Sunday Sermon – March 8, 2020

 

 

Faith and the Fear of Loss

Second Sunday in Lent (Lent 2A)
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans; John 3:1-
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery AL
8 March 2020

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

In the Old Testament Lesson this morning we heard the story of Abraham’s call from God.  God said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

When I think of this story, I can’t help but think of big life and vocational transitions and all that those entail.  Transitions can take many forms, of course. Transitions can be geographic transitions, like moving to a new city or state or country for college or to take a new job.  Transitions can be ones of circumstance, like from transitioning from being single to being married, or from being married to being widowed or divorced. Or from having children in the house to being empty nesters.  Transitions happen when starting careers, changing careers, and deciding to retire. 

One of the key features of any transition is that we are required to abandon present certainties for future uncertainties.  “I am sort of a big deal in my high school, but will I even have any friends in college,” someone might wonder? “I had a wonderful marriage for 40 years and my spouse died, how will I live without her?” “Should I leave my well-paying and secure job, and start the new company I’ve always wanted?  What if I fail?” “I think I am falling deeply in love and want to get married. But we have a wonderful friendship and everything is great. Will I scare her off or ruin everything if I propose to her?” “I feel valuable and important in my job, what if I get bored or feel useless after I retire?” “Robert is the only priest I’ve known.  He knows me and my family and my story. We have a great relationship. What if the new rector doesn’t like me? What if I don’t like the new rector? What will happen to St. John’s?”

Sometimes transitions just happen to us without our choice.  Our spouse dies, our children turn 18 and can make their own decisions and leave home.  Or our parents get divorced and we are forced to learn new ways of being in relationship with our parents who no longer live together.  Our spouse gets a new job and we move together as a family. Our rector decides to retire.

But sometimes the transitions are by our own choosing.  We decide to retire. We decide to go to college. We decide to get married.  We move to take the new job. We decide to change careers. There are always a lot of factors involved in such decisions.  We “calculate the costs”, if you will. We do a cost benefit analysis, weigh up all the perceived losses and gains, and make a decision.  We usually think very hard about these things and hope that in the end, we made a good decision. But psychologists and those working in the field of behavioral economics know that when we make decisions, we rarely act “rationally”.  

For example, in 1979 two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky proposed what is called the “Prospect theory”.  [Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for it. Sadly, Tversky had died before the prize was awarded.] The Prospect Theory describes how people choose between different options (or prospects) and how they estimate (many times in a biased or incorrect way) the perceived likelihood of each of these options.

One of the biases we employ when making decisions is loss aversion.  In other words, we tend to overweight small possibilities to guard against losses.  Buying insurance, for example, is based on this fear of loss. For example, how many of us buy trip insurance for plane tickets?  Or the supplemental insurance for rental cars?  

Our reactions to loss are also more extreme than our reactions to gains.  We are more upset at a $10,000 pay cut than we feel happy about a $10,000 pay raise.  And, the order in which we experience loss also matters. For example, gamblers who win $100 but then lose $80, feel it as a net loss, even though they are still ahead $20.  But if they first lose, $80, then gain $100 then they feel as if they are getting ahead. Think of all those commercials selling prescription medicines who lead off will all the terrible, but unlikely side effects to persuade you to buy their medicine.  This is also why political candidates who trade on fear and tell you what you will lose if you don’t elect them are more likely to get elected, than the candidates who campaign on what you will gain. Our fear of loss is always greater than our happiness with equivalent gains.  As a result, the fear of loss usually keeps us stuck in the often familiar and comfortable status quo, even if it is not always the best situation for us.

I mention all of this because I think it is important to be aware of our fear and aversions to loss and how that impacts our decisions to answer God’s call and how we make decisions in the face of transitions.

In our Old Testament lesson this morning, what did Abraham lose by following God’s call?  He lost pretty much everything. He lost his country. He lost his kindred. He lost his father’s house.  To what does that translate? Abraham lost his national identity. He lost his economic support, social support, and social standing in his wider familial relationships.  He lost the physical protection, security, and even meals that his father’s house provided.  

If we think about how risk averse we are in the face of loss, it makes Abraham’s faithfulness that much more impressive.  Abraham was not moving toward a known gain.  He was responding only to God’s promise of gain.  And a vague promise at that.  What was the promise? A land that God will show him eventually (but not any time soon.)  That Abraham would be the father of many nations. But he has no idea how or when (remember, he and Sarai had had no children at this point).  That Abraham’s name would be great and that he would be blessed, but again, with no sense of how or when and to what extent.  

To leave present certainties for future uncertainties requires faith.  It requires faith because we can never do a true cost-benefit calculus with knowns against unknowns.  The unknowns are just that—unknowns. The future hasn’t happened yet. The factors that influence today’s events might not influence future events.  The conditions that exist today, may not exist tomorrow. What we envision marriage or retirement to be, rarely turns out to be the case. It might be better or worse than we planned.  The new job may not be exactly what we bargained for, or it may be much better than we expected. College, which we might dread and go only because our parents expect it of us, might turn out to be a transformational personal experience.

But to leave present certainties for future uncertainties, not only requires faith, but it also requires us to change.  New circumstances require new ways of being. They require forming new relationships and/or leaving old ones. They require us to develop and discover new strengths, and to come to grips with our weaknesses in a new and distinctive ways.  New circumstances require us to develop new patterns of behavior. We have to learn to trust more, take different kinds of risks, try new things, explore new ways of thinking and being creative, and also be prepared to fail. It is perhaps not surprising that some of our greatest spiritual transformations in life often come in the midst of transitions and change.  This is because we are forced to be more trusting in God and God’s promise; we are forced to be more dependent on God’s love for us for our comfort and assurance.  This is true not only for people in transitions, but also parishes in transition as well.

And, that really is the point about faith.  The faith to which we are called is not faith in a plan, but faith in God.  

Like the call of Abraham, or Jeremiah, or Mary and Joseph, or James and John, or Paul, or you and me, God is much more concerned with where we are spiritually than were we are geographically or what job we do or do not have. God knew of the depths of Abraham’s faith, and called him accordingly. God was more interested in the fact that Abraham trusted God and believed in God’s promise than anything else about him.  There were better leaders that God could have chosen, or smarter and wiser men, but that is not who God needed to be the father of many nations and for his covenant to be fulfilled. God needed faithfulness. It was that faithfulness which would be the basis of Abraham’s authority as a leader and father of nations, not his raw skills or basic talents. As we all know, Abraham was a fallible human being with many weaknesses, but his greatest gift was his faith.

And this also helps us understand the reading from Romans today. It is Abraham’s faith that was reckoned to him as righteousness, not his works.  God did not bless Abraham as the Father of nations as a reward for his labors and for leading the tribes of Israel. No, God blessed Abraham because of his faith, when Abraham said, “yes” to God and “no” to his old way of life and all that he left behind.  Abraham believed in God’s promise, obeyed God’s call, altered his life, and learned a new way of being. The works that are pleasing to God are those which are born from faith, not works that are simply products of our own labors, which we hope will earn us favor with God, as a way to substitute for a weak or non-existent faith.  

Which leads us, finally, to John 3.  Jesus, himself, is a descendent of Abraham.  Jesus is one of God’s promised blessings. This is why the genealogies of the Old and New Testament are so detailed and painstakingly long.  The genealogies in the Bible are there to demonstrate the continuity of God’s promise to Abraham all the way to God’s promise being fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life.”  No longer would it only be the descendants of Abraham who would be in covenant with God as God’s people, but through the person of Jesus, any person, of any tribe or nation, who believes in Jesus and says “Yes” to God, will be blessed because of their faith. God calls us, who live on this side of the cross, to believe in the person of Jesus, not in any particular plan.  

We don’t know the plans God has for us, but we know that God does have plans for us.  For me, for you, and for the future of St. John’s as well. We don’t know what the future holds, but we have God’s promise of blessing for those who believe in him.  Can we believe in God, and that promise? For ourselves, for each other, for the parish? Is our faith strong enough, that we are willing to leave the certainties of the present for the uncertainties of the future? Or will our fear of loss and of what is certain and of what is comfortable, lead us to say “no” to God plans and follow our own? 

There is very little evidence that God is impressed with our resumes and what we have accomplished.  God is not overly concerned about how smart we are, how successful we are, how important we are, who loves us and who does not.  God is more interested in the faithfulness of the people of this parish than in any other thing that can be said about St. John’s. God is interested faithfulness.  God is interested in our spiritual life, in all its breadth and depth. What God wants most for us is not a successful family, or career, or wealth, or popularity, or social importance.  God is not interested in St. John’s being the best parish in Alabama or in the Episcopal Church. God wants our faith to be so deep and so wide that we will fear no loss and willingly endure any hardship to follow his call and believe in his promise.  

Have faith in God.  Have confidence in the words of Psalm 121:  “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is he who shall keep you safe.  The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”