A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
August 4, 2013
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
I love this whole passage, but this little line stands out at me: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Somewhere a long time ago I read that the point of Bible-reading isn’t to get through the Scriptures but to get the Scriptures through you. Which makes me wonder what if we got one line, just one line from the Bible all the way through us, like in and down and around and back out? What if this line didn’t just float above our heads, but sunk into our hearts: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Just take those first words, “Do not be afraid.” I mean, the angels are always telling us not to be afraid. “Do not fear. Fear not. Do not be afraid.” But I can’t possibly get that kind of advice into me, really in there, in my heart, my ripped-up heart, in my brain, my phobia-producing, worry-inducing, worst-case-scenario-imagining brain. I can’t get that advice into the pit of my stomach where my gut tightens and butterflies careen drunkenly into my stomach walls and things lurch around and threaten to undo me. “Fear not,” sounds lovely on a Christmas card with a glowing angel and a serene Mary or a flock of dazzled shepherds but “Fear not” meets nothing but resistance on the inside of me who is neither serene nor shepherdly. I am a scaredy-cat and these words mean nothing to my fears.
Last week we talked about greed and gratitude and how fear is the thing that makes us clutch and hoard and grasp and hold on, whereas gratitude is the thing that unlocks your box, that helps you swing the doors open and let stuff pass through, in and then out. But the fears that make us grasp and clutch are not easily quieted.
We don’t get the Scriptures through us just by gritting our teeth and groaning, by closing our eyes and trying to feel differently. We get intimate with the Word by moving our bodies. For example, we sell a few things, we give some alms; that is, we open our closed fists. We take a leap in spite of our fears and insecurities and that is why it is called faith. We build a treasure in a heavenly location and then watch in delight while our hearts pack up and move there, to be with the treasure we’ve built. We move our bodies and our moneys around, do a little dance of generosity, a little jig of tension-loosening faith, and these active movements help the truths of Scripture to wriggle their way down into who we are.
The angel told Mary, “Fear not,” but if you remember the rest of the story, she was totally freaked out. “How can this be?!!” she demanded, hearted thumping, “I am a virgin,” she whispered, eyes darting. The text doesn’t explain exactly when her fears abated, but I guess it took quite some time. All we know is she said yes even though she was so afraid, and maybe the first yes was the first step towards a fear-defying faith that enabled her not only to conceive and birth and raise a Savior, but also to bury one.
My new self-motto is that I do one brave thing per day, and I’m serious. I mean, it may not equal exactly one thing each day, but the idea is there and I try to follow it. Even when I feel I’ve had a terrible, unproductive day, I ask myself: “But did I do something brave today?” and nearly always, the answer is yes. Of course, the answer is yes so readily because there are so very many things of which I am afraid. My brave act may have been a telephone call or handling a lizard that found its way into my kitchen or making that dreaded trip to the auto-parts store, but still, for me it was brave. It may have been showing up, yet again, to preach when I am worried that I won’t make a lick of sense or connect with anyone, or sharing a poem I wrote with another living being, which, for me, is brave. And the more brave things I do, the braver I get.
You don’t learn how to trust by hoping for it. You learn how to trust by practicing faith. This, to me, is what it means to be Covenant, what it means to contemplative, and what it means to be church. Here we create a space to practice what we say we believe. We practice kindness. We practice patience. We practice generosity. We practice waiting silently in the face of uncomfortably long pauses. We practice giving grace to each and every person who shows up in this place. We practice withholding gossip and judgment. We practice caring for one another in both the minutia and mayhem of life. We practice trusting.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Just this week I was giving way to my worries when the church taught me, yet again, to relax. For example, I was worried and concerned about what to do about Extended Session, but it turns out Amber had some great ideas rolling around in her head. I was worried about National Night Out because initially I didn’t get a response and I thought I’d have to man a table alone—but then it turned out that Gena made a sign and Paula made magnets and several of you made cookies and even more of you showed up . . . in typical Covenant fashion you came through with a flourish, although no one but me bothered to worry about it too much ahead of time.
For so many people who’ve given church a try, unfortunately they have learned that church isn’t a safe place to be and grow. It’s not a place where you can let go of your worries, find the kingdom, practice trusting, and encounter the Father’s good pleasure—it’s a place where people are just as mean and sometimes meaner than what you find out among the nations of the world who are striving after all these things that God already knows you need. In that regard, Covenant may be a little bit like the rebound-church after a bad relationship—it’s a nice place where wounded people can run for hugs. But this doesn’t have to be a rebound church. This can be a true new start, a new relationship, the place where you don’t merely come for comfort, you also learn how to risk all over again. Slowly, uncertainly, bit by bit, you reengage. Day by day, you do one brave thing and overtime you’ll learn, we’re not perfect, but we are an environment where you can begin the terrifying recommitment to trust.
Keep your eyes peeled, says the text. God indeed will show. Stay alert; if you do, God will seem to you like someone throwing a party. Having you sit down while he comes and serves. But if you’re not paying any attention, God may very well seem like a thief that startles you in the night.
The catch is, if God is going to show up in our lives at an unexpected hour, we cannot be both expecting him and have him show up when he’s unexpected. As one commentator pointed out, artists often find that their most creative thoughts strike them when they weren’t expecting it—when they were mowing the lawn or taking a shower or doing the dishes or pausing to relax. Creative people receive their breakthroughs, their fresh insights, right when they were not looking. But this is hardly coincidence. Artists are simply people who with discipline and diligence, with intentional interplay between work and rest, have cultivated a heightened awareness. They have expanded their receptivity to experience the beautiful and the brilliant. If their best thoughts came when they were trying their hardest to produce them, that might feed the ego. But when their best thoughts come unexpectedly, it feeds their wonder. So artists learn, slowly and painfully and not without frustration and disappointment, how to keep their radars slightly tuned in, even when, or maybe especially when, they are resting and playing. This is what is means, I think, to be alert for God at all times. In the church, we are simply people with discipline and diligence, with intentional interplay between work and rest, prayer and work, who are cultivating awareness. We are expanding our receptivity to experience the beautiful and the brilliant. If God showed up every time we were trying our hardest to find him, that might feed our egos. But because God keeps showing up unexpectedly, it feeds our wonder. We are learning, over time, slowly and painfully and not without frustration and disappointment, how to keep our radars slightly tuned in, even when, or maybe especially when, we are resting and playing.
Our fears never quite get eliminated either. Sometimes the wonder is enough to overwhelm all fear. Sometimes the practices of faith slowly eat away our fears. Other times, we simply choose to leap even when we feel petrified.
You think Mary was done with fear when she watched him walk to the cross, like she’d learned and conquered fear? No way. She was terrified. That was her son, her flesh-and-blood son they were driving nails through. “I can’t say yes, I can’t say yes. Not this time. I can’t say yes,” she surely said through quickened breath as she watched with the horror only a parent can understand.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
“Fear not, little Mary, fear not.” She wasn’t ready for this. Nothing had prepared her for this. Not the angel. Not the miracle birth. She was neither ready nor fearless. Nope. No. No. No. Make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop. Let me die. Let me die.
Inhale. Exhale. Somehow she kept breathing even though the very worst was happening.
And then, perhaps when she was least expecting it on that walk to the tomb on a dead-silent Sunday, God came back and her heart caught in her throat, and she was so glad she’d been brave, or been as brave as she could muster, because now here he was and she was seeing him. Amen.