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Be Not Afraid

Reverend Philip Stringer

LET US PRAY: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Speak to us now with your Holy Spirit-- through our worship-- through this meal-- and through this sermon-- that we may be filled with your endless love, now and forever. AMEN

A man talks to me and tells me his story. He is from Cambodia and came to America after spending years in a refugee camp in Vietnam. He and his wife and children fled Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came looking for the men in the villages.

He tells me that before fleeing, there was no food in Cambodia, and he had left the village to look for something to eat. He was on a road that cut through wet fields for a long distance, and he heard a frog in the weeds so he was trying to catch it for food.

Suddenly he realized that there was a man on the road who asked him, “what are you doing?”

“I am trying to catch this frog to eat,” he said.

“You need to go home,” the man said. “The soldiers are coming.” “Yes, yes,” he said-- “you are going to make me lose my frog.”

The man persisted, “Forget about the frog. You must go now. Get your family and leave. They are taking the men away.”

“I was very worried,” he tells me. “I was hungry and I was worried for my family.”

What things do you worry about? Perhaps your life has been in danger like this man. Or perhaps your worries have been about other things-- like the safety of your loved ones, or your health or your finances or other pressures in life. Worry is part of life.

Today, there are words of hope for you-- words of comfort from Jesus himself, who says to you as he said to the disciples: Do not worry. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus makes a safe place for us-- a place of belonging that will never be taken away.

A safe place. Safety-- that is what we all want, ultimately. We want to know that we are safe, physically, emotionally as well as spiritually. And fear comes from NOT feeling safe. We all know what that feels like.

We have all been afraid-- sometimes more than others-- but we all have fears that we carry with us. Fears for our family, ourselves, our country, the planet. They are fears that come from knowing that in this world, nothing stays the same forever.

Most of the time we are able to bury those fears deep down inside because we live with a sense of RELATIVE safety-- the things that worry us are usually not imminent.

Stephen, on the other hand, certainly had reason to be afraid. An angry crowd had seized hold of him, and in a rage had cast him out into the street to be stoned.

But strangely, in spite of all of this violence, something freed Stephen from fear. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” I see Jesus together with the Father. Do you wish sometimes that you had the confidence of Stephen? Sometimes, in spite of what we are told, it’s hard not to worry.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry because he is going to the Father to prepare a place for them. “Don’t worry,” he tells them-- but that is exactly what they do.

“I’m going to prepare a place for you. You are safe.”

“But,” says Thomas, “what if we can’t find it? We don’t know the way-- What if we get lost?”

“You don’t have to worry about finding it, Thomas,” says Jesus. “I am the way-- and I have already found you!” “Don’t worry. You are safe.”

Jesus speaks those words to you.

Philip thinks that the Father is someone other than Jesus.

If other, then different.

If different, then maybe he won’t think and act like Jesus.

“But,” says Philip, “what if the Father disagrees with you? What if he doesn’t want us?”

Jesus’ reply is an answer to his fears. He says, in effect, “You don’t have to worry about the Father, Philip. The Father and I are united in our love for you-- in fact, my love for you comes from the Father.”

Jesus speaks those words to you.

Jesus’ words to him implore him to “trust my promise. But if you can’t trust my words, then remember the works I have done.” He says to Philip, “The miracles I have done come from the power that the Father has given to me. I could not do the miracles if the Father didn’t give me the power to do them. The power of God is expressed as love. So don’t worry. You are safe. The Father and I are united in our love for you.”

These are words for you and me today. They are a promise that come to us from the words of Scripture-- and a promise that is proclaimed to you personally through the waters of your baptism. In those waters, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit came to touch you-- and wash over you saying, “You are mine. You have a place in my family. Where I am you will be and where you are, I will always be. You are safe. I promise. Don’t worry.”

Sigmond Freud made an interesting observation that I believe has broad application in our lives. He said, “a man with a toothache cannot fall in love.”

Have you ever had a toothache? Or some other searing, stabbing pain? It has a way of captivating your attention, doesn’t it? And Freud’s observation is that when we are overcome with our own pain and suffering, we cannot occupy ourselves with anything else. We certainly cannot worry about others-- Our pain is all-absorbing.

It seems to me that fear has a similar effect upon us. When we are afraid, fear shapes our feelings and actions— and in so doing, takes over our lives.

Why do we do that? Why do we allow what is NOT right to determine what we will do and how we think of others and who we will be?

Why do we allow those who hate us or are cruel to us to have power over our actions; to determine the level of our integrity or our generosity or compassion for others?

“Do not worry,” said Jesus. “Do not be afraid. Don’t let your hearts be troubled. You are safe.”

When Stephen was surrounded-- overwhelmingly outnumbered by an enraged and violent crowd-- I try to imagine what that must have been like. And I can imagine him praying to God-- and I can imagine a prayer that cries out, “help me, Lord! Save me! Deliver me from this place!”

But that’s not the prayer he prayed. That’s the prayer that I would have expected. But instead, he prayed a prayer for the others. He prayed for the people who were killing him.

Stephen did not have a toothache. He was not afraid of what they WILL do, because he knows what God DID do. He saw Jesus together with the Father and believed the promise of Jesus. Stephen knew he was safe-- and because he knew he was safe he was free to pray for others.

Jesus said, “the Father and I are one. I go to prepare a place for you so that we can be together, just as the Father and I are together.”

Because Jesus is safely united with the Father, he is free to show love for us. And when we know we are safely united with Jesus, we are free to show our love for others-- for our love comes from Jesus. And Jesus’ love comes from the Father.

“When you are one with me,” he teaches them, “your heart’s desire will come true-- for you will have the heart of God. Your prayers will be answered, because you desire the will of God. . . and God’s will WILL be done.”

When we believe in Jesus-- and by that I mean that when our lives are shaped by faith in God’s grace and the promises of Jesus-- we become instruments of God’s love in the world. We become a manifestation of God in the world. Without a toothache, we are free to confront the pain and suffering of others.

Safety is what we want. To know that we belong and have a place to call home.

The man from Cambodia who told me his story said that he took the advice of the man on the road and gave up looking for the frog-- but when he turned around, there was no longer anyone on the road. “I am telling you the truth, Pastor,” he said. “There were no trees-- nothing to hide behind. Only the road. But he was not there. Pastor, I think God sent an angel to me to warn me.”

He listened to the warning he had been given. He and his family fled Cambodia, and after years of living as refugees, He and his family were brought to America where Lutheran Family Services helped to settle them. Because that’s what Christians do. We reach into places of fear and suffering and become the presence of Christ-- Emmanuel. God with us.

For this man’s family and many, many more, you do the work of the Father that leads to faith in the words of Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. . . . In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. I am going to prepare a place for you. You are safe.”

You are safe.


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