The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 20, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
On our last road trip, I was putting my 5-year-old son into the car when he said quietly to me, Mama, I don’t think I believe in God anymore. Oh, I said. Why is that? Because, he said, when I pray for things, they don’t happen. Hmm. I said. Like what? Well, he said, I was feeling carsick, and I prayed for God to make me feel better, and I didn’t. Ah, I said. Well, sometimes, God answers prayers differently than what you expect. I went on to tell him a story about a time my own carsickness kept me from being hurt in a bad car accident – long story – and he seemed satisfied. But what I thought was, yes, Benji, grown-ups come into my office all the time with that exact same problem. I’m not sure I believe in God, because…fill in the blank.
If I were to ask you, What is the opposite of faith? my guess is that most of you would probably answer, ‘doubt.’ Doubt is out there, in your midst right now. Doubt is what keeps you from committing to something like baptism or confirmation; doubt is what keeps you from telling others at work or school about your faith and your church; doubt is what keeps you from accepting a call into leadership in the church community. More than once I have seen people back away from an invitation, saying Who me? I’m not even sure I believe this stuff. And I can tell from the way they say it that they’re embarrassed to reveal this terrible truth about themselves.
But I’ll let you in on a secret. Raise your hand if you’ve never, ever, ever questioned whether God exists, or whether God cares about you. Never once. See? Everybody has doubts. All around you there are people with doubts. And yet even so, in this place on Sunday morning, you are sitting in the midst of people of faith. Some of them people of supremely great faith indeed.
The opposite of faith is not doubt. It isn’t whether you ask questions or not. Doubt isn’t what keeps you from taking a risk, after all. No, the opposite of faith is fear. Fear is what keeps us from talking openly with each other about things that really matter. Fear is what makes it hard to allow dissenting opinions, to agree to disagree instead of forcing out people who think differently. Fear keeps us from asking the questions. Fear has a way of making us rigid, unyielding, grasping – it makes us think that we’d better do everything we can to look out for ourselves, or something terrible might happen to us.
In the gospel today, Jesus teaches his disciples, for the second time, about how he will suffer and be killed, that his life and work is all about sacrifice and giving up his life for others. The disciples are confused about what Jesus says, but they’re too afraid to ask him what he means. And very quickly they reveal that their fear has clouded their understanding of who he is. They start having a secret argument about which one of them is the best and greatest. They know this is not the conversation Jesus wants them to be having, for as soon as he questions them about it, they get all embarrassed and won’t answer. Jesus sighs a loud sigh (that part’s not in the gospel reading) and then says, look, if you want to be great, you have to serve. And this is how you serve: and he takes a child, vulnerable and powerless, and says, you have to welcome such a one in my name. Being first and great means risking caring for someone who can’t do anything for you in return.
But still, by the end of the gospel, all of Jesus’ followers run away, too afraid to stay when he is crucified, too afraid to share the news even when they see the empty tomb. Fear has terrible power.
We all struggle with fear, of course. I don’t mean to imply that if we feel afraid sometimes, that means we don’t have any faith. Raise your hand if you’re never, ever afraid of anything. Right. We all fear. My kids sleep with nightlights on and race to avoid being the last one left in a dark room, and I remember distinctly how that felt as a kid, that force pushing me up the stairs from our dark basement faster than my feet could really move. As an adult I still feel that fear, only it’s not such an obvious feeling in my stomach – now it’s more insidious, comments from others repeating in my brain over and over that I would do better simply to forget, getting short and irritable before a meeting I’m not sure will go well, chewing over things that I really can’t control one way or another. I have many fears. I’m afraid of failure, I’m afraid of being found out a fraud, I’m afraid of being judged the way I felt judged in my rich-kid high school…just to name a few.
How about you? What makes you afraid? Discuss.
The thing is, the fears we live with don’t just operate on us inside ourselves. They make us do things. Fear makes us vote certain ways and not others; fear makes us reluctant to give our money. Fear leads us into choices about our kids’ schools, about where we will live, about who we talk to and sit next to in church. And fear drives us in our work, in this shiny New York town and all across America – to work longer hours, to cut out others in our way, to curry favor with people we think have power that we need.
Fear makes us resist change, and loss of control – even right here in River City, right here in church. In my last church there was a cartoon posted in the sacristy, a new rector’s installation, and the warden saying, ‘Now that you’re our rector you get the keys to the church – but not to the sacristy, because it’s the Altar Guild that keeps those keys.’ Thankfully our Altar Guild has not followed through on this cartoon threat. But it’s not impossible. We get our hands on a piece of turf and we want to keep control of it – and we see suggested changes to it as someone trying to take it away from us. And it’s easy for any of us to do this, really. When we are invested in something with our time and interest, when we have a particular vision for how it should be, it is hard not to try to control it. And the others that are annoyed at us for our control are annoyed because they have a different vision of how it should be – they’re bothered because they’re not getting it how they want it. And everyone is afraid of losing.
James says, ‘Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Aren’t they because you want something and aren’t getting it?’ Fear leads us into ways of living that are absolutely contrary to everything Jesus teaches. And that is why it is the opposite of faith. As servant-hearted as we all want to be, as much as we know we shouldn’t, deep down, we struggle with this. We are actually arguing in secret about which one of us is the greatest. And when Jesus turns and looks at us, we are all pretty embarrassed that we’re doing it.
Do not be afraid, Jesus tells us. Do not let your fear be the driver. Instead of hanging on fiercely to your turf and your power, afraid of losing it, be a servant. And Jesus takes a little child and holds her in his arms. He’s showing us what we should do with the weak and vulnerable – and he’s also showing us what he longs to do with us. If we allow ourselves to be that that little child Jesus takes in his arms, allow ourselves be embraced and held; if we allow God to be the ground of our being, that is faith. We’re free to ask all the questions that we want. We’re encouraged to seek understanding, to know what God is up to. But we don’t have to struggle for the power and position of this world, not here at church, and not in the rest of our lives either. Because none of it matters. None of that is about who we really are and what really feeds us. We are each one of us children of God, every one of us nourished by love. And there is more than enough of that for all.