Pentecost 12 C: What Would You Do…?

Luke 12:32-40

Dear Partner in Preaching,

One of my favorite questions to ask in visioning work or counseling sessions is as follows: “What would you love to try if you knew you couldn’t fail?” You may have heard that question, or asked it, yourself. I like it because it prompts us to cast our gaze beyond our present circumstances and challenges, elements in our lives that, while perhaps real, often cast a larger than necessary shadow. We are evolutionarily wired to overestimate risk and danger because, well, in a harsh environment underestimating risk and danger can be deadly. But one might argue that in our relatively civilized world, we often lose more to underestimating possibility.

You have to ask this question at the right time, of course, for it to do its work. When you’ve just come out of a difficult or harmful environment, you don’t have the resources to imagine a future, that while brighter, may also be more challenging or risky. A modicum of confidence or relative safety helps us to take on even greater challenges. Similarly, having a backer or mentor or advocate helps. Someone to support you, who has your back, who will champion your efforts and encourage you. In a sense, that’s what Abraham (then called Abram) receives from the Lord in today’s first reading. “Do not be afraid,” the Lord tells Abram, “I will guide you and protect you and give you offspring and a future you could not have imagined.”

Now, if someone had asked Abram what he would do if he knew he could not fail, I don’t know that he would have answered that he wanted to pull up stakes and move all his family across a continent. But that’s what he did. And that’s what vision and promise do – they enable you to do things you’ve never previously dreamed.

One could read Jesus’ promise in much the same vein. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you all things.” And from that astounding promise comes the invitation, rather than command, to prioritize, to share, to be prepared for what comes, to give things away. And what’s the difference between a command and invitation, you may wonder. Only the force of how a statement strikes you. The one implies coercion; the other freedom. And promises always lead to freedom. Because we have Jesus’ promise that it is God’s good pleasure and heart’s desire to give us all good things, we are suddenly free to give away, to care for others, to lose ourselves in service, and in all these ways find our security and confidence not in our earthly possessions or accomplishments but rather in our relationship with God.

What an astoundingly different message that is than the one we hear in our culture and, this year in particular, from too many political candidates. Rather than tell us not to be afraid, would-be leaders relentlessly tell us, even shout at us, all about the things that we should fear. And such fear tends to limit our vision and paralyze our actions, thereby making it difficult to imagine a hopeful future, let alone work toward it.

Despite my affinity for the “vision question” I started with, I’ve been wondering lately whether I should modify it to make it serve better as an “action question.” That is, while it’s important to free folks to dream of life without limits, it’s also important to equip us to live with the very real challenges in front of us. So I would tweak the question slightly: What would we do, dare, attempt, not if we knew we couldn’t fail, but rather if we believed that failure didn’t matter. Not “didn’t matter” as in there are no consequences, but rather “didn’t matter” in the “it’s not the end of the world” sense. Because, indeed, Abraham will fail, at times spectacularly, and the followers of Jesus will experience multiple setbacks and disappointments. Yet they carried on, trusting that their future and self-worth were neither secured by their success nor eroded by even devastating setbacks, but rather were granted and made sure by God’s good pleasure and promise alone.

I think the call – or at least one of the primary calls – of the church today is to become a place where people are so rooted in the promise of God’s good pleasure, reminded of their identity as God’s beloved children, and affirmed in their inherent self-worth and dignity, that they can, indeed, see all those around them as similarly beloved and deserving of self-worth, dignity, and God’s good pleasure. The question for a Christian, you see, isn’t finally about some form of self-actualization but rather discovering that as we give ourselves away in relationship and service we find a deeper sense of self than we’d imagined possible. We are born for community and find a sense of self and meaning and purpose as we trust God’s promises and give ourselves away in love.

Toward that end, Dear Partner, might we end our service this week with a brief affirmation of God’s blessing and then send people into the world and all their various vocational arenas – home, work, school, places of volunteering – with the conviction that God – and this community! – have their back, are encouraging them in their challenges, inviting them to dream and strive, and counting on them for seeing those around them, and especially those in need, as their neighbor, a beloved child of God, and one perhaps set before them so that they may extend God’s love and promises? Might we send them out, that is, armed with God’s promises to live into and work for the Kingdom of God Jesus proclaims, reminding them that they need not fear and that their words and actions make a huge difference? The world needs the gifts and passion of your people, Dear Partner, more than they know. So let’s tell them. As you can tell, I think this is an incredibly important word to share, and I’m grateful for your willingness to bring your passion and creativity to this task. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,