A prayer written in memory of the ministry of Archbishop Oscar Romero:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own. (1)
“Step back,” God said to an uncertain and fearful Abram. “Step back and look at the stars. Count them if you can. So shall your descendants be.” That was not the first time God had spoken to Abram. Years ago, back in his home of Haran, the Lord had come to Abram promising to make a great nation of him. Obedient to the call, Abram and his wife Sarai left their family, packed up their life’s possessions, and journeyed west toward Canaan. They were growing old, and still the couple had no children. The future looked bleak and hopeless. God’s promise seemed uncertain, so Abram raised his voice against the God who promised a great reward: “Rewards? Blessings? What use are all the riches of the earth if I have no heir to inherit them, no son to bear my name? You can keep you great reward.”
“Step back,” God said to Abram. “Step back and take a long view of things. Step back and see what I see. You, Abram, are worried about a son to inherit your riches and the promise. I will see that your descendants are as numerous and as everlasting as the stars I created.” When Abram is despairing and short sighted, God doubles down on the promise. Not only will Abram have an heir, but one day far beyond Abram’s vision his descendants will be as numerous as the stars.
Abram believes, but he still has questions. “What about this land that you have promised? How do I know for sure that I will possess it?” God again takes the long view of things, “To your descendants I give this land.” But God also renews the covenant with Abram in most dramatic fashion. The covenant ceremony seems gory and strange by our standards with animals cut in two and a flaming torch passing among the pieces. Its meaning in the ancient near east is clear. The covenant maker walks among the rendered animals swearing, “So shall it be unto me if I fail to keep this covenant.”(2) When the promise is hardest to believe, when there seems to be no way forward, God reinforces the promise by putting his very self at risk. Perhaps even here the cross is yet visible on the distant hills of Jerusalem.
We, like Abram, are afraid of much. Some of this fear is incited by the 24-hour media. But many of our fears our justified. Our fear of random and senseless violence is heightened in the weeks since the Sandy Hook shooting. Our fears of political and economic meltdown seem justified on the brink of this so-called sequestration. Many Christians are fearful because the church is not what it used to be, and we cannot agree on whether to embrace change or resist it. I am afraid that the church is losing the ability to speak to our world, and we may find ourselves forever silent.
Some of our fears are more personal, like the anxiety of Abram that for all he had accomplished, he would have no heir to carry his name into the future. We are afraid that our marriages are damaged beyond repair. We are afraid that our children will never understand the meaning of faith and relationship with God. We are afraid that our years will outlast our money, and so suffer ourselves or be a burden to the ones we love. We are afraid that our lives will turn out to be insignificant and forgotten.
On behalf of the God of Abraham and the God of Oscar Romero, I invite you, in the midst of all your fears to step back and take a long view of things. Count the stars, if you can, and remember that when the way looks most bleak God doubles-down on his promise to bless us and make us a blessing to the world. Where there seems to be no way forward, remember that it is God who puts his own life on the line for the salvation of his people, even his church. In the words of Julian of Norwich who lived during the Black Death and peasant revolts, take a long view of things: “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” If God still rules the world, and I believe he does, in cannot be otherwise.
But that is not all.
In the gospels we get to know this God who puts his own life on the line. In Luke 13 we see how this God, in Jesus Christ, responds to the fears that push in upon him. We heard last week that after Jesus had resisted temptation in the wilderness, the tempter departed from him until an opportune time. Perhaps this is one of those times. The great tempter speaks through the voice of these Pharisees, well-meaning though they may be: “Get out of here, Jesus. Run for your life. Herod wants to kill you.” Be afraid, Jesus. Run. Panic.
“In Scripture. . . there are images of Jesus doing so many things – praying, walking, knocking on doors, gathering crowds, climbing hills, calling disciples, writing in the sand with his finger, sharing bread, preaching, weeping – but never running. This is neither the first nor the last time someone will tempt him to fear. It is a temptation urged upon him by people who love him [and by people who do not]. It is a temptation to which Jesus does not give in.”(3) Go and tell that fox that I am casting out demons and curing the sick until I finish my work, and then I will be on my way.
Jesus, fully human as we are, is not immune to fear. The memory of his cousin John’s beheading at the hands of Herod is still fresh (Luke 9:9). But Jesus knows that he has work to do today and tomorrow, and he will not be distracted from it by Herod or by the Pharisees or even by his own disciples. Jesus, it seems, takes the short view of things, doing something, and doing it very well. No incitement to fear, however real the threat, will distract Jesus from the mission he is on.
When we are overcome by fear, whether big and communal or deep and personal, Christ invites us to gather under his mothering wings, and take the short view of things. We, too, have work to do – God’s work – and in the midst of our fears we do well to stay focused on the task at hand, on the ministry in our midst, though it may seem mundane and ordinary, though we may long to be “whooshed up” into something greater and more significant.(4) We carry out faithfully the ministry to which we have been called, without being led astray by our fears into panic or a false sense of urgency.
On behalf of the God of our Lord Jesus Christ and the God of Oscar Romero, I invite you, in the midst of all your fears to take a short view of things. Do the work that God has given you, and when fear presses upon you from within or without, remember that you are not called to do everything. Be liberated from your fear that causes either paralyzation or panic. Do that work you have been given, and do it very well. Finally, remember Jesus who longs to gather us under his wings is also the Jesus who walked faithfully to the cross, looking fear in the face and triumphing over it.
The Scripture promises no easy discipleship or a life free from real and justified fears. Abram saw part of the promise fulfilled, but he had to trust God all the way to his deathbed that his ancestors would see the rest. Jesus’ faithfulness to his mission in the small things like curing the sick and casting out demons eventually led him toward Jerusalem and the cross where he endured the death from which the Pharisees told him to flee. Romero’s faithfulness service to the church in El Salvador eventually led to his assassination as he held up the chalice at the Lord’s Table. We may yet have to endure those things which we fear, but we will do so as Jesus did, working faithfully where we are and trusting God for the future.
This, my friends, is the long and the short of it. God’s kingdom stretches far beyond our own vision. And God’s good plans for the world cannot finally be thwarted. Let us take the long view, count the stars, and remember that in the end God is faithful to his promise. All will be well and all manner of thing will be well. In the meantime, let our fears not incite us to a frenzied panic. God has given us work do to here and now – praying, walking, weeping, knocking on doors, gathering crowds, making disciples, sharing bread. Let us take the short view, do that work, and do it very well. The Lord’s grace will enter and do the rest.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
(1) Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, “Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer: A Step Along the Way.”
(2) Ralph W. Klein, “Commentary on First Reading” on WorkingPreacher.org.
(3) Nancy Rockwell, “That Fox” on The Bite in the Apple.
(4) Thomas G. Long, “For Such a Time as This” in Journal for Preachers. Lent 2013 (V 36, n 2) p15-21.