Fear is in the air.
Everywhere you look – social media, your favorite news website, or even the street corner – fear is in the air. Fear that the economy will fall back into recession. Fear that you’ll lose your job. Fear that the person you ask out on a date will say no. Fear that your spouse will turn you in you for a younger model. Fear about the current state of the political discourse in this country. Fear that you can’t pay next month’s bills. Fear that you won’t finish an important project at work by the deadline. Fear that God isn’t here beside you as you struggle through this life. Fear that you will die alone and unloved.
Fear is in the air.
Our Gospel passage from Luke begins with Jesus saying to his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” This isn’t the first time that we heard these words in the gospel of Luke. This is the same message given to Zechariah when the angel told him his wife Elizabeth was pregnant with Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist. It’s the same thing the angel said to Mary at the Annunciation when she was told she was pregnant with God’s son. It’s the same thing that Jesus proclaims to Saint Peter before he tells him that he will be a fisher of men.
“Do not be afraid.”
In all instances of this phrase in Luke, “Do not be afraid” comes before the announcement of a significant, life-changing event. In this case, Jesus says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is no small matter and is just as daunting of a message as the angel telling Mary that she is pregnant with God’s son.
Out of his own delight, God gives us the kingdom. The word kingdom is not easy for us to relate to. The last time we had a king in this country, we rejected his authority and declared our independence! The kingdom of God refers to an inbreaking of God’s love, peace, freedom and justice into the world.
These inbreakings of God’s kingdom in this world happen in what is often referred to as “thin places.” Thin places are moments in which time itself seems to stand still and the divide between this world and the next is very thin indeed. In these thin places, God’s love becomes tangible to us and we get a brief glimpse of heaven itself. The sacraments are thin places, and particularly the Holy Eucharist, where we are transported in time to the hill upon which Jesus died and we are fed the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. In these thin places, heaven kisses earth.
But thin places are not only to be found in the sacraments. They are also found in the face of the homeless person you see on the street corner. In the cries of the sick person you are nursing and taking care of. And in subtle, everyday things like hugging a child or hearing those repetitive words “I love you” from a family member.
These thin places are all around us, and ever difficult to detect. How do we predispose ourselves to be aware of them? Through consistent prayer, Bible study, silence, contemplation, selflessly serving others, and regular reception of the sacraments of the Church. Without making the time and effort to engage in these sometimes-arduous spiritual disciplines, we aren’t able to put aside our fear and be aware of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom around us.
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, for God is giving you his kingdom of love, peace, freedom and justice.” It is in this context that Jesus tells his disciples to sell their possessions and give alms and make purses for themselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. When we graciously accept God’s loving kindness towards us, when we are intentionally aware of the Holy Spirit working in our everyday lives, when we are sensitive to detecting the thin places that we encounter throughout our lives, it is then that we are led to share that love and compassion with others.
I’ll always remember one of the questions I was asked at one of the many Committee meetings during my ordination process. “When you envision yourself as a priest, what scares you the most?” My immediate response was, “Being around people who are dying and their families. I not only don’t know what to say or do, but I can’t imagine what I would have to contribute to people in such pain and grief.” Less than a year later, in my second semester at seminary, I got word that my co-worker’s 17-year-old son had died. His name was Noah, and I’d known him because his mom had asked me to spend a little time with him as he was struggling coming out in high school, and to boot, he was afflicted with mental illness at a pretty severe level. Noah died because he hung himself from a tree. I was terribly sad when I heard the news, but when his mom called and asked if I’d do the funeral, I had an overwhelming sense of fear wash over me. I called my bishop and told him I’d been asked to do this huge funeral for this young kid who died tragically, and he said to me, “Charles, the Church doesn’t normally asked folks at your stage of the process to do this kind of work, but it sounds like there’s an opportunity here for the Holy Spirit to work through you to help a whole lot of people. God’s been preparing you for this moment, and will give you everything you need to get through it. How will you respond?”
With God’s help, I said yes.
Less than two years later, the 21-year-old son of one of the owners of the bank died of an accidental drug overdose. His dad called me and asked me to do the funeral. And to this day, I think some of the most important parts of my ministry here at St. Mary’s have been walking alongside those who are dying, and then ministering to their family and friends upon their death.
I tell you about my greatest fear coming into the priesthood not to encourage you to face your fears head on, or to assure you that things always get better, or to tell you to always say yes when asked to do something you’re scared to do. I tell you this story because God didn’t ask me to help these people out of the blue. In a sense, I’d been preparing for these moments for my whole life. My imperfect attempts to consistently pray, to study the Bible, to listen to God’s voice…my constant reception of the sacraments of the church, sometimes because I felt so unworthy…God used all of that to make me sensitive to these particular thin places, and to have the courage to overcome my fear and say yes. Inevitably when I do, the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the moments that ensue ushers in God’s love, peace, and freedom where it is desperately needed.
“Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells us, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms! Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit! Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour!” This call to be ready is both about Christ’s coming in our lives today and about his second coming at the last day. The certainty of Christ’s coming is not a cause for panic, but a cause for watchful anticipation for blessing. This call to be ready isn’t a cause to be overly critical of our own sins and failings, but rather to be ready to receive blessings like we could never imagine. To be watchful and ready for thin places in this world, to be watchful and ready for the unimaginable and overwhelming grandeur of being in God’s kingdom in all of its glory in eternity. This call is to be ready for the foretaste of the heavenly banquet when we receive communion in a moment, and to be ready for the heavenly banquet itself in eternity with God.
Friends, do not be afraid! For God, out of his own delight, gives you his kingdom of love, peace, freedom and justice. Be watchful for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the thin places. And be ready for the coming of Christ, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and at the last day.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 335.
 Ibid 338.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!