“Fear Not, Little Flock” (Trust your instruments!)
Proper 14 (Year C)
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
11 August 2019
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”
Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Another translation has it, “My little group of disciples, do not be afraid. Your father wants to give you the kingdom.” These are good words to memorize. Perhaps recite to yourself in the middle of a storm. We are heirs to God’s kingdom. We will inherit it’s riches when the appointed time comes. It is the destiny God has chosen for those who have faith in him. The kingdom of God is promised to us as a kingdom of peace and justice, where Jesus is King and the Gospel is the law of the land which will unite us all together as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is where we are headed, but, obviously, we are not there yet.
On Friday, I saw a headline that said, “What a horrible week for America.” What a horrible week, indeed. We had two public shootings on the same day, the border crisis is worsening, raids to roundup undocumented immigrants leaving children without parents are taking place around the country, and there were resignations from key officials in the intelligence community with no clear successors. And, to top it all off, Walmart announced that it is selling bullet proof backpacks. (Do we laugh or cry about the backpacks? I’m not sure.) All of this is taking place in a poisonous political climate, which is filtered to us through both mainstream and social media outlets that we don’t always wholly trust.
Additionally, Montgomery’s own Blount Elementary school was even a NY Times item of interest on Thursday when an angry and frustrated father in the drop-off lane pulled out a gun to shoot at another father, sending the school into lockdown. Put all of this on top of our usual daily diet of robberies, sexual assault, child abuse, suicide, drugs, and murder and our news headlines give us nothing to be hopeful about. And, I would like to suggest, that this is actually a very important object lesson for those who profess the Christian faith. What lesson is this?
The lesson is that we cannot place our ultimate source of hope in the world or even, I daresay, in each other. We cannot believe that some day, we human beings are suddenly going to figure it out on our own and everything will get better. Leaders come and go. Countries rise and fall. We will continue to encounter people who are kind and generous and people who are mean and cruel. The sins and evil that the Bible warn us about are the same in 2019 A.D as they were in 2019 B.C.
Some may take this persistent experience of human sin and evil as a failure on God’s part. But as Christians we believe that God was just as much at work in the world in 2019 BC as he is in 2019. But, what is different in 2019 A.D than in 2019 B.C. is that we have been made aware of God’s promise to the world in Christ. We know that God is at work in the world reconciling all things to himself. What we have in 2019 A.D. that our counterparts in 2019 B.C. didn’t have were the comforting words, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom of heaven.”
As I was thinking about preparing a sermon this week, and meditating on the words, “Fear not, little flock,” my flight instructor’s voice kept popping into my head. The voice kept saying, “Trust your instruments.” “Trust your instruments” is the phrase all pilots have ingrained their body, mind, and soul to stave off becoming spatially disoriented. Being spatially disoriented is when we lose the ability to determine our position, location, and motion relative to our environment. Pilots are most susceptible to becoming spatially disoriented while flying in bad weather and when they lose sight of the horizon and any reference to the ground. I think many of us feel a bit spatially disoriented with respect to national and world events right now, too.
If pilots become spatially disoriented, the first thing we are trained to do is to look at the instruments and believe what they are telling us, rather than what our body is telling us. However, it is hard to tell your mind to trust your instruments, when your own body and senses are telling you something else. For example, you might feel like you are flying straight and level, but the instruments are telling you that you are in a turn. You can’t see out the window to check, so what do you trust? Your body or your instruments? You have to trust the instruments. If you don’t it’s most likely that you will die. 90% of aircraft accidents caused by spatial disorientation are fatal. And, at the onset of spatial disorientation, you can lose control of the aircraft in less than a minute as your bodily senses become out of sync with the reality of the aircraft’s actual movements.
One of the most common and deadliest occurrences of spatial disorientation is called the graveyard spiral. A graveyard spiral starts when you are convinced that you are flying straight and level, but in reality you are in a slightly banked turn.
Very gentle turns can feel imperceptible, but they can have huge consequences. In normal flight, when you initiate a turn you also have to pull back on the stick slightly at the same time to keep the aircraft level, since the aircraft naturally descends in a turn. ( Because g-forces increase in a turn). So if you don’t recognize that you’re turning, this will become a big problem in a hurry, as your plane starts to descend faster and faster. The natural reaction to stop a descent is to pull back on the stick. If you are flying straight and level, pulling straight back on the stick is the perfectly correct action to take. However, if you pull straight back on the yoke in an accelerated and descending in a turn, without leveling the wings, you actually increase the rate of descent! This is not good. Now you are in big trouble.
So now imagine yourself in the plane pulling back harder and harder on the stick, but you aren’t slowing down, you are speeding up! Now panic is setting in. You don’t understand why your corrective action isn’t working but only making matters worse! You are turning tighter and tighter and descending faster and faster. As the descent rate increases, you desperately try to pull back harder and harder, but in reality you are only tightening the spiral more, until, finally, the aircraft impacts the ground. This is why it is called the graveyard spiral. While you are disoriented and not trusting the instruments, you apply what you think is corrective action, but in reality you are just hastening your own death. The graveyard spiral is what accident investigators believe occurred in the aircraft death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. At the time of impact he was descending at a rate of over 5000 feet per minute.
I offer you this flying metaphor, hoping that it will be an easy one to remember when you are feeling spiritually disoriented, whether that disorientation is in response to current events or challenges you are facing in your own life. God has given us the most trustworthy instrument to put our faith in. The instrument that we must trust, that we must have ultimate faith in, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the promise that he has made to us that we are the future heirs of the kingdom.
This metaphor is also helpful because it reinforces the fact that the information the instruments report is real. The instruments are in sync with the reality outside the airplane. They tell us which way is up and down, and whether we are turning or flying straight and level. The instruments are in sync with the reality that our senses can’t penetrate. This is why during instrument training, pilots learn that their senses will mislead them. Instruments have to be trusted because we can’t see anything outside the window to cross check them. There is no horizon to reference. No landmarks by which to navigate. Just like as Christians, we can’t look to the news headlines to cross check to make sure that God is indeed at work in the world. Faith in God, like in the aircraft instruments, is the conviction of things not seen.
Whenever we are feeling spiritually disoriented we must turn to and trust in the Word of God. God provides us with his Word, to keep us oriented, to help us fly straight and level, when the world has gone dark and cloudy. God, in his Word, tells us that he does not abandon us, even when our senses tell us otherwise. In his Word, God tells us that not only are we individually destined for the kingdom of heaven, but that this is the destination for all of creation; a redeemed and transformed creation. But in the meantime, until the new creation is realized in full, the Word of God tells us that Christ is present in the world and suffering alongside us, working through the power of the Holy Spirit to reconcile all things to himself, even when the news headlines tell us otherwise.
Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit is at work, in his great mercy, in the face of all human evil and sin, reconciling us to him, the God and Father of all. Through his infinite power, he is reconciling me, and you, and our government leaders, and everyone around the globe. Have faith that this is true. Believe in the goodness and power of God. Because Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”