Listen to the sermon HERE.
Many of you know that a few months ago, we adopted a dog. She’s a beautiful mix of shepherd and something else (maybe Border collie, maybe Bernese mountain dog… who knows…) and is full of surprises. She tends to be curious about everything, loves everyone and everything and is afraid of very little. Big noises don’t bother her. Other dogs don’t scare her. But what seems to bother her, what makes her growl, and seems closed to really making her afraid are the occasional dust ball she’ll see under a bed. It doesn’t matter if I tell her not to be afraid or try to help her see that it’s just a clump of dust. To her, it’s scary. To her, it’s real.
Things that scare us can be like that, too, can’t they? Sometimes they are real and we have every reason to be afraid. But other times, we might be afraid of something and there’s nothing anyone else can say that will help—no amount of explaining, or putting into context, or praying… we simply are afraid.
Today’s scriptures invite us to think about our fears a little bit. They invite us to think about what we may fear, with God’s desire that we be brought through and beyond fear, and finally, the scriptures offer us a hint of what a fearless world might look like.
In Genesis, the word of God comes to Abram saying, “Don’t be afraid.” “Don’t be afraid, because God’s going to be like a shield, protecting, no matter what. And what’s even more—God’s going to provide Abram and Sara with a child. Even better than that, not just one child, but they’re going to be blessed with generations as plentiful as the stars.
Abram must have worried and must have feared. But through the promise of God, Abram is brought beyond any fears he may have had about the future. His name change to Abra-ham signifies that something big has happened, and he lived on to be the ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And all of that becomes possible because Abram is able to move through his fear and follow God.
The Epistle reading, Hebrews, is a beautiful hymn. It’s a hymn to faith, really—“faith,” being the other side of fear. By faith, Abraham obeys, and looks, and follows. By faith, Sarah laughs, and follows, and conceives. Meditating on people like Abraham and Sarah, the author of Hebrews gives us a famous definition of faith: that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”
Fear often has to do with the power of things unseen. Sometimes that’s a good thing (like being afraid of tics in the woods or sharks in the water). But often on land, and in our lives, fear can stifle. Fear can keep us stuck.
Some of you may know the (1932) novel by Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm. It was also made into a wonderful movie that for many of us, has been our first introduction to the story. In the movie, a young woman, Flora Poste, is a smart nineteen-year-old from London. But she’s orphaned and begins to write various relatives to see where she might live. Eventually, she receives an invitation from the Starkadders, who feel like Flora’s father had been done wrong by their clan at some point, and so they owe it to Flora to take her in.
She arrives at Cold Comfort Farm, the Starkadders’ place that is just about falling apart. And in every direction there are dreary characters. The horse is named Viper, and the poor cows are named Aimless, Graceless, Feckless and Pointless. The whole sad family is ruled by a matriarch who refuses to come out of her room in the attic. Aunt Ada Doom, won’t come out because years ago, as a girl, she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.” We never learn what she saw, and it doesn’t seem as though anyone in the family knows. It’s not even clear if she still remembers what she saw. But the fear that began in the woodshed has completely infected her. That fear has changed her and made her small, and scared, and sad. And Aunt Ada Doom’s fear casts a spell over the whole farm.
I don’t want to spoil the whole story for you, but I will say that the arrival of Flora Poste, and her commonsense way of interacting with each family member eventually helps Aunt Ada to leave the fear in the woodshed where it belongs, and step into life again. And guess what? As soon as the fear is let go, the whole family finds freedom.
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid, because it’s God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The kingdom of God may look different for each one of us, but for most of us, at some level, I think God’s kingdom has a similar effect in our lives as that of the transformation of Cold Comfort Farm. Whatever fears are gnawing at our insides, whatever fears there are that limit us or hold us back or keep us stuck— God wants to pull us through those fears, beyond those fears, into a world of faith, into God’s kingdom.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Get ready.” And he uses several images to convey a sense of anticipation—to try to help us see what it’s like to greet the kingdom with faith, and not fear.
He says, “Be like those who are charged with taking care of a house while the owner is away. Be like those caretakers who are in charge while the head of the house is away at a wedding. Blessed are those who are awake at the return.” He also says, “Get rid of the things that burden you, that weigh you down, that keep you from moving forward. Because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let go of fear.”
If you think about the people Jesus meets in the Gospel, so often, they are people who are stuck, in some way. They’re stuck in old habits. They’re stuck by past sins. They’re stuck in other people’s stories about them. Or they’re stuck in some warped perspective that creates a world so narrow they can hardly breathe. Think about some of those people:
There’s a woman who has been caught in adultery. They’re ready to stone her, but even if they let her go, she’s caught in her reputation. They’ve got her stuck in a bad place and she’s afraid. But Jesus forgives her and invites her to leave fear behind, and follow in faith.
There’s Zaccheus the tax collector who is stuck in a tree when Jesus walks by. But Jesus calls him out of the tree, and into and among people. Zaccheus doesn’t need to be afraid of being laughed at, made fun of, hated… Jesus says, “stop being afraid” and calls him into the kingdom.
There’s Mary Magdalene, on that first Easter morning. She leaves her fear in the empty tomb and she’s able to see the resurrected Jesus. She’s able to move forward into the kingdom of God Jesus promises.
When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he’s not talking about a physical place. It is not a location as much as it is a state, a way of being, a type of consciousness, another awareness. The kingdom of God is wherever God’s will is actively done. The kingdom of God is that place where human needs are met, sin is forgiven, and lives are changed—by the truth of God’s love and by the fire of God’s forgiveness. The kingdom of God is that place where people live out the depth of God’s love—where we forgive each other and show love in practical, real ways. The Kingdom is that place where the God of heaven and earth, the God of all time and being, the God of all creation, stoops to wash the feet of a disciple, holds out bread and offers a cup. The kingdom of God breaks into our lives whenever we leave fears behind and do something bravely with faith.
This summer, some of us may be staying right where we are. In life, some of us might not move very far away from one place. But no matter who we are or where we are, Jesus calls us to move—to move out of whatever fearful place keeps us from stepping forward in faith. The First Letter of John reminds us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.”
May the Holy Spirit enable us to leave fear behind, to claim the faith of the saints, and to live into God’s good kingdom.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.