Faith not Fear

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read a version of the sermon here:

One summer during junior high, I went to a music camp.  In school, I played the tenor saxophone in band and felt like I was a quick learner with most of the music we played.  But it was a totally different thing to be at music camp, with kids from schools all over the county. I was scared to death.  Though we were probably all roughly the same age, everyone else seemed older, more sophisticated, with fancier instruments— and I just knew they were probably much better musicians that I.

That first day of camp, we checked in, found our places, and everyone began to warm up.  I put my saxophone together like always, attached the mouthpiece, got ready, took a deep breath…. and nothing happened.  I blew again, and nothing.  I was sweating bullets. What was wrong with my instrument? Embarrassed and worried, I got up and took my instrument to the director, who was busy trying to sort out the enrollment just minutes before our first rehearsal. I told him my instrument wouldn’t work. He looked at it, and looked at me, and then said, “Don’t breathe in so much before trying to play. Breath out a little. Relax, loosen your embouchure, your bite, and give it a try.” I did what he said, and guess what? A miracle! It worked. He smiled at me and as though he were reading my mind, said, “Don’t be afraid. Everyone’s nervous on the first day—even me!” 

Fear had paralyzed me. It made me choke. It shut me down.

I would like to say that I’ve never forgotten that story, but the truth is that I seldom remember it. I easily forget how powerful fear can be and how fear sneaks up and can cause panic.

Jesus tells a story in today’s Gospel in the context of other stories having to do with the kingdom of God. He’s trying to help his disciples see that the kingdom of God is unfolding around them and even from within them, if they will just notice. He knows they are afraid, but he says to them, “Look!  Believe! Let your faith in God overcome the fear.”

This story of the talents—which are not talents like abilities, but a form of money—is an old one. It is thought to have been older than Jesus in the oral tradition, and then handed down to Jesus, who tells it in his own context. 

Today, when we reflect on a biblical story that speaks of slaves and masters, we bristle, especially as we wrestle with the legacy of slavery in our own country. And just to be clear and state the obvious, in our reading of scripture, we in no way mean to normalize the practice of slavery, but rather, we notice the movement of history, confess our troubled past, and seek to hear God’s message for today. In Jesus’ day (as with antiquity), slavery was a given.  Over time, both Greek and Roman cultures created laws protecting slaves, and both Stoicism and Christianity taught that all people are equal.

At the heart of this Gospel is fear. Fear is the problem with the third servant, the one who simply buries his money.  He says he’s afraid of the boss, but I wonder if he isn’t also afraid of the possibility of other things, too.  He’s afraid of failure, afraid of losing control of the money entrusted to him, afraid of what others might say if he comes in second or third place… on and on, his fears must have gone. Fear paralyzes this servant. It freezes him, prevents growth, and separates him from action, moving him into isolation.

Fear does that, doesn’t it? It’s tempting to play it safe. If we play it safe with our emotions, then we don’t ever look foolish. If we play it safe in relationships, then we never risk getting hurt. If we play it safe as new opportunities in work come along, then we never risk rejection. If we play it safe with God, then maybe we won’t ever have to change anything about the way we live, or talk, or treat people, or spend money, or spend our leisure time.

Someone has pointed out that the word, “FEAR” can be an acronym, with each letter representing a word.  Especially when it seems to control us, F-E-A-R can indeed be like “false evidence appearing real.”

The Gospel today is about investing—about investing money, in some ways.  But it’s also (and even more, probably) about investing one’s energy, one’s ability, one’s faith, one’s love, and one’s hope.

In Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians, he reminds the church that we are people of light, not of darkness. Fears can overshadow things to the extent that it can feel like it’s always going to be night, and that’s where various escape mechanisms can kick in. Paul names sleep and drunkenness, but we could add our own, probably—all the various ways we deal with fear. 

Most of us are carrying around a lot of fear.  We’re afraid of this Covid-19 coronavirus— both of getting sick, but also afraid of the way its attacking our jobs, our economy, our culture, and our families.  We’re afraid of the divides affecting our country—deep differences among people that seem irreconcilable and hopeless.

But Paul writes to the Thessalonians and to us, understanding that we have fears, but encouraging us not to let them get the best of us.  Paul says it just won’t work to sleepwalk or live in a daze.  It won’t work to ignore the present and just hope for some day in the future when Jesus returns and all is well.  Instead, Paul says, arm yourself as if for battle: “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”  It’s a fight— not with people, but against darkness and despair, a fight against fear.  Paul continues, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”

Even in the midst of fear, we, at Holy Trinity, are talking about stewardship, about how God (and this parish) needs every one of us.  We need your money—and so, invest it well in the secular markets, but also invest it well in this sacred place and the people who meet God in this place. But in two weeks, as we celebrate Ingathering Sunday with the offering of our tithes and monetary pledges, we will also offer the talents and volunteer energy of our parish. And so we pray to God, “Give us love, give us faith, give us hope.”

As kingdom people, as people with faith in Jesus Christ who makes all things new, we have the opportunity to create a community that supports one another and encourages each other’s talents, that shows others the power of faith over fear.  Wherever there may be buried talents, may the Lord show us where to start digging. Wherever there is fear, may it be banished and dispersed. And may God give us the faith to risk and invest deeply.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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