Sunday, October 11, 2015


We have gathered at this convention to learn
the art of encouragement.
“Encourage” means to instill courage, to cast out fear.
The dictionary definition of “discourage”
         is “to deprive of courage, to dishearten.”
Discouragement and fear are connected.

Last week, when a student killed nine people
on the campus in Roseburg, Oregon,
it was our 45th school shooting in 2015.
In the first 274 days of this year,
         there were 294 shootings involving 4 or more victims.
Our response to such news is fear
-- fear that we or those we love will be threatened
-- fear that the government will take away our guns
-- or just unfocussed in-the-gut fear.

Violence isn’t our only fear.
The threat of shame or failure makes me shake in my boots.
You are afraid of this, I am afraid of that,
         our friends are afraid of something else.
But it’s all fear.
The level of fear in today’s world
         makes the 1950s age of anxiety look like a pic nic.
And the Church too is infected.

These days some of our congregations
         are livelier, healthier, and stronger than ever.
Others are turning things around after years of decline.
But others are still discouraged and afraid
-- afraid that the congregation will die.
Their main mission is just to stave off death.
Believe me I get that.

Nevada’s culture isn’t hospitable to religion.
American has been hostile to religion since 9/11.
Mean-spirited Christians have given us a bad name.
We have been torn apart by internal fighting.
Numbers are down.
That’s scary. It’s discouraging. I get it.

Isaiah was talking to people
         who had good reason to be discouraged too.
Assyria had annihilated 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Babylon had conquered the remaining two,
         razed Jerusalem, and carried their leaders into exile.
Now they were struggling to rebuild Judah, as a vassal state
of the Persian Empire – all in all, pretty grim.

 Then God spoke to people. He said,
         “Do not fear for I am with you. . . .
         I will strengthen you, help you, uphold you . . .
         When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;  . . .
         because you are precious in my sight and I love you . . ..
         Do not fear or be afraid.”

God said, “You are precious in my sight and I love you.”
And, as St. John says,
         “There is no room for fear in love
          for perfect love casts out fear.”
Can you hear God speaking to you in this text
– to you as an individual,
         and also to your congregation, saying,
         “Because you are precious in my sight and I love you,
          do not be afraid or discouraged.”

Hearing that word of God would take
an act of rebellion against the system. 
Besides fear-mongering journalists and politicians,
every time I walk through McCarran airport
         a PA system announcement begins,
         “Due to heightened security . . . “
Heightened from what?
TSA is constantly, over and over,
proclaiming the system’s message:
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

But God says, “Do not be afraid.”
According to Walter Brueggemann:
         “This God speaks against fear,
          the very fear by which the gods of the empire
         have kept all parties on orange alert.”

The Bible says “Do not be afraid” 365 times
-- once for each day of the year.
God invites us to what Brueggemann calls
         “a counter-loyalty,” a different way of living,
a security achieved not by gunning up,
shutting down , or breaking off 
                  but by trusting in his grace.

What if we stepped out in faith – out of fear and discouragement
into God’s sustaining love?
What if we remembered that we have been
 “marked as Christ’s own forever”?
This branding iron we use as the verger’s mace
         has a cross in the middle of it.
You know what else has a cross in the middle of it?
Your forehead.
You got it at your baptism
         when you were marked as Christ’s own forever.

If we remember that,
then we just might remember that some bishop somewhere
put hands on our heads saying,
“Strengthen O Lord your servant with your Holy Spirit.
Empower her for your service and sustain her
all the days of her life.”
Don’t just get her by in her secular life project,
but “empower her for your service.”
The next thing God said after teaching Israel
not to be afraid was this:
 “It is too light a thing that you should raise up
         the children of Israel . . . .
         I will give you as a light to the nations
         that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

God called Israel to live by faith instead of fear
         so they could teach the nations to live
by faith instead of fear.

“The nations” then would have been the Persian
         and Egyptian empires.
God called Israel to convert the empires
and change the world.
“I will give you as a light.” It was an echo.
In the beginning, when darkness was all around,
God’s first words were, “Let there be light.”
In 539 BC, God looked at a world darkened by fear,
         and said, “Let there by light.
         Isaiah, listen up, that would be you.
         You are the light.”

500 years later, on a mountain in Galilee,
Jesus told his disciples,
         “You are the light of the world.”
You are the ones to take faith into the world,
         setting all the captives free from the fear
                  that binds them.

 A year later, the risen Lord met his disciples
on a Galilean mountain, maybe the same one.
Jesus said, “Go. Make disciples of all nations . . . .
         teaching them to obey all the commandments
                  I have given you.”
Do you know what commandment
he gave more than any other?
“Do not be afraid.”

“Go to all nations.”
In those days that would have been the Roman Empire.
Go. Convert the Roman Empire.
It took 300 years, but they did it.

 Can you hear God speaking light into the darkness
of today’s fear-crippled world?
Do you know who God has commissioned
         to bear that light into the world?
As Nathan said to David, “that would be you.”

But who are the nations today?
Who out there is living by fear instead of faith?
We won’t have to look far.
They are all around us.
Our friends and neighbors are huddled in darkness.

A few years back, the mystery novelist
         Nevada Barr was out walking in the snow and darkness
         one night in a small town on the Western Slope in Colorado.
Her husband had dumped her. She was out of work,
         and was drinking too much.
Nevada Barr was afraid her life was irredeemably wrecked.
It was a bad night.
But she saw the light on in a little Episcopal Church.
She was an atheist but she tried the door anyway.
To her surprise it opened.

A few older ladies were inside singing along
with a recording of Taize chants.
She tried to get away but they nabbed her.
She’s a good Episcopalian today.
But more importantly, she’s alive, creative,
         and in the game.
The church ladies were there encouraging each other.
Then they encouraged her too.

So brothers and sisters, encourage one another.
Turn on the light at your Church on a weeknight.
Be there and when someone drops in,
         offer them a place at the hearth.