Sunday, August 11, 2019
Lectionary 19, Year C
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Genesis 15:1-6 God’s promise of a child for Abram and Sarai
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 A model for us: Abraham’s faith in a new home given by God
Luke 12:32-40 God will give you the treasure of the kingdom; sell all that you have
Title: Do not fear, church
Jesus said: Do not fear, little flock. Do not fear, little flock, says the good shepherd. Do not fear, says the one who just finished assuring his followers that God does indeed provide. Do not fear, says the one who will face our final fear, our most ferocious fear – death, face it for us, face it to defeat it for us, face it so that we might share in his victory. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
And yet, those words, do not fear, just don’t seem enough these days. With gun violence rearing its ugly head yet again. And it seems each incarnation is worse than the last. We are not growing numb to it. We cannot grow numb to it. With a dysfunctional government that is only creating concerns rather than addressing them. With a host of issues that you are dealing with that perhaps this community doesn’t even know of or have the capacity to connect with, Jesus saying Do not fear, just doesn’t seem to take those fears away.
I wanted to say: Do not fear, on Friday afternoon to the churchwide assembly that met in Milwaukee this past week. You see, the Metro NY synod was bringing three key memorials to the assembly. A memorial is a sort of resolution that is past by our synod assembly to be passed on to the churchwide assembly for action by the national body. All three had been watered down by the memorials committee. Had fearfully had the teeth taken out of them. Well, two were toothless, one just had had a few teeth pulled. That one was a memorial asking the church to give special attention to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the ordination of women. Another time when folks kept saying to the church: Do not fear. Some did fear, but the church moved forward in spite of that fear, and we have been blessed by the pastoral leadership and gifts of many, many women pastors. A whole bunch of them processed gloriously at worship on Friday. But the memorial also wanted to celebrated the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first African-American women, and the 10th anniversary of the policy change that allowed out, partnered, LGBTQ+ people to serve this church as pastor. Well the 40th anniversary was fine, of course. But the committee had pulled the 10th anniversary out of the memorial. 10 years later there is still fear. Fear of offending some? Fear of making some uncomfortable? Well, the memorial was amended to put the 10th anniversary back in and the whole anniversary package, 50, 40, 10 was passed quite fearlessly by the assembly. Has not 10 years of bold proclamation and the raising up of faithful leaders stilled some of those fears? Do not fear, little flock, Jesus says.
One of the ones that was rendered toothless was a memorial calling for the ELCA to declare itself a sanctuary church body. We got the assembly to put the bold language back in. There was more debate on this one. Fear mongers attempted to distract and discourage with ridiculous claims. But in the end, it was passed. We are the first mainline denomination to declare itself a sanctuary church body. Many news sources reported this great decision. (Sad to say, that at our closing worship service when our presiding bishop was highlighting the work of the assembly, she did not list this momentous decision in her highlights. I think she was still a little fearful of the action the assembly had taken.) Do not fear, little flock, and bishops, Jesus says.
But the third memorial did not go so well. Fear ruled the day. This one asked the ELCA to become an endorsing organization of the Poor People’s Campaign. The last ministry effort of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before his assassination. The leadership of the ELCA had some fears about this. Make a long story short. Fear ruled the day. All our full communion partners: the Episcopal church, the Presbyterian church, the Methodist church and the UCC all endorse. But not us. Organizations representing the Jewish community and the Muslim community have endorsed. But not us. This refusal on our part was even more stinging because just a couple of days earlier, a formal apology was offered by our church to the people of African descent for our systemic participation in the legacy of slavery and the racism that is interwoven into the fabric of our society and nation. In addition, leaders of all those denominations that I listed, as well as leaders from interfaith communities (many of them endorsers of the Poor People’s Campaign) had all gathered on stage as we voted on and passed a commitment to dedicate ourselves and our church to inter-faith dialogue and cooperation. We even condemned white supremacy and all its evils. But we could not still our fear and still with the other, stand with the oppressed, stand with our siblings who themselves had taken bold stances.
We could not join Abram in venturing forward even though we may not always know where God is leading us. We once again showed words spoken in faith are easier than actions taken in faith.
God said to Abram: Do not be afraid. Jesus says to his followers of every time and place: Do not fear, little flock. Fear, the great opposing force of faith. (Faith’s opposite is not doubt. Doubt is part of faith. The writer of Hebrews knows that fully embracing something unseen is not easy.) Fear is also an opposing force to love. We read in scripture that perfect love casts out all fear. Jesus’ comforting words of Do not fear, little flock is a call to follow in faith and to live in love. And we know it is hard to live into the fullness of this call. Hard for a church wide body. Hard for a synod. Hard for a congregation. Hard of us as individuals.
I often have to fight the fear of making waves, fear of stirring up disagreement in a community. However, this morning, I am hearing Jesus speak to me in light of our disappointment at churchwide assembly and he is saying: Do not fear, this is only the beginning of this push to bring the ELCA into the work of the Poor People’s Campaign. There was also some unfinished business that is negatively affecting some of my LGBTQ+ colleagues that we need to attend to. I am listening: Do not fear. Now, with the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the doing that I must attend to.
This summer has certainly been a season of stilling our fears as a congregation and moving forward in faith to create a more welcoming and accommodating space for the many to walk by, the many who come in, the many who make use, and the many who are fed in this place. Because ultimately, we are called to still our fear and live in faith for the sake of proclaiming the gospel.
Our theme at church wide assembly was: We are Church. And we were reminded over and over again, we are church for the sake of the world. Since that is our call, then we need Jesus’ comforting words ever before us: Do not fear, little flock. We are dependent on the hope that is ours because the cross is empty and so is the tomb. The fount is full and so is the table.
We are a people, as Hebrews puts it, that are strangers in this world, foreigners on this earth. The treasures of this world are nothing to us. The logic of this world is foolishness to us. The priorities of this world are not the priorities of the one who has saved us – Jesus the Christ, and who calls us to live our new life in him, through him, for his sake in the service of others. St. Paul calls us to be fools for Christ sake. Dr. King called us to dream big. Someone recently said: If you always are sensible, you will never do anything.
Do not fear, little flock. Have all hope, little flock. Live in hope, little flock. For it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. It’s yours. Through the water of the fount. It’s yours. Get a foretaste of its fullness at the table. It’s yours. Hear of its awesome wonder and fabulousness in the words we speak and sing. It’s yours. Join with one another for fearless living and serving. It’s yours. Hear one more time Jesus’ grace-filled invitation to abundant life in him: Do not fear.
The Rev. Mark Erson,