Proper 28, Year C; Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
The first time I felt I could call the Pioneer Valley home was at age seventeen, as I was discerning which university to attend. On a snowy April morning I recall riding down route 47 with my mother and a family friend. And as we drove over the town line into South Hadley, I saw a familiar sign that I have seen across this country. It read: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” And in that moment I felt at home, I felt safe, and I felt that this could be my new community. In that moment, I felt that even as a southerner, even as an outsider, perhaps I would find welcome.
And today, I want to extend that same welcome to you. So whether this is your first time at Grace Church, or if you have been here for decades: you are welcome here. If you are young or old: you are welcome here. If you are a student, or a professor, or faculty and staff: you are welcome here. If you are rich: you are welcome here. If you are poor: you are welcome here. If you are black: you are welcome here. If you are white: you are welcome here. If you are latino/hispanic: you are welcome here. If you are gay or lesbian or straight: you are welcome here. If you are transgender or do not ascribe to any gender: you are welcome here. If you were born in this country: you are welcome here. If you immigrated to this country and now call it home: you are welcome here. If you are a Christian: you are welcome here. But if you don’t identify as Christian: you are still welcome here. If you are a woman: you are welcome here. If you are a man: you are welcome here. If you are a libertarian: you are welcome here. If you are a socialist: you are welcome here. If you voted for Donald Trump: you are welcome here. If you voted for Hillary Clinton: you are welcome here. If you are a human being, seeking a safe space today: you are welcome here.
My friends, the welcome of the Divine supersedes the welcome of any political party or affiliation, any identifying markers. You all are welcome here. One of the first steps of discipleship, is modeling ourselves after the radical hospitality of Jesus. Meaning that all of God’s children are welcome here. Yet today we find that being a disciple of Christ, walking in the footsteps of Jesus and of the saints that have come before us, does not end with this embracing welcome, this radical hospitality.
Being a disciple of Christ means not only a conversion of our minds to accept all who enter here, but it means something much more difficult, a conversion of our hearts—a level of deep introspection where we rise above the anxiety continually permeating our culture. For me the most pertinent line in the entirety of our Gospel reading for today is when Jesus speaks to his disciples: “Do not be terrified.” Do not be terrified. Do not be scared. Do not be afraid. Easier said than done though, right? It is a normal human emotion that we all face. Every single one of us in this room has experienced fear, maybe even more heightened over the past few days. And when that fear finally and stealthily creeps in, it is difficult to push it back out of our lives. Instead it begins to control every fiber of our being. Worry pervades our thoughts of the future, our mind bouncing from one dark scenario to another, to another. And as the anxiety continues to prevail, we become paralyzed, all of our movements must be calculated, controlled, confined so that we do not encounter that of which we are afraid (ultimately the fear of suffering and death).
Yet today of all days, this week of all weeks, Jesus tells us:“Do not be terrified.” How many times have we heard these words throughout our sacred Scriptures? It is the running narrative of our Gospel, of our salvation history, of the relationship between God and humankind. In the Old Testament we hear Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” Or Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Or Isaiah 41:3: “But now, this is what the Lord says—He who created you, Jacob, He who formed you, Israel: do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you and you are mine.”
And this story, this narrative of hope, continues into the New Testament. In Luke 1:30 the angel Gabriel, sent from God, tells an unwed mother Mary, a woman on the margins: “Do not be afraid.” In Matthew 14:27, as Jesus walks on water, making the impossible possible, he cries out to a misfit group of Middle Eastern men:“Take courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.” Or earlier in Matthew 10:26-27, as Jesus sends out the disciples to preach the Gospel to every beloved child of God, he encourages his followers: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.”
My friends, too long as a country we have been afraid—hiding in the dark away from one another. And now that fear has surfaced; that fear is manifesting itself across the United States; that fear finally has been brought to the light. Yet even if we, as American citizens, have given into the fear in the past, we as Christians are called to rise above that terror now at the present hour. As Christ encourages us in today’s reading from Luke, just as the world of the early church appears as though it is beginning to fall apart, we hear Jesus say to the disciples: “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
In these verses Jesus expels our rising anxiety as unnecessary, instead replacing it with the fortitude of the Spirit,“with the audacity to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering” (Nancy Lynne Westfield, Feasting on the Word). By not giving into the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day (Ps 91:5), we are able to do more than we ever could have imagined under the powerlessness that comes from paralyzing fear.
For our power does not come from political platforms, or social media, or temporal authority, or our own arrogance and pride. But our power comes from Christ’s liberation of fear and death. Our power comes from the transformative effect of God’s love. Our power comes from the knowledge that God is working it all out, bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. And we are capable, if we rid ourselves of the fear, to participate in God’s creative process. We will have the privilege and the power to testify: to dispel hate, to speak truth in love, to welcome all into this place.
It is not an easy task ahead of us my friends, but if we find the endurance, we will gain the very souls we as individuals, and we as a country, had thought we had lost. So do not be afraid. Do not be scared. Do not be terrified. For today and in the days to come, we do not meet the challenge alone. For we have Jesus to walk with us, and we all stand together to testify.