Fear Gets in the Way (Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

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It’s usually around this time of year that I’m starting to do planning for what I’d like to do and accomplish in the coming year.  But this year, it’s harder!  It’s harder because even though we’ve had some great news on the vaccine front, it’s unclear when the pandemic will be over enough to get back to some semblance of “normal.”  It’s harder because many of my usual plans involve some kind of travel, and it’s unclear what travel opportunities will either be available or worth doing if many things are still restricted.

And because of the anxiety and uncertainty of the moment, it’s harder to plan because my fears are elevated.  And I don’t mean that I’m personally afraid of getting sick or that something horrible is about to happen.  I mean that I always face a little bit of fear whenever I plan for the future.  Sometimes, even if I have an optimistic vision, I’m afraid of what I might lose in the coming year and what that will mean for me.  Sometimes, I’m afraid of making a mistake.  And sometimes, I’m afraid of feeling regret if I miss an important opportunity.

Now honestly, a little bit of fear is probably a good thing.  Fear can make me look before I leap.  And fear can alert me to actual danger in my life.

But too much fear can also stop me in my tracks.  It can get in the way.  It can prevent me from seeing opportunity, envisioning new possibilities and experiencing joy.  And so I work hard to make sure fear is kept in it’s proper place!

I thought about that as I was reading today’s Gospel lesson, because when the master returns and asks what each manager did with their talents, the guy with the one talent says he did nothing, because he was afraid.  But what was he afraid of?

Maybe, the guy with the one talent was afraid of:

  • Loss – after all, he had a “fiduciary responsibility” to look after somebody else’s money.  But apparently, the fear of loss was so great that he didn’t even employ the “risk-averse” strategy of putting the talent in the bank so it could earn interest.  The fear of loss was so great that it blinded him to even the most modest opportunity.
  • Making a mistake – in the story, Jesus doesn’t elaborate on what a “good investment strategy” looks like; but it’s clear that everyone faced choices that could turn out to be mistakes; probably, in the course of their trading, the other two made mistakes.  But they took that risk and kept on trying.  The guy with the one talent, on the other hand, was so paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake that he couldn’t envision the opportunities that the other two could.
  • Judgement – after all, he says that he was afraid of being judged by the master.  The irony is that he was so afraid of being judged for doing a bad job that he did the very thing that any objective financial steward would know was a bad job.  And in fact, Jesus sets up the story in a way that makes it clear that if this guy was given an entire talent to trade with, he was actually skilled and knowledgeable enough to know that…  But his fear got in the way.

Now one of the problems in interpreting this parable over the years is that there are a fair number of people who think that this parable is intended to scare folks into being so afraid of God’s judgement that they get off their butts and do what God wants them to do.

But that’s probably not what Jesus intends.  After all, the guy with the one talent is already plenty afraid right from the start.  In fact, it’s too much fear that gets in the way of being a good steward.  It’s fear that prevents him from seeing opportunity, envisioning new possibilities, and finally experiencing the joy of the master.

It seems clear to me that at least one of the take-aways Jesus intends us to get from this parable is to be aware of how fear can get in our way of seeing the opportunities God puts before us, envisioning new possibilities and experiencing the joy of being in communion with God.

So instead of more fear, Jesus wants us to experience:

  • New life when we face the fear of loss – this is what the Resurrection is all about…; the greatest loss we face is the loss of life itself; but often, when we get too focused on what we’ve lost or might lose, we miss out on seeing new opportunities that God is placing before us; this was true in Jesus’ day, and I know it’s sometimes true in my life as well…
  • Forgiveness when we face the fear of making a mistake – which is the point of one of my favorite Luther quotes, “Sin boldly…(but believe in Christ more boldly still)”…; there simply is no way to go through life an avoid mistakes, even when we’re trying; forgiveness isn’t the proclamation that mistakes don’t matter, but that mistakes don’t have the last word; and if that’s the case, then we can live beyond our mistakes and see new possibilities that we can’t experience while we’re hung up on not making a new mistake…
  • Grace and mercy when we face the fear of even being judged by ourselves – after all, Jesus gets in trouble with good “religious” people for NOT judging outcasts and “sinners”…; there are those who think that fear of judgement can make people into better folks (certainly, there were scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day who thought that); but fear of the judgement of God, or even fear of the judgement of our own regrets, doesn’t often change us for the better (clearly, it didn’t for the guy with 1 talent); in fact, it just robs us of experiencing the joy that really can change us and give us hope and vision for a new day…

Jesus reminds us in this parable that God has given us, and will yet give us, more opportunities than we can image.  Jesus reminds us in this parable that as long as we live, we have ever new possibilities to experience and share God’s gifts.  And Jesus reminds us in this parable that what God really wants is for us to experience his own joy as we live into those opportunities and possibilities.

But fear can get in the way.  It can prevent us from seeing the opportunities, envisioning the possibilities and experiencing the joy.

And so Jesus calls us to be alert for how fear can get in the way.  And instead of fear, Jesus calls us to hope in the promise of new life; to trust in the promise of forgiveness; and to live joyfully into God’s promise of grace and mercy.