Archive for August, 2022

Are We Afraid of Hopelessness?

Today’s readings describe what seems impossible possibilities. Hope amidst hopelessness, a life of love that rebuffs a life of fear.  Todays, world is in a place in time it has never been before. Despite the fact that it has experienced 5 extinctions of its civilizations the planet is still here. It still lives. We are left with the question as to what about us in the nearing end of the sixth extinction and especially what of our faith? What does it have to say to us in what seems like an exponetial race toward an end? What are we afraid of and more so where do we find hope in these days of human history? Big questions and the importance of ‘Do not be afraid’ goes straight to ‘Where is our hope?’ What is the ‘good news?’

Isaiah challenges the people to go from apathy to awareness and transform their worship from ritual to justice-seeking.  Today in a world racing towards the completion of secularization and abandonment of ‘religion where is this thing called hope” What does it look like? Hebrews tells the story of Abraham and Sarah following God’s promises that, although they are childless, they will become the parents of a nation.  Jesus asks his followers to stay awake in every season of life, and sell their possessions to have resources to give to the poor.

In other words, and perhaps with a bigger vision of life Isaiah challenges us to explore a holistic spirituality.  Prayer and praise are important as is living through the liturgical year, but our most dynamic worship is fruitless if we turn our back on the poor.  Holistic worship is a living evolving expression, and seeks to love God by loving creation, including both the non-human and human world.  All worship tries to be grounded in grace and to inspire prophetic action.  The meaning of “prophetic” will differ from community to community and congregation to congregation.  Still, the prophetic tries to touch base with the real suffering in our neighbourhood and the world around us.  The challenge is to become aware that sadly, too much worship implicitly supports injustice and ecocide by its apathy.  If our hymns and our words of praise and excitement, drown out the cries of the poor, we are likely to experience a famine on hearing the divine word, despite our apparent piety.

The Epistle to the Hebrews portrays Abraham and Sarah’s faith as involving a trusting of the sacred with the unseen and unknown.  They launch out – you might say recklessly – with no promises and few guarantees.  They don’t even know where they are going.  This foolish faith is an anathema to those who consult Google Earth or set their GPS for a five-mile drive toward somewhere new. The narrative of Abraham and Sarah invites us to be risk takers, willing to go forth with only a dream to guide us toward God’s far horizons. ‘Do not be afraid’ is about taking risks and living in a risk-taking world. The elderly couple gives up everything secure to follow a promise.  By comparison, most us are far too prudent and careful.  Many of us will take solace in an interventionist God and leave it alone as magic. Faith becomes a noun that we can hide in and not be afraid, but is this not trading one fear for another? At the very least, we need to consider becoming prudent risk livers, open to setting aside certainty to follow the divine call.

And, then, there’s Jesus.  Is the fear all about our personal and communal treasures. Is it about what is truly most important to us?  Is it about us being willing to let go of everything to do the great work God calls us toward?  Jesus promises a realm that is unending and with a new definition of satisfying.  Entry into this realm, however, requires attentiveness, willingness to launch out on a moment’s notice, and the possibility that we have to become downwardly mobile for the sake of following this vision.  Look out for fear though because we will very likely feel conflicted as we read Jesus’ admonition.  We want enough security in this lifetime and we have obligations to family, congregations, and institutions.  If we join the way of Jesus, we may have to get up and go to respond. Like the fishermen we might have to give up a sound sensible livelihood.

I don’t know what this is saying to you but for me it says I am not off the hook, and I too need to confront my own desire for security – financial, vocational, doctrinal, and liturgical comfort found in certainty, and I need to do this before placing undue burdens on anyone else.  For starters, this text – and the others – calls for an examination of conscience to determine what is truly important to us. ‘What is it that I am afraid of?’  The hour and moment of this opportunity’s coming may or may not conflict with our other responsibilities.  It may not represent a sharp break, but it will call us to perceive our responsibilities from a different perspective.  The homeless and hungry must simply wait for any direct or indirect action on our part.  Choices must be made moment by moment and fidelity may involve caring for our families first and ensuring their well-being before putting ourselves at risk or devoting hours and days to a cause in our community.  The issue is not one of “either-or” but rather taking seriously God’s call in the moment, given our various responsibilities and personal gifts.

In our Gospel text for today Luke’s Jesus is saying ‘do not be afraid’ as introduction to the good news. This is another approach to the nature of our fear. Jesus is seen to have a habit of prefacing good news with the exhortation “Do not be afraid.” This seems a bit odd since we’re more likely to think that it’s the delivery of bad news which requires a little no-fear pep talk. But over and over Luke’s pronouncements about God’s generous ways of working in the world—about the good news of the kingdom—are preceded by the words “Do not be afraid”: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”

In this week’s reading from Luke 12, it’s Jesus, who says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

We are immediately left with the question: Why tell your hearers not to be afraid when the news is so good? Well! perhaps it’s because Luke knows that this good news is also disturbing news, unsettling of the status quo, maybe be even a heralding of the end of a civilization, and we often prefer our old, familiar, certain ways. We hide in a fear of change, a fear of credibility, a fear of the big picture and we hide in the present. When Jesus says “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (immediately after telling us not to fear), he pinpoints the source of much of our anxiety: our possessions give us comfort, a sense of security, whether they are objects we’ve acquired or personal accomplishments that define our self-worth or a reluctance to recognize that we live on a living planet that has cycles of its own. We reject the idea of a serendipitous reality and hide in our not knowing. We are afraid that we might not understand. We are aided in our fears by the world we have created. Our advertising is based on our feel-good factor and when we feel afraid we opt out in favour of safety and certainty. To give up such stuff is a fearful thing indeed and we shouldn’t be afraid. Or so we tell ourselves.

But the kingdom that God is pleased to give us isn’t about hoarding treasure for ourselves or for our loved ones or for our future. It’s a way of life and living characterized by giving ourselves away for others, over and over again. We need to be contributing, cooperating, collaborating and participating not hiding from, avoiding, and living in fear.

The book of Isaiah opens with dire warnings for those unwilling to do this living, those caught up in empty ritual — “solemn assemblies with iniquity”—whose “hands are full of blood.” Here we can perhaps make something of a connection between fear and violence. Luke’s repetitive, rhetorical preface to the gospel’s good news — “Do not be afraid”—reminds us that fear, unchecked, can lead to the worst forms of oppression, intimidation, and brutality.

The prophet Isaiah tells the people that such evil is at work “even though you make many prayers.” On behalf of Yahweh, he gives the necessary instructions: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

But wait a minute! The, people of Judah and Jerusalem surely didn’t think they were evil. They offered what they thought was proper worship. They kept the appointed festivals. They were dutiful, disciplined, attentive to protocol and propriety. Maybe it’s too easy for us to see their hollow devotion and their disobedience. Is that us avoiding our own fears and projecting it backwards. It’s all the fault of my parents or my upbringing. What am I afraid of?

The grace that God offers—evident in Isaiah and in Luke—is that judgment is always tempered with mercy. We need not fear because the One who speaks to his “little flock” is the Shepherd who guides and feeds, who leads and supplies, giving us all that we need to bear witness to the kingdom. He tells us to “be dressed for action and have [our] lamps lit.”

That words ‘Do not be afraid’ remind us that the words that startle and unsettle us need to be taken seriously, not run away from or denied by fooling ourselves. Isaiah wasn’t kidding around and neither was Jesus. The good news of God’s way of working in the world is also disturbing news. But the words need not undo us. Do not be afraid. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

But let’s not start to chastise ourselves here by admitting we will never quite make this required transition in our lives. The truth is that we are not all social activists or prophets, and yet we must ensure that our faith communities are not apathetic when it comes to the well-being of our community’s, nation’s, and planet’s most vulnerable reality and thus its citizens. Addressing climate change, pollution and single cycle productions is crucial for the collective human race as well as the living planet. At the very least, we all need to be pastoral prophets, caring first, but also challenging. We must be willing to balance care for our family, the health of our communities, and social and environmental concern.  The task isn’t easy; if the world is saved one person at a time, we must hold all these callings in contrast, putting some ahead of others and then placing the calling of one moment in the background when other callings appear.  Sometimes we must care for our own grandchildren before other peoples’ children, but our love for our own family eventually must bear fruit in seeking well-being for the planet’s children.  We are all in this together and even a small act can be catalytic.

Today’s readings remind us to seek God’s realm in and beyond our daily responsibilities, be not afraid, and to consider constantly the need to give up certain types of security to be faithful to God’s presence in the persons in front of us and across the globe.  We may have an uneasy conscience at times and this is good news, be not afraid. It is the uneasiness that invites us to mindfulness and intentionality, and reflection on what is truly important in the course of a day and a lifetime. Amen.