“Do not be afraid,” or “fear not,” depending on which version you read. Both our gospel reading (Luke 12:32-40) and our reading from the Old Testament (Genesis 15:1-6) have that same phrase in the very first verse. How timely is this? In this summer of 2016 fear seem to stalk us: terrorism, politicians who want to scare their way into power, personal struggles with physical and mental health and the usual stuff that makes congregational life hard—even mosquitoes and the Zika virus.
Just a couple of weeks ago my mom told us that she wasn’t feeling well. She went to her doctor and was in turn sent for some diagnostic procedures. There are times when you get the initial spectrum of possibilities—from fairly good to pretty bad—you worry a lot and things end up being fine.
I once had a sudden sharp and explainable pain in my elbow. It really bothered me and I started to feel nauseous. I called the “phone-a-nurse” from the parking lot of a grocery store. After just a few questions I could tell the nurse was trying to decide if I was just an absent-minded guy who couldn’t remember getting a bruise or if I might be having a heart attack. I was surprised by the heart attack line of questioning. How odd, I thought. There had been a few times earlier in my life when I thought I might be about to die. All of them were more dramatic than passing away on a warm summer day in a parking lot. The nurse was asking for details about my location. I felt fear run across my neck.
What sorts of things are we afraid of? Maybe we’re afraid of a new school year starting in about a month (teachers and students), maybe a relationship seems to be fraying, maybe our finances are way out of order, maybe your career isn’t moving along, or maybe it’s moving so fast we can’t keep up or we can’t meet expectations. Maybe we’re afraid of violence or some of these cold political winds. Maybe we’re afraid for our church. Maybe you’re afraid for our kids or our parents.
My family is finding my mom’s situation to be scary. Initial diagnostic procedures have not been encouraging. We’re afraid for her. We’re afraid of the specifics of the eventual diagnoses and, maybe more so, of the treatment.
Abram was afraid of two things, I think (Gen. 15:1-6). He was afraid that he and Sarai wouldn’t have any children and he was afraid that the voice he had listened to wouldn’t prove to be trustworthy. Sarai and Abram had left their homeland and bet their lives on the sense that God was calling them.
Now, for full disclosure, we must mention that Abram seems to have been prone to fear. Here’s one example: He and Sarai had once traveled to Egypt to escape a famine. Now somewhere about high school Abram had been a pretty popular kid. He had played football and was captain of the chess club—all the usual stuff. So when it came time to get married he hooked-up with the most beautiful girl in the school. That was super until they had to go to Egypt. I imagine that it was just as they were going through customs that Abram says to Sarai, “Ahh, you’re super beautiful! People here love super-beautiful women! This could cause problems for . . . me!” Then he thought hard and came up with a plan: “Let’s tell the border guard that you’re my sister.”
That’s one way to deal with your fears, start telling lies. You can say you don’t really care, say the job wasn’t that great anyway, say you knew the kids at your new school would suck.
But whatever Abram’s strategies were, and he had several others, he was afraid. He was afraid that the voice he had listened to wasn’t really worth his trust.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you were giving your credit card info over the phone and you had second thoughts. What if this person isn’t really going to give me a life-time supply of gummy bears? Or there was that moment that you realized the vacation you booked was going to be a bug-infested, worse-than-work sort of week. You realized your uncle had a very odd taste in destinations. That’s a scaled down version of Abram’s moment. He’d banked his life on obedience to God, and God wasn’t coming through. There was on son. He was as good as dead.
The passage says that he went outside. He left the shelter of his tent and went out under the stars. I want you to imagine that Sarai went with him and that out there stood Jesus. What would Jesus say?
Well, I think he’d say, “Don’t be afraid.” In the long paragraph before the passage from Luke 12 that we read (we read 32-40) Jesus tells his disciples to not worry. “Don’t worry about your life,” he tells them. Look how God cares for the rest of creation. Look how beautiful it is. Look how the sun and rain give the animals what they need—and more.
I once knew someone involved in development work who found this text to be revolutionary. He was frustrated by the way we grow and transport food here in North America and frustrated by the poverty and even starvation he saw overseas. It was this text about worry that struck him. What we need, what other people need, is out there, he realized. We’ve just forgotten how to work with these basic provisions. They grass can do it, the flowers, the ravens. Why not us? So Jesus would tell Abram not to be afraid. God is a good God, a caring God, whose care and goodness shine in the son and flow in the streams and rivers.
What is we joined the little group outside the tent, staring at the night sky. What would happen then? My hunch is that the first thing that would happen is we would notice how ‘earthy’ these three other people smelled. But if we could get beyond that I think we would here the same thing from Jesus: “Don’t be afraid.”
Imagine if we could. Imagine if what would happen if we were able to live without that unhealthy gnawing fear and anxiety. Surely that would be the good life. That would be flourishing, or at least a major part of it.
But what if we gathered the courage to reply to Jesus and to ask him ‘how’. That’s the question, isn’t it? How do we put fear aside? We all have some things that we’re afraid of, and for good reason. Our world is a tough place, some of us are in tough situations. We’re all exposed to fear. If we could avoid being afraid, afraid of whatever it is that we’re afraid of, we’d have done it by now. We have all had plenty of opportunity to practice.
So there you are, Abram, Sarai and Jesus. You’re looking up at the stars, the one God said represented the spiritual descendants of Abram and Sarai. You’ve just asked this first-century rabbi to get out of the clouds and into real life. Maybe you’d throw a rock out into the dark and continue. You’d say, “I know, Jesus, you’ve told me not to be afraid. I know you’ve said God the Father would give us the whole freaking kingdom. But I’m worried and I can’t not be.” How would Jesus respond?
I think, based on our gospel reading, you’d hear Jesus say something like this: “You put away fear by replacing those worried thoughts with thoughts about the kingdom. You put away thinking about small things, like your life even, by thinking about the bigness, the magnitude of God’s creation and the expanse of God’s love.” He’d say that as you looked into space where stars many times larger than our sun looked small as pinpricks. He’d say, “Invest in what I’m doing. That’ll do your heart good.”
You would stand there a bit, thinking it over. And then you might say, “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be any pain.” You might say, “That doesn’t mean the people I love are going to get well or that my friend is going to forgive me. That doesn’t mean everything is going to be fine and dandy for my church.”
My hunch is, and here I’m obviously putting words in Jesus’ mouth, he’d say something like this: “That’s true. I love you but that doesn’t mean evil and death aren’t making a mess of things. Just because I care for you like a shepherd cares for sheep doesn’t mean that the world you live in doesn’t have some evil elements. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that your own heart doesn’t have some evil elements.”
He’d let that hang in the air and he’d let out one of those compassionate sighs and then he would say go on. “Someday I am going to make everything right. I am going to complete what I started. This stuff isn’t the end. Be ready for new things. Watch my power at work in the world. The power that flung those stars out there. That’s the power of my love. Don’t be afraid.”