August 7, 2016
Twelth Sunday after Pentecost
It is with great joy and low-level terror that I am here with you this morning. As I hope to make clear with my words, I am trying to embrace vulnerability as a way of experiencing God’s love in new ways. I am endlessly grateful for His grace and now, yours. I want to share with you how I almost missed the full experience of being known and loved by God.
The first words of today’s Gospel reading caught my heart and mind quickly when I started preparing to speak here: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” It jumped out at me for at least 2 reasons – I am often afraid and I love children. I was blessed to grow up happily and comfortably in the middle of America, in a middle class family, and in the United Methodist Church. And while I didn’t always quite fit with my family or my small town, I fit really well with my Methodist church. I found support and friendship and growth there through youth group, church camp, Vacation Bible School and all the ways a young person hangs around and soaks up church teachings and community. The Methodist church also shaped and shared my vision for myself in the world – open and generous, accepting and celebrating all, seeking justice and serving the poor and vulnerable. I always knew that it was my responsibility to show God’s love through my work and how I interact with people. I felt like I really got it and sure acted like I did! I chose social work as a profession, I am friendly and caring with almost everyone I meet, and I am always hoping and praying for the world to find healing and goodness for the most vulnerable people. So how does this relate to that first phrase – Do not be afraid?
It turns out, I missed the part about God’s love that truly, deeply, amazingly included me. Really, just me, one little person who is not simply acceptable, but known and loved by God. I spent most of my life talking the talk and walking the walk of loving care and support FOR EVERYONE BUT ME. Who shall I pray for? The friend whose mother has cancer. Who needs help? The family whose house was destroyed by a tornado. Who shall I work for? Children with no voice. Everything I thought about God’s transformational, life-giving presence in this world was pointed outward. I literally forgot that I am included in God’s love, especially when things get tough. So, when I have felt lost, in over my head, like I have no answers, don’t know what to do – I have been deeply afraid. Of course, I also felt terribly alone. This has happened to me more and more in recent years, this experience of being almost paralyzed by fear. And I blame it on the children.
Let me explain…remember the secnd thing about me? I love children. I loved reading “little flock” because it made me think of my little children at Jubilee JumpStart. I love children in that delightful, silly way that causes me to strike up a conversation with a preschooler on the bus and make sounds and funny faces at babies in the grocery line. I also love children in a fierce way that leads me to educate people about their needs and advocate for them with those who can make decisions about their lives. I have always found babies and small children to embody the very essence of joy, possibility and light. I see God in their faces. It is our vision that every child at Jubilee JumpStart know that they are beloved by their parents, teachers and community.
So I managed to make my work in the world for poor children and their families. This sounds fine so far, right? Like what God intended for me, right? So a few years ago, I found myself leading a fragile little organization called Jubilee JumpStart, a place full of the most beautiful children in the world. I had brought my child-and-family-loving self up to DC and found this place that loved babies in the deep way I did and envisioned care and education that would change their lives. I had 20 years experience working with agencies and programs that protected and nurtured children and their parents. I said: Yes, I can lead an organization doing that! What a fabulous opportunity! What could possibly go wrong…?! A few details I might add – I had worked in programs, not lead them; I had provided services that were funded, not secured the funding to provide services; I had visited with families in poverty, not lived in poverty myself. Minor details that I did not think to dwell on thanks to my great joy about diving in deep to community-based care for children built on a wobbly framework of funding, love and faith. (I should say that only the funding was wobbly – the love and faith have always been strong for this place founded within the Church of the Saviour community.)
About a year and half into my tenure, the center was struggling financially and I felt like I had used up all of the skills and knowledge available to me. I was lost, in over my head, surely didn’t know what to do and was desperately afraid. At first I felt terribly alone, which only made me even more afraid. But the children made me brave. (The children, their parents and the staff really.) I realized I had to do things for them that required me to grow in my faith and understanding of God’s promise to me. I had to actually say out loud to all sorts of people: JJS needs money. We need money. I need money. So I blame the children for making me love them so much that I was scared into growing for them.
It’s interesting that the Gospel reading is about almsgiving and treasure. I felt like I was giving all of myself that I had access to but was actually holding on to this great fear of telling others, including God, that I needed help and absolutely could not proceed on my own. This was completely outside of my comfort zone! I was also experiencing poverty in a personal way that I had not before. The lack of security about the center’s finances caused me to feel hopeless, helpless and overwhelmed, something I later recognized as common side effects of poverty. But there’s this other thing about poverty that actually held the key to my journey – the great value found in relationships. The more I struggled with our finances and the more scared I became that the center would have to close and children would need care, parents would panic, and staff would be out of work… I repeatedly experienced sweet relief and hope anytime I shared the situation with someone. Every time I found the courage to say out loud – we need money – I don’t know what to do – people offered help, ideas, empathy, even money – but never judgment or shame. And this kind of grace included the parents of the center! I was astounded by the understanding, support and generosity of the folks I thought I had come to serve. I literally grabbed a lifeline of people all around me and discovered God holding on at the other end, smiling upon me, patiently revealing my path, and showing me how perfectly he has provided all that I need. What a gift to this frantic little child hustling for approval, trying to do all of the work, and hiding from true love.
So back to the tiny portion of the Gospel reading I am focused on. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” “Do not be afraid” is the hallmark of good news through Scripture and often comes right before an announcement of God’s mighty and saving deeds. I now know that fear is both to be expected and given up to God. I often say “Do not be afraid” to myself as a way into prayer. It’s almost a physical response for me now. Got Fear? Pray! My morning prayers sometimes actually warm me up for talking to other people about scary things and in so doing, cutting down on the isolation that only makes fear worse. It’s like a dress rehearsal with a really forgiving audience. Of course, I continue to be afraid at times and Jubilee JumpStart continues to have moments where money feels too tight, so I’m getting lots of practice at praying through the fear and into the love and grace and light God promises me. Not just for others and not for me when things are fine, but love and grace and light when I feel most flawed, lonely and in darkness. It has been redemptive to grow my faith through this experience – faith that frees me to be generous, faith that enables me to leave anxiety behind, faith that creates confidence about a future secured not by my work but by God alone. Jesus created faith by announcing a promise. Like a parent loves her children deeply and wants all good things for them, so also is it God’s good pleasure to give His children the kingdom. This promise creates hope and relationship as well, all that we need to live out God’s will. If we will accept it. If I will accept it.
I want to close with a few words about one other line from the reading: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This actually makes a little more sense to me in the reverse: “For where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.” My heart led me to children, to parents, and to Jubilee JumpStart. I was born to love and serve these people in this place. And just as God promises, I found my treasure here. Sure, I found it broken down in fear, trembling and crying under my desk for a few months, but that surely was the only way I could find the treasure of knowing myself to be one of God’s children, worthy of love, acceptance and forgiveness.
Like any self-respecting daughter of middle America, I’ve got a saying I live by that looks good stitched on a pillow: God loves you just the way you are AND he loves you too much to let you stay that way. It has so much more meaning for me now that I have allowed myself to be seen, known and loved by God as He has always intended. And to think, I almost missed it by simply doing all the good I can for all the people I can for as long as I can, like a good Methodist. God really does love me too much to let me just be a servant. I am transformed to my very core by this love and seek every day to carry the same gift out into the world to share with every beloved child of God. I am so lucky that 50 precious ones come to me every day. And that I can say to them: Do not be afraid, little flock. Amen.