August 7, 2016
Proper 19 Year C
Donna G. Joy
My brothers and sisters I come to you in the name of the Christ…And more specifically, I come to you with good news and bad news…
Bad news: Terry Hidichuk, who was scheduled to preach this morning, hit a pot hole while riding his bike, and has broken his arm. He is recovering at home, but with the extreme pain along with medications for the pain he was unable to preach.
Good news: As the one who is filling in for him in his absence, I had much less time than usual to prepare, so what I have to share with you is a bit briefer than what is usual for me.
Those of you who have heard Terry preach will know that, (a) he is a very good preacher, and while you may be missing him here today, no one is missing him more than me… and (b) since he always begins his sermons with the words, “My brothers and sisters I come to you in the name of the Christ…” I thought that since you were missing out on one of his sermons, I would at least offer you his salutation.
Now, that said, as I began to take a closer look at our Gospel for this morning, I quickly realized that I actually have another piece of good news to offer you this morning.
Other than the good news of a slightly shorter sermon, I can also share the good news that the God we worship – through the wisdom of the Christ – has promised that we need not be afraid. And this insight immediately led me into remembering a hugely significant Canadian who died last month, and whose whole life embodied this message of fearlessness and peace.
I am referring here to Dr. Ursula Franklin, a pioneering engineer, teacher, researcher, feminist and Quaker; she died at the age of 94. In her 1987 paper, Reflections on Theology and Peace, Franklin contended that "peace is not the absence of war - peace is the absence of fear." She went on to say that fear of war and violence is not the only kind of fear that destroys peace. She included fears that rise, for example, from economic insecurity, unemployment and the lack of adequate shelter.
Franklin pointed to what she calls "the threat system" which manages people by instilling fear and uncertainty at all levels of society. For Franklin, social justice is the essential element needed to banish fear and bring peace. Justice means freedom from oppression, but it also implies equality for all.
"In God's eyes," she writes, "all creatures have value and are subjects of equal care and love; similarly, in a society of justice and peace, all people matter equally."
So, with this in mind, when I read our Gospel text this week, I found myself focusing on the piece where Jesus urges his listeners to NOT be afraid. He says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In other words, so matter how difficult things may be, the God of the universe takes great pleasure in always being with you, even so far as building the kingdom – even in the midst of the terrors that we all know exist.
Indeed, there is much that we can easily choose to fear in our world today: terrorism; war; the economy; global warming; unemployment, hunger, poverty, homelessness; disease and death. It is impossible to avoid the temptation to be consumed by fear. Even if we never leave our homes, where newscasters proclaim the bad news from studio sets, texts crawl at the bottom of television screens, information updates flash in Web browsers, and spam e-mails announce that we are doomed if we do not buy the right products immediately. And as the icing on the cake, all you have to do is listen to a Donald Trump stump speech and you KNOW your future is dark and deadly unless his fellow Americans elect him as president.
And in the midst of all this, Jesus says, "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
Did Jesus really say that?
In the face of all the calamity and chaos that was in his world as well as that which exists in our world today, is that really what God said to us through Jesus?
Yes. I believe it is.
And it's a strong reminder that – as a people of faith - fear does not have the last word. Not in God's world. Not now and not ever. "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
This is not a God who, after creating the universe, sits back and dispassionately watches it all unfold. This is a God who – through Jesus – has come to actually dwell among us. A God who is always present; always attentive. This is a God who cares, deeply, about every little, tiny gift of life. And all we have to do to discover this true gift of peace and fearlessness, is to – ourselves – be attentive to the gift of his presence.
The first century church would have filtered this message through the understanding of the Perousia… that is Christ’s return. They knew, only too well, that he had come and been with them, taught them, ministered to and among them, died for them, risen from the grave, and ascended (and with that ascension, became absorbed into the whole of the universe – to dwell within every living organism – and yes, to dwell within each and every one of us…)
So, on the one hand, he remains with us – absolutely… And yet, at the same time, as the first century church was only too aware, we also remain a people in waiting; a people who wait for him to come again, in a new way, not yet realized….
And that is the other piece that lies at the heart of this morning’s text… "Be ready so that you will receive blessing." After all, those who are ready when the master returns will be the recipients of a heavenly feast. In theological terms, God's promise to always be with us enables a response that runs contrary to the human propensity to be afraid; a response that challenges the tendency to hold on to what one has, in order to protect against what might happen.
Because, here’s the thing. To buy into a culture that is grounded in fear – dependent on fear - automatically leads us into a way of live that is inwardly focused… self protective… anti community… But this Gospel passage equates fearlessness with letting go…“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom…” And what comes immediately after that sentence? Indeed, “Sell your possessions, and support those who are poor…”
The passage challenges us with a simple test: Do we want to live lives of taking, or do we want to live lives of giving? The answer we give reveals the truth of our hearts and opens (or closes) us to the blessings that God is prepared to give. And when we live lives of giving the blessings offered are known most fully by those who are no longer afraid of potential danger, darkness, and death.
Human sinfulness encourages us to believe that giving, instead of taking, will lead to destitution, deprivation, and desperation. The gospel, however, promises, that giving from what we have will make us mindful of the God of blessing, and ready to receive the gifts that God offers.
One commentator said of this passage, "The less we want to have, the less we need to have. This fact is itself one of the blessings God offers, with compound interest. The less we need to have, the less we need to fear. The less we need to fear, the more we know that a life of giving allows us always to live, not on the brink of destruction, but on the brink of blessing, where we can more readily hear the promise that the "Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour," desiring not to punish but to bless."
"Do not be afraid, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." And that is the blessing which is ours to claim.