The Rev. April Berends
“Do not be afraid, little flock.” Fear not. We have heard these words
before in Luke’s gospel. They are the words that the angel Gabriel
speaks to aged Zechariah, when he announces that a son will be born to
him and his wife Elizabeth, they who had waited so long for a child.
“Fear not.” These are the words that Gabriel speaks to a trembling
teenage girl when he brings the message that she will carry Jesus in her
womb. They are the words spoken by the angel of the Lord in the
shepherds’ field, “Do not be afraid…I bring you good news of great joy
for all the people.” They are the words that Jesus uses to summon his
first disciples after they haul in a boatful of fish. Peter, James and
John promptly leave their nets and follow him. These are the words
that herald miraculous births, joyful news, and calls to loving
So why does Jesus use them now? The news that he proclaims will no
doubt raise some anxiety. His message is not easy. As the words of
angels cause those in their presence to tremble, so too, does the cost of
Jesus goes on to instruct his followers. Sell your possessions, he
says, and give alms. Strive for the eternal, not for the things of
earth which do not endure. This is hard news for a group of Christians
in the first century, many of whom probably struggled just to get by.
The radical message that we find in Luke’s gospel, a vision of a new
reign where the powerful are cast down and the lowly lifted up, likely
did not have much appeal among the upper classes of society. It was
fearsome news, indeed, that the order of things, our structures of
power, would be turned on their heads.
It’s clear from the number of times Jesus mentions financial wealth
in the gospels that money is an important subject to him. Like any good
leader, he understands that power is closely tied to financial gain, at
least earthly power is. It’s also tied to personal well-being, but not
always in the ways that we might think.
We toil to make money; we worry about spending it; we worry about
keeping it. Will it grow enough so that I can retire and still have
something to leave for my children? Will we ever pay off the mortgage?
The stock market sure hasn’t been doing well lately. Can I afford to
take that vacation? Am I making the right investments? Am I being paid
what I’m worth? Is the price on that gallon of milk correct? Did it
really go up thirty cents? It’s my kid’s birthday this week—will I be
able to work enough overtime this week to pay for that new bike? It’s
easy to spend a lot of time and effort accumulating and worrying about
possessions. And it’s easy to let our possessions possess us.
Jesus reframes the issue, though. “Do not be afraid, little flock,
for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” All that is
worth having, God has already given, and gladly so. It brings God joy
to share with us the eternal reign of heaven. And that should be our
starting point. Treasure that, Jesus says.
But Luke’s message is not just about the gift of eternity in the
presence of God. It is about who God is and how we should live as God’s
people. God is generous, has given us all that we need, the promise of
eternal joy and wholeness, and we have a role in that promise.
Jesus tells us to be dressed for action, like servants waiting for
our master to return from a wedding banquet, listening for the knock at
the door so that we can welcome him home. The promise is set before
us, but we don’t just sit back and accept the gift. The gift must be
received with our lives. When God called Abraham and Sarah, as
recounted in today’s passage from Hebrews, the promised land wasn’t just
dropped in their laps. No, God called them to pick up everything and
embark on a journey. They never lived to see the promised land, but
that promise shaped their lives. And they entertained angels along the
Be dressed for action, Jesus says, ready to receive Christ, who may
come knocking in the middle of the night.
I moved to Washington from Miami, Florida, where I had the privilege
of knowing an extraordinary man who knew what it meant to be dressed for
action. François was the head of the custodial staff at a church
community that I was a part of in Miami. A hardworking Haitian
immigrant, he was trying to support his family in the U.S. and in Haiti.
He did not have many worldly possessions. But he was dressed for
François had a collection of unusual T-shirts that he would wear on
those hot, tropical days. One of them said, “Fix your eyes on Jesus.”
Another read, “Thank you Jesus, you save my soul.” When asked about
these T-shirts, François replied that he had them specially made for
himself and others in his community. “God has done so much for me.
It’s not enough,” he said, “to love God on the inside. I have to love
God on the outside, too.” He was, in a very literal way, dressed to
meet Jesus. As he went about his work, hard work, he lived a life of
thanksgiving, ready to share the love of Christ with neighbors and
strangers alike. His sights were fixed. And if that wasn’t already
clear from the words on his t-shirts, one could sense it in the way that
François left Haiti for a better life in the United States. One of
my Haitian friends once told me that in Haiti, people think that the
streets must be made of gold in America. They hear stories of how there
are pools full of money. Here we have wishing wells fountains full of
pennies and nickels and dimes. “A penny is a lot of money to someone in
Haiti,” he told me. For many of us it is a wish that we can throw
away, for them it is whether or not they will eat tonight.
“God has done so much for me.” François does not have an easy life
in the United States. But he does eat supper every night. And for
every stick of furniture in his house, every bit of food upon his plate,
he gives thanks to God. François’ homeland is neither the continent of
Africa, the land of his ancestors, nor the island of Haiti, nor the
shores of the U.S., where coins shimmer in the water. His homeland is
the eternal realm of God’s grace.
And it is a gracious God that we serve. For the parable that Jesus
tells takes a strange and wonderful turn when the servants who have
stayed awake to greet their master open the door to find themselves
guests at his own table. “He will fasten his belt and have them sit
down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” Christ sets forth a
generous model of how we are to live, where the one who is powerful sets
the table, and makes those who have nothing his honored guests.
The gospel of Luke tells us of a reign that involves a new economic
order, a way of being community that is grounded in generosity. Jesus
calls us, by word and example, to loosen our grip on those things which
possess us so that we might freely serve. He calls us to set our lives
in order, to be ready for God’s reign breaking in all around us.
So how can we be dressed for action? First, we must consider what we
hold dear. Is it our cars, our jewelry, our food, our entertainment,
our homes? Or is it our relationships with God and with our neighbors
and this fragile earth? When we think of what we have, do we
acknowledge that it comes from the hand of God? Or do we pat ourselves
on the back for having obtained it? Do we cling tightly, or do we give
We live in a country where an average fountain in a tourist district
contains enough money to feed a family in a developing country for
months, and yet we still have poor in our midst. Right here in
Washington, the capital of the most powerful nation on earth, women work
in brothels as indentured servants, employers fail to pay workers a
living wage, and young men put bullets in the heads of boys who grew up
on the same block over drug money.
The reign of God can break in, will break in, does break in, even to
a world such as this. God calls us to be a part of this restoration by
relaxing our grip on those things which possess us, and using our
resources and our talents to reframe the structures of society, that we
might usher in the fullness of God’s reign here on earth.
When the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of
the promised land, he was not just referring to a distant future, he was
also speaking of the bus riders in Montgomery, the sanitation workers in
Memphis, the jails in Birmingham, and all places in the world where
God’s people live oppressed. “It’s alright to talk
about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has
commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children
who can’t eat three square meals a day.” *
The faith that is shared by Abraham and Sarah, by those first
disciples of Jesus, by the little flock of Christians to whom Luke’s
gospel speaks, is a faith that calls us to be dressed for action,
speaking out on the issues of our day. It is a faith that calls us to
be politically active, fiscally generous, and compassionate in every
area of our life as we journey together toward the promised land.
Christ calls us to respond gratefully, with love that risks, love that
gives, love that answers, love that never stops hoping for the beauty of
heaven, and never stops seeking to show that beauty here on earth.
* Martin Luther King, Jr. “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” Speech delivered April 3, 1968 in Memphis, TN.