Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
In some ways, today’s sermon is Part 2 of last week’s. At least, it covers two of the same themes: our fear and our treasure. Again we are invited to consider how each impacts the other. Again, the word of God to us is, “Have no fear little flock. Have no fear. The father has chosen to give you the kingdom.”
But how can I tell anyone to have no fear when we live in a time filled with fear? It is a household word every single day. Internationally there are endless stories about terrorists and terrorism (which is nothing but a fancy word for “instigating fear”). There is concern about how Brexit and the unrest in Turkey and the Middle East will affect the world’s economy and about how climate change will affect our environment. Refugees and immigrants are more often greeted with hostility than with a welcoming embrace no matter where they go. And in this country more of our children are being incarcerated than educated; overt acts of racism are consistently being filmed, and political tension is at a fever pitch. And that doesn’t even take into consideration our own personal fears about bad news from a doctor or a family member or bank or loved one. What’s not to fear?
Jesus says in __ that he did not come to cure the well but the sick. That’s us. Sick with fear. And we are not the first. The Good News is that God’s response to our ailment looks a lot like it did when God visits Abram in today’s OT lesson. Abram, this forefather of three of the world’s major religions is not standing strong, facing the future in confidence rooted in fearlessness. Oh no. Abram is curled up in a fetal position in his tent, unable to cope with the strains on his relationships and faith. And God’s word to him? “Do not be afraid, Abram.”
I love how Abram reacts, and I advise each of us to follow his example in our prayer life. Because he doesn’t shake it off and say, “You’re right, God. Nothing to fear here.” Oh no! He scolds God, claims God is being entirely unreasonable and unrealistic. He reminds God of the angels who announced that he and Sarah were going to have a son, and points out that he has children by various slave women, but none by his wife Sarah. Abram didn’t hold anything back, but unburdened all his feelings and struggles, knowing God was big enough to take them all in stride.
I hope this story will revitalize our prayer lives, and give us the courage to be vulnerable and honest—and even sassy—in our prayers. God can handle it.
God beckons Abram outside his tent, points to the canopy of stars and says, “You will have as many descendants as all these stars.” And then God assures him again that there is nothing to fear. No matter what difficult tasks Abram and Sarai are given, no matter how ridiculous and seemingly impossible they are, God will be there with them. God never says that it will be easy. In fact, God does mention, “Your descendants will be strangers in a strange land. Some of them will be slaves. They will suffer under an oppressive regime. But I promise you, they will exist, and I will be right next to them through everything, just like I’m right next to you. Don’t be afraid.”
All of Jesus’ disciples knew this story. They were Abraham’s descendants, and had heard stories about their great forefather in the faith all their lives. They knew that the Hebrew people, Abraham’s children, had indeed been enslaved, and they knew that they themselves were living under an occupying, oppressive government. They were terrified, fragile people, who were descendants of terrified, fragile people. But those ancestors still found a way to carry on, even in the midst of their fears, and Jesus encourages his followers (then and now) to hang on, to lean into trust in God’s promises, not their fears.
Fear is destructive, not creative. It might paralyze us into inaction or cause us to act out in inappropriate ways. It can ruin our relationships with ourselves, with others, with creation, and with God in many ways. But we don’t need to live under its rule. We are children of God, citizens of God’s reign. God promises to be with us, just as God has always been with people of faith. The “great cloud of witnesses” we heard about in the letter to the Hebrews remind us of that.
God entrusts us with a great treasure to help us move forward. As we heard last week, power and wealth and prestige are not the treasures that will give our lives meaning. Instead, the priceless treasure God extends to us is God’s presence among us. God is here right now, no matter how scared we are, in the form of bread and wine. God’s presence is next to you, among your sisters and brothers, whose faith is just as humble and tenuous as yours. God’s presence is here in our family stories in this book of faith. God’s presence permeates this place, saturates it, drenches it with goodness.
God’s passion for being with us caused Jesus to walk around with his frightened disciples, endeavoring to show how much they—and all of creation—mean to God. Jesus gave everything to and for those he loved. Everything. Odds are good that on more than one occasion, he was tempted to fear, but angels came to him, echoing their customary refrain, “Don’t be afraid.” And Jesus stretched out his arms on a cross, over us like a canopy, and invited us all to gather under them, safe and beloved.
Now what are we going to do with that kind of treasure? In some ways, we are doing it right now. We are gathering to praise God, to share the stories and the sacrament, to revel in this gift together. Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. And so it is clear that the more we gather to experience the treasure of God’s love for us, the more we will find ourselves wanting to do so. The treasure will keep inviting us back.
But it is also true that we, as faithful Christian people, are called—as Sarai and Abram were called—to carry God’s promises to others. Jesus’ love for us and constant presence with us are treasures we cannot hoard. We have to leave this place and share God’s compassion and mercy with others who hunger for bread and who thirst for living water.
Where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. So if we our treasure is God’s work, inside and outside these walls, our hearts will be there too. Our hearts will move us among the lonely, the sad, the terrified, and bring us spend time with them. Our hearts will lead us into new and uncharted ways of interacting and communicating with one another and with God. And that sounds like a faith journey to me. By faith, the people of Trinity went out, not knowing where they were to go, but only that God was leading them. And their faith was reckoned to them as righteousness. Have no fear, little flock. Your father has chosen to give you the kingdom.
I’d like to offer a familiar prayer for us on this journey. I invite you to pray with your hands open, palms up. With one open palm, release the fears that diminish you. With the other, receive the promise that God is with you always.
“Lord God, you have called us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
By paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go forward in good courage,
Not knowing where we are to go, but only that your hand is leading us,
And your love supporting us,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider