homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
October 22, 2014
Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6)
Get ready. Something important is about to be revealed. God is about to do a new thing … do you not perceive it? Do you feel the buzz inside of you, the source of your very breath and heartbeat, humming a message that change is coming? The change is coming, and the change has already begun. The change began in the past, but we can see it in the present. It’s a mystery, it’s a big deal, and it’s very good news. Such change is very likely to frighten us—so we need to hear again and again the reassurance Isaiah offers us today: “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.”
There are two kinds of fear, you see. When we hear in the Bible that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” such fear is not abject cowering, but reverent awe. I am so small, so seemingly insignificant, and yet my creator loves me eternally. What if I screw it up? No, because of the good news … I will trust in God, and everything will be OK. I can put my head underwater, and I will not drown. But even if I do drown, I will be raised. And that’s so exciting, I just have to tell others about it.
Furthermore, don’t let the metaphors fool you. When Jesus talks about masters beating their slaves, that’s not a threat; it’s an exclamation point. The metaphor is deeply disturbing to us, because it is difficult to remove the lens of our country’s shameful and abusive legacy of slavery. We can’t imagine an ancient world in which slavery was just a fact of life from which even Jesus could freely draw metaphors.
Jesus’ parable itself is not about slavery, but leadership. A new community of believers is forming, and they are intentionally setting themselves against the human tendency towards fear. Peter wonders whether those in positions of power among the believers will be held to as high a standard of behavior as everybody else. Jesus’ reply is that leaders are actually held to a higher standard, because their responsibility is greater. If they cause the believers to fear, they have chosen to trap themselves in their own fear. Either way, the Son of Man—that is, Jesus—is coming … has come … will come … is among us now.
What does it mean that “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”? This, too, is a mystery. Some people take the Second Coming of Jesus very literally as a future worldwide event, while others see it as more individual than general, and more metaphorical. I want to suggest today that it doesn’t matter all that much what you believe, as long as you don’t imagine Jesus coming back as someone we wouldn’t recognize from the portrait we have of him in the Gospels. Earlier this year, Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council imagined out loud that when Jesus comes back, he’ll be packing an AR-15. Now, regardless of what you think of the Second Coming, this is atrocious theology. The minute we imagine that the purpose of Jesus’ return is to destroy people rather than to draw all creation to himself, we have strayed away from the gospel. We have become those who instill fear rather than relieving it, and then we have trapped ourselves in our own fear.
In the world Jesus came to announce, there is no fear, and there is no slavery—only reverent awe and joyful obedience to an unquestionably good and loving creator. Jesus wanted his disciples to understand how important it is to take the good news to the entire world. By the time of the writing of Luke’s gospel, there was a Christian church made up of Jews and Gentiles and some of the unlikeliest people, a body of believers spreading rapidly around the known world. We are the inheritors of this good news. We are today’s church.
The church is not a club for hobbyists, and it is not a business for salespeople. It is God acting on earth now, whenever we align ourselves with faith and not fear. The church is not to be identified with the Kingdom of God, except when it actually participates in that Kingdom. The church is a mystery, and it is available to everyone.
Both Luke and Paul understood the universality of the church. We are not an exclusive organization, an attitude that plays into the most disappointing side of human nature. For 2000 years we have been plagued by Christian leaders who were afraid of those whose experience of God didn’t immediately cohere with the story they had received. Such leaders have cast exclusivity as clarity, but then they have used their clarity as a weapon. The church’s job is not to bludgeon people with “correct” teaching, but to offer stories against which all of us can hold up our own experience of God. The church is a well of wisdom to which we believers invite the thirsty to drink. Because God is at work in all this mess called life, we have no cause for fear.
And so we all begin in the same place: we find ourselves to be alive and aware, and we are in a state of wonder about our very existence. And having received good news, we are to share it: Jesus is the very icon of the God who made us, offering us hope and life and salvation, and doing the work of God that Isaiah promised to us: “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.” Trust in God, who saves. Live without fear. Your life, along with all of creation, is being redeemed. Amen.