This sermon was delivered at Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on August 7, 2016. The scriptures for this sermon are Hebrews 11:1-3 and Luke 12:32-40.
You may not know this, but I’m a professional fundraiser for a little nonprofit organization in Biloxi, Mississippi. I live here in the Quad Cities and I world from home quite a bit. But I also travel about a quarter of the time. And that means a lot of time in airports. And that means a lot of kind of awkward conversations in gate waiting areas.
One time, I was chatting with someone while we waited in line for zone three to be called to board the plane. He asked me what I did, and I told him pretty much like I just told you. He asked what my organization did, and I told him that we worked on issues around housing, homelessness, and poverty on the Gulf Coast. He asked me how I liked it and – since I had been on a stressful trip and I had been in the airport for a while – I said that I liked it enough… it keeps a roof over my head.
And someone a few people ahead of me in line – someone who I’m guessing had also been on a stressful trip and spent too long in the airport – turned and said, “so you’re better off than the people you serve.”
But I was convicted. I complain about work just like everyone else. And sometimes I forget that I am incredibly fortunate. I have a place to live. I have plenty of food. I have a steady income and health insurance and a loving family. And while I’m far from the top 1%, I’m doing a lot better than far too many in the United States and around the world.
But, like everyone else, I worry. I worry about my job and about bills and whether I will ever pay of my student loans. Like every one else, I worry.
And here’s Jesus, saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.”
Let me back up.
“Faith,” writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Abraham had faith; he left the safety of his home and followed God’s call to Canaan. Moses had faith; he confronted Pharaoh and demanded freedom for his people. Jesus had faith; he endured the cross.
Now, it’s easy to think that faith is about putting little checkmarks in little boxes on a list of beliefs.
It’s easy to think that Abraham had faith because he believed that God would make a nation of his descendants. Or that Moses had faith because he believed that God would make Pharaoh let his people go. Or that Jesus had faith because he believed that he would sit at the right hand of God. But belief – the intellectual assent, the little checkmarks in little boxes – isn’t the same as faith.
Believing things, after all, is simple. Some people can even believe six impossible things before breakfast.
In Petersburg, Kentucky, there is a creation museum. And about forty-five minutes down I-75, in Williamstown, Kentucky, there’s a “life-sized” Noah’s Ark Encounter. Both of these are owned and operated by the same group: a group that has put little checkmarks in little boxes on a list of beliefs.
They believe that the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible are the written word of God, divinely inspired and inerrant in every detail. They believe that the Bible is inerrant when it makes spiritual and theological statements. They believe that the Bible is inerrant when it makes historical and scientific statements.
They believe – with the fervor necessary to build a museum – that God created the world in six twenty-four days about six thousand years ago. They believe – with the passion necessary to build a “life-sized replica” – that God commanded Noah to build an ark and save his family from a global flood.
They’ve put their little checkmarks in their little boxes on their list of beliefs. They believe their impossible things.
But those beliefs aren’t faith.
Faith is like this. There was a swimming class for adults who almost died from drowning. At one lesson, their teacher told them to float: lie back, relax the body, let the water carry them. And they believed their teacher. They believed that if they lay back and relaxed their bodies, the water would carry them. They could check the box.
But they couldn’t do it. They had survived drowning. They were afraid. They couldn’t relax. They couldn’t lie back. They couldn’t let the water carry them.
They believed. But they didn’t have faith.
Belief is having it in your head that the water will carry you. Faith is lying back, and relaxing your body, and letting the water carry you.
Abraham believed many things; his faith was going into Canaan. Moses believed many things; his faith was confronting Pharaoh.
Jesus believed many things; his faith was going even to the cross and the tomb.
And in his faith, Jesus could say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.”
Let me back up again.
A few minutes ago, Jesus finished telling a story to a crowd. And a few seconds ago, Jesus finished giving some advice to the disciples.
The story went like this. There was once a man whose fields produced so abundantly that he didn’t know what to do with all of his crops. So he tore down his barns and built bigger ones. And he said to himself, “Self, you’ve all you need for years now stored away; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”
And God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
And because Jesus had faith, he could say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.”
The advice went like this. Don’t worry! Consider the ravens. They neither sow nor reap, but God feeds them. Consider the lilies.They neither toil nor spin, but God clothes them in glory. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear. Instead, seek the kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
And now we’re here: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.”
Now… I can tell you’re worried about where this is going to go… I’m not going to tell you to sell your possessions and give alms.
I’m not going to sell my possessions and give alms.
But I will tell you that it never hurts to think about our possessions. And it never hurts to ask if we’re just building up bigger barns to store more stuff or bigger accounts to store more money. And it never hurts to ask where all of the things we’ve prepared will end up. It never hurts to give alms. It never hurts to be rich towards God.
In fact, I’ll tell you this. Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid. Be charitable. In the broadest definition of the word, be charitable. Be charitable with your money. Be charitable with your time. Be charitable with your companionship. Be charitable with your love.
Because, when you get down to it, that’s what charity is: love.
Worry is not love. Being so worried about my student loan bill that I won’t give to a child who needs school supplies is not love. Being so worried about my rent that I won’t help someone who needs a place to stay tonight is not love. Being so worried about my bank account that I won’t give up a little of what I have to make sure that people are fed and clothed and housed and cared for it not love.
Fear is not love. Being so afraid for my property that I won’t let ‘those people’ live in my neighborhood is not love. Being so afraid for my life that I won’t let refugees into my country is not love. Being so afraid for my purity that I demand control over other people is not love.
I know that it’s easy to worry. I know that it’s easy to be afraid. I know that there are people in this world – it is election season after all – who will tell you to be worried and afraid. But I also know that my faith is not in my bank account. And my faith is not in the things that I own. And my faith is not in my reputation.
My faith is in the God who feeds the ravens. My faith is in the God who clothes the lilies of the field. My faith is in the God whose good pleasure it is to give us the kingdom.
And I can’t think of any news that is better than that.