Do Not Be Afraid

They say growing up is hard to do.  And I think they’re right.  Because growing up involves change and kids generally like to have a regular, predictable routine.  I remember one time when life interrupted my routine and I had to adjust to a new way of doing things.  It happened at the beginning of fifth grade.  I was having a hard time adjusting to my new classroom, my new teacher, and more challenging homework assignments.

When I finally had all I thought I could handle, I made an appointment to see the school guidance counselor, Mr. Arnold.  I walked into his office with my mind made up.  I had a plan.  I thought I already knew the solution to my problem, so I told him: “Mr. Arnold, this fifth grade stuff is too hard.  I don’t like my teacher, I can’t keep up with the material, and I’m just not happy here.  I’m obviously not ready for this.  I think I just need to back to fourth grade.”

Well, you can imagine what Mr. Arnold’s response was.  When he finally stopped laughing, he told me in no uncertain terms that returning to the fourth grade was not an option.  Then he introduced me to a new word, one that I’ve carried with me ever since.  To be honest, I think he made it up, but it describes so well what I was doing by asking to go back to fourth grade.  Mr. Arnold’s word was awfulizing.  He said, “You’re awfulizing this situation, and no, you can’t go back to the fourth grade.”  And then he explained what he meant by that:  my ten-year-old self was choosing to see only the negative parts of fifth grade and blowing them out of all rational proportion until I convinced myself that the only solution was to go backwards and stay in my old comfort zone.

Growing up is all about facing the future.  We all have to do it: as individuals, as churches, as a society, and we Christians have a choice to make in that regard: we can either face the future with fear or we can face it with faith.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus has a lot to say about the future.  As usual, he’s speaking metaphorically; he’s telling stories.  In the first story, he describes the coming future as a bridegroom coming back home after his wedding.  In the second one, he describes the future as a thief breaking into a house in the middle of the night.  What this says to me is two-fold: first, the future is full of the potential for great joy; second, the future is full of great potential for danger.  Both of these realities are true in the same place, at the same time.  Neither the joy nor the danger outweighs or cancels out the other.  Both are simply true.  That’s how reality is.

The only thing we have to decide is how we will respond to this dual-reality of joy and danger, which the future presents us with.  Again, ours is a choice between facing the future with fear and facing the future with faith.

We already have a pretty good idea of what it looks like to face the future with fear.  We see people do it every day because fear is the easier of the two choices.  When individuals choose fear over faith, it looks like despair, cynicism, sarcasm, and broken relationships.  People give up on themselves and each other in order to lead lives of “quiet desperation” as Thoreau said.  People give up on life because they’re scared that things might not turn out like they’d hoped or planned, so they’d rather just shrivel up and get cold and hard inside while life passes them by.

When whole communities like churches, businesses, or countries choose fear over faith, the consequences are far more dire.  The people in these communities turn inward and get defensive, circling their wagons against the onslaught of a hostile environment.  They build walls and weapons to protect themselves from anyone who might look, think, love, or pray differently than them.  In a world governed by fear, rather than faith, the best defense is a good offense.  It’s kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, so you’d better get it while the getting’s good and do unto others before they do unto you. 

That’s fear.  It gets you nowhere.  Whether we’re talking about people, churches, or countries, living in fear just perpetuates the cycle of violence over and over again for generation after generation until there is nothing left of this world but a smoldering trash heap.

Isn’t that what we see happening on the news every day?  People are scared; they’re hurting each other because they’re scared; they think that will keep them safe, but it won’t.  It’s just going to make the problem worse.  Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye, and eventually the whole goes blind.”

But Jesus said there is another way.  We don’t have to choose fear.  We can choose faith instead.  Faith in what?  What is the basis for choosing faith over fear?  Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Let’s break that sentence down and take a closer look.  First of all, who is Jesus talking to?  The “little flock.”  Who is that?  Who were the people who liked to hang around Jesus in his day?  The riff-raff, ragamuffins, tax collectors, sinners, outcasts, insignificant people, sick people, and poor people.  In a nutshell: people who don’t matter.  Jesus had a reputation for hanging out with these kinds of folks.  It made all those decent, church-going, uptight upright, law-abiding citizens sick to their stomach to see Jesus eating dinner with that “little flock” because, in that culture, people eating together meant that they accepted each other with no questions asked.  When Jesus did it with the most forgotten and outcast members of his society, he was saying, “I love you and I accept you, just as you are.”

Question: Who occupies that space in our culture today?  Who is the “little flock”?

Let’s keep going.  The next two words I want to look at are “good pleasure.”  What does that mean?  It means, “This is what makes God happy,” and “God gets a kick out of this,” and “This makes God laugh.”  Jesus is saying that God is playing a great big joke on us and here’s the punch line: “…it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

What is the active word there?  Is it God’s good pleasure to sell you the kingdom?  Is it God’s good pleasure that you earn the kingdom by how well you behave or by what you believe?  None of the above.  It is God’s “good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

The active word is give.  It’s a gift, a free gift.  Theology-types have a word for this: grace.  Grace is unconditional love and unmerited favor.  Grace is God’s basic orientation toward us.  We didn’t earn it, so we can never lose it.  Furthermore, because we didn’t earn it, we don’t get to have any say in whether or not God extends that same grace toward anyone else (which she does).  It’s a free gift, given to all without discrimination.

Finally, what is being given?  The kingdom.  This is a very important idea for Jesus.  In fact, it’s the central idea of his ministry.  For Jesus, the kingdom of God (sometimes called the kingdom of heaven) is not some happy place where people go when they die.  No, for Jesus, the kingdom of God is a vision of this present world, not as it is, but as it should be: turned upside down and transformed from the inside out.

So, let’s put it all together now.  What Jesus is saying is that God, ever since the beginning of the world and continuing until its end, has been playing a joke on us.  While we have been fighting with each other in our rat race to protect what we think is ours, God has been working slowly and quietly beneath the surface and under the radar of the powers that be.  What really makes God laugh are those moments when true peace and justice are established on earth, not by the big shots with their bombs, bucks, and bureaucracies, but through the “little” ones, those forgotten lives who don’t matter to the powerful, working in small, local communities to actualize Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

That’s who God is, according to Jesus.  That’s how God works in the world: slowly, gently, never stopping, and never giving up.  The kingdom belongs to these little forgotten ones because God has freely given it to them.  That truth, according to Jesus, is our basis for choosing faith over fear when we face the future with all its potential for great joy and great danger.  We can choose to have faith in the laughing God who always works slowly and patiently through the little things of this world in order to turn it upside down and inside out.

God is doing this, God has been doing this for all time, and God will keep doing it for all time.  That’s why Jesus can say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Facing tomorrow with this kind of faith has a profound effect on the way we live our lives today.  Because we believe it is God’s “good pleasure to give [us] the kingdom,” we are now ready to hear Jesus say, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Fear seeks only to get things for itself; faith wants to give to others.  True believers are those who are able to trust in the reality of this mystery we call God and then live, in grateful response to that mystery, with open and generous hearts toward their fellow creatures.  That is what it means to be the church; that is what it means to possess Jesus’ kingdom of heaven on earth; that is what it means to face the future with faith, rather than fear; and that is all we need in order to turn the world upside down and transform it from the inside out.

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