Sermons That Work

One of the Most Moving…, Proper 14 (C) – 2004

August 08, 2004

One of the most moving parts of the vocational life of a priest is the sacred privilege and honor of listening to the cares, joys, and concerns in people’s lives. Nothing can compare to the extremes that a priest experiences in performing this sacred act of listening: tremendous highs and the lowest of lows. It is interesting to weigh what emotion or feeling the priest feels most keenly as he or she “listens.” Of all of the various expressed emotions, one seems to be at the root of so much that we live with and struggle with in this life. That emotion is fear.

The actual issue seems to matter little. And it is most often not expressed on the front end, at the beginning of what the person has to say. In fact, it is often even unknown to those that are expressing it. And yet it is there, in so many issues of life, so many times a day. Fear.

And that is what the readings are about today: fear. So much of our existence can be somehow brought into focus by asking the question, “What are you afraid of?”

Fear begins or enters in, when we realize that much in life does not make sense. It seems irrational and so we don’t know what to do with it, and whenever we don’t know what to do with something, we have some fear.

Our fear often remains hidden. We become good at that. If it is not hidden, it comes out of us in ways we, and those around us, rarely understand. Fear is certainly a prime motivator during this time of terrorism and of war. Many of our decisions are based on this emotion, an emotion that is often neither very rational, nor trustworthy.

All of these passages today are about this. Jesus was so adept at this that he says it many times, in many different places. “Be not afraid.”

For a community like Luke’s, that has now experienced the keen awareness that Jesus just may not return as soon as first thought, these words of Jesus, echoed from the past, were much needed words, comforting words, “do not be afraid.”

Jesus uses a group word, a community word, “flock,” which goes with much of his shepherd imagery. It is purposely not an individual word, “be not afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

It is yet another way that Jesus was making clear the great importance of the community, of each other, together in the journey. And this is not always easy. It too, can be fraught with fear.

We fear things, people, ideas, time, love, and even the night. For instance, it is one thing for a community to embrace a new prison ministry, and totally another to welcome a prisoner into their community, to not have them at a distance but living among them.

We often fear that which we cannot change, and then, ironically, we fear change.

All of this must make one wonder again, about living in a world where people are even afraid of letting people love them and often equally afraid of loving others. We are often so afraid that we batten down the hatches, literally and figuratively. We hide behind our locked doors in a world where it is easier to talk to someone by e-mail in Italy, then it is to walk next door and meet your neighbor.

What are we afraid of? So often, we are afraid this could be us. We are afraid that we just might be that fearful person, not quite paralyzed by it, but certainly far from liberated. And yet we don’t want to face that. We are afraid that we might have it in us to be or do what we most want to avoid. We are afraid of something different, that our lives may not be the same. And as strange as it is, we think, even if it is a better life, we are still afraid of it.

Sometimes, and more often than we are aware or want to admit, we don’t think we deserve it, or are worthy of whatever it is of God’s blessings that are coming our way. We just don’t believe those words, “be not afraid little flock, for it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you his kingdom.” It just seems difficult to trust that. In short, we are afraid, even of that!

Jesus more or less says, “I’ll give you the kingdom, but you will need to give me everything else.” Did he mean lay it on the street corner and walk away? Well, in some instances yes, but most likely no. The whole idea of where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, is the rearranging of priorities. Just where is Jesus and the kingdom in those priorities? That is certainly something we are afraid of, to look seriously at that question. If we live in the fear of our own future as a community, of the numbers, whether they be dollars or people, we will become subject to that fear. That is true of anything in our lives. If we can answer that question: “what are we afraid of?” then we can see what also has tremendous power over us.

Of course, in some cases fear is quite good. The fear of heights keeps us away from falling off tall buildings; the fear of fire keeps us safe when we encounter it. Alternately, the fear of scarcity, keeps us from thinking big, and risking for the kingdom.

It is, however, also possible for fear to drive us to rather bizarre extremes. For instance, if the fear of heights makes us stay in one place, or to never leave the house because we might encounter a tall building. Or if we can’t go camping because someone might start a campfire to cook; this is a bit extreme, and it now is driving us to live life in an untenable way. And if our fear of scarcity rules us, makes us believe we can’t do things; we are now driven by a reality that is only a perception. You see, this could well lead us to agree with those that say, they are tired of churches saying what they cannot do. If you look deep enough, what we are fearful of admitting is that we are only limited by our choices. In other words, it is not that we can’t, it is that we choose not to. And so, an almost nonexistent threat now rules our lives.

This is how fear rules us. When Jesus says, “do not be afraid,” it is likely that he was plenty smart enough to know we would be. He also was plenty smart enough to know that to rule something out of your life, you must know you have it in your life in the first place. We are convicted by the reality of our fear of scarcity every time we hear those words: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We are so afraid of this that we don’t even want to look at it, or we reinterpret it in some really creative and self-serving ways, ways that make common sense, because, we are about common sense. We are common sense people.

Abundance does not seem plausible, so we are afraid. We’ve been trained that way. But, what are we afraid of? If we would really delve into that question, really look at it, more often as individuals and especially as a people, we would serve ourselves well.

Because, sometimes our fears actually teach us something, make the scales fall from our eyes as we see the things we idolize; our health, our wealth, our status, and by so doing helps us to find life and experience life as never before, and in a richer way than ever before. That is the trust, the faith that is described in Hebrews and in Luke today. It really gets at what we fear about Scripture, about this guy named Jesus. Because one fear we have, a real one, is that the Gospel is usually bad news before it is good news. We have to travel through both realities.

The things we fear can teach us. But, as in all things, we can’t get well, until we know and admit our affliction.

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Christopher Sikkema


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