If We Were Not Afraid


A Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]

At this year’s Synod Assembly back in June, Pastor Scott Schantzenbach challenged the Assembled church with a question:

“What would you do if you were not afraid?”

The question is a challenge, because it names a truth that polite society doesn’t usually like to talk about: the truth that fear all too often drives, or constricts, our decisions and actions. But Pastor Schantzenbach’s goal wasn’t to wag a finger at people and churches he loves… it was to invite us into an exercise of holy imagination.

He was inviting us to move past our fears by confronting the ways that they can get in the way of doing the things we want to do, and that God calls us to do. And in posing this question, he was making plain a consequence of Jesus’s repeated instruction to his followers not to be afraid: the recognition that this instruction is NOT just about our feelings – it’s also about our actions. When Jesus tells us not to be afraid it is meant to comfort us, yes, but it is also meant to equip us for the work he calls us into.

This week, one of my colleagues in the Synod, Pastor Chris Halverson, posed a more specific version of this question, which digs into the details of this week’s gospel challenge to not be afraid. Pastor Halverson asked:

How would it shape your roles and relationships if you were not afraid of the possibility of everything being turned upside down?

This question gives a specific name to our fear: the fear of “everything being turned upside down,” the fear of disruption in the life we know. It’s a fear that today’s gospel clearly engages (we’ll get to that in a minute)…It is also a fear that flags for us the ways in which stability, or maybe just stasis, can function in our lives as a substitute for trusting in God.

Pastor Halverson’s question also suggests a specific way that overcoming our fears might change what we do: by changing our roles and relationships. He locates the challenge of how we respond to fear squarely in the context of how we respond to and treat other people.

I think that both of these questions are helpful frames for engaging with today’s gospel reading. Of course, the issue of fear is raised in the very first verse: “Do not be afraid, little flock…”

This verse actually follows an extended teaching from Jesus to his disciples about rejecting worry. Jesus holds up the examples of birds and lilies, and promises that the God who provides for these weak and helpless things will also provide for God’s children.

The beginning of today’s reading follows on from that foundation, which is important for at least two reasons.

First, the “fear” in this context is not about vague anxiety, it is about the very stuff of life: food, and clothing. Jesus is telling his followers to trust God with the BIG stuff… with the stuff they cannot live without.

Second, by drawing comparisons to small birds and perishable plants, Jesus is associating his followers with weakness. This association is carried through to today’s reading, calling the disciples “little flock.” In the Greek this phrase has a double-diminutive, perhaps better translated as “small little flock.”[1] In other words, Jesus is making it clear that the fearlessness to which he is calling his disciples has nothing to do with their own capacity… it is all about God’s good pleasure.

This is the first hint we get at the theme of “everything being turned upside down.” The “small, little flock” – the followers who are utterly weak and dependent – these are the ones whom it pleases God to include in God’s kingdom.

Now, weak, dependent sheep don’t seem like the most likely candidates for building a kingdom, but that’s just the start of turning expectations upside down.

In this kingdom, apparently, those who HAVE are to sell their possessions in order to give to people in poverty…

And security comes NOT from what we own now, but in what we store up in heaven…

And it’s the place we put our treasure that determines where our heart is, not the other way around…

And servants are to be prepared to serve at all times, but then when the Master comes it will be the Master who serves them…

And then comes the strangest reversal of all: Jesus spends several verses building this image of readiness for a benevolent Master, who returns to the household in joy from a wedding banquet… and then, unaccountably, switches tracks to talking about a thief breaking in… and then tells his followers “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Luke 12:40).

Wait, What?! Son of Man is a title for Jesus, so, is Jesus saying he will come like a thief? That he is planning to break in and steal? Are we supposed to be scared? He just told us NOT to be afraid!

Talk about a kingdom where everything gets turned upside down…

But remember our opening question: what would it look like to NOT be afraid of the reversals, to not fear our security and expectations getting upturned, to not fear our house, our source of stability, getting broken into? Jesus is describing a kingdom defined by reversals, so the fearlessness he exhorts isn’t about rejecting our fears as unreasonable… it’s about knowing that having our lives turned upside down is not something to be afraid of.

Jesus DOES come to turn our lives upside down… this is God’s good pleasure… this is the promised inheritance of God’s kingdom. And it is GOOD.

Jesus calls us to be ready NOT so that we can defend ourselves – how is a small little flock going to defend themselves? – but so that we can recognize the disruption as a gift, as our inheritance of God’s kingdom. Because when we start from a place of trusting the goodness in the ways God’s kingdom breaks in and turns things upside down… that trust WILL shape our roles and relationships… it will change us into people who can do what God calls us to do without fear.

This will look different in each of our lives, but the passage offers us some examples of the kinds of relational transformations that happen in God’s kingdom:

Those who have excess possessions sell them to give to people in need;

People invest in things with eternal consequences, rather than trusting in things that wear out or can be stolen and destroyed;

People who are always seeking to do everything right, and meet expectations, discover that their needs can be validated and served as well.

And people who think they are secure, that they can protect themselves behind the walls of their homes discover that they are still vulnerable… and this is how Jesus gets in.

There are limitless ways for God’s kingdom to upturn ours lives and transform our relationships, but I think the summary in one commentary I read this week gives us a helpful handle one this upside down kingdom living: “(Jesus’s) call is to replace fear with faith, anxiety with trust, greed with generosity…. The call is idealistic, but it is also practical and an offer of hope.”[2]

It is an achingly beautiful image of God’s kingdom… AND I won’t pretend it’s an easy one to embrace. Both Pastor Schantzenbach and Pastor Halverson used the word if in their questions… they are exercises in holy imagination, because we have to try to IMAGINE not being afraid.

As someone who lives with an anxiety disorder, I certainly can’t just hear the command “do not be afraid” and say “OK.” None of us have that power. Sometimes, we need therapy, or medication, or both, and sometimes it still feels impossible. We can’t just “pray our fear away.” Trusting God is a moment-by-moment practice that we will never perfect.

But I also do believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a source of hope unlike any other. A hope that can not only soothe our souls, but also transform our lives and our roles and relationship. I believe that it IS God’s good pleasure to give us the topsy turvey kingdom of reversal that can transform our lives.

So, I want to end this sermon with a blessing from spiritual artist and author Jan Richardson. She calls this prayer “Blessing in a Time of Violence”[3], a title that is, in itself, a bit topsy turvy. It is my hope that in this blessing we can all find an invitation to the upside down kingdom – where we find the trust to move out of fear into faith, and into the transformed roles and relationships that brings.

BLESSING IN A TIME OF VIOLENCE

Which is to say this blessing is always.

Which is to say there is no place this blessing does not long to cry out in lament, to weep its words in sorrow, to scream its lines in sacred rage.

Which is to say there is no day this blessing ceases to whisper into the ear of the dying, the despairing, the terrified.

Which is to say there is no moment this blessing refuses to sing itself into the heart of the hated and the hateful, the victim and the victimizer, with every last ounce of hope it has.

Which is to say there is none that can stop it, none that can halt its course, none that will still its cadence, none that will delay its rising, none that can keep it from springing forth from the mouths of us who hope, from the hands of us who act, from the hearts of us who love, from the feet of us who will not cease our stubborn, aching marching, marching

until this blessing has spoken its final word, until this blessing has breathed its benediction in every place, in every tongue:

Peace. Peace. Peace.

Thanks be to God.

[1] See translation by D. Mark Davis: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-coming-of-lord-or-maybe-thief.html

[2] Amy-Jill Levine & Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 347-348.

[3] Jan Richardson, from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief.

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