My mother raised me on proverbs. If I fell, she’d say, “You have to get up and get right back on the bike” (even if I hadn’t been riding a bike). If I was afraid of doing something new, she’d advise that, “It’s easier if you just jump right in.” If I said something was too hard, she’d tell me, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
I guess she ought to know. Raised during the Great Depression, she watched her high school boyfriends march off to World War II and her baby brother to the Korean War. Twice widowed, a single mother at the age of 47, she managed, on a nurse’s salary, to raise two daughters and remains, at the age of 89, an active part of her community, and a truly terrifying “altar guild lady.”
I’m not so tough. Despite being, as a white, upper-middle class, educated American, one of the most privileged people in the world, I still sometimes struggle with depression. It makes me feel frightened, guilty, and frustrated – frightened when getting a nasty email causes me to take to my bed. Guilty when I watch people struggle with problems far greater than mine and manage to stay on their feet. Frustrated because part of me believes that I should be able to overcome it.
It’s easy to believe that the difference between my mother and me is simply a matter of personality. She is practical to her soul. I think that no matter how her life had turned out, my mom would have approached it with pragmatism and moral clarity. That is who she is. But I also think it’s generational. My mother doesn’t over-analyze situations- she doesn’t “fuss” about things. That is characteristic of her generation – an understanding of the world that focuses on action – on knowing what is right and doing it – and believing that if you continue to act on your beliefs everything will, as my mother would say, “come out in the wash.” Hers is a life of faith – the kind of faith we heard about in today’s reading from Hebrews. It is faith based on the pure conviction that you don’t need to see something to believe it; that if you do what is right, good will come of it; and that if you believe in God, God will take care of you.
Many people of my generation and, even more extensively, people younger than me, do not have such faith. I grew up in an era of turmoil and experimentation in which it was not only considered acceptable but healthy to question authority. For the millennial generation, the world has proven to be a divisive place where some live in prosperity and comfort while others starve. We both seek opportunities to do good and to experience spiritual transcendence, but studies show that millennials do not believe they can find those things at church. For them, the parallel between Christian belief and ethical certitude has been replaced by the view that Christianity is simplistic and even ignorant. The spirit of, “build it and they will come” has been replaced with that of “show me the money.”
No wonder it’s so hard to convince people to believe in something they cannot discern with their senses– and not only to believe in it, but to live by it. It was certainly true for the author of the letter to the Hebrews, who was writing to people whose entire religion was new. His mission was to reassure them that their faith was justified, even while they were surrounded not only by doubters, but by persecutors. For them, remaining faithful and engaged with their religious community was at the very least uncomfortable and at the most life-threatening. It’s hard for us to identify with them – because we live in a country in which Christianity has been the unofficial state religion for more than two centuries, but that is changing. It is likely that Christians in this country may have the opportunity to learn that it easy to have faith when everyone and everything around you tells you that you are right, but it’s not so easy when practicing your faith might get you killed.
Persecution can result simply from a perception about someone else’s religion. Another of my mother’s most-frequently employed proverbs is, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” – but it happens all the time. The truth is that our nation has a long history of judging others by their “covers” – by gender, skin color, accent, clothing and hair style, among other things- and although I hope and pray that we have gotten better, the current political climate suggests that the tendency of some to identify others based not on efforts to truly know them but rather on a single characteristic is alive and well.
For 21st century Christians being identified solely by our faith can have significant negative implications. Many people believe that all Christians don’t believe in evolution, think homosexuality is wrong, and allow their priests to abuse children. And as much as we may protest that those things aren’t true –that we are not those kinds of Christians – it can be hard to articulate exactly what kind of Christians we are.
We would probably prefer not to be like the Israelites to whom Isaiah spoke in today’s Hebrew scripture. According to Isaiah, God hated the way they worshipped – the way they believed that if they just offered the right sacrifice at the right time for the right sin – if they simply did the ancient equivalent of showing up every Sunday, confessing their sins, and taking communion, God would be content. But God was not content. God was angry. “Your…appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me.” What a shock – to find out that God is just as bored and uninspired by rote worship as we are. Religion exists to bring us into community with one another – to allow us to experience the joy of God’s presence through worship, and to help each other enact our shared beliefs. It should be a celebration of our relationship with God – not a substitute for it.
God asks us to practice our faith – to make our religious beliefs an integral part of our lives -not a weekly club meeting. “Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Do not worship one homeless man on Sunday and walk past another on Monday. And, we are told, be grateful for what you have – because we were not there at the beginning of the world and it is unlikely that we will be there at the end of it, so we would do well to contemplate the power and the mercy of the One who is.
But God asks us to do something even harder; God asks us to stop being so afraid. Because more than anything else it is fear that leads us to believe that hating others is okay. It is fear that allows us live in ignorance of the faith of others. It is fear that allows us to believe that we can worship God in church and not advocate for peace and justice in the world. And it is fear that robs us of one of the most important precepts of our faith – that God is with us – and that the salvation of humanity has already happened.
That’s what God wants us to be ready for – to experience that salvation. Today’s gospel is not about being judged. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to be dressed for action and sell their possessions and give alms because if they don’t they’ll go to hell. Jesus tells them not to be afraid; to do things for others because their hearts – their true treasures – are already safe. Jesus does not tell us to be ready or else we’ll be punished. He tells us to be ready or else we’ll miss the opportunity to be blessed – to be blessed with the truth about others – to be blessed with the spirit of inspired worship – to be blessed by a life lived in faith. “Do not be afraid, little flock.” Get back on your bike, jump in with both feet; believe that any and all things can make us better and stronger – and you will be ready to receive the peace of God. AMEN.