"Placing Fear in Perspective"

Proper 7.A.20
Matthew 10:24 - 39
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

When I was a little girl, I loved story books. One of my favorites was “Little Red Riding Hood”. In my picture book Red Riding Hood had blond hair and sported a red cloak. I immediately identified with her—and was not a little envious of her cloak. I would have liked a red cloak like that for myself. At any rate, I would ask for this book to be read again and again. I poured over the pictures. Now, if you think about it, the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” is rather scary. There’s a sneaky wolf who has evil designs on that little girl. And, if you were to read the old-school version that I was brought up with—there’s a violent ending to boot, involving woodsmen bearing axes.

The house in which my family lived bordered a forest (one, I imagined, much like that in which Little Red Riding Hood had ventured off the path). So, it shouldn’t surprise us that around the age of 4 I developed a well-honed fear of wolves which would rear it’s snarling head each evening about the time I was to go to bed. At this point my Father entered the picture to save the day. Each evening he would pick me up and carry me to the window where the two of us would look out at the dark, dark night and he would proclaim with great seriousness: “Melanie, there are no wolves out there tonight.” Then we would go upstairs and he would make certain no wolves were hiding in the closet or lurking under the bed, and I would go to sleep.

Here’s the thing. He never told me there was nothing to fear. Wolves, you see, are real. And should a four year old encounter one in the woods, odds are good it would probably not bode well for the child. He didn’t lie, he didn’t say there was nothing of which to be afraid, instead, he placed fear in perspective so that I could sleep at night.

In many ways, this is precisely what Jesus is doing in today’s gospel lesson. You may recall from last week that Chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel starts out happily enough. Jesus confers great authority upon the disciples. He gives them power to perform miracles and he provides them with a hopeful message to proclaim. But what startles us is the balance of the chapter (which we get to today) and how the rhetoric of our Savior steadily spirals downward. By the end of this morning’s lesson the outlook for the followers of Christ is pretty bleak. Apparently, proclaiming the Gospel can land one in prison and perhaps lead even to death. What’s more, proclaiming God’s message of love and liberation can also provoke division within one’s family.

But in the midst of all this, nestled between warnings of the possibility of beatings, interrogation, imprisonment and death as well as the potential meltdown of familial relationships is this: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Do you hear? Do you see what Jesus is doing?

He’s not telling the disciples there is nothing of which to be afraid. After all, death and division are scary things. What Jesus is doing is placing that fear in perspective. In essence, what he is saying is this: “Yes, the world is a frightening and dangerous place. People can and will do terrible things to the followers of the Messiah. But bear in mind that you are never far from the loving gaze of God. Heavens, God keeps track of sparrows, how much more does He keep track of you. You will never be lost because God is watching over you. Yes, life might very well get hard—harder than perhaps we can even imagine. But we are of great worth in the eyes of God, and for this reason, we are not to be afraid. In the end, despite all that may befall us, God’s love is more powerful than anything the world or the followers of the evil one can throw at us.

This is fear, placed in perspective. It’s a lesson about how to live in a world in which far too often evil appears to hold the upper hand.

What Jesus offers is honesty and perspective. We would do well to follow our Savior’s lead. In my time I’ve encountered many Christians who are startled when the world treats them badly, or when people fail to open their hearts and minds to embrace the Gospel. I have to wonder. Have they actually read the gospel? After all, when confronted with a lesson such as the one from today, it takes a good deal of blindness to conclude that life portends nothing but a smooth and open road for the followers of the Son of God. Certainly, taking a page from the Gospel, it’s not all rainbows and light. And yet…yet the Bible and the message of our Savior is filled with Good News, with hope and with solace—with a perspective that takes the challenges of this world (and even those of our present moment) and places them into a context in which God oversees all, and where love reigns supreme. Not an easy life, mind you, not a life free from pain, struggle or tribulation, but a life filled with the promises of God. A God who knows the number of hairs on our head and notices even when a sparrow should fall. In other words, ours is a God who cares, who loves and is deeply concerned with our welfare.

The honesty and clarity with which Jesus proclaims the Gospel is, perhaps, startling to us. So many of us are taught only to speak of the positive, to make light of the difficulties, to mute ominous overtones and give a cheery spin in the face of disaster. And yet, precisely because of his clarity and honesty, the words of hope that fill this passage are all the more comforting. They are meant to be clear and direct, to strengthen weak knees and steady our minds for the task at hand; proclaiming the kingdom of God. That, ultimately, is Good and welcome news. In fact, it’s just the kind of news we need to strengthen faint hearts and steady one’s feet in the midst of the challenging times in which we live. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.