a sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14C/Lectionary 19]
Luke 12:32-40 and Genesis 15:1-6
It’s hard to believe, but thirty years ago this very week I got out of my parents’ Jeep Cherokee and walked across the parking lot of Sullivan Residence Hall at North Carolina State University. I was eighteen years old and about to begin my freshman year. At one point I turned around for just a brief second to wave another goodbye and saw tears streaking down my mother’s face. Behind her was my younger sister, who was probably fist-pumping the air and exclaiming, “YES!” I knew the steps I was taking that day across the parking lot were, in some sense, big ones but in the eyes of my parents they were strides of insurmountable distance. I was feeling a mixture of excitement and wonder and probably, to be honest, a fair amount of fear. I was setting out for a new place, responding to a new call.
It occurs to me that this week and next several of our own Epiphany young adults will have similar experiences. Josh, Katie, Matt, Cole, Riley, Ryan—young adults who grew up among us, who learned about Jesus and his love—will all in some similar way walk across a parking lot and leave their parents waving behind them. It’s hopeful but gut-wrenching stuff—the excitement but fear of a new horizon, a new vocation.
Just this week an older member of this congregation, a widowed woman who has been a member for years and even served once as council president, sat down to share with me she is packing up her things, selling furniture, and moving from Richmond to a 55+ community halfway across the country. She leaves leave close friends, a caring landlord, and a congregation she loves in order to be closer to some family in a strange place relatively late in life.
In many ways the story of our entire faith begins with an elderly man and a woman who are called to leave something behind and move forward into the unknown. In the fifteenth chapter of Genesis we hear how Abram stands on the parking lot at the edge of some place in the middle east, wondering about this new horizon, this call of God that has beckoned him forward. God has promised Abram a new homeland, but Abram has not possessed it yet. God has promised Abram that he will be the ancestor of a great many nations, but Abraham doesn’t even have a child yet.
Before we launch into new territory there are always unanswered questions and unrealized visions, but these seem to be two really big ones. It stands to reason that Abram might be dealing with some fear. He even openly questions God, an approach we often think is off limits because who can question God, right? But there is a relationship there between God and Abram and something about God makes Abram trust him. Eventually we are told Abram believes God again and that God reckons that to Abram as righteousness. I don’t think that means God says, “Abram, I reckon you’re righteous.” It means Abram stepped forward in this thing we call faith.
I don’t know how you describe or define faith. Each person probably would come up with their own definition for it. But in the way it seems to appear over and over in Scripture faith is in the confidence that a relationship with God will continue, come what may. What Abram trusts is that the storyline will, indeed, unfold and through it God will have Abram’s best interest at heart.
It makes me think about all of the journeys we get called into, the endeavors of life that fall into our laps or that make us turn left when we expected to go right. It can be the doctor saying, “I’ve got some hard news for you,” or a boss saying, “Today’s your last day.” Not every journey we’re on is caused by God, of course, but nevertheless we find ourselves standing in a parking lot wondering if God might lead us through it all. These are journeys of faith, too, where the end is not aways visible, and it is all too easy to get frightened and dejected.
This is what Jesus’ own faith is like, actually, and it also contains moments of fear and doubt and loss of control. His whole trip to Jerusalem is one big journey of faith that will end in a whole twist of bad news and hard situations. He will offer his life on the cross in the conviction that God his Father would provide a way through it, that the story would continue. And so along the way Jesus makes sure to assure his own followers that they do not need to be afraid even in their own discipleship and in their own journeys of faith. He knows that there will be times we will feel outnumbered and outmatched, and I can imagine that they feel particularly overburdened by this journey at this point because he’s just told them not to worry about their basic needs, even food or clothing. It’s like they’re on that parking lot with safety and security behind them but only fear and danger and loss in front of them. Jesus acknowledges all of those feelings by calling them his “little flock.” He reminds them that they are his, and that times of feeling overwhelmed is part of faith.
There was a very compelling story shared on Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast this week, “Revisionist History.” The topic of the podcast was acts of kindness by ordinary people, and the whole thing is worth a listen, but the final story that he shares is really unforgettable. Gladwell’s brother is an elementary school principal in a small town in southern Ontario. Much of the time up to 20% of this school is made up of refugee children who have been resettled to that community. While that is a sizeable number, they are still a little flock in the grand scheme of things, learning a new culture, mastering a new language.
Gladwell’s brother tells the story of day one little kindergarten Syrian girl arrives for the first time. He explains how she is inconsolable, crying and screaming in fear far beyond anything they’d ever experienced before. He and the teachers try all of their tricks to get her to settle down and, to their dismay, absolutely nothing works. Even the girl’s parents are unable to break through and calm her. Her mood of terror starts to effect the other children, too.
Gladwell finally tells the teacher to put the girl on her lap and hold her. So she does, and still nothing gets better. She is wailing and wailing, and no one can figure out what they’re doing that is triggering her. Finally, at a complete loss of what to do, Gladwell says he kneels down in front of her on this teacher’s lap and starts humming. No words. Just a tune that he describes as a “universal lullaby.” And suddenly, she stops crying. He says she looks straight into him for a few minutes as he continues to hum and then she takes his hand and gets off the teacher’s lap. She didn’t let go of him for an hour.
A principal of an elementary school on the first day of school, with a million things to do and she goes everywhere with him with a death grip on his finger. Eventually he takes her to the conference room and they draw pictures for each other, talking but not understanding one another’s language. A couple of hours later he takes her to her class and she is fine. The next morning, he explains, the real child shows up and is ready to learn. Reflecting on it, Gladwell says that that particular day when he got down to pierce that girl’s fear by humming was the pinnacle of his whole career.
In our fears about whatever lies before us, Jesus decides to stoop down to comfort us. On the cross he has his pinnacle moment, humming a universal lullaby of love and compassion and lets us cling to him wherever he goes and then leads us back to what we need to get done. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says, over and over again, in his word, in his holy meal, until we hear it.
And he reminds us that the kingdom is ours. The kingdom of heaven—which is the power of forgiveness over hate, and the triumph of joy over despair, the eventual victory of life over death—these things will be ours and never taken away
And Jesus doesn’t just leave us with that promise. He also gives us tasks and a mindset. For faith is not about having confidence that a particular outcome will work out in our favor, but a trust in who and whose we are, no matter what lies ahead. We are this mighty God’s little flock…and so we keep our lamps lit. We dress ourselves for action. We take care of those around us, shedding possessions and maybe even relationships that encumber us. We invest in acts of kindness and giving towards others rather than in accumulating more for ourselves. We go forth in faith because we know who and whose we are, not simply because we are in expectation of a particular desired outcome.
About a year ago one of our members, a mother of two young children, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She found herself beginning a journey of faith she had never anticipated.
There was fear, of course, but also faith. She dressed herself for action and got to writing letters to the other women in the congregation she was aware of who’d received a similar diagnosis, letters of support and encouragement. Over the course of the following year, she saw these relationships deepen. She has received regular visits and other correspondence from them. It turns out one of the women lives on her street. That woman donated her wigs to her, not in need of them anymore, herself.
This woman has now rounded the bend of her last surgery and is about to be declared “cancer-free.” She looks back across a parking lot she has now crossed and doesn’t see the fear and loss of a cancer diagnosis but rather sees scores of people supporting her, many in this very congregation. She thinks about how strong love is, and how helpful it was to stay ready, dressed for action, and generous in her spirit.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” says our master Jesus, who stoops down to show how strong his love is. What great words for a congregation emerging from a pandemic and thinking about a new program year. What a great example for people of faith who wonder if their message and presence has any impact in society anymore. What comforting words for anyone on the edge of any parking lot, staring into any new call, summoning the courage to move forward in faith.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
And one day, at the end of all our journeying and hoping that Master will come home and do what no other Master will do, but which he shows us every week. He will sit with us at the same table and serve us, his flock and him together.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.