A Sermon by the Rev. Michael P. Thomas, June 22, 2014, Second Sunday after Pentecost: Be Not Afraid
Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 at 12:08 pm
June 22, 2014, Second Sunday after Pentecost
Be Not Afriad
Today’s gospel is one of those seemingly impossible mini-sermons of Jesus from which it feels almost impossible to launch a sermon. It subverts the image many of us carry of Jesus as the peace-filled “love” guru and replaces him with a Jesus that would express anger at the money changers by turning over their tables, etc. Jesus may not be the guest you would want at Thanksgiving, for fear he might say something that would rub your grandmother or yourself the wrong way, or otherwise exacerbate family tensions. I am referring, of course, to the stark language of setting family members against one another. In short, Jesus is not here to provide a soothing balm for the anxious, or a comfortable peace for the fearful. And yet, and yet…let me focus on what I hear Jesus telling his disciples in today’s Gospel. What I hope you hear as well. For what he says is this: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid in a world in which we are often filled to the brim with fearful anxiety about what today will bring, let alone tomorrow.
Now imagine if you are a parent of a teenage son or daughter in South Chicago or Mosul or in ten thousand other cities and villages across the planet. Or in Hartland, or Hanover, or Haverhill for that matter. How could you not be fearful — at least a little — for their futures? Yet Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” This is unbelievable good news in a world in which there is much to be afraid of. Listen and I will try to show you why we can trust in these words.
But first it’s equally important to hear what Jesus doesn’t say to those who would follow him. What Jesus doesn’t say is: “If you follow me, life will be smooth.” The bumps and detours and collisions on life’s road will magically disappear. Our own experience on that road convinces us that is not case.
So hear these words well. The words “Do not be afraid” are four of the most significant words in the Bible. We hear them at all the critical moments. The prophet Isaiah speaks them to the exiles in Babylon. The angel greets Mary with these words at the annunciation. At Christ’s birth, the shepherds hear the angels’ message, “Fear not”. At Christ’s tomb on Easter morning, the angels say to the women, “Be not afraid.” And the risen Christ greets his disciples on the evening of the resurrection with this same message: “Do not be afraid.”
So clearly, fear is a big thing, something to be reckoned with. It’s very present at the critical junctures of faith and life. And we encounter it clinging tenaciously to the more ordinary moments in between, as well.
In this section of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is getting into the really hard stuff that his disciples are going to face, things that they would certainly fear — being ridiculed and misrepresented, potential strife with family, even bodily harm or death. Real things that none of us want to have happen and most of us don’t tend to anticipate as a consequence of trying to follow Jesus. But these thing DO happen when you take Christ seriously. It turns out that respectability and popularity only occasionally coincide with discipleship.
Not only do we need the words “Do not be afraid.” We need to understand that being told not to be afraid is not the same as being assured that life will be smooth, that nothing bad will happen to us.
If we’re not being told, “Don’t worry, nothing bad will happen now that you’re following Jesus,” then what is it that we’re meant to understand?
Well, the fact is that you’re being told something much more powerful. Not that hard or bad things won’t happen to you or, when they do, you’ll triumph over them somehow. No, what’s being promised is much greater than that.
You are being told not to be afraid because whatever happens, you still belong to God.
So not being afraid means trusting in that promise. And trusting in God’s promises is one of the simplest, yet most complete, definitions of faith. Faith means to trust in God’s promises.
Fear is a potent adversary of faith. In fact, it’s probably more dangerous than doubt, which we usually think of as the opposite of faith. Fear makes us want to hoard, to build walls, to just take care of our own, to distrust our neighbor, to justify ourselves.
Now I know Susan and I have shared this story with some of you before, but it remains a powerful example of listening to and acting upon the promise of trusting in God rather than giving oneself over to fear. Once while we lived and served in Jerusalem, not long after active conflict had again reared its head between Palestinians and Israelis, we were coming back to Jerusalem from a visit to Hebron in the West Bank. Karen, who was part of our congregation and worked with World Vision, was driving, and since the Israeli military had blocked the main road, we had to make our way up an alternative route through a Palestinian village. “Look,” I said to her, pointing to the young boys and other children holding stones in their hands, seemingly ready to throw them at cars that had Israeli license plates.
Without a word, Karen opened all the car windows and began waving to the children, smiling and calling, “Marhaba! Marhaba!” to them (which means “hello” in Arabic). I was stunned with admiration, for without a moment’s hesitation she had chosen the path of proceeding in faith, rather than in fear. Not that her heart wasn’t racing, but she didn’t gun the engine and try to get out of there as fast as possible. (I might have.) She chose the path of vulnerability rather than defensiveness — and here’s what’s amazing. Rather than hurl stones, the children, also stunned, began to wave back their greetings.
It was a moment and an example that we will never forget, that luminous moment when Karen in an instant chose to act in faith rather than fear, knowing full well that neither choice could guarantee our safety. Perhaps she made the choice she did because she understood that whatever we did, we had no real guarantee of getting out of this unharmed, so why not act in faith rather than in fear? After all, which way would you rather live? Or die? What would you rather elicit from others — more fear or more faith? More defensiveness or more trust?
In our Gospel text, it appears that for a while Jesus prepared his followers for discipleship by teaching them privately. But the time for sheltered learning had past. Now the moment had come for them to speak about what they had learned — and to live it. No longer were they to cover up the way of Christ but to be bold in teaching it to others. To live in faith rather than in fear. To face what comes, while humbly relying on God’s care, just as God cares for the sparrows. Not that we will never make mistakes or fall short or the sparrows won’t ever fall to the earth — but that we and they are yet in God’s care, no matter what happens, for God is true to God’s promises.
A theologian tells a story of being plagued in dreams by an old acquaintance asking him what he’d done with his life and feeling that he couldn’t give a good account. Finally, he dreamed he was waiting, terrified, to be asked the same question in judgment by God. “Henri, Henri, what have you done with your life?” But instead, the door opened on a room full of light and God spoke to him in a gentle voice, saying, “”Henri, it’s good to see you. I hear you had a rough trip, but I’d love to see your slides.”
So when we are bold and when we are not, when we make good decisions and when we mess things up terribly, when we try our best and it’s not enough, the promise we have from God is that we have been united with Christ and will not be separated from him.
The old dominion of sin and death over our lives has been broken, not that sin and death don’t still cause havoc in our world. And yet….and yet. We have the promise from God in Christ that they will not win.
Dear friends, do not be afraid. Whatever happens, you belong to Christ. You won’t escape unharmed, but you have this promise which trumps all the others you scramble after so desperately. It’s the promise Christ invites his disciples to live in now, so that we might live in faith rather than fear — and elicit the same from those around us.
And remember, even if we have a rough trip, God waits to welcome us, eager to see our slides.
Amen. May it be so for us.