Monday, August 09, 2010

From fear to faith

The Virgin Hodegetria (she who shows the way)

A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 8, 2010. The lectionary readings are Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, and Luke 12:32-40.

This is an unusual Sunday in terms of the scripture readings all lining up around a particular idea. And that idea has to do with our fears: with what we may fear, with God’s desire that we be brought through and beyond fear, and finally, the scriptures offer us a hint of what a fearless world might look like.

We hear in Genesis the words, “Do not be afraid.” The word of God comes to Abram saying “Don’t be afraid, because God will be like a shield for him, protecting him, no matter what. God will be his shield, and what’s even more—especially in a culture where one’s descendants were one’s life—God is going to provide Abram not only with an heir, but with generations as plentiful as the stars. And so, through the mercy of God, Abram is brought beyond any fears he may have had about the future, and he becomes Abraham, the great ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And all of that becomes possible because Abram got over his fear.

The Epistle reading, Hebrews, is a beautiful hymn, almost, to faith—faith, in some ways, being the other side of fear. By faith, Abraham obeyed, and looked, and followed. By faith, Sarah laughed, and followed, and conceived. In Hebrews we’re given that famous definition of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Fear often has to do with the power of things unseen.

Fear, of course, can be good and useful sometimes. Especially at this time of the year, it’s just smart to be at least a little afraid of the water, afraid of sharks, afraid of standing in lightening or too much sun.

But fear can also stifle. Fear can keep us stuck.

Some of you may know the (1932) novel by Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm. It was also made into a wonderful movie, that for many of us, what our first introduction to the story. In the movie, a young woman, Flora Poste, is a smart nineteen-year-old from London, who is orphaned and begins to write various relatives to see where she might live. Eventually, she receives an invitation from the Starkadders, who feel like Flora’s father had been done wrong by their clan at some point, and so they owe it to Flora to take her in.

She arrives at Cold Comfort Farm, the Starkadders’ place that is just about falling apart. And there are dreary characters in every direction. The horse is named Viper, and the poor cows are named Aimless, Graceless, Feckless and Pointless. The whole sad family is ruled by a matriarch who refuses to come out of her room in the attic. Aunt Ada Doom, refuses to come out of her room because, years ago, as a girl, she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.” We never learn what she saw, and it doesn’t seem as though anyone in the family knows. It’s not even clear if she still knows what she saw. But the fear that began in the woodshed has completely infected her. That fear has changed her and made her small, and scared, and sad. And Aunt Ada Doom’s fear casts a spell over the whole farm.

I don’t want to spoil the whole story for you, but I will say that the arrival of Flora Poste, and her commonsense way of interacting with each family member eventually helps Aunt Ada to leave the fear in the woodshed where it belongs, and step into life again. And guess what? As soon as the fear is let go, the whole family finds freedom.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The kingdom of God may look different for each one of us, but for most of us, at some level, I thing God’s kingdom has a similar effect in our lives as that of the transformation of Cold Comfort Farm. Whatever fears are gnawing at our insides, whatever fears perhaps have been scarred over the years, scarring us so that we even have trouble moving… whatever fears there are that limit us or hold us back or keep us stuck--- God pulls us through those fears, beyond those fears, into a world of faith, into God’s kingdom.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Get ready.” And he uses several images to convey a sense of anticipation—to try to help us see what it’s like to greet the kingdom with faith, and not fear.
He says, “Be like those who are charged with taking care of a house while the owner is away. Be like those caretakers who are in charge while the head of the house is away at a wedding. Blessed are those who are awake at the return.”
He also says, “Get rid of the things that burden you, that weigh you down, that keep you from moving forward. Because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let go of fear.”
In the scriptures, as Jesus meets various people, each one is invited to step into the kingdom of God. And so often the people he meets are stuck in some way. They’re stuck in old habits. They’re stuck by past sins. They’re stuck in a warped perspective or stuck in a world that is so narrow they’re not able to breathe.

There’s a woman who has been caught in adultery. They’re ready to stone her, but even if they let her go, they’ll continue to see her as she used to be. They’ve got her stuck in a bad place. But Jesus forgives her and invites her to leave fear behind, and follow in faith.

Zaccheus the tax collector is stuck in a tree when Jesus walks by. But Jesus calls him out of the tree, and into and among people. Zaccheus doesn’t need to be afraid of being laughed at, made fun of, hated… Jesus says, “stop being afraid” and calls him into the kingdom.

On that first Easter, when Mary Magdalene leaves her fear in the cave, she’s able to see the resurrected Jesus. And she’s able to move forward into the kingdom of God Jesus promises.

The kingdom of God is different from the Magic Kingdom. I have a friend who is about to take his family to Disney World and so we were talking about the Magic Kingdom the other day. The Magic Kingdom comes in other forms, too—not only at Disney World. A kingdom that promises magic can be made of any illusory thing—of the promise of substances, of drugs, of experiences, of all the things that would have us make them rulers of our lives.

But the Kingdom of God is different. God’s kingdom begins here on earth and continues into heaven. Though it can SEEM magical, the kingdom of God is really about our being able to see the world (the world, other people, and ourselves) from God’s perspective. Not magic, but sometimes miraculous.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he’s not talking about a physical place. It is not a location as much as it is a state, a way of being, a type of consciousness, another awareness. The kingdom of God is where God’s will is actively done. The kingdom of God is that place where human needs are met, sin is forgiven, and lives are changed—by the truth of God’s love and by the fire of God’s forgiveness. The kingdom of God is that place where people live out the depth of God’s love—where we forgive each other and show love in practical, real ways. The Kingdom is that place where the God of heaven and earth, the God of all time and being, the God of all creation, stoops to wash the feet of a disciple, holds out bread and offers a cup. The kingdom of God breaks into our lives whenever we leave fears behind and do something bravely with faith.
Jesus calls us somewhere else. Saint John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.”
May the Holy Spirit enable us to leave fear behind, to claim from the saints our inheritance of faith. May the Spirit enable us to live daring lives of faith and love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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