Fear Blights

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21:33-46

1.

I begin today with a kind of parlor trick. Feel free to pass it along to your friends and family, especially the younger set.

<How to remember the Ten Commandments with your ten fingers.>

So, there it is. With this parlor trick, not only are you able to remember all ten commandments, but also you can remember which is which.

Now, before turning to today’s Gospel, I’d like to offer a couple remarks on this passage from Exodus:

  • Moses had recently freed the people of God from oppression: the oppressive hand of Pharaoh.
  • This new people was wandering in the wilderness, groping as if blind, not knowing their way forward.
  • As such, they were a new society in need of new rules. In addition to questions about religious worship, how were they to live together in relative harmony?
  • And notice Moses’ message: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” In other words, Moses said: Do not be afraid; but be afraid of God.

Okay. . . .

2.

Now, over in today’s Gospel we find some interesting parallels.

  • Jesus is seeking to free people from oppression.
  • This new Jesus movement is just that: new. And as such his followers feel much like they are wandering in the wilderness, not sure of a way forward.
  • Many questions surface about how to worship and otherwise understand corporate life.
  • And—while not specifically stated in today’s Gospel but most definitely a part of the larger context of his mission and ministry—Jesus shares a similar message: “Do not be afraid.”

But, unlike in Moses’ day, now it is not a political oppression that the people find themselves under but a spiritual oppression; and, ironically, it’s an oppression brought on by certain followers of Moses, the very agent of freedom we just heard about.

Back then, under Moses, the people wandered a little while longer, forging a path ahead, not knowing where God would lead. Their place of worship was a tabernacle: a large but flexible tent of worship, made so that in a day’s notice it could be packed up and moved to the next location.

Now, however, the corporate place of worship for the Jewish people is an inflexible, fixed, permanent temple.

The message under Moses was to fear God and obey his commandments—all ten of them.

The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, however, declare that there aren’t just ten; but 613. Now the people are called on not just to fear God, but also to fear those who on earth bear God’s special authority; namely, the leaders of the temple.

And so, like Moses, Jesus comes along and upsets the status quo.

He enters Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey amidst the shouts of throngs of people.

He goes to the temple courts and overturns tables.

He tells tricky parables that impugn the religious leaders.

And he suggests it’s actually not 613 commandments; not even 10; but really only one—in two varieties—love.

Do not be afraid, he says, like Moses; but, unlike Moses, his message is not to fear but to love. Love God; love neighbor.

And I cannot help but notice this detail: at the end of today’s Gospel, the religious leaders, who run their whole operation by means of fear—keeping the people fearful of God and of themselves—are themselves fearful: they do nothing to stop Jesus because they fear the people, who hold Jesus to be a prophet.

3.

So, let’s carry this comparison-and-contrast exercise one step further.

Pharaoh was oppressive; Moses liberated the people and started something new.

Many generations later, the Jewish religious leaders were oppressive, keeping the Jewish laity under clouds of fear; Jesus sought to liberate the people and begin something new.

Now—one step further—here we are today, many generations later again, having established and maintained the mission and movement that this man Jesus began.

And where are we?

Have we listened to his message? Are we loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind? Are we loving our neighbor as ourselves? Are we “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? Are we bearing fruits of love?

Or do we see God as someone to fear? Are we keeping ourselves and our neighbors under clouds of fear?

4.

Now, I’m not going to deny it: there is in fact much to fear in our day.

Just this week we heard about a tragic and senseless act of gun violence. Why is this sort of thing happening more and more frequently, we ask? And why isn’t more being done to stop it? We could have been one of the victims, we know.

And, rightly so, we fear.

Then there’s the seemingly increasing threat of nuclear war. What if North Korea doesn’t back down? What if our president does something rash?

Again, we fear.

And then there’s that nagging question of the environment. Science is warning us that the globe is warming at an alarming rate. There’s a great plastic patch in the Pacific, choking and otherwise killing off the life that teems there. How can we leave a healthy and thriving planet to future generations?

We fear.

Cancer hits close to home for all of us. What if I’m its next victim, we agonize?

And what of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other so-called acts of God?

Yes, there is much to fear in our world!—just as there was much to fear in the world of Jesus’ day; and in the world of Moses’ day.

But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid!”

To live under fear—and it doesn’t matter whether its source is human or divine—to live under fear is to live under oppression.

And Jesus came to free us from oppression.

5.

But haven’t we been going down a rabbit trail?

This parable calls us to bear fruit. In the end, that’s who the landowner is counting on; that’s who will be called on to tend and keep the vineyard: those who are already demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in their lives; those who walk in love as Christ loved us.

Bearing fruit is the point of this parable; and so what does fear have to do with it?

Just this: it’s how we bear fruit.

As he delivered this parable, Jesus was speaking directly to the religious leaders of his day. For our day, just like then, this is a message directly to church leaders.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were running the established religious institution by means of fear, not by means of love. They bore some fruit, sure; yet the little fruit they bore was sour and difficult—like 613 times more sour and difficult than it had to be!

Fear proved a blight on their harvest.

Part of Jesus’ mission was to change this, to take the religious leadership out of the hands of the few who led and controlled by fear and put it into the hands of those who would lead as servants, by means of love, and thereby bear truckloads more fruit; tasty and productive fruit.

This is a message for today’s church leaders. And so, as a leader of today’s church, I want you to know: I am committed to lead by love, not fear; and thus bear fruits of love, not fear.

But, at the same time, this is not just a message for today’s church leaders. It is also a message for the church as a whole—bishops, priests, deacons, and laity. For who else is going to offer spiritual leadership to society today?

Jesus’ message is to all of us, particularly this corporate body we call St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church and School.

In and around the Temecula Valley, and in fact throughout the world; in this day and age characterized by fear, Jesus calls us to fear not; and to bear fruits of love.

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