a sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14)
The opposite of fear is faith.
Do not be afraid, because God wants to give you his entire kingdom.
About a hundred years ago, when Rindy and I were first married we lived in a small town in Ohio. I had just been hired as a programmer for NCR Corporation, making big money, HUGE money. It was more money that I or my dad ever dreamed could be made by a kid in college: $13,500 a year kind of money. Man, we were rolling in dough!
Our first year in Ohio was a cold one. For those of you who might remember, our first winter was the Great Blizzard of ’78. All of the sudden, there was snow, lots and lots of snow. Piles and mountains of snow all over the place, and no one could go to work. So one day we took a walk around the neighborhood when we came upon a couple who were about our same age, John and Jane Brickels. Jane was an audiologist who worked in the public school system. She was the first person who told me I might have a hearing problem. But John did something that was a complete mystery to me; John was an artist. He worked driving a school bus just long enough to pay a few bills, but his career, his calling, was to to make clay sculptures.
Now growing up in a very traditional middle class family as I did, I had no concept of what John was doing. Here was a highly educated guy who could have done lots of different things to earn a decent living playing with clay all day long and making little houses and figures and what nots, trying to become a professional artist. He had no steady income, no life insurance, no money in the bank. His parents didn’t support him. As far as I could tell, there was no way he was ever going to make enough to provide for his wife and family. So I asked him, “how can you sleep at a night? Don’t you realize that you’ll never own a home or be able to retire? Aren’t you afraid that some day, you’ll have big medical bills that you just won’t be able to pay?”
“Sure, I think about all that stuff, I guess,” he said. “But I just think that the more money you make the more you spend, and the more you worry about all the stuff your spending it on. So we just decided it was better for us to find a smaller house and not have all the headache and worry. We’re not afraid losing our jobs or our home. We’re just not afraid of any of that.”
Do not be afraid.
Today we heard two stories about faith overcoming fear. In the first reading, we heard about God’s promise to Abraham – a promise that God repeat three times over a period of 25 years. God called Abraham to go somewhere. Now Abraham was a pretty successful guy by ancient standards. He had lots of sheep and goats, servants and hired hands. But when God called him, he was ready to pack it all up and go. Only he didn’t exactly know where he was going – all God said was to go to the place where I will show you. And he didn’t exactly know what he was supposed to do when he got there. It was a long journey, on foot, for Abraham and his wife, Sarah, and they had lots of hardships – family quarrels, powerful kings who wanted to take all his stuff away from him. And Abraham wasn’t any spring chicken; he and Sarah were getting on in years. So Abraham asks God a simple question: “What’s in it for me? You want me to pick up and travel all over the place for you, tell me what’s in it for me.”
And God said to Abraham, “Don’t be afraid.” God promised him that he would grant him his heart’s desire, a family. But the child hadn’t come yet, and Abraham and Sarah weren’t getting any younger. So Abraham pressed the issue. “Don’t talk to me about giving me children, Lord. I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman. All I have is my servant, Eliezer from Damascus, to leave my inheritance to.”
But God repeated his promise. “Don’t be afraid.” You will have your own child one day, and he will have more children, and they will have still more children, until all of your descendants are too many to count, more than the stars in the sky. That’s a lot of descendants. God didn’t just promise Abraham a family, he promised to make him a great nation. Today, thousands of years later, Abraham’s descendants are the members of the three great faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is a promise that comes out of God’s great abundance.
Don’t be afraid.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples are traveling – they are on a journey. And Jesus is teaching them and the crowds along the way. And as we heard last week, he was asked to resolve a family dispute about inheritance. His response was a parable – the gist of which was do not become so preoccupied with the “stuff” of your life that you miss the “riches” of your life – be rich toward God.
Today Jesus cautions us about this again – don’t hold too tightly to the things you think you own. Don’t be afraid. Because while we are preoccupied with our own little things, God wants to give us the Kingdom – it is God’s good pleasure to enrich our lives.
Now some people believe that just because God loves us and wants us to be happy, he must also want us to have lots of stuff. This is called “the prosperity Gospel.” Folks who subscribe to that view of the Gospel claim that worldly wealth in the form of possessions is a sign of God’s blessing. The more you have, the more God has blessed you. My friends, this is a false teaching. It is wrong and it is a lie.
Instead, Jesus teaches us that happiness doesn’t come from stuff. It comes from the absence of fear, because fear is what holds us back from enjoying the abundant blessings that God has given us. Fear causes is to lose sight of God and leads us to sinful behaviors Our fear of not having enough money makes us stingy and miserly instead of generous and giving. Our fear of not having enough food, even in the face of incredibly cheap and abundant food, leads us to obesity and hoarding. Our fear of not having a place to live or sleep, leads us to build houses we can’t afford. Fear for the future causes us to loose sight of the blessings we have right in front of us.
Don’t be afraid… for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Do not be afraid little flock. It is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom – right now! It is happening now. God is giving us the Kingdom – and we bear God’s kingdom into our everyday lives. Our lives where things can get complicated, tasks can be hard to complete, burdens may be hard to bear. All that and more.
Even so, do not be afraid.
And because we do not need to be afraid, Jesus asks us to do something else. Release our hold on all the stuff we think we need, so that it no longer has a hold on us. When we loosen our grip it doesn’t mean we won’t have what we need. It means we will not be preoccupied with it. And we will have room to embrace that unfailing treasure that God is so pleased to give us.
The other day, I was sitting in a small group that meets here on Friday mornings. It is an AA small group, and they have invited me to join with them. One of the people in that group was talking about how his life has changed since they joined AA. “What is my sobriety worth?” he asked. “Everything. My health, my life, my family.”
Just like that guy, we already know that the really important things in life can’t be bought with money. The really important things come to us as gifts from those who love us. Of course, God loves us more than anyone, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that God gives us the greatest of gifts: the food we eat, the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, all come from God. The people we love, and our very own lives all come from God. God is the source of all that we are, and of every dream we can ever imagine.
Do not be afraid, because God wants to give you his entire kingdom.
Thanks be to God.