By Bill Hattendorf
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” the lesson starts out. Fear not. We have heard these words before in Luke’s gospel.
They’re the words that the angel Gabriel spoke to aged Zechariah, when he announces that a son will be born to him and wife Elizabeth, they who had waited so long for a child. “Fear not.”
These are the words that Gabriel speaks to a trembling teenage girl when he brings the message that she will carry Jesus in her womb.
They are the words spoken by the angel of the Lord in the shepherds’ field, “Do not be afraid … I bring you good • news of great joy for all the people.”
They are the words that Jesus uses to summon his first disciples after they haul in a boatful of fish. Peter and Andrew promptly leave their nets and follow him.
These are the words that herald miraculous births, joyful news, and calls to loving action.
So why does Jesus use them now? The news that he proclaims will no doubt raise some anxiety. His message is not easy. As the words of angels cause those in their presence to tremble, so too, does the cost of discipleship.
Jesus goes on to instruct his followers. Sell your possessions, he says, and give alms. Strive for the eternal, not for the things of earth which do not endure. This is hard news for a group of Christians in the first century (who weren’t known as Christians yet, of course), many of whom probably struggled just to get by.
I’ve got to think that the radical message that we find in Luke’s gospel, a vision of a new reign where the powerful are cast down and the lowly lifted up, likely did not have much appeal among the upper classes of society. It was fearsome news, indeed, that the order of things, our structures of power, would be turned on their heads.
I think this passage should really end a verse later. Those verses immediately after today’s lesson are not included in the Sunday lectionary. After our reading about giving all one has to the poor and about being on the watch for Christ’s unexpected return, we may well want to echo Peter’s question that comes in verse 41: He says, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” (Or, Do we have to pay attention now?”)
In terms of family background, my mom’s Scottish McLeod family was part Methodist and part Episcopal. My dad’s parents of German background were Lutheran.
Naturally, I was baptized Lutheran, confirmed Methodist, but always knew in my heart I was an Episcopalian. With such church cross-cultures growing up, I’ve sometimes found it particularly challenging to remember which Chistmas carols or which verses belong where. But I do remember singing a hymn with the Lutherans that was:
“Have no fear, little flock, Have no fear, little flock, For the Father has chosen to give you the Kingdom Have no fear, little flock.”
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Our reading today tells us that all that is worth having, God has already given, and gladly so. It brings God joy to share with us the eternal reign of heaven. And that should be our starting point. Treasure that, Jesus says.
The phrase “Do not be afraid” is the hallmark of good news throughout Scripture and it occurs multiple times in Luke's story of Jesus as well. (It is also what God says in today's first reading in Isaiah.) This “Do not be afraid,” is the rhetorical prelude to the announcement of God's mighty and saving deeds. And it’s the starting point and anchor for everything else in this passage. It is God's good pleasure – God's intention, plan, and delight – to give you the kingdom! If this is true, then disciples can, indeed, resist the seduction of wealth, not fall prey to constant anxiety about worldly needs, share what they have with others, and wait expectantly, even eagerly, for the heavenly kingdom.
The watchfulness that Jesus commands, I think, is not an anxious anticipation of the end of the world – but rather an eager expectation of God's consummation of history. What Jesus is commending is faith – faith that frees us to be generous; faith that enables us to leave anxiety behind; faith that creates confidence in us about a future secured not by human endeavor or achievement but by God alone. And todays’s second lesson was pretty much all about faith too.
Jesus does not simply hold out faith as a model and goal, much less as a standard by which to judge us. Rather, Jesus creates faith by announcing a promise: Like a parent loves one’s children deeply and desperately and wants all good things for them, so also is it God's good pleasure to give God's children the kingdom.
Promises create a shared expectation about the future and bind together the giver and receiver of the promise in that shared anticipation. Promises create relationship. Promises create hope. Promises CREATE faith. All of our instruction about the Christian life – whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, care of neighbor, and more – are therefore anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Remembering – indeed, exalting in – this promise enables us not only to have faith, but to answer Peter's question: is Jesus saying this to us or to everyone? — Yes!
The faith that is shared by Abraham and Sarah, by those first disciples of Jesus, by the little flock of Christians to whom Luke’s gospel speaks, is a faith that calls us to be dressed for action, speaking out on the issues of our day. It is a faith that calls us to be politically active, fiscally generous, and compassionate in every area of our life as we journey together toward the promised land. Christ calls us to respond gratefully, with love that risks, love that gives, love that answers, love that never stops hoping for the beauty of heaven, and never stops seeking to show that beauty here on earth.
While “Have No Fear. Little Flock” has not really stayed with me over the years, another song that relates to todays lesson, I think, has: It’s a Curtis Mayfield song from the 1960s that echoes the spirituals style in the African-American tradition. Mayfield titled his song “People Get Ready.” I bet you know it. The lines speak of faith:
People get ready, There's a train a comin'.
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'.
You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.
People get ready for the train to Jordan,
Picking up passengers from coast to coast.
Faith is the key Open the doors and board them,
There’s room for all Amongst the loved the most.
“All you need is faith,” Curtis Mayfield assures us.
That is where it starts, isn’t it?
The certainty of God’s favor, revealed, lived, died, raised, and ascended in Jesus.
It is only after this promise that we can imagine any kind of concept of what our treasure might be.
What is the power behind life?
Having faith makes it possible to be prepared for and
become an actual participant in God’s kingdom.
Only with faith, we are able to hear its sweet song.
Rev. Jane R. Dunning
The words, “fear not” appear more than 300 times in the bible. As God, or God’s messenger, approaches a human, these two words often the first form of address. We are a fearful, anxious, worrisome part of God’s creation. The list of human phobias is long and complex, but many psychologists say these are all derived from 5 essential human fears...
Fear of extinction, which includes the fear of death... That panicky feeling when you look over the edge of a high building is an example. This is a primal fear that we share with most of God’s creatures
Fear of mutilation, or serious bodily harm, fear of anything that would harm our body or its function. Again, this is a primary fear for our survival. Fear of separation can be fear of abandonment, rejection, loss of connection with others. This can be fear of being unwanted, not respected, or not valued. This can be fear of the loss someone we love. Fear of loss of autonomy, fear of being paralyzed, restricted, fear of loss of control.And number five is one they call fear of “ego death.” This is the fear of humiliation, of shame, of anything which causes profound self- disapproval, loss of any sense of self-worth. This is what we see when our young people are the victims of bullying... Sadly this is often the cause of suicide.
These are the five basic human fears, and all other types of “phobias” can be placed under these five...
And how does fear affect us? First of all there is the primary reaction of fight or flight. To this, currently doctors are adding the word “freeze.” As they work with those who have suffered a traumatic event, they find that some people react by totally freezing... unable to cope in any way.
Fear makes us selfish... Our basic reaction is to think only of ourselves and those close to us. This can be a form of emotional freezing... It makes us unable to interact with those around us. Fear makes us unresponsive... our mind is frozen and we cannot face the situation in any kind of creative way. We cling to old patterns and old reactions... another form of freezing. This form of mental freezing makes us short-sighted and unable to find a way out of the current situation.
In the passage from Luke’s gospel we have a member of the crowd asking Jesus to make sure that he gets his share of the family inheritance. This could be tied to a basic survival fear of not having enough to sustain life, but Jesus refuses to become embroiled in what is clearly a family argument about money, not about survival.
Jesus tells the story of the rich man who had everything anyone could want for his survival and for the future... Oh, he said I will build bigger barns and store more goods, I will make more money, have more things, just for the pleasure of knowing I have them...
Jesus says “Take care. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."
Fear of not having enough for survival is a valid and an important fear, but when the response to that fear becomes the accumulation of wealth and possessions as an end to itself, it has become greed...
If normal fears can freeze us and cause us to become self-absorbed at a time of crisis, Greed will do this even more so. Greed focuses only on the self. The accumulation of wealth becomes more important than anything else, and Greed will not allow for any focus on the needs of others. Greed is not aware of the needs of the community, and Greed is not able to function well with others. Let greed rule your life and it becomes the god that you worship, the golden calf that you cherish.
'And God says, to the rich man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
“For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions...”
We can be rich in money or property but if we focus with greed on those riches, we will not be able to make the connections with others that our spirit needs to thrive. If we keep a clenched fist to protect what we have, we will never be able to reach out with open hands to others and include them in our lives..
We have a choice. We can live our lives with fear and a clenched fist, or we can take the risk of opening our hand and reaching out to embrace the world around us.
I am beginning to realize that my contacts with those I meet along my journey add a vast wealth of richness to my life. Perhaps this is what life is all about... Those very special connections that we form, even day by day, enrich our lives beyond belief.
For each of us, may God help us to engage the world around us and to celebrate the connections, even when they are difficult. Help us to be fully present and to live in the moment, and help us to more fully love and appreciate our neighbor.
I want to close with a little piece by Australian commentator, Michael Leunig. He draws isolated little boxes, scattered across the page, each holding a tiny figure. The walls on the boxes are high, so that none of the tiny people can see the others... Each tiny person is totally isolated.
Then he writes the following:
Dear Lord, help us to choose love.
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