Monday, March 1, 2010

Afraid So

Sermon preached February 28, 2010

Texts: Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

Afraid So Jeanne Marie Beaumont

Is it starting to rain?
Did the check bounce?
Are we out of coffee?
Is this going to hurt?
Could you lose your job?
Did the glass break?
Was the baggage misrouted?
Will this go on my record?
Are you missing much money?
Was anyone injured?
Is the traffic heavy?
Do I have to remove my clothes?
Will it leave a scar?
Must you go?
Will this be in the papers?
Is my time up already?
Are we seeing the understudy?
Will it affect my eyesight?
Did all the books burn?
Are you still smoking?
Is the bone broken?
Will I have to put him to sleep?
Was the car totaled?
Am I responsible for those charges?
Are you contagious?
Will we have to wait long?
Is the runway icy?
Was the gun loaded?
Could this cause side effects?
Do you know who betrayed you?
Is the wound infected?
Are we lost?
Will it get any worse?

Jesus confronts an “afraid so” moment in this morning’s Scripture reading. Pharisees are warning him that as he heads toward Jerusalem he risks being killed by Herod. Will it get any worse? Afraid so. Threats from political authorities who have the ability to carry out those threats are something to be afraid of. And Jesus may have felt some of that fear, but if so, he does not let it define him, does not let it get in the way of his mission to cast our demons and perform cures today and tomorrow and until his work is finished. Jesus responds to a fearful circumstance with courage and compassion.
Fear. We all experience, and sometimes even seek it out in small doses. Part of the thrill of a roller coaster is the small bit of fear that heightens our senses for the ride. The same dynamic applies to movies that play some on our fear. Fear has a healthy side to it. Theologian Donald Evans put it well. “Fear can mobilize my body and mind into a temporary unity to meet some specific threat; it focuses my strength and attention in a particular direction” (Struggle and Fulfillment, 44). If I am walking in the woods and see a bear some distance off, I wouldn’t mind just a little fear mobilizing me to action.
But fear becomes a problem when it becomes too pervasive, when it begins to define our basic life stance, when it is the major chord in our response to the world. Henri Nouwen writes perceptively about this kind of fear. Often fear has penetrated our inner selves so deeply that it controls, whether we are aware of it or not, most of our choices and decisions…. Fear can make us angry and upset. It can drive us into depression or despair. It can surround us with darkness and make us feel close to destruction and death. (Lifesigns, 15). Fear becomes pervasive in many forms – especially fear of some of life’s inevitable issues. We fear change. We fear loss. We fear difference. We fear intimacy. We fear our own power and freedom. We fear making mistakes and looking foolish. We fear meaninglessness.
When fear becomes so pervasive it becomes insidious. Brain research shows that fear and anxiety can interfere with clarity of thought. Pervasive fear can paralyze us, inhibit action, or move us to act in ways that hurt others or distance others. Again, Donald Evans: [Fear] scatters my strength and tears me apart as I respond to a nameless threat which teases me and torments me from every direction at once. I lose my grip on myself and the world I live in. (op. cit.) When fear becomes pervasive, a life stance, we even lose touch with the source of that fear.
Because fear threatens to become pervasive and therefore insidious, the Bible, Christian faith, the God of the Bible and our faith speak a word – do not be afraid. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear. The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid…. Let your heart take courage.” It is not that there are no reasons to fear. The Psalmist does a good job of mentioning his predicament. Evildoers, adversaries and foes assail him, they are breathing out violence. He even hints that God can seem hidden. It is not that there are not things in the world to be afraid of, but making fear a pervasive life stance destroys life. I have always appreciated Parker Palmer’s words on fear, and I believe they reflect the Psalm. It is no accident that all of the world’s wisdom traditions address the fact of fear, for all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy…. “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear…. Instead the words say we do not need to be the fear we have…. We have places of fear inside us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith. (Let Your Life Speak, 93-94)
As we continue on our Lenten journey from darkness to light, the journey means confronting pervasive fear and grabbing hold of and being grasped by the light of faith. Faith can translate into courage, I think.
Faith is the courage to live with compassion in the face of those powers that threaten life and well-being. Herod is a fox, Jesus says, and then goes on to compare himself to a loving hen who desires nothing more than to gather her brood under her wing. The forces of the fox are alive and well – the forces of violence, injustice and oppression, the forces of hunger and poverty, the forces of hatred. Faith is the courage to live with compassion nevertheless. Faith is the courage to keep on with the mission of Jesus to bring healing to the world and to remind all God’s creation that they are cared for by this God whose symbol is not the tyrant Herod, but the Jesus who reaches out like a mother hen to gather them all in.
Faith is the courage to make needed changes in our lives and in the world. A favorite prayer of mine remains Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Grace is serenity, wisdom, and courage. Faith is the courage to make needed changes. Change is difficult in our lives, in our church, in our world. But change happens and it is up to us whether we will make positive changes in our lives, our church and our world to meet the new conditions in the world
Faith is the courage to live compassionately with loss. Life involves loss, and we will say more about that next week. But because there is loss in life, fear of loss can lead us to hide from life itself. Instead in the midst of loss, may we have the courage to live with compassion. Many of us have been moved this week by the courage of the Canadian Olympic figure skater Joannie Rochette. Joannie’s mother died unexpectedly on Sunday as she arrived in Vancouver to watch her daughter compete. Joannie, with great courage and grace, skated. On Tuesday she wept when she finished her short program, and was in third. Thursday night she skated beautifully and won a bronze medal. Loss happens, and faith is the courage to live with grace and compassion in the face of loss.
Faith is the courage to welcome difference – to listen well, to hear deeply and to learn from people whose experience of life is different from ours. Fear of difference cuts us off from learning about some of the richness of the human experience, and this fear is tragically pervasive. We fear others who look different, who talk different, who come from different places, who practice different religions. Peter Gomes, Minister at Memorial Chapel at Harvard, writes movingly about a fear of difference he believes to be pervasive in our society. The contemporary fear gripping America appears to be a fear of the normalization of homosexuality. What a strange pathology this is – fear that the sexual identity and practices of a minority will somehow taint the identity and practices of the majority…. This irrational fear of the sexual other is all the more dangerous because it conceals itself within the sanctions of religion. (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, 106) Faith is the courage to shine the light of love into the dark fear of difference.
Faith is the courage to share ourselves. We fear intimacy because we often fear that when people get to know us, they will reject us, and we have experienced that from time to time. But fear of rejection leaves us lonely and isolated. We need to risk appropriate intimacy with other, we need the courage to offer ourselves to others for our growth and theirs.
Faith is the courage to exercise our freedom. “Will you use the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” We say “yes” to that at baptism and confirmation. Faith is the courage to say “yes” to that again and again and again. You have some freedom. You have some power. You can work to change your life and your world by the grace of God. Faith is the courage to claim that.
Faith is the courage to act even knowing we will make mistakes and our mistakes may seem foolish. Those of us who have ever struggled with perfectionist tendencies, and I am among them, know how deep fear of failure can run. We know how deeply we fear looking stupid, foolish, unprepared, incompetent. Faith is the courage to act in a world where not everything turns out just as you might hope.
Faith is the courage to live with compassion, love and justice in spite of powerful voices that tell you that these have no meaning, that life is about struggle to get what you want, and the more you get the better. Faith is the courage to proclaim and live that the way of compassion, love and justice is the way to meaningful life. It is the way of Jesus Christ, the way of God.
From darkness to light. From fear to courage, compassion and love. The church is a community of comfort in a fearful world. The church is a community of courage in a world where fear can sometimes seem sensible as a pervasive stance. The church is a community of compassion, seeking to make the world less fearful.
Is this going to hurt? Afraid so. Will it leave a scar? Afraid so. Could this have side effects? Afraid so. Will it get worse? Afraid so. But fear need not define us, should not define us. Faith, hope, and love do. Do not be afraid. Amen.

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