Sunday, August 11, 2019

Faith overcomes fear

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper  14-C
It’s strange, I know, but I collect fortunes. You know, the little paper sayings that come inside of cookies at Chinese restaurants. Every now and then one will come along and I will stick it in my wallet or pin it to my bulletin board.
Sometimes I will come across one that I've kept and wonder what possessed me to keep it in the first place. Surely it was not how to learn how to say “cat” in Chinese, or whatever. No, the little morel of wisdom must have spoken to me somehow.
One I found didn’t sound very Chinese, but it did sound a lot like Jesus. It says: "Your faith will overcome your fear." 
Today's Gospel lesson is also a collection. Not of fortunes, but of sayings of Jesus.
First, Jesus reminds us not to be afraid. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).  
Next, we he tells us to make treasure for ourselves in heaven where no thief can steal or moth destroy.
Then Jesus spins a scenario about the blessedness of servants who are dressed and whose lamps are lit so they can jump up the moment their master returns. How pleased is the master for their readiness? He is so pleased that he serves the servants dinner instead of the other way round!
Finally, Jesus tells us to be as watchful and as ready as a homeowner keeping an eye out for burglars.
So… add all these saying up and what do you get? Assurance of God’s blessings, encouragement to trust in God’s faithfulness, and the command to be alert for God.
This is most helpful, not to mention good news, for us distractible, afraid, and anxious people!
But you know how it goes. The more we are told to be patient, the more we fidget. The more we are told to relax, the more we pace. And whenever the sign on the wall says “wet paint”, the more we want to touch it.
And, I don’t know about you, but my readiness always backfires. Like when I carry an umbrella in my car, just in case it rains. So that when I am in the office and it starts to rain, I will get wet running to my car to get the umbrella!
I know I’m not alone when my faith works backwards. My fears often come first. And I don’t mean the fear of the Lord (the deep awe and reverence for God) that the Bible tells us repeatedly is the beginning of wisdom. I mean the anxiety that tries to keep at bay the chaos in our personal little cosmos. I mean the distorted faith forms a protective shield around our lives. I mean the sneaking feeling that takes that fleeting moment of peace and makes me worried that I’ve overlooked something.
Today’s passage from Luke reminds that Jesus tells us not to be afraid... but that doesn’t mean that we are to be inactive.
Don’t be afraid, and also be dressed for action! Don’t be anxious but keep your lamps lit. Trust in God and be prepared for the return of the master. Keep our valuables in a space that won’t wear out. Faith and grace, Jesus says, is an unfailing treasure that no thief can steal, and no moth can consume (12:33).
We are all wrong about fear. We think it is our protective shield. We might think it keeps us on our toes. But fear is, in fact, the thief. When we dwell on our fears, they become our treasures-- but it is counterfeit currency! Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (12:35). Faith is the genuine treasure we are to be accumulating, but we get it backwards when our fears fill our hearts and faith can’t get in.
This past week, we have witnessed and endured another spate of random violence. Thirty people were killed in just a few days in Mississippi,Texas, and Ohio. The violence this time was directed mainly at people of color by angry, and very fear-filled, white men with guns. In all the arguments about the second amendment this, and rights that, and amidst all the pontificating by politicians and pundits this past week, I have never once heard this question asked: “what the heck are we so afraid of?" 
What is so scary that we feel the need to arm ourselves to the teeth? Why are we so afraid? These (white) guys dressed in camos, body armor, and carrying weapons (even though they serve in no police or military force) think they look tough, but in fact they scared out of their wits. What is frightening them so much?
Well, there is the usual litany… immigrants, crime, strangers, economic uncertainty and race. And there is the added level that “they” (whoever “they” are) are coming to take our jobs, our homes, our security, our privilege and place in society. The truth is that when we dwell on our fears, when we focus what we think we are losing, it causes us to lead with our rage and that brings out the worst in us.

Today's Psalm talks about the scariest, most advanced technology of war yet known in that day: the horse-drawn chariot. I am sure that the Kings of the day longed for the mobility and seemingly unstoppable power that these offered. Yet, even the Psalmist knew, that the power they promised was a response to fear. Psalm 33: 16-18 says:

There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; *
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.
The horse is a vain hope for deliverance; *
for all its strength it cannot save.

Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, *
on those who wait upon his love,
Verse 18 reminds us that the antidote to the fearful accumulation of combat technology is to true\st in the Lord, who watches over those who only fear God and wait upon God's love.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that if we put our value in the wrong places, then we will know nothing but fear. So our fear is telling us something. Our need to carry around big guns and talk tough is telling us something. Our need to lock doors and distrust our neighbors who look or speak or dress differently that us is telling us something. It is telling us that our fear is running us and is out of control.
We are like Jesus’ householders whose homes are threatened. The thief is fear that has come to steal our faith. And we do know when the thief is coming. The thief is at the door right now. The thief is fear and anxiety. Leaders and celebrities who build themselves up by stirring up fear aid and abet those thieves. How can we keep our house of faith from being broken into by fear?
Jesus promises to turn the tables on fear and to empower our faith.
I heard of a Hindu physician who would talk about how to cope with the stress of modern life, “Live in the past and you will be depressed. Live in the future and you will be anxious. Live in the present with gratitude and you will be at peace.”
As we learn to pray and to turn even the most mundane, everyday chore into a prayer—not only a gift from God but a gift to God—then we find our orientation changing from fear and towards faith. From scarcity into abundance. From worry about the future to resting in a blessed present.
The rhythm of sacramental living—of Eucharistic community, daily prayer, and studying and meditating on God’s word together and alone—immerses us in God’s time, in God’s always unfolding present. Doing God’s work with God’s people, at home, at work, in worship, and among the poor, sick, and lonely, immerses in the community of God’s faithful and reminds us what’s important.
I'm not the only one who collects fortunes. The Rev. Dr. Alyce McKenzie, a United Methodist pastor and seminary professor does too. She talks about two fortunes and decided to keep. They said, “An unexpected event will bring you wealth;” and the other read, “If you put up with small annoyances you will gain great results.”
She wrote, "move over fear and anxiety, because here are some promises of Jesus that are more reliable than fortune cookie fortunes. These are promises that leave no room for fear: Strive for God’s kingdom and these things (food, drink, clothing) will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:31) and “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)"
This is not the first time that we've lived in a time of fear and anxiety. And it won't be the last. Some people try to meet their fear with fear. They think that if they get bigger guns, wear armor, talk tough that they will somehow intimidate fear and it will stay away. Jesus knew that meeting fear with fear only creates more fear... this is, in fact, how terror works. Meeting fear with fear creates even more evil. 
Jesus invites us--calls us-- to meet fear with clarity, patience, love, steadiness, and, above all, faith!

See also:
February 1, 2015: Do the Thing That Evil Hates.
June 20, 2016: Looking Evil in the Eye.

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