Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fear, faith and worship

Texts: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 (justice, not worship), Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 (faith, hope and sight), Luke 12 (the heart's treasure)

"Do not be afraid, little flock." Jesus says this to his followers near the end of their journey from Galilee to the city of Jerusalem. When they get to Jerusalem, Jesus will confront the Roman oppressors and the religious leaders who collaborate with them. What could go wrong?

"Do not be afraid," Jesus says, and then he urges his followers to be alert because "the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." Does this Second Coming include the signs of wars, earthquakes, and famines that Jesus will soon predict in Jerusalem? Nothing to fear in that, is there?

"Do not be afraid" is a phrase used by Jesus more than any other in his ministry. But its repetition highlights that his followers often are afraid.

Today, we hear Jesus' words "do not be afraid" against the backdrop of more funerals for young people killed in car crashes. Many of us here today continue to mourn the tragic deaths last week of Brandon Gauthier of Gravelbourg and Matthew Foley of Coronach. We also hear Jesus' call to not be afraid against the backdrop of strange weather everywhere and of rumours of new terrorist attacks.

This week, I listened to a news report in which a citizen of High River Alberta complained about plans to rebuild homes that were destroyed there in the floods of late June. In a public meeting, he said, "Have you not heard of climate change? These 'once in a hundred events' are the new norm."

But where can one safely build a residence? It is hard to imagine a community that could emerge undamaged from rainstorms that drop 10 inches of rain in one hour, as happened in many parts of Missouri, Tennessee, Kansas, and Georgia this past week.

Still, Jesus says to us, "Do not be afraid." We are supposed to replace fear with faith. We are supposed to trust in God's promises despite the pain and fragility of our lives and despite reports of death and destruction coming at us from all sides.

The author of Hebrews presents Abraham as a model of faith for us. According to the stories in Genesis, Abraham left a city in what is now Iraq about 4,000 years ago and travelled to a far off land simply because God asked him to do so.

I identify a bit with Abraham. Two years ago, I left the city of Toronto for an unknown place called Borderlands, also largely on faith.

Well, it wasn't only faith. When I got the call from the Settlement Committee on May 8th 2011 that I had been placed here, the first thing I did was call Rev. Kevin Johnson, the minster here at the time. In that call, Kevin told me that Chinook Presbytery was going to meet at Wesley United in Rockglen that coming Saturday. So, I decided to come and check the place out -- perhaps with the idea at the back of my mind that I might yet decline Settlement and postpone my ordination!

My four-day trip here that weekend reassured me that Borderlands -- despite being outside of my experience -- would make a good fit for me. I liked the Presbytery meeting, I learned a lot by talking with Kevin, I enjoyed worship in all three points, and I was especially reassured when Arlene showed me the manse after the first service. She told me that the renters were moving out and that I could have it if I wanted, which I did.

Two years ago was the first year that prospective ordinands in the United Church of Canada had a choice to either be placed by the Settlement Committee -- which had always been the practice -- or seek a call on our own. I was one of 10 ordinands out of 50 that chose Settlement. But we did not know that only 12 charges in all of Canada would put themselves forward for Settlement, and that none of them would be close to major centres.

As part of Settlement, we had filled out a form that asked us to rank the regions of Canada by preference of where we would like to be settled. I put Toronto first, then Hamilton, and the region to the east of Toronto third. I put Saskatchewan fourth, mostly because my friend Anne Hines had been settled here the year before -- in Lucky Lake -- and she had told me that she was loving the experience.

In the event, no pastoral charges within 1,000 km of Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver put themselves forward for settlement, and so I was placed here. I could have refused settlement and postponed ordination. Instead, I chose faith over my fears, I came out here, and I have felt blessed ever since.

Abraham had many adventures and troubles on his journey to what is now Israel and Palestine, including the heartbreak of childlessness, and the mystery of becoming a father very late in life.  As the reading from Hebrews also reminds us, Abraham died without most of the promises made to him by God being fulfilled. 4,000 years later, many of these promises are still not fulfilled. Nevertheless, Jesus urges us again and again to "not be afraid."

And so as faithful people, we have come to worship. But then we hear in today's Old Testament reading from Isaiah that God hates our worship; that our sacrifices are an abomination; and that God wants good deeds and justice instead of worship. Further, if we don’t measure up, Isaiah tells us that God will devour us with the sword. So . . . don’t be afraid?

Faith without fulfilment; worship despite God's hatred of our worship; lack of fear despite the idea that the Son of Man could return at any moment and perhaps devour us with the sword. It seems like a lot to take, don't you agree?

These are big topics on which a great deal could be said. But I will conclude with just a few thoughts on each.

For me, life is a journey from fear to faith. Accepting God's Grace to trust life does not mean that the things we fear will not happen. Weather will continue to threaten and sometimes devastate us. Young people will sometimes die in tragic accidents. All of us will eventually sicken and die.

When Jesus urges us to be ready, he is reminding us of the blessings that surround us despite all that we don't like about life. "Blessed are those servants whom the master finds alert when he comes; he will come and serve them."

When I hear this passage, I don't think of the frightening scenes that are supposed to accompany the Second Coming of Christ like those found in the Book of Revelation. I think of any moment. It could be a beautiful summer morning full of calm and promise. It could be a dire moment on one's deathbed. It could be right now, here in our inadequate worship service.

Any moment can be one in which to encounter the Christ within, the Spirit between us, and the Source of Life that supports us.

Revelation tells us that the Second Coming will be a time of torment and triumph. But I prefer St. Paul when he says that Christ has already returned to live in our hearts and minds. The writer of Revelation has his fearsome vision. We have the assurance that God is right here, right now.

Jesus calls us to pursue treasure that does not fail. He tells us to look to our hearts. For most of us, the thing we treasure above all else is not money, possessions or power. It is family. In our families, despite their flaws and frustrations, we find heavenly treasure. We find each other, and we find God.

And so we come to worship -- to remember this promise, to reflect on where God in Christ can be found in our lives today, and to renew our spirits through times of prayer, song, or sacrament. We come to stay awake to the reality of our blessings.

Isaiah reminds us that worship is not enough. God wants action and justice, which is true enough. But I do not think that Isaiah's warnings negate Jesus phrase, "Do not be afraid." When worship reminds us of our fears and how God overcomes them, it empowers us to fight for justice as well.

We have much to fear in this crazy world and in fragile lives. But we also have infinite reasons to trust. In any moment, God's Grace can help us remember that the Son of Man has been raised to live in our hearts and minds. This is true in Borderlands as well as in the world's biggest cities. It is true in times of calm as well as in times of storm. It is true in the midst of life as well as at the end of life.

And for this reason, we say again, Thanks be to God.


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