their faith was reckoned to them as righteousness. Have no fear, little flock. Your father has chosen to give you the kingdom.
Let us pray:
Lord God, you have called us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go forward in good courage, not knowing where we are to go, but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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