A sermon preached at St. Francis Episcopal Church, San Antonio, TX.
The Lectionary readings for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost are here.
Good morning, I’m so happy to be here with y’all this morning. I don’t know how much Mother Carrie has told you about me but she and I first met 10 years ago this past June. I had just graduated seminary and been ordained and was assigned to St. John’s in McAllen where she was serving as the Youth and Family Minister. I had the privilege of working with her at St. John’s for over 4 years and then when I moved to St. Alban’s in Harlingen, she did her seminary field-placement there! And now we are both serving at churches named St. Francis in the San Antonio area – I’m the associate rector at St. Francis by the Lake in Canyon Lake. And I hope and pray that our years in ministry continue to weave together as they have.
As we started getting to know each other, we quickly discovered we each had a knack for pranks. Don’t laugh, it’s an important survival skill. So, I believe in an effort at self-preservation, we focused our joint pranking efforts on the rector of St. John’s. So, as we were executing these exquisitely honed skills, we would have to remain vigilant, watching for Fr. Jim to return. And this waiting was the most exhilarating part because we wanted him to discover what we’d done, that was the whole point.
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus speaks of waiting, and vigilance, and being prepared for an unexpected return. It’s all part of Jesus’ response to the man whom, as we read last week, asks Jesus to settle a family dispute over inheritance – a warning against the attitude of scarcity that leads to greed, followed by the reminder of the evidence of God’s abundant provision all around us, in the beauty of the earth and the lives of the animals with the instruction ‘not to worry.’
In our reading today, we jump into the middle of Jesus’ sermon with the words, ‘do not be afraid, little flock.’ Do not be afraid because God delights in giving us what we need. God, delights! Don’t you love the sound of that? It isn’t God’s ‘duty,’ God doesn’t provide for us because he has to. God delights in it, God chooses to give us the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Here and now. Every day. So, do not be afraid.
Jesus says that a lot – do not be afraid. We even have God saying it to Abram in the Old Testament story we read. But don’t think for a moment that he’s telling us to pretend there aren’t things that cause us to be afraid. I mean, have you watched the news? Inflation, war, viruses, political unrest, drought, there is much to be concerned about. When we take Jesus’ words ‘do not be afraid’ in light of all of his teaching, in light of the Good News of God, it isn’t an artificial positivity, it is wise optimism. We are to live in the hope-filled wisdom that God is God and we are God’s beloved children.
It is God’s promise that he will set all things right again, some day when God says it’s time. Our job, our purpose is to live on earth as in heaven, loving God, our neighbor, and, yes, our enemy. This is how we diligently wait, preparing ourselves for the coming Kingdom, and extending the invitation of the Way of Love to everyone we encounter each day. This is the faith that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of. It is faith that is to guide us, not fear.
But, before we wrap up this message of Love, I want to throw a monkey wrench into the works because I know some of you are already thinking it. What about the line in the Psalm we read that says, “the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him.” The phrase ‘fear-of-the-Lord’ is all over the Old Testament. What do we do with being told we should fear God and Jesus telling us to not be afraid? Don’t these contradict one another? The short answer is ‘no’. But don’t just take my word for it. The phrase fear-of-the-Lord is just that, a phrase that has to be taken as a whole word, not the sum of the words that make it. This is one of the many instances in Bible translation where there just isn’t an equivalent English word to the Hebrew original so we do the best we can. It is more than awe or respect or even reverence.
Eugene Peterson always writes Fear-of-the-Lord with dashes between each word and defines it like this, “the way of life that is lived responsively and appropriately before who God is, who he is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. … a way of life in which human feelings and behavior are fused with God’s being and revelation” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, pps 40 & 42).
What equips and enables us to not be afraid, in the midst of all of the frightening happenings of this world, is our fear-of-the-Lord, knowing who God is and who we are in relationship with God. Fear-of-the-Lord is how we wait, in active anticipation, alert to who God is and aware of his presence with us every moment of every day. This is the active waiting we are called to participate in by Jesus; this is how we stay alert and prepare for the time that is to come and in the hear and now, as live our lives with the same faith our ancestors did.
There is much to be concerned about in this world; there are many dangers. Following Jesus doesn’t mean we won’t ever face scary events, or that our life will be easy, or even that we will always get what we want. Following Jesus, walking humbly with God means we are never alone or abandoned, that with God’s help, we face whatever is to come trusting in God’s promises and provision, rather than living with the burden that we must fix all the ills of this world.
The Psalmist tells us: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, on those who wait upon his love.”
So let me wrap this up with this – don’t get stuck in trying to analyze the details of who is the thief in Jesus’ story. Just as I don’t want you to get stuck in trying to figure out the parallels of this bit of the Good News story and mine and Carrie’s pranks on Fr. Jim. Sometimes we have to step above the details and look at the whole message. The point of me telling you that story is to share some background of mine and Carrie’s relationship and the point of Jesus’ story is to teach us that we all are called to live this faith journey in active relationship with each other as we participate with God in God’s purposes in the here and now. We must always be ready to welcome God because God is with us always, what’s missing is our awareness of it.
So, “do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Right now. Right here. Amen.