Music is an essential part of worship and the worship experience. I am not talking about the modern version of Church worship music that often involves lights, smoke, and the pastor standing behind a Plexiglas pulpit wearing skinny jeans. I am sure that has its place. I am not what that place is but to each his own.
In many ways, music is central to worship and aids the worshipers to fully enter the worship experience. Music conveys a message in both the words used and the notes on the page. How many times have we heard just a few bars of a familiar song, and it takes us back to childhood or brings back memories of a loved one? Music is important.
One of my favorite songs is “Be not afraid.” The song was composed by John Michal Talbot. He is a Roman Catholic monastic that writes worshipful, prayerful music that can be used in public worship and to aid in our private devotions.
Like most of Talbot’s music, it is a straightforward tune with simple words. I often find the tune less complex, and more often, the Chorus or central idea is repeated the best. The song begins with a few lines about why we should not fear God:
You shall cross the barren desert
But you shall not die of thirst
You shall wander far in safety
Though you do not know the way
You shall speak your words in foreign lands
And all will understand
You shall see the face of God and live
And then the Chorus
Be not afraid
I go before you always
Come follow me
And I will give you rest
Today’s Gospel passage from Luke reminds us not to be afraid. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
There is undoubtedly much to be concerned about in our world today. We do not know where the economy is going. Our planet is getting warmer each day. I read an article last night that says the earth is spinning faster than expected, and we might have to have a leap second to catch up. We still have the threat of a global pandemic, and now we have the monkey pox to deal with. It seems like there is something to fear around every corner, but God is not one of those things to fear.
I have spent the better part of my adult life studying religion and religious institutions, and one thing I have found common in all of them is control. For generations, the Church and I am using that term in its universal sense, governed by the idea that the Church needed to control individuals and their destiny.
We do not have to travel too far back in time to see how the Church often manipulated people’s lives for financial gain. Turn on most TV preachers, and you will soon get the idea that if you don’t send them money, God will strike you down. It is laughable for sure, but this is what I mean by control.
But control only works if the Church can make you afraid, and the Church is great at making you afraid.
Theologians and preachers will search scripture and find arcane passages taken way out of context that uses the word fear and say things like, “see, you need to be afraid of God.” The usual follow-up is, however, if you give such and such, it will calm God’s anger, and all will be well.
Ancient Hebrew worship involved animal sacrifice because it was believed that the smell was pleasing to God’s nostrils and would make God happy, and therefore God would not smite us. And there is always the fear of being sent to hell to keep you in check.
Look at religious art from the medieval and late medieval periods. Most of it depicts people burning in flames and running away from something called the Devil. But, of course, the Church designed all this nonsense to keep people in check and control their lives.
But the enlightenment and the reformation began to change all of that. People started to become more educated and realized this was not the way it was supposed to be. If God was some fearful being, why would this God send Jesus, God’s only Son, to show humanity a different way? The same God who healed the sick cured the blind, and fed the 5,000 does not sound like the same God that the ancient Church wanted you to fear.
Luke continues in the passage we heard this morning to say that we need to be ready, not out of fear but out of love. We sell what we have and give to the poor not because of some obligation or out of fear but because we love and desire to help.
Listen, God could have come down with fire and whatnot and destroyed everything, but God did not. Instead, God sent love in the form of Jesus to put us back on the right path and welcome us home.
One of my all-time favorite movies is the 10 Commandments. I mean, let’s face it, it is fabulous. But an often-overlooked part of the movie comes long after the Nile turns red and the fogs come out of the water.
Moses climbs to the top of Mount Sinai and encounters God. God writes the Commandments on stone tablets, not as rules to be feared but as a rule of life, a way of ordering society. As Moses comes down the mountain, he hears a tremendous commotion. The people have grown afraid and believe that the only way to appease God is to create a calf made from Gold. An idol that is taken care of is Commandment #1.
When Moses sees this, he gets angry and tosses the tablets down upon the people. In the movie, there is a large explosion, and the ground opens and swallows many of the people, including the calf of Gold.
Later we see God giving Moses another set of tablets, and God is also unhappy with Moses. But God does not smite Moses. Instead, God tells Moses that because of what he did, he lost his cool, and he will not be able to enter the land that God will give to the Israelites. Moses can bring them there; he cannot go in. You see, even from the beginning, God did not want his people to be afraid of God; God gave them and us the law not for punitive means but out of love to show us the way.
Paul writes to the Hebrews that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” “By faith,” Paul says, “we understand the worlds were prepared for the word of God.” That Word of God is not the written word; it’s not even the tablets that Moses carried. The Word of God is Jesus, and the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Friends, in a few moments, we will gather around this table. It’s a simple table fashioned for one purpose, to share a meal, a holy meal with the world. The table and the elements that will be placed upon it have been fashioned by hand. Our collective prayers and the blessing of the Holy Spirit will turn those elements from something ordinary into something extraordinary.
We will not see the change. We will not hear or feel the change. We will not taste or smell the change, but there will be a change. This meal, this communion, is a union between the creator and the creation. This meal of love is Jesus, the word of God made flesh, giving himself to us. This is not some mere symbol or reenactment of an event that took place millennia ago; this is a sacred time when God and humanity come together not out of fear but out of love.
Scripture tells me, and my faith tells me, that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to show us a different way. God could surely have sent fire, and brimstone wiped the earth’s face clean and started again. But that is not what God chose to do. Instead, God acted out of love and not out of wrath.
I have used this quote before, but it seems a fitting way to end. The quote comes from Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church here in the USA. Bishop Curry says, “the way of Jesus is the way of love, and way of love will change the world.”