Saturday, August 10, 2013

Be Not Afraid

RCL Proper 19C
11 August 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers:  Genesis 15.1-6; Psalm 33.12-22; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40
         In the spring of 1977 it became very clear that my career as a graduate student in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University of Denver, my alma mater, was coming to an end.  I had put forward a proposal for my master’s thesis which had been quickly dismissed by the new chair of the department.  He was interested in developing the department as a centre of linguistics and my proposed thesis on a topic that was grounded in comparative literature did not fit in with his picture of the future.

         By some means that I cannot now remember I learned of an opportunity to teach in a Jesuit high school for boys in north-east Denver, Regis High School.  They were looking for someone who could teach both German and French.  Now, German wasn’t a problem, but my French was weaker.  As luck would have it, the National Endowment for the Humanities was conducting a summer programme at Colorado State University for people in my exact situation:  very capable in one language, weaker in another, but expected to teach both.  My application for the position at Regis was accepted and I found myself off to Fort Collins for a two-week crash course on French.

         My year of teaching at Regis High School was a good year for me.  For example, even though I am now losing my hearing in the upper range, I can still hear most things, especially if there is a whisper in the back of a room.  I credit this as an excellent defensive adaptation for a modern language teacher trying to instill the joys of German and French into boys from Grade 9 to Grade 12.  One never knows what is being plotted in the back of the classroom! 

         Another gift was becoming more acquainted with the music of the Saint Louis Jesuits, a group of musicians who were deeply committed to the liturgical renewal begun in the Second Vatican Council and to ecumenism.  I regularly attended the weekly school mass and my Jesuit colleagues, knowing of my Anglican identity and plan to seek ordination, welcomed me as a full participant, including acting as a minister of communion.  Once, a student asked one of my colleagues why I, a non-Roman Catholic, was participating fully in the eucharist, my colleague answered, ‘Mr Leggett is a Catholic Christian in the Anglican tradition and you and I are Catholic Christians in the Roman tradition.  We are all Catholics and receiving the eucharist is our baptismal right.’

         One of the songs of the Saint Louis Jesuits that I came to love and, on various occasions since then, have sung to myself in difficult times is simply called ‘Be Not Afraid’:

You shall cross the barren desert,
but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety,
though you do not know the way.

You shall speak your words in foreign lands,
and all will understand,
You shall see the face of God and live.

Be not afraid,
I go before you always,
Come follow Me,
and I shall give you rest.

If you pass through raging waters
in the sea, you shall not drown.
If you walk amidst the burning flames,
you shall not be harmed.

If you stand before the pow’r of hell
and death is at your side,
know that I am with you, through it all

Be not afraid,
I go before you always,
Come follow Me,
and I shall give you rest.

Blessed are your poor,
for the Kingdom shall be theirs.
Blest are you that weep and mourn,
for one day you shall laugh.

And if wicked men insult and hate you,
all because of Me,
blessed, blessed are you!

Be not afraid,
I go before you always,
Come follow Me,
and I shall give you rest.

         Today is one of those rare occasions in what we sometimes call ‘ordinary time’ when all three readings share a common thread that can be summarized very simply:  Do not be afraid.  Have faith in God.  The promises shall be fulfilled.

         God’s first words to Abram are, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’’ [i]  Jesus’ first words to his disciples in today’s Gospel are, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’ [ii]  My friends, I believe that there are many in the church today who are afraid.  The changes and challenges of the last decades have caused some to wonder whether the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth have anything to say to our society.  But in a society such as ours where people are afraid of growing old, where some leaders encourage fear of people who are different from ourselves and where our misuse of the gifts of creation arouses our fears for our own future and the future of those who come after us, who will raise their voices to say, ‘Do not be afraid.  We are in God’s hands from birth to death and beyond.  Do not be afraid.  The diversity and differences between human communities need not be obstacles but windows into the creativity of the Holy One.  Do not be afraid.  God has given us the skills, knowledge and wisdom to be good stewards of creation.  It is not beyond our reach.  Only have faith.’

        But what is faith?  In words that still sound crisp to the ear and can awaken the soul to the possibilities of God, the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.  By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.’ [iii] 

[Faith] does not mean believing in spite of the evidence.  It means trusting profoundly in a person, in this case the personal God who has reiterated [the divine] promise. [iv]

Faith means trust and trust comes only through experience.  One of my teachers once recommended that we end each day speaking aloud the gifts of God we have received that day.  I know that one of my besetting sins is my failure to be grateful for the many gifts I have received, whether from family, friends and colleagues or from God.  I often notice, when we offer our intercessions, petitions and thanksgivings, that ‘thanksgivings’ are notably absent from our prayers.  If the antidote to our fear is faith, then thanksgiving is the well from which faith draws its source.

         But faith is not simply an attitude; it has content in the promises that we believe God has made to us and to all creation.  Faith has confidence that this world is not, as the German philosopher Leibnitz said, ‘the best of all possible worlds’. [v]  Faith believes, as the author of Hebrews says, that ‘(the faithful) desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.’ [vi]  One can hope that the Members of the Order of Canada, whose Order uses this verse as its motto, are as committed as the Christian communities of faith to working for what Hebrews calls a ‘heavenly’ country.  A ‘heavenly’ country is not just a future hope; it is the commitment of all people of faith and good will to work together to ensure the dignity of every human being and of the whole creation.  Our own Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, has demonstrated in his criticism of Russia and his opposition to all laws that marginalize and penalize gays and lesbians that public service can be in the service of God’s ‘heavenly’ country.

         Be not afraid, my sisters and brothers.  God goes before us in all that we say and do.  Let us remember each night those gifts that God has given us during the day, so that we may sleep in quiet and rise renewed to continue to work for that heavenly country which God promises for all people.  Let us thank God for setting us tasks which demand our best efforts and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. [vii]  Let us even thank God for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God and on each other. [viii]  And let us not lose hope in that better country where we and all God’s children shall be free.  Amen.

[i] Genesis 15.1-6.

[ii] Luke 12.32.

[iii] Hebrews 11.1-3.

[iv] The Jewish Study Bible (2004), 35.

[v] Leibnitz, Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil (1710).

[vi] Hebrews 11.16a.

[vii] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 129 alt.

[viii] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 129 alt.

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