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.
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