Sunday, August 08, 2010

God's Faithfulness

11th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 14) – Year C (RCL)
Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40
Sunday, August 8, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

There are a lot of people who have a hard time relating to the Bible. After all, what do 21st century Americans have in common with people living in the Middle East several thousand years ago? But even though society has progressed considerably, there is one thing that has not changed – human emotions. The emotions we experience today are the same as those experienced by our forefathers and foremothers thousands of years ago. The stories of the Bible record the full spectrum of human emotions. And because of this, I find that even if I can’t relate to the actions taking place, I can generally relate to the emotions being displayed. And I think the way these emotions are dealt with tells us as much, if not more, about our relationship to our God as do the actions portrayed.

In one way or another, all of our lessons for today deal with a common set of emotions – anxiety and fear. In the reading from Genesis, Abram is a little anxious that God has established a covenant with Abram that if he leaves his home and goes to a foreign land, God will bless him and make of him a great nation. Abram has done his part and followed God, but he is still without even a single heir to be the start of this supposed great nation. He expresses his concern to God, who assures Abram that God’s promise will be fulfilled. This is reiterated in the reading from Hebrews, in which the author recounts God’s covenant with Abraham (Abram), who is only one character in a catalog of our forefathers who similarly faced the unknown and the accompanying anxiety and fear. All this to provide examples as the author calls his audience to persevere as they face their own times of anxiety and fear that the eagerly awaited Second Coming has not yet occurred. And in the lesson from Luke, Jesus starts off by telling his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus has already foretold his death twice. The reality of what he is talking about is starting to sink in, and as a result, they are naturally beginning to feel a little anxious and fearful about what the future holds.

Anxiety and fear seem to be particularly pervasive human emotions. In general, much of our anxiety and fear is rooted in uncertainty about the future. That’s certainly the root of the anxiety and fear being exhibited in today’s lessons: uncertainly about when, if ever, God is going to fulfill the promises of the covenant; uncertainly about when Jesus is going to return.

In our own day, we have a lot of anxiety and fear, both personally and collectively. We never know what will happen in the future, and there are times when we don’t worry about it. But then there are times when uncertainty of the future wreaks havoc with us emotionally, such as we are experiencing with the current recession. I’m sure most of us know people who are unemployed, experiencing anxiety and fear about whether they will be able to find work. And as time goes on with no job prospects in sight, there is increasing anxiety and fear about how they will be able to put food on the table or pay rent or the mortgage. There are people who are employed, but due to cutbacks are experiencing anxiety and fear about whether they will have a job next week or next month. There are people who are retired who have seen their investments decimated who are experiencing anxiety and fear about their ability to provide for their future needs. And there are people who are nearing retirement who are experiencing anxiety and fear that they may not be able to afford to retire. Or maybe we ourselves fit into one of these categories, experiencing the anxiety and fear firsthand.

And our churches are similarly experiencing anxiety and fear. They have been for some time as church attendance has declined over the last four or five decades. But particularly in times like these, we experience increased anxiety and fear about how we are going to be able to survive. We need to bring in more members to replenish and energize an aging membership. We need more youth and more children because they are the future of the church and without them, we may be gone in a few generations. We need more money to pay for the increasing cost of church operations and of doing ministry. We experience anxiety and fear at the thought of bringing in new leadership because they might change our worship or our music. We experience anxiety and fear at the prospect of our congregation becoming more liberal or more conservative. All churches experience some of these anxieties and fears at one time or another. Even Trinity.

As people of faith, how do we deal with our anxieties and our fears, both individual and communal? Just as the Bible deals with the full spectrum of human emotions, so too does it provide means of dealing with these emotions. Just as our lessons for today deal with anxiety and fear, they also provide an answer.

Not only do our lessons deal with anxiety and fear, they also are about faithfulness. In Genesis, God assures Abram that he will have a child of his own who will become his heir, and that he will be just the beginning of a great number of descendents. Based on God’s assurances, Abram has faith in what God tells him. In Hebrews, the author expands on the faith of Abraham, extending it to Isaac and Jacob and all subsequent generations. All these generations seeking the land promised by God continue to have faith based on God’s original assurance to Abram. And in Luke, because of the assurances of Jesus to his disciples, they are able to step out in faith and do as he asks.

All three lessons are about how the principals – Abram, his descendents, the disciples, the early Christians – maintained faithfulness to God’s promises, even when they did not see immediate results, when their prayers were not always answered in the ways they would have wanted. Our religion is about having faith in our God and trusting that he will be true to his word, even when we don’t get immediate results. This is borne out in the accounts of salvation history recorded in the pages of the Bible. Even so, as is shown among some of the characters in the Bible, it is sometimes difficult to be faithful in the midst of our own personal anxiety and fear. Our own stuff gets in the way.

Here again, our lessons provide an answer to this struggle with trying to be faithful in the midst of anxiety and fear. Even when we have a hard time being faithful, God is always faithful to us. When Abram expresses his anxiety and fear, God assures him that he will indeed be a great nation. While Abram did not live to see it, we know that God was good to his word, that he was faithful to Abram and to his descendents. And just the assurance that it would happen helped Abram to put aside the anxiety and fear just enough that he was able to trust God, to which God reckoned as righteousness. And Jesus tells his disciples that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” God’s good pleasure. God delights in being faithful to us and giving us what he has promised. While the disciples did not see it, and while even we have not seen it – yet – we place our entire faith in fulfillment of that promise, of the coming of the kingdom.

What these stories tell us is that we just have to trust in God, knowing that he will be faithful to us, and provide for us. Maybe not in the timeframe that we want. Maybe not in the way that we want. But we are assured that regardless of the ultimate outcome, in it, God is being faithful to us and to his vision of who we are and who we will become. And in that knowledge of his faithfulness, we can begin to let the anxiety and fear subside, allowing us to be faithful to God in return.

By way of illustration, I want to share a little story about how in a time of my own anxiety and fear, God proved himself faithful to me – not in a way I would have envisioned, but in a way that has ultimately proved to be best for me.

About a year and a half into my position at St. Alban’s Westwood, I started looking for my next position. Seeking a new calling can take 12 to 18 months or even more. Knowing that I would eventually have to leave St. Alban’s when the grant that paid my salary ran out, I started looking. I really wanted to be a rector and applied to a number of places all over the country. I lost count after sending letters of interest to about 20 parishes. Some parishes never responded. Some did not feel I was what they were looking for and rejected me in the early stages of the process. I did manage to get a few interviews, but no jobs came of them. I was starting to get a little concerned. At the end of February, 2009, the half of my job at St. Alban’s ended. One month later, the other half of my job as Episcopal chaplain at UCLA was scheduled to end. Here it was, early March, I was living on only half a salary, and had no job lined up. My last viable prospect had just evaporated. That was when Father David and I began serious conversations about me coming to Trinity as Associate Rector. Three weeks later, I started my current position with you.

During the first three months of 2009, I experienced a lot of anxiety and fear. By the end of March I would be unemployed, and nothing was panning out. In amongst the anxiety and fear, I allowed myself to trust in God, to trust in his faithfulness to me, to trust that God brought me this far and would not abandon me, to trust that something would come available. And it did. Not quite as I expected. But it turns out that while not the type of position I particularly wanted at the time, it was the best possible thing, as this position has provided me with invaluable experiences and opportunities that have helped me to grow and mature as a priest. And when I do become a rector, I will be better prepared because of my experiences here at Trinity.
And that is part of God’s faithfulness to us. Even when things do not go the way we would have them go, it often proves to ultimately be for the better.

Even in the midst of our anxiety and fear, particularly in the midst of our anxiety and fear about the future, we as people of faith are called to trust in our God, knowing that even when we are not faithful to him, he is always faithful to us. Scripture bears that out. And chances are your own lives bear that out. And while we may not always see the results, or have happen what we want to happen, in his faithfulness, God takes care of us. And when things don’t go the way we want, perhaps it’s because God sees a better way of getting us to where we are called to be. So next time you are gripped by anxiety and fear, try putting a little of that emotional energy into trusting God and his faithfulness to you, and see what might happen if you leave the future up to God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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