Friday, August 5, 2016

Year C, Proper 14, Luke 12:32-40, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Sermon: "Fear, Faith, and Courage"

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom."

This is a beautiful verse, a favorite hymn is based on it, and it’s a theme that comes up in the Bible time and time again.  Fear not.

The thing is, fear is not a choice but an emotion that simply happens.  And fear serves a pretty important role in our lives.  It helps us to respond to that which threatens us.  Yet, it also can immobilize us from responding at all.

A veteran of the Air Force once shared with me a little tidbit about fighter pilots.  It's not that fighter pilots have no fear.  In fact many a fighter pilot has returned from a dog fight with the enemy, having shit in their pants.  What sets them apart is courage, that is, the ability to act in the face of one's fears.  Courage is not the lack of fear, but the conquering of our fears.

And faith is the foundation of all courage.  It is that complete and total trust that enables us to act with courage in the face of our fears.

Be of good courage, little flock, and trust that it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

The truth is that most of us have lived with fear at some point in our lives.

The hope is that in the midst of our fears, faith abides.

And our responsibility is to act with courage in the face of our fears.

What are you afraid of?

A lot of things evoke a response of fear within us.

In 2002 a doctor examined me, and heard a heart murmur that hadn’t been there before.  Subsequent tests revealed a failed mitral valve in my heart.  Surgery was the only option.  Fear was the reaction.

One of the things I insisted on doing was to give my wife a brief overview of our financial status.  What would happen if I was gone?  How would she manage?  What should she do? I took a friend aside and specifically asked him to help her if needed.  He didn’t want to hear any of it.  I would be just fine.  But, you see, fears are real.

Oh, I had done plenty of research on the surgery.  I knew from the studies that mitral valve repairs are successful 98% of the time.  That’s what I read anyway.  But my response was that there is always that 2%.  And I would muse that if we had a 2% chance of winning the lottery, we’d all go out and buy tickets. 

But it wasn’t just the thought of dying that made me afraid.  It was also the thought of the recovery.  The pain.  The discomfort.  And what would life be like for me after it was all done. 

Fears are real.  They may be nothing more than emotions, but they are real. 

Thankfully, God gave me the faith that I needed at that time. 
·         Faith to trust the doctors.
·         Faith to believe that it would come out fine, even though I was afraid.
·         Faith to cling to the promise that even death would not have the final say.
·         Faith to entrust my wife and kids to the care of another, should I not be able to care for them myself.

Fears are real, but faith conquers fear.

And then there is this matter of courage.  Acting in the face of our fears. 

In this instance, I can look back and affirm that I did what I needed to do.  I acted with courage, in spite of my fears.  Nothing all that heroic.  I just did the next right thing.

For me that involved learning about my condition and the treatment options that were available.

Choosing a doctor.

Showing up.

Kissing my wife before they took me into the surgery suite.

And then, sitting there and watching as the anesthesiologist took a syringe and gave me the shot that would put me under for the surgery.

Obviously, as I stand here some fourteen years later, the surgery came out just fine.

Fears subside.
Faith sustains.
And courage is rewarded.

I haven’t been with you very long.
We’re just getting to know one another.
And I can hardly claim to know all that there is to know about you as a congregation.

But this I do know, because some of you have already shared it with me. 

There is a fear.

Whether it is spoken or not, the fear is real.

It’s probably the strongest, for those who have been here the longest.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

Is anyone willing to say it out loud?

 The fear you’ve expressed is whether this congregation will survive.

Do you have a future?
What does that future look like?
Can you afford a pastor?
Will you grow?
Or continue to decline?
How long do we have left?
What would happen to the building?
Where would you go if Peace Lutheran were no longer here?
Is there anything that we can do?

Part of fear, is that we feel so helpless.  And hopeless.

And sometimes our fears are rooted in a firm grip of reality.  They are not unfounded.

When I had open heart surgery, I was afraid.

The fact is that some people die during that surgery.  It can and does happen.

Likewise, sometimes congregations must close their doors.  It is a reality that simply is.  I can’t stand here and tell you that it never happens, because it does happen, and it MAY happen.  We simply don’t know whether it will happen.

Sometimes the writing seems to be on the wall.
And sometimes we are simply wrong.

And many times our fears simply don’t come to pass.

When I was the pastor in Thompson Falls, MT the bishop asked if I would be willing to serve a small congregation in Hot Springs, MT as well.  Our Savior’s in Thompson Falls was having a hard time supporting me as their pastor, and this might help.

The congregation in Hot Springs was small.  About ten people came regularly to worship.  And they were almost all elderly.  OK, not just older, elderly. 

What the bishop said was that it would probably be a short term solution.  Three or four funerals and the church would be to the point of having to close their doors.

They had very little money.  An old run down building. 

Two stories come to mind about Trinity Lutheran in Hot Springs.  The first has to do with a “Norwegian Bachelor farmer” by the name of Orville in the congregation.

Orville was their every Sunday, one of two men who attended regularly.  And ever since he was a boy, he did what his mommy taught him to do, which is to put one dollar bill in the offering plate each Sunday.  Now Orville was a successful farmer.  He was a bit odd.  Shell shocked from the war, was the word I got.

But he had been a good successful farmer and rancher.  And, as he told me, everything was paid for. 

A number of years before, their pastor had told them that they needed to increase the giving by 25% or the congregation would have to close.  Orville responded.

Every Sunday since then, Orville wrapped his one dollar bill around a quarter, and that was his offering. 

The other story is of Amanda.  Amanda was the grandchild of one member.  One Easter, her grandma asked if Amanda could perform a song for us.  Having no kids or special music, I was delighted to say yes. 

That Easter, the church filled to the brim.  60 to 70 people.  I was shocked.  They had come to see Amanda.

What caught me off guard was that Amanda didn’t sing.  She lip synced and acted out with a dramatic flair Dolly Parton’s song “He’s Alive!”, complete with throwing herself across the floor like an ice dancer at the end.  I had all I could do to keep from laughing.  Something about Dolly Parton’s voice, and this skinny little 9 year old girl, just was too much to take. 

But in the end, what happened at Trinity in Hot Springs is that those 3 or 4 people didn’t die, and the Church didn’t close.  Today they report having only 32 members, BUT, an average attendance of 40 people each week.  Twenty five years after they were supposed to die, they are better off than they’ve ever been.

Yes, they were afraid of dying.
It took faith to go on,
And the courage to do the next right thing.

I also mentioned to you before about the congregation that I served in Ekalaka, MT.

That congregation should never have even started, let alone, succeeded.

Again, perhaps ten people would be at worship when I first went there.  Today, they have a membership of over a hundred people, average worship attendance of about 40, and a new building.  I understand that their “Cowboy Worship” is one of the highlights of their ministry today, drawing a large crowd from the community of Ekalaka.
To be clear, it was not that I had found some wonderful solution for either of these congregations.  I was at a loss.

What I do believe is that God had a purpose for them. 
And so, they have not only survived, but grown and thrived.

Dr. Kennon Callahan, a well know Church Growth consultant who wrote “Twelve Keys to an Effective Church” and related materials, says that the most important question every congregation needs to ask itself is this:
“Do you believe that your best days are behind you?  Or ahead of you?”
“Do you believe that the best is yet to come?”

If we ask ourselves that question as individuals, our answer reveals our age.  You see, the young, or young at heart, always believe the best is yet to come.  They look to the future with hope. 

On the other hand the old, or the old at heart, whether they are 90 or 20, believe that their best years are behind them.  That there is little left to hope for. 

There is a truth about the answer that we give to this question.

As you believe, so shall it be.

If you believe you are dying, you will die.

If you believe that God has great things in store for your future, they will come to pass in amazing ways.

As you believe, so shall it be.

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom."

Yes, our fears are real.
But God invites us to have faith, not in our own abilities, but in his.
And then he calls us to act with courage.

A final word on acting with courage.

This does not mean that we always have to do heroic things in order to succeed.  It means more than not, that we simply need to do the next right thing, and sometimes it’s simple.

·         Get a good website.
·         An active facebook page.
·         “Like” the Church’s facebook page,
o   Or the Pastor’s blog, so you friends might read.
·         Invite a friend to worship with you.
·         Get rid of the weeds in the parking lot, so that we make a better impression to first time visitors.
·         And be truly welcoming to all.

One last story about Ekalaka.

Prior to Christmas each year they used to have an Advent Tea, open to the whole community.  They used it as an opportunity to invite people to worship on Christmas.

One year, a couple of women, known to be Wicca adherents, asked if they could come.  A candlelight service sounded cool to them, and they even inquired whether they should bring their own candles. 

The reaction of the congregation was priceless.  Yes, they were welcome.  No they didn’t have to bring their own candles. 

And about these women being “witches”, well, they too need to hear the Gospel.

There is a reason some congregations grow.


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