August 11, 2019 – The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Sometimes in Scripture you read the phrase “the fear of the Lord.”  Or it comes as an imperative, “Fear the Lord.”  For many who were raised on a diet of religious guilt and terror, these words are a trigger, an entry into an entire system of behavioral control in which God is the tyrant who imposes his will on human beings who are inherently sinful and continually failing.  It is the fear of punishment, the fear of being consigned to the eternal fires of hell that is invoked to make someone obey the rules as interpreted by human authority.

This kind of fear is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.  It is the condition of being afraid.”   There is reason to be afraid when a wildfire is approaching, a car is skidding on ice, or a bear is growling nearby.  Fear in these situations heightens your senses and can provoke a physical response like flight or fight that might save your life.

But the unremitting psychological fear of one who is supposed to love you, who knows you intimately, whose child you are is damaging.  It breaks relationship.  It causes self-loathing and self-harm.   It can lead to violence toward self or others.  Perpetual fear can only end in death.  It can scare the life out of you.

In the past week we have all been affected by this type of fear.  It is fear that resulted in racial hatred and violence through mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton and in communities all over this country.  It is fear that continues the practice of caging immigrants, separating children from their families, carrying out raids and arresting people who are working hard to create a better living situation for themselves.  It is fear and desperation that brings some of the unhoused people into the Ballard neighborhood and onto church grounds to find safety and sanctuary and fear that plays a factor in substance abuse to numb the pain and suffering and trauma.  Fear, self-loathing and hatred are a toxic mix endangering both individuals and communities.

Fear caught me up this past week, too.  There were too many days I had to call the police to help deal with people who were engaged in behaviors that were harmful to themselves or others.  Fear of abandonment and death plague people I love.   Fear is often at the root of broken relationships.

Fear can cause us to hold back; to push away; to retreat; to disengage; to punish; to demonize; to over protect.  Fear is a form of slavery where we are trapped and locked away from light and love and hope.  It can cause people to harden their hearts against God and one another.  It can overwhelm us so that we no longer hear the cries of the poor and vulnerable.  It turns all but our own tribe into a threatening “other” that has to be guarded against.  Fear keeps us from seeing and experiencing the radical, grace-filled Kingdom of God.

This past Wednesday, a terrified and disoriented young man appeared in my neighbor’s back yard at 9:30 at night, asking for a Band-Aid.  He was bleeding, missing a shoe and shaking.  His appearance frightened me, Bryon and our three houseguests.  It was unexpected.  We didn’t know if he was a thief or a threat.  But here’s the deal.  Every day I have contact with people who look scary, disoriented, dirty, and are partially clothed.  So do all the folks who spend much time at St. Luke’s.  And we’ve gotten to know people who seem kind of scary.  We know names and stories as well as their hopes and fears.  We’ve become neighbors. We’re in relationship with one another.

So on Wednesday night I asked the young man to come around to the front of our house so we could help him.  I called 911 to request medical assistance.  He began to strip off his clothing so we got him to lie down so we could put a blanket over him.  And he told me his name – Gregory.  It wasn’t clear what had happened but it was clear that he was hurt and vulnerable and scared.  The 911 operator mentioned there was a serious accident recently reported just 2 blocks from us.  We began to suspect he had been in the accident.  His neck and back were hurting.  He had scrapes on his shoulder, feet and hands.

It took a long time for the first police car to arrive.  During that time I lost my fear of Gregory and began to get to know him as we tried to carry on a conversation in spite of his disorientation.  It took a long time for the four police vehicles and all the personnel to conclude that he wasn’t a suspect.  Finally after taking my statement and questioning him, they left and let the medics assist him.  I asked if I could pray for him.  He told me his father was a pastor.  I told him I was glad he came to us for help.  An hour after he appeared in our yard, the ambulance took him away.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

There’s another definition for the word “fear,” “reverential awe or to have reverential awe of.”  This is the true sense of what the “fear of the Lord” is – to be in awe of God, amazed at God’s nature and attributes, to give deep attention to, to respect.  The God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Jesus surprises us with the gift of the Kingdom.  This is a homeland that transcends any house or nation and creates a community of radical belonging and peace.  This is a system where the old hierarchies are turned upside down and the master becomes the servant of the servants as Jesus did when he washed his disciple’s feet and as he promises in his story about the master returning from the wedding feast to fasten his belt, invite the servants to sit down and then waits upon them.

This is the Kingdom of God where widows and orphans are given respect and the oppressed are lifted up and everyone sits down at the banquet feast of the Lord.

The same week that brought all this bad news and suffering right up to my front porch is also the week that Mike came by after church last Sunday.  A year ago he was trespassed from church property for fighting and aggressive behavior.  He was stuck in a cycle of addiction, homelessness and violence.  One day he broke down on the bench in our courtyard and said he needed treatment or he’d die.  He didn’t have a phone anymore so I made the call on my cell and handed it to him.  I didn’t see him for 3 months.  And when I did, I hardly recognized him.  He was clothed and in his right mind.  He came by last week to let me know he has his old job back in Alaska and when he finishes, he’s going to visit the daughter he hasn’t seen for 10 years.  He said, “You never know which of us is going to make it so you have to keep helping all of us.”  “Don’t give up.”

That’s what faith is, fidelity to God, one day at a time.  Keep giving.  Keep engaging.  Keep learning to trust.  Keep praying.  Keep letting go.  Keep receiving the Kingdom.  It is God’s good pleasure to give us life and life abundant.

There’s something that helped me keep going this past week and it may surprise you.  It isn’t a devotional book or inspirational Bible commentary.  It’s a TV show.  Every night when I came back exhausted and strung out, I tuned into the first season of a show that was recommended to us.  I’d heard about it but until it was reviewed in the Christian Century as one of the clearest depictions of grace on television I hadn’t been interested.  But it turns out that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was just what I needed.

Five guys (The Fab Five) visit a man who has been nominated for a makeover.  They learn what is holding him back from being his best person and they come alongside to help and encourage the guy to take the steps necessary to see that he is deserving of love and self-respect.  The twist is that these are five gay men, one who is Pakistani and one who is African American.  The straight men they descend upon are a redneck cop in a small town in Georgia, an all-male, all white fire department crew and a conservative Christian family man with 5 kids.  And even though it’s a reality show and even though they have lots of production support, at the end of each show, someone is crying and it isn’t just the gay guys, but the people they come to care deeply about and me, too.  Over and over the barriers of fear and distrust get broken down as they look to find the best in one another and act in trust despite their misgivings.

That’s what happens here too.  We come together in worship and awe.  We find ourselves in the presence of a God who is greater than our fears and anxieties.  We discover the One who transcends our national boundaries, our prejudices, our distrust and hatred to restore us to our true identity and our best selves.  And once we get over ourselves, God puts on the robe of the servant and invites us to dine at this table where our divisions are healed and we catch a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom.   Amen.