Everybody has fears; fears that immobilize us at the very center of life’s responsibility and purpose. People live among us who would use our fear to manipulate us, and sometimes it seems they are winning. When fear runs our lives we cannot move, we cannot think, we cannot imagine our future.
Listen to writer David Rensberger’s description of fear’s power.
“I should begin by telling you” he says “why I am on my roof in the first place. Recently, we added a fireplace to our house, and the chimney needed a cap. So we went to the hardware store and bought one. Then it was simply a matter of climbing up on the roof and installing it.
That’s why I came up on the roof. Why am I still sitting here? Because I’m afraid to come down. I’m afraid of heights. I was scared coming up. Now, I’m absolutely terrified to start back down.
Getting up on our roof shouldn’t have been that hard. The roof of our modest home isn’t particularly steep, and the edge is only about eight feet from the ground. Somebody could throw me off our roof, and I probably wouldn’t get hurt.
But this is not about rational considerations. It’s about fear. And even though I didn’t use the extension on my ladder to come up here, the warning the government lawyers make the manufacturers put on top of the extension didn’t help. In big, red letters: ‘CAUTION. THIS IS NOT A STEP. YOU MIGHT FALL.’ As if for a single, solitary second the thought of falling ever left my mind. I stood, paralyzed, for five minutes, maybe longer, unable to take the short step that would have me off the ladder and onto the roof.
I find it more than a little embarrassing to admit that I had to seek divine intervention in order to lift my left foot and move less than a yard. Finally, taking refuge in the thought ‘God is my helper’ and repeating these words over and over and over again, I finally got on the roof without incident, reached the chimney, braced myself against it, and had the cap in place in minutes.
Which brings me back to where I’m now sitting; behind the chimney, unable to come down. Coming down would involve getting out from behind the chimney, taking a completely unprotected step towards the roof’s edge, pivoting on my left foot in order to turn and placing my right foot on the ladder—which may or may not stay in place. Taking out my own appendix sounds less dangerous right now.” (Weavings, March/April 1999—story edited for sermon purposes)
Fear takes hold of us so easily. And that concerns Jesus. In this morning’s gospel, as Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem and the cross, he tells a story about fear and its consequences; about a man so immobilized by fear all he can think to do with the treasure of the gospel is to bury it in the ground. As a consequence, the master berates him harshly, punishes him, and casts him into outer darkness.
The parable posits this central truth. We can miss God’s intention for our lives, individually and collectively. We absolutely can.
Two other servants in the parable refuse to choose fear. The Scripture does not tell us how they perceive the master. It speaks only of their fruitful use of the master’s gifts. They take a risk, invest well, and receive, in return, an invitation into the master’s joy.
Trevor Hudson describes himself as a person slow to recover joy. A Methodist pastor in South Africa for over thirty years, Trevor has seen and experienced many evil and cruel things.
He tells the story of being invited to preach in his hometown of Port Isabel. He spent the night in the house of a friend; an elderly Irish bishop. “Do you ever have anxiety dreams?” Trevor asks. “I do: dreams that I have forgotten my notes, that I fluff my lines, that I’m not wearing any pants. This particular morning, my dreams got the best of me. So I got out of bed before dawn and started pacing, pacing, pacing the living room. After a while, the bishop came in from the kitchen, bringing me a cup of tea.
He put his arm around me, turned me to face the window and the sunrise and said ‘Look Trevor. The sun is coming up without you.’ ”
“I discovered then” says Trevor “that joy was the antidote for my anxiety. For we wake up in a world we did not create, in a salvation we did not earn, to serve the church that is not our body in the world but Christ’s. We live by water we did not call into being and eat at a table we did not prepare. Well, it humbles me in my anxiety. Everyday” says Trevor “I try to do one joyful thing. Practicing joy quiets my fear.”
We cannot make sense of the harshness and judgment in this parable except in the context of God’s generosity. And remember, this parable begins with the generosity of God. A man going on a journey entrusts all of his property to his servants. All of it: he holds nothing back, not his cars or his big house, not his collection of fine wines or his nicely tailored clothes, not his pension, bank accounts, stock portfolio—not one thing.
These servants—let’s call them church—receive from the master—let’s call him God—everything the holy life and heart has to offer. God in Christ Jesus invests everything in the church so that the world might see in human community a place where heaven touches earth; a place where people catch a glimmer of hope; a place where people acknowledge fear and taste fear’s joyful antidote.
I smiled last Sunday when Jan reported that a few of us worshipping in the gym these last weeks had whispered to her how nice it had felt to be “just us”; a little remnant of the community that comes from all over the world to worship at this Cathedral. As “just us” we baptized babies, sang and prayed, shared bread and cup.
And yet we know a fine line exists between “just us” and “only us”, between close community and closed community, between intimacy and extinction. No matter how good it feels, the parable says, we can’t bury the gospel treasure and enter into joy.
A few weeks ago, I sat with five pastors in Bastrop, Texas. They call themselves the Phoenix pastors because in September, fires destroyed most of the county. They are struggling to help people rise from the ashes: 18,000 acres burned, 1800 homes burned, Lost Pines, the only pine forest in central Texas and local treasure, burned. Fear runs deep in these small communities. They wonder if they will have EMS, schools, or firefighters in the future. Texas has no state income tax. Property taxes fund public services. And in Bastrop County, the property is now dust and ash.
These pastors have opened their fire-scorched churches to receive the suffering. Donations of food and water poured in. They continue to host food pantries, sleeping shelters, and a free store for clothing. After a few weeks, the members began to grumble. The Sunday School classes did not like meeting around sleeping bags, and strangers were using their parking spaces. The strain of bearing their neighbor’s pain as well as their own was taking a toll. Maybe, they told their pastors, it’s time to close down, get back to being “just us”.
One pastor reported “I started to laugh, and then I said ‘Are you kidding? This is our mission field! We have tried everything to connect with some of these same people and now they are coming to us. No way we’re shutting down! Quite the opposite; our doors will stay open as long as they come.’ ”
“You know what I said?” another pastor volunteered “In last Sunday’s sermon I told my folks we might actually become relevant in our community now!”
When the gospel speaks of talents, what if it means the process by which God calls the church to serve as a place where heaven touches earth? And what if God provides the way for us to become that place, if we don’t get scared?”
What if God gives compassion and grace and mercy and righteousness and peace; word and light and bread and cup and water to the church as gifts for us to invest for the sake of the Kingdom of Love? I don’t know; sounds a little scary. CAUTION! WE MIGHT FALL! WE MIGHT FAIL!
Maybe we will find ourselves like David Rensberger, sitting on the roof, clinging to the chimney. Or like the servant, looking for a shovel. Or maybe we will find, like Trevor or the Phoenix pastors, that the invitation to enter into Kingdom joy will prove tantalizing enough that we will take the risk of faith and invest our lives, following our Lord wherever he would have us go.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication.
“Thoughts from my Roof,” Weavings March/April, 1999, David Rensberger
J. Charles Merrill, sermon, 11-19-93
Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XIX, #6
Pulpit Resource, 1996
Trevor Hudson, Presentation, Companions in Ministry colloquy, October 21, 2006
“The Wages of Fear,” Christian Century, Anthony Robinson, 10-27-93