“Do not be afraid, little flock.” Tender, precious words that we can never hear often enough. It’s not difficult to see, however, that Luke has taken various sayings of Jesus and put them together in this text. He’s not alone in this. It was a common practice in that time when it came to this kind of writing. The passage we read doesn’t seem to flow together very well. It’s kind of choppy, in fact, perhaps because Luke did take material from different places and times and put them together. So, one could really preach a sermon on each of the little soundbites in this Gospel. Don’t worry! I won’t be doing that!
I’ve been thinking this week that a sad reality of life in Twenty-first Century America is the ability of fear to shape our lives. The latter years of the Twentieth Century were often called the Age of Anxiety. But recently, through the twenty-four-hour-a-day newsfeed, specific fears have been cultivated in the hearts of Americans, and the effect has been devastating.
I can tell you that I see a number of people—young people—who suffer from a lot of anxiety. Look at our culture these days—so different from when you and I were growing up or even into our thirties and then some. People install sophisticated security systems or move to gated communities because of their fear of crime. We live in fear of global warming, tornadoes and floods, an international financial melt-down, or the outbreak of virulent pandemics that don’t seem to end. With the barrage of gun violence—400 mass shooting this year as of yesterday-- how many people have second thoughts about going to the mall or to a Walmart or Target or school or even church? I don’t have the answer for it all except to pray that we can preserve our sanity and follow old Winton Churchill’s mantra of “Keep calm and carry on!”
So, I’ll turn to another portion of this Gospel that bears some unpacking. “Be dressed for action,” Jesus tells us. What kind of “dress” is Jesus suggesting? The original Greek translation here is “the loins having been girded,’ which means nothing to us. Originally, it meant tying up around the waist the lower parts of one’s robe to be ready to run. How can we express that in words we understand and that is faithful to what the original text was trying to convey? In his paraphrase of the scriptures, The Message, Eugene Peterson has, “keep your shirts on!” The bottom line I think is that Jesus is asking us to be prepared for action.
What’s the preparation and what’s the action? On Sunday, September 4, we will welcome as Christ’s own three children who will be baptized (the great grandchildren and grandchild of Barbara and George Knoth). When we offer that welcome, as we will as a community and as God’s family, we will say: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” Share with us in his priesthood. That last phrase is crucial. Our baptisms are our ordinations, the moments in which we are set apart as God’s people to share n Christ’s ministry, whether or not we ever wear clerical collars around our necks.
For about twenty years we offered an annual parish retreat at my former parish heading off each fall for a long weekend in beautiful Lenox, Mass, in the heart of the Berkshires. One year, I used this theme of the priesthood of the baptized and had small “priestly” stoles in different colors cut from fabric. At the concluding Eucharist, each participant was given a stole—the variety of stoles representative of their diverse ministry in the world— and invited to surround the Altar with me. It was a profound statement about our shared priesthood and our ordination in Baptism.
In her book, The Preaching Life, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Perhaps we should revive Luther’s vision of the priesthood of all believers, who are ordained by God in baptism to share ministry in the world--a body of people united by the one vocation, which they pursue across the gamut of their offices in the world. To believe in one’s own priesthood is to see the extraordinary dimensions of an ordinary life, to see the hand of God at work in the world and to see one’s own hands as necessary to that work.
“Pursuing that location, priests are likely to wear a hundred different hats—social worker, chauffeur, cook, teacher, financial adviser, nurse, babysitter, IT specialist, marriage counselor, homemaker, friend—and whatever hat they happen to be wearing at the time, priests remember that they wear it as God’s person, for God’s sake in God’s name.”
I wonder if we “gird our loins” by our baptism, by our sharing in the Eucharist, by our living in a faithful community like ours, by learning who and whose we are by our presence here in the household of God. That’s the way we “dress.” That’s the way we get ready for action.
But we who are the household of God were not meant to stay in the house. The gospel we hear proclaimed week after week is God’s good news about the redemption of the world in which you are invited to take part. Our prayers are for the church and for the world. We confess our sins against our neighbors, and we do not mean just those sitting beside us in the pews.
The two great sacraments of the church remind us that we are sent: “Send them into the world in witness to your love,” we pray for those about to be baptized.” “Send us now into the world in peace,” we pray for ourselves in one of the prayers after Communion. If the church is where we learn who and whose we are, the world is where we are called to put that knowledge to use. Answering that call requires no particular virtues. Those marked as Christ’s own forever have everything they need.
Perhaps the action Jesus asks us to be dressed for is to see what God sees when God looks at the world, and to believe that God’s dreams can come true. Even to believe Jesus when he tells us, “Do not be afraid, little flock.”