November 14, 2010
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Malachi 4:1-21, Ps 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
There is an old saying: It’s always darkest before the dawn.
If you’ve ever been up in the early hours it seems true. The darkness seems almost tangible. A heavy stillness covers things. The sky has no light in it, especially once the moon has set. Sometimes the thought has come to my mind, “what if the sun decides not to rise today?” Each morning the rising sun is a small miracle for those with eyes of faith to see it, ensuring that life continues on this planet. The gift of light and warmth is given each day by a loving God. A sunrise is a symbol of hope; a sunrise is a reminder that God is faithful and reliable.
But in that darkness there is a choice we make. Do we hold firm to the belief that the light will come even if at the moment there is no sign of it, or do we become afraid?
It is the same choice the presents itself in all kinds of darkness or times of distress. When we are overwhelmed by burdens or sorrows do we hold fast to the promise of life in Jesus or do we give into fear and despair? When societal problems are huge and seem intractable do we give into anxiety and blaming those who are seen as the face of those problems? When history seems bent on a nihilistic course full of suffering and destruction do we abandon God or our faith that calls us to continue to live as people acting for mercy, peace, reconciliation and compassion? Or do we make an even bigger mistake and think God is causing it all and in so doing judging who is good and who is not?
Our reading from Luke today is posing these kinds of questions. On on leve it was speaking to the very particular history that had happened in ancient Israel. On another it is speaking to the repetition of such events since human nature has changed very little if at all in the 2000 years since.
Let’s hear it again, this time from the version “The Message”.
The immediate setting of this reading is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It didn’t take anyone with special clairvoyant powers to predict this. Judea chaffed under occupation and occasionally there were violent flare-ups. Eventually, the insurrections grew and Rome came down as empires do when those under their sway aren’t behaving as they ought and came down hard, burning the Temple, killing thousands upon thousands. The cultic worship life of Jesus’ people was finished. The Temple was never rebuilt and Judaism was practiced in new ways. From the ashes grew the synagogues and rabbinical faith we know today.
In these chaotic and increasingly violent times, the followers of Jesus were handed over, were put on trial and, some think, asked to abandon the non-violent stance to stand in opposition to the Romans. So, Luke is describing real events in the life of the early Church and looking at the present to see what the future holds based on current events.
The trouble is that we have taken these texts and turned them into the final end of the world by God. They are not. They are about what humans have done and continue to do. No one knows when the world will end, not even the Son of God, so anyone who uses such texts and then predicts such events is assuming quite a lot! Apparently, they have more inside information than Jesus! But more to the point is that the pull and the driving energy of such types—the doomsday, apocalypse, types–is FEAR. Fear you will be left behind. Fear you aren’t saved. Fear you aren’t on the right side of a vengeful God. Fear of others. Fear of changing things, of addressing social problems, because the idea is that things are running their right course and God is driving the truck right towards the wall. Fear if that we did some serious self-reflection we might find that things were found wanting, that maybe we aren’t as right as we thought.
But is that the faith to which we who follow Jesus are called? Is that the Good News he lived and preached?
One of the resounding themes in Scripture from the earliest stories of the Hebrew people to the letters of Paul encouraging the early Church to the Gospels is this: Fear not.
Moses is worried about what to say to Pharaoh. God tells him to not fear; he will be given what he needs. The Israelites fear the change of leaving Egypt and time and again when fear threatens to devour them or causes them to distrust God (think the Golden Calf incident), God gives them signs to encourage them. Often the prophets are a bit anxious about their message, yet God sustains them saying to not be afraid. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be painful consequences to staying true to their message. It does mean that staying true to it is about staying true to oneself and to God’s ultimate hope for us even when that hope will encounter resistance.
The angels who come to Mary and to others always begin their meeting with the words fear not. Though the task given is often one that will be hard and perhaps even lead to death, the assurance is given that God is with them and that fear will destroy their self, their soul, which is a destruction worse than those who can hurt the body….as we hear time and again.
So many of the world’s values, worldly values as we theology wonks say, have as one of their roots fear. We fear that we won’t have enough. We fear those who are different than us though we really can’t say why. We fear change. We fear losing our privilege or our power, if we are one of those who has it. We fear death. And the consequences are greed, hatred, anger, vengeance, war, constructing elaborate rationales as to why some should be poor or exploited or discriminated against as a way to make us feel secure and unafraid. We get stuck in the way things are done because we are afraid of what change may demand. We can be almost perverse in this clinging. Even when we can see that what we are doing is not working, may in fact, be deadly, we resist and avoid and deny.
In my own life I see the consequences when I live out of fear. I become suspicious, narrow, grouchy, and judgmental. I lose the ability to laugh or play. I am increasingly selfish and self-absorbed, unable to see others with clarity. They become projections of my worst thoughts and traits. When Tommy was in the hospital there was a lot to fear. But I looked at the fears, touched them and then let go because I realized if I got lost in the fear I wouldn’t be able to love my child. I am convinced that part of why he lived and is thriving is because I did not let the fear take hold.
Jesus taught something else. Love of others. Love of enemies. Mercy. Trust that if one shares generously with all than all will have enough. Difference does not mean less than. Conflict can lead to peace not violence. Power over others will corrupt us and draw us away from God. In this ethical frame there is not room for fear to shape our response. No, Jesus asks us to hold to another truth: trust. Trust in God and God’s goodness. Trust in living a life shaped by loving stances towards others that can only happen when we don’t start from a place of fear.
Fear is a parasite of the soul. It rots us away from within. And this is what I think Jesus is getting at when he says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Soul, in the Greek “psyche”, can be best understood as life, your self, your whole self. The call Jesus is making is to hold fast to his teachings even when all around you seems to say, what! That’s crazy! Go and get rid of those people or cut funds for this or launch an attack over there to get rid of the threat. In such times it is our thinking and our vision, which is the biggest threat and which feeds the fear that reinforces it. Fear begets fear and when we live in fear there is no room for creativity or seeing new ways forward. It devours us and it eats up our self.
Jesus is saying continue to be true to the Gospel. Continue to stand compassion and the work of reconciliation. Continue to believe sharing is better than hording. Continue to live into a generous and merciful spirit. Continue to see the reflection of God in every person, loved as much as you by the creator. Be humble. He says: “Fear not little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is true even if in holding true to the Gospel we seem to “lose” in this world.
In this time in our world and in our country, one of the most powerful witnesses we are called to as followers of Jesus is to not succumb to the fear. A healthy group does not use fear or threats to hold together. All day, every day, we are encouraged to be afraid and to distrust others. Fear-mongering, war-mongering and threats are the common coin of conversation. Jesus is telling us who believe in him and follow him to save our lives, to not give into the atmosphere of fear. To not get caught up in fear of immigrants, fear of Muslims, fear of compromise, fear of changing course to avoid coming calamities such as global climate change; fear of crime, etc. etc. We are to be bold voices for trust, for caring, for partnership and possibility, for creative thinking around the very real challenges that face us with the touchstone being mercy and compassion. Talk about swimming against the tide. But Jesus tells us: fear is not of God.
In the Sudan, as you know, there is a civil war raging between the north and south. It is over many things, but the line of demarcation also falls along a religious one of Christians and Muslims. There is a strong Anglican Church in the south and one day two priests saw fighters from the north coming towards them and it was obvious that their intentions were not good. These two men got onto their knees and prayed, in Arabic, for the fighters, praying for blessings for them and for goodness. The fighters spared their lives. Something powerfully good happened here through this witness and act of trust. Imagine what might be if things like this happened more often.
I believe there is no more powerful act we can make at this time than to be people of hope and trust. There is no more vital witness than to stand against the fear and the animosity and hate and anger it spawns. The world needs this witness; it needs this testimony. And this Good News of God is the rising of the sun of righteousness and wings full of healing…in God’s time.