There was a movie a few years ago (is thirty-six a few? I probably should stop saying “a few” shouldn’t I?) with the tag line: Be afraid. Be very afraid. This theme has lingered in our culture because there is so very much to be afraid of; and not only in our culture, but throughout history. The people of Jesus’ time were afraid of the government which was imposed upon them. They were afraid that their shekels wouldn’t stretch far enough to pay for a new pair of sandals. They were afraid that some plague or illness would carry off a large portion of the population. We have many similar fears with the added bonus that we now possess weapons which could wipe out civilization as we know it. We have an arsenal of guns in our city streets. We are changing our climate in a way that fastly but surely threatens life on the planet. Then there are all those internal demons that produce fear in us: anger, resentment, grudges, judging, hatred, prejudice, racism, egotism. We have good reason to be afraid, right? Au contraire, the gospel says: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” These words of Jesus were addressed back in the day to people who were full of fear and are addressed to us today with our own set of fears. Is Jesus being naïve or Pollyanna-ish in telling us not to be afraid? What does he know that we need to learn?
Jesus’ prescription on how not to be afraid is more surprising, even shocking. “Sell your belonging and give alms.” Now you would think, or I would think anyway, that if one of our fears is running out of money and having to eat cat food for the rest of your life the last thing you would do is “give alms.” Wouldn’t the best way not to have financial fears is to hold onto the money you’ve got and try to get more. We ordinarily think in terms of more when facing our fears. The way to get over our fear of the bomb is to have more bombs than the other guy. (In fact, the US military even named the giant missile capable of carrying those bombs the “peacekeeper.”) You fear guns in the school? More guns, arm the teachers. Afraid of religious or political divisions? Get more people on your side so you can out yell the other guys. Our default position in confronting fear is to bully it away. But, according to Jesus, that doesn’t work to reduce fear. He asks us to re-frame what we think we need to be fear-free. A fear-free life is not something we create but something we receive.
Look at the image that Jesus uses as the key to fearlessness: “money bags that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven.” Jesus wants us to understand that there isn’t anyone or anything that can make you afraid. We have the wherewithal to resist fear no matter what is going on out there because of what we have in here. It’s not having more stuff, more protection, more control that frees us from fear. In fact, it’s not anything that we do that delivers us form fear – it’s what God does. “Your Heavenly Father is pleased to GIVE you the kingdom.” A life without fear is a gift, not an accomplishment. Instead of worrying over what we need in order to be kept safe and secure from all alarms, let’s see if we can tick off some of the blessings we have which tell us that God’s own peace with surpasses understanding is already ours.
The premier gift, as we hear in our epistle for today is faith. “Faith is realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” We generate fear when our beautiful plans, the best of plans, don’t go as we expected. We get anxious and worried. For another perspective the epistle used the model of Abraham to show what it means to have faith. Despite all evidence to the contrary he was able to trust that the countless descendants God promised would come about. We are called to that kind of faith that says no matter recession or depression, crime or grime, tornados or tempests, the might or the fight God can make a way out of no way. God can calm the storm. God can give peace. God’s plan is better than ours.
Faith leads to hope. We might not know when. We might not know how. But we know that God will triumph over all those forces that cause us to shake in our boots. Chicago holds no terrors for us because we know that our true homeland is the heavenly city God has prepared for us. “A Change is gonna come” sang the legendary Sam Cooke. We have hope in the change God has in store for us and due to that hope we are vigilant for the signs of God’s coming as surely as the tiny seed planted in the garden produces buckets of tomatoes.
But the greatest gift, as St. Paul says in another place, is love. In the play, A Man for all Seasons, which tells the story of the martyrdom of St. Thomas More under Henry VIII, there is a particularly poignant scene. More is in prison awaiting trial and possible execution when his wife and daughter come to visit. They try to persuade him to do what the king wants so he can leave the prison in safety. His daughter, Meg, challenges him, “Haven’t you done as much as God could reasonably want?” To which More replies, “Finally, Meg, it isn’t a matter of reason. Finally it is a matter of love.” Maybe it is unreasonable to imagine that we can live without fear in such a dangerous and hostile world. But because we are people of faith, because God has planted hope in our hearts, because we have received the blessed assurance of God’s love simply because we God’s own family, because we are people of faith, hope and love we shed fear like an old skin and walk refreshed and renewed into our heavenly homeland. There is no fear because with God’s love all will be well.