fear

Those Bigger Barns

Luke 12:13-21

I saw an update in the news last week about the two scientists who made a bet regarding the first person to live to be 150. Steven Austad, a researcher at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, bet the person was already alive when the year 2000 began; Jay Olshansky of the University of Chicago bet the person had not been born at 2000’s onset.

Each man put down $150, which went into an investment account. The bet, of course, won’t be resolved until as late as Jan. 1, 2150, and the two scientists don’t expect one of them to collect it. The winner’s heirs or designees will benefit from the proceeds.

Oh, one additional detail about the bet—that 150-year-old person has to be lucid enough to hold a conversation.

I know what I thought when I read this. Hey, I was alive in 2000. Could it be me? Could the pill, the injection, the treatment that makes the difference come along in time for me and my loved ones to make it to 150, happy and in good health?

I suspect I’m not alone. If we think about death, we prefer to think we’ll beat the odds, keeping the Grim Reaper at arm’s length until we’re ready to depart on our terms. (The morning after delivering this sermon, I found a story about lifespan extension even odder than the the Austad-Olshansky bet.)

Denial about death can be even more extreme. Before I entered ministry, I  twice had people casually tell me they didn’t expect to die, and neither person was speaking in the context of Jesus returning first. Both times I just stood there and blinked in astonishment. By the way, one of them is now dead, taken relatively early in life by cancer.

In today’s parable, Jesus is telling us how spiritually dangerous it is to fool ourselves in such a way.

Usually when we hear this parable, our first thought goes to the rich man’s hoarding. The rich man does have a problem with his love of money and possessions, but even his greed is tied to his foolishness regarding the fragility of life. His collection of grain and goods simply amplifies his sense that he has everything under control, that nothing can disturb his sense of well-being and happiness.

The Bible, even with its early Old Testament characters reportedly living beyond the age of 900, describes life as fleeting. “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” says the Prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring,” writes the author of the Epistle of James, traditionally thought to be the brother of Jesus. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

I realize it’s kind of a depressing message. A psychologist friend of mine once pointed out that people don’t like it when I remind them they will die. “I know,” I replied. “But in a way, it’s my job.”

And yet, there is much joy in my vocation. There is much joy in the Christian message. When we hear what the Bible says about life being a fleeting event, barely a flicker in the cosmos, we are being set up, but in a good way. Like the people who heard Peter’s first sermon, we should be cut to the heart, crying out, “What should we do?”

First of all, hear the good news. Because Jesus has died for our sins, the withered grass has been restored, given eternal life. The mist is allowed to take on solid form and last forever. Believe and be baptized.

Then, believers, live this life with your eyes set on what really matters. We still have to live in the world of money and stuff, but keep possessions in perspective, using them according to God’s will.

And quit worrying! That’s the guidance Jesus gave his disciples after he told this parable. The God who provides eternal life certainly will provide what we need now. Worrying interferes with the experience of God in this life.

Stop worrying and you’ll also stop thinking of yourself first. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” Philippians 2:4 tells us. When we live in Christ, the focus moves from self and even the slightly larger circle drawn around family to a much larger community, a group of people living in joy now and ultimately transcending this world.

Community also is the antidote to something I think afflicted the rich man. Jesus wants us to sense the rich man was lonely. Look at the conversation the man has as he considers his bigger barns. He has it with himself!

“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

Which sounds better to you? Dining alone on prime rib and foie gras while toasting your possessions with the finest wine, or sharing a big pot of soup with friends, knowing we walk toward eternity together?

I think the answer is obvious, even if we all live to be 200, our barns full.


The featured image is a Cornish Griffin round barn in Steuben County, Indiana. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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Freedom from Fear

If God is for us, who can be against us?

The line is from Romans 8:31, but it also serves well as the lesson from today’s story in Exodus 14:10-31.

In revealing his true power to both his chosen people, the Israelites, and to the greatest power on earth, Egypt, God arranged for the Israelites to find themselves trapped between the Red Sea and an advancing Egyptian army.

Yes, Pharaoh had already suffered under the mighty hand of Yahweh in the form of plagues, including the death of all the firstborn males in Egypt, human and animal—Israelites exempted, of course. Yes, God was visibly present with the Israelites, in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But still, the Israelites found Pharaoh’s approaching army terrifying.

Pharaoh led his pursuit with 600 chariots, wheeled terrors capable of defeating even well-trained, fully equipped phalanxes of soldiers. Drawn by massive horses, each chariot typically carried a driver and an archer with an arsenal of arrows and spears. In battle, they functioned the way tanks might be used today. The 600 carried Pharaoh’s elite charioteers, what we would call Special Forces; the rest of the Egyptian army was close behind.

But remember: If God is for us, who can be against us?

The Israelites cried out to Moses in terror, saying he had brought them into the desert to die. Despite the evidence of God they had seen, were seeing, and were about to see, they would continue to complain like this for years; it’s astonishing God put up with them. Moses told them, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

If we’ve spent much time in church, hearing basic Bible stories in Sunday school, we know what happened next. God’s visible presence moved to separate the army from the Israelites, and then God told Moses what to do as a prelude to God showing his power in parting the Red Sea. “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.”

I’ve wondered what Moses felt as he did this. Could he feel God’s Spirit rush through him? Did he sense the power it took to drive billions of gallons of water apart?

The Israelites crossed safely. Pharaoh and his army pursued but died, the water crashing down on them, destroying the mightiest military force humanity had to offer.

If God is for us, who can be against us?

Yes, it’s a lesson from an Old Testament story. But it’s also a New Testament Bible verse for a reason. As people who believe God is for us, we are called to let go of fear, the same lesson the Israelites were supposed to learn.

We know that most of all, God has been for us by living and working in Jesus to eliminate all our reasons for fear. Jesus picked up on the Old Testament theme by saying repeatedly in his teachings, “Fear not. Fear not.”

I’m like most people in that I’ve carried a lot of fear around in my life. I’ve had childhood fears. I’ve had adult fears. For me, both have seemed to aggravate me the most in the middle of the night, when worry seems to be at its strongest.

I’m probably typical that most of my fear is of the future, of what might be. But that doesn’t make sense, not if we think about it. Through Jesus Christ, God already has captured the future. God is in the future, ahead of us, waiting on us.

We may have to go through some rough patches to get there, but because we believe in Christ, we know our future ultimately is holy and eternal. A good word to describe it might be “blissful.”

When we learn to live into this belief, wonderful things begin to happen. Fear is replaced not only by courage, but by a kind of joyous courage, a willingness to abandon this world’s worries and pursue God in full. We not only stop fearing the future, we begin living in its bliss now.

John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of the Methodist movement, had great expectations regarding what freedom from fear means for the world.

“Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth.”

That is what we seek, isn’t it? The end of fear forever, and eternal union with God.

***

Next week, I’ll detail how we’re freed from death, and we’ll explore further what it means to live as a people who already have eternity.

Doubts

John 20:19-31

What is doubt? And what is doubt’s antidote?

In the 20th chapter of John, beginning at the 19th verse, we find the story of Jesus appearing to a terrified band of disciples. Mary Magdalene had told them Christ is risen from the dead, but the news gave them no comfort.

Certainly, these disciples were afraid of the Jews who had crucified Jesus. It’s also likely that they, having failed Jesus in his time of need, feared what the risen Christ might say or do. They doubted the resurrection had really happened; and if it had happened, they doubted where they stood with the one who had overcome death.

The door to the room where they huddled was locked, but a lock is no barrier for a body that has defeated death and is now indestructible, infused with the unrestrained power of the divine. Jesus appeared among them. It was not to chastise them, however. Instead, the risen Christ told them repeatedly, “Peace be with you.”

And peace they had, it seems. They moved from fear to rejoicing; doubt had vanished.

All of Jesus’ key disciples were present except Thomas. When he returned, he refused to believe in the appearance until “I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.”

A week later Jesus appeared to Thomas with the same message: “Peace be with you.” He even invited Thomas to touch the scars. And of course, Thomas believed.

So, what is doubt? Looking at this story, it seems to be more than just lack of evidence. It is a guardedness brought on by a belief that a situation cannot improve, despite what others are saying. Certainly, we are more likely to feel doubt when we find ourselves in a particularly sticky mess.

There is a lot of doubt in our world today, and I’m not talking just about religious doubt. People feel stuck in all sorts of ways, and a lot of them don’t feel any kind of institution, agency, cause or movement can free them.

As the church, bringing people an experience of the risen Christ is our way of helping to cure some of that doubt. We are, after all, a people who believe in the resurrection, a people of hope. Our rallying cry is “Peace be with you.” And there are actions that must coincide with our words, actions that bring peace.

Somewhere in our community, there are children who fear each day because they face abuse, hunger or neglect. The true church, acting as Christ’s body on earth today, finds them, rescues them, feeds them and loves them, bringing the peace of Christ to their lives. We participate in such activities now, but we need to do more.

Somewhere in our community, there are people suffering a crisis of identity, people who feel they have no value because they lack a job or a family or a relationship. The true church finds them, helping them learn they are first and foremost children of God. We brush against these people occasionally, but it’s time to fully embrace them.

Somewhere in our community, there are sinners, hard-core sinners, sinners who believe their evil is so great that nothing can be done to redeem them. They feel they can only smirk at or fear the church.

The true church tells them the work of redemption already is complete; belief is all that is required. And like the cowering disciples, these sinners find that in a relationship with Christ, there is no condemnation, only peace. We say our doors are open and we wait for these people to come to us, but we need to learn to go to them.

Somewhere in our community there are the mentally ill, the drunks, the drug abusers, the unwed mothers, the prisoners, the sick, the dying. The true church finds ways to rely on the Holy Spirit and creatively say to them, “Peace be with you.”

After all, we are the body of Christ on earth until Christ returns.