Let’s just be real for a moment. We are afraid. Without a doubt, no matter how well we articulate that our COVID measures and procedures are the lving thing to do – and they are- we are still afraid. WE are afraid because we are already seeing an uptick in Corona virus cases on our island. We are afraid because we don’t want to get sick or can’t afford to do so. We are afraid because our job has been affected which affects our income which affects everything.
And a little fear in the right amount and at the right time can keep us on our toes and protect us from danger. And so when it comes to fear, is there more pervasive or powerful force in the human experience?
From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us, we are taught to fear the stranger, sometimes to fear even those who are closest to us. Our political leaders are good at making us feel afraid- afraid of what the other party will do; or will not do. Fear protests because it challenges long standing “norms.” Politicians have long recognized the power of fear in ensuring our conformity to the structures this world, even when doing so does not serve our best interests or the interests of society as a whole. Fear is the driving force behind vast segments of our economy as we open up and go back to business or to work.
Jesus understood fear. He saw that fear will also cause a failure of discipleship. Jesus’ disciples courageously leave the security of their homes and families to follow him as they proclaim the advent of God’s reign, but they, too, will know and ultimately bow before the power of fear. Faithful proclamation and practice of the gospel inevitably puts disciples on a collision course with the powers of this world.
So, as Jesus prepares his disciples for their mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he is starkly realistic about the threats they will face, at the same time they should not let this fear master them or hinder their witness.
Jesus is real with them too. On the one hand, the disciples are granted remarkable powers to heal, exorcise demons, cleanse lepers, even to raise the dead. But he also denies them money, pay, extra clothes, a staff for protection, even sandals. They are to undertake their mission in complete vulnerability and dependence on God (10:8-11), even knowing that they go as “sheep in the midst of wolves,” face arrests and beatings, opposition even from family members, and hatred and persecution (10:16-23). Doing the work of God and following in the Way of the Cross is not for the faith of heart. The late Country Music legend Johnny Cash is credited with this quote though his language is reflective of his time but he is talking about both men AND women: “Christianity is not for sissies. It takes a real man to live for God- a lot more than to live for the devil.”
When it comes to us living into our baptism, Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat the dangers of the mission; he gives it to us straight: “Some folks will welcome the Good News, others won’t. Some will resist the message and the change that comes with it. And you’ll be the target of their resistance.” Then, like a good pastor, he reminds us that our Heavenly Father is both incredibly powerful –pronouncing judgments that yield life or death – and incredibly tender – noticing every sparrow that falls and counting every hair on our heads. By remembering the character and faithfulness of God, the we are reminded that we have what we need in order to endure- we have when we need to go beyond the fear, beyond the rejection. beyond the violence.
Jesus is showing us the twelve: who we truly are – children of God- children who are called by Jesus to follow him AND are sent by him out into the world. And just because we are chosen by Jesus to be messengers of the gospel doesn’t mean that we have a corner on God. Our Old Testament story of Ishmael is a not so sublte commentary on the ntions of choseness and election.
God’s love and care is not limited to us.
Now to you and me that may seem like such an obvious statement, but in the way issues of race have played out in the history of this nation, the claim has been made that God’s love and favor is reserved for a blessed few. Perhaps they have forgotten about the expressions of love in Prodigal Son, and in this Old Testament lesson. Even though Isaac is the brother through whom the Israelites will emerge, It is clear from our Scripture that God makes the same promise to them both. God also says that Ishmael will be the father of many nations. And even when Ismael and his mother are out in the desert- near certain death from lack of water- God will preserve them. Ishmael and Isaac both experience God’s presence and blessing. This story shows God’s grace working in and through a very divided family.
Returning to fear and the mission- it is probably the divided family that we fear the most when it comes to the gospel. We tend to idealize the nuclear family in our culture and thus, often idolize it. Many of us downplay family conflict. We are embarrassed by it. Admitting that our families are imperfect can feel sacrilegious. Not everyone had a “difficult childhood,” but enough do such that it seems to be a cultural norm, rather than an exception.
The peace that Jesus brings- the peace that we strive and long for causes division and incites resistance. This is not forever, but for now, in this in-between time when values of the “Old Self,” which Paul discusses in Romans, still have sway. We all have an Old Self – our sinful, fear-filled, greedy, prideful nature – and in our baptism we leave the Old Self left behind, crucified with Jesus on the cross. Then we are re-born, freed from sin into a new life.
I have no doubt that there were fears and apprehensions by the disciples as they were sent out into a new era. We have our fears and apprehensions as we engage in our Eucharistic celebration. We get wrapped up in the fears and can lose sight of what Jesus also says in this gospel:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Jesus is certainly not asking us to be reckless when it comes to our health and protecting ourselves and caring for one another as we gather together as a community. Like the disciples, we are sometimes sent out on risky missions, warned and equipped to face the danger. Other times, like Hagar and Ishmael, we are cast out into the wilderness without any choice. But even there, we discover God’s grace goes before us. Amen.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.