Sunday, August 11, 2013
Fear, Faith and Treasure Choices (August 11 2013)
Homily: Yr C Proper 19, August 11 2013, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Ps 50.1-8,22-23; Heb 11:1-3,8-16; Lk 12.32-40
Fear, Faith and Treasure Choices
It must be summer! Because the last time that I was up here preaching, we were still in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And if you can remember that far back, we talked about the great promise that Paul made to the Galatians, the promise that he called the gospel of grace. Paul told the Galatians that they were good with God, that they’ve already been made right with God through Jesus, and that God loves them and cares for them and wants what’s best for them, no strings attached.
In today’s gospel, Jesus makes us the same promise. Did you notice? Maybe not, because the language is different. Jesus, as he often does, uses “kingdom” language. But here’s the promise: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
What an amazing promise! God wants to give us the kingdom. We don’t have to earn the things of the kingdom, we don’t get them as a reward for good behaviour, no, God wants to give them to us and even gets pleasure out of doing it, just as a loving parent wants to and enjoys giving good things to his or her children. Now, you may ask, “What is the kingdom, what are the things of the kingdom? Well, God knows that we need food to eat and clothes to wear, and that’s part of it, but it’s about much more than that. As we sang together in our opening song, “in your kingdom broken lives are made new.” The kingdom is about being in good and right relationship with God and with each other. It’s about authentic community. It’s about learning to love one another and seeking justice for those who need our care. It’s about eternal life and salvation yes, but it’s also about God’s kingdom coming on earth, an end to war and violence, a blossoming of joy and peace and freedom and all the other good things that God wants us to have, individually and in community.
This promise is the anchor of today’s gospel. Everything else we hear in today’s gospel is about movement. It’s about a movement to try to get us from here to there. It’s about Jesus wanting to help us and give us some advice on how we can learn to lean in, to live in to the promise.
Because there’s always a gap in the promises of God. Something that David Lose calls an “irreducible tension”. Because, to be perfectly honest, it’s not at all obvious that it really is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom. Take a look around. God’s kingdom has not yet come on earth as in heaven. There is civil war in Syria. There were two kids crushed to death by a snake last week. There’s the stuff happening in your lives and the lives of your friends and family. The promise that God wants to give us the things of the kingdom, all that good stuff that we talked about may be something we hope for, but it’s not something we can see clearly yet. We may see signs of it, we may get glimpses. But there is a gap, there is a tension. And so the promises of God must be taken on faith. Faith is, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Last week in our gospel and in Zack’s sermon we started talking about treasure choices. We heard the story of the rich man who wanted to build bigger and bigger barns so that he could store more and more stuff. This week, we have Jesus urging us to sell our possessions and give alms, and warning us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Now on the one hand these sayings relate clearly to money and what we do with it. But they’re also about more than just money. This is about our priorities. This is about where we choose to put our time and energy and the things that result from these choices as we live out our lives.
But I think that Jesus realizes that before we can really talk about treasure, about how we establish our priorities we need to talk about fear. Because fear may well be the most destructive force on this planet, and whether we like it or not, it is often the driving force behind our priorities and our treasure choices. Henri Nouwen, whose book we read in our most recent book study, puts it this way:
“The more people I come to know and the more I come to know people, the more I am overwhelmed by the negative power of fear. It often seems that fear has so invaded every part of our lives that we no longer know what a life without fear would feel like. Fear pervades our bodies, individually and communally. So many people let their thinking, speaking and acting be motivated by fear.”
We know that fear is pervasive. Fear’s close cousin, anxiety, has reached epidemic proportions in Canada, so much so that one in nine Canadians will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. What effect does all this fear and anxiety have on our priorities. Or to put it another way, what do our treasure choices look like when we are afraid?
We’re going to talk about this in a moment, but first let me give you a few examples.
Psychologists have certainly figured out that if we have a fear of rejection or abandonment, we may have a hard time forming close relationships. Instead of opening ourselves up to be close to others, our efforts may go into building up defenses and creating mechanisms to keep distance in our relationships.
Or perhaps you’re worried about what other people think about you. And so the treasure you might choose is to develop a great image, to dress well, to have a good public persona, and maybe even to pursue fame, which will reassure you that other people hold you in high opinion.
I know a man who shortly after he got married, hit a rough spot in his relationship with his wife. Things he did started to irritate her, and he became so afraid of upsetting her that he started walking on eggshells, being extremely careful not to say or do anything that might set her off. He became so withdrawn and passive that before long his wife had a hard time recognizing the man she had fallen in love with.
I have a friend who grew up in a poor household, and it affected him as a child, and he resolved that when he was grown up, he would be wealthy. And so he pursued a career that paid him well, and he arranged to live in tax-free havens and he learned to finagle his expense reports so that he could make a little extra money that way.
Selina and I were talking recently about the Stewardship Under Forty conference that she just went to. It seems that many people under forty, and many over forty as well, have tremendous anxiety about their finances. And even though there have been a slew of recent studies that have shown how generosity is good for our health, and that we experience more happiness when we spend money on others than when spend it on ourselves, many people are sufficiently anxious about their own financial situation that they just aren’t able to commit to charitable giving.
You can probably think of many other examples of how fear and anxiety influence our priorities in life. You may be your own best example! So I’d like you to take a few moments and discuss the following question:
What do our treasures choices look like when we’re afraid?
Now I know that these are not easy things to reflect on. And I also know that fear is not always bad, that some of our fears are well-founded, and that sometimes the priorities that come out of these fears might be appropriate. And I’m certainly aware that getting a handle on fear and anxiety doesn’t happen simply because someone tells you “don’t be afraid” or “stop worrying”. But I do hope that at least we can agree that fear is a powerful thing and that has a powerful impact on our treasure choices. Because then we can move on to my next question for you, which is, what would our treasure choices look like if we weren’t afraid? If we could let go of all the things that you were just reflecting on and talking about? Or to put it another way, what would our treasure choices look like if we really had faith in the promise that Jesus proclaims in today’s gospel, that it really is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom.
Well, our treasure choices would be different wouldn’t they? For one thing, our source of treasure shifts. Instead of striving to generate our own treasure, we’d realize that much of what is really valuable is given to us by God. Our treasure becomes our identity as children of God, our inherent worth as a child of God, loved so much that God was even willing to die for us. Our treasure becomes lives that are infused with meaning and purpose, and the knowledge that we were created for a reason and that we’ve been given everything we need to participate in the building of God’s kingdom here on earth in our own particular way. Our priorities would become kingdom priorities: a deep and sustaining relationship with God, loving relationships with others and those priorities that Isaiah points us to in the first reading this morning: learning to do good, ceasing evil, seeking justice and caring and advocating for those who are weak and vulnerable in our society.
Because when we start to overcome our fears and replace them with faith, faith in the promise of God, then our priorities shift. We start to build up treasure in new places. We begin to see the kingdom emerging in our midst.
But for most of us, the movement from fear to faith does not happen overnight. It is a journey. It is a challenge. How do we move from fear to faith?
Let me close with words from Henri Nouwen:
“When we begin to understand at a deep, spiritual level that we live surrounded by love and in communion with God no matter what the external circumstances, we can let go of the fear that lurks on the outskirts of our minds. Hardly a day passes in our lives without an experience of inner or outer fears, anxieties, apprehensions and preoccupations. But we do not have to live in fear. Love is stronger than fear.”