Sunday, February 24, 2013

Don't be afraid

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35 

One of the requirements for my ordination to the priesthood was that I spend the summer after my first year in seminary doing hands-on pastoral work in some kind of institutional setting, like a prison or a hospital.  I found a placement in Spiritual Care Services at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco.  The first couple of days were spent in orientation meetings with the supervisor and three other new interns.   We learned about the structure of the program, and which departments we’d been assigned to, and where they were, and met some of the staff..  We had trainings about infection control, and safety protocols.  And then the inevitable moment, that I’d been dreading since I first applied for the program, came, the morning when we left our little Spiritual Care Services office and went off to the various waiting rooms and treatment rooms where we had been assigned, to start making contact with patients and their families. 
Going up to strangers to offer them something they probably won’t want has never been my strong suit.  When they had those fundraisers for the high school band where we were supposed to go door-to-door to sell chocolate turtles or Christmas candles I would be one of those who would guiltily turn in five dollars and an order form with only the first line filled in, with my parents’ name and address.  So the prospect of walking into a room of men waiting for radiation treatment for prostate cancer and saying “Hi, I’m Daniel with Spiritual Care Services—how’s everybody doing this morning?”—well, didn’t exactly fill me joy.  The truth is, I was terrified.    But there I was, walking through the main lobby of the hospital, heading to the elevator for the first stop of what I knew was going to be a long day, and an even longer summer, of dealing with my fear.
And it came to me at that moment that I was only going to make things harder for myself if I pretended that I was not afraid, or if I thought those fears were going to go away.  I was just going to have to accept that fear would be companion that morning, and all summer long.  There, walking along beside me, would my old friend Fear, and I would do best to acknowledge him and to try to keep him calm and go on doing what I had to do as best I could.     
In the 15th Chapter of Genesis, the word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."
How often do these words recur in the Bible—“do not be afraid”?  When you hear them, brace yourself.  Someone’s life is about to be turned upside down.  It seems that whenever God decides to do something really big, something that changes forever the way that people see things and think about the world, something that sets the course of history off in a new and different direction, God first finds a human partner.  God finds someone like Abram, or like Moses, someone like Isaiah or Jeremiah, or Mary.  God chooses a partner and comes to them as a voice or in a vision, or through a messenger like Gabriel.  And the first thing God says is, “don’t be afraid.”
So, why is this always the first thing that God says to the one he has chosen— “Don’t be afraid?”   
Well, the obvious reason is that hearing the word of God, or having a vision of God’s glory, or receiving a visitation from God’s messenger, is scary.  God says “don’t be afraid” because she can see that the person that she’s speaking to is terrified, and needs some reassurance.   But maybe there’s another reason.  Maybe when people hear the word of God for the first time, it shifts their consciousness into a bigger perspective.  Maybe the encounter with God expands their awareness so they suddenly realize that they have been living their whole lives in fear.   Fear has been their usual state, and they didn’t even know it until God came to them and showed them that the things they were afraid of were actually pretty insignificant compared to the things that God was doing, through them, and for them, and through them for the world.
Lent is a season when Christians have traditionally fasted and simplified their lives and denied themselves certain pleasures and creature comforts.  But despite what people sometimes think, the purpose of this discipline is not to punish ourselves for our being greedy and self-indulgent.  No, we change our habits and let go of comforts because our habits and comforts cover up our fears and anxieties.  We have organized our lives to maintain the illusion that we are in control of our fears, but our fears have ended up controlling us.  We have filled our days with distractions so that we can avoid feeling our fear, but we have ended up feeling numb and empty instead.  In Lent, we choose to face our fears, and feel and know how they have imprisoned us. 
Today’s Gospel lesson shows us Jesus as one who has compassion for those who live in fear, even as he disregards the mounting danger to himself.   He is making his way to Jerusalem with a vision of a mother bird, gathering her chicks in safety under the protection of her wings.  And at the same time he knows that setting people free from fear is a threat to men like Herod, that fox, men whose grip of terror over the chicks is the key to their own power.  The disciplines of Lent bring us a little closer to the stark realities of life as Jesus faced them, as millions of our brothers and sisters face them every day—hunger, deprivation, oppression, and terror. 
We do this in imitation of Christ, who chose solidarity with the poor and fearful over the prerogatives of power.  And we do it because it puts us in touch with our highest needs and desires.   Above our desire for safety for ourselves, comfort for ourselves, satisfaction for ourselves, is the longing to live in a world where these things are abundantly available to everyone. 
And when we view the world from that height we also find relief from our most profound fear.  Which is the fear that we will come to the end of our lives and know that our time on earth was wasted, because everything we did we did for ourselves.  We risked nothing, and hid from danger, and played no part in the great adventure of God’s salvation of the world.  We played it safe and so we spent our lives without ever really knowing Jesus Christ.  We never knew him because we were afraid to meet him in that place where our individual lives, so vulnerable, so fragile and insecure, connect with the great life that lives in all things.  We never knew the joy that persists in the midst of suffering, or the justice that triumphs over evil, or the life that rises from the tomb, and all because we were afraid: afraid to endure suffering; afraid to confront evil; afraid to die. 
But in Christ God enters into our condition of fearfulness and redeems it, not by violently eliminating every threat, but by strengthening our hearts to do our work.  The example and the spirit of Jesus gives us courage to keep going, to keep pursuing peace, and wholeness, and freedom for everyone, in defiance of the dangers, in spite of our fears.  We aren’t all going to be great heroes.  Not everyone is called to martyrdom.  But everyone who has felt, even for a moment, the mothering love of God, that yearning to gather us together in the shelter of her wings, has also felt the desire to gather and to shelter and to love.  And the way to be faithful to that desire, the way to stay firmly on the path of transformation in Christ, is to keep going through the places in your life where know you most need to hear these words—“Don’t be afraid.”    

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Mexican Football

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

In the 2011 NFC championship, the final game before last year’s Super Bowl, a second-year wide receiver named Kyle Williams was fielding punts for the San Francisco 49ers.  In the 4th quarter of the game, with the 49ers leading by 3 points, Williams made a critical mistake, failing to catch a punt, but allowing it to bounce off his knee, at which point it became anybody’s ball.  A New York Giants player fell on it, and New York scored a touchdown a few plays later, going ahead 17-14. 
The 49ers came back to kick a field goal, tying the game, and sending it into overtime, and with 9 minutes left in the overtime period, the 49ers forced the Giants to punt.  Kyle Williams fielded the ball at the 20-yard line and returned it about 4 yards before a member of the punt coverage team punched it out of his grasp.  A Giants player recovered the fumble, and their placekicker scored the game-winning field goal, sending New York to the Super Bowl, and San Francisco in defeat.  
Following the game, Kyle Williams’ Twitter account was flooded with hateful messages from disappointed fans.  "I hope you, youre [sic] wife, kids and family die," said one.  Another read “HOPE U RUN n2 A BULLET DA WAY U RAN INTO DAT BALL…”  Ugly sentiments like these are other side of the coin of the adulation that star athletes receive from their fans.  We identify with their exploits as if they were our own, as if our own honor and prestige were at stake when they take the field.  When they are victorious, we feel vindicated for all the years we had to watch the colors of our once-proud franchise worn by inferior teams.  And for some 49ers fans, the sting of coming so close to the ultimate prize, and then losing, was a personal disgrace.  And taking it so personally, they looked for someone to blame.
Something like this happens in the story of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth.  When he reads from the prophet Isaiah about how he has been anointed by the Spirit to proclaim good news to the poor, and release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free, and then he sits down and says "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," the people of Nazareth start to taste victory.  They start to imagine vindication for all the humiliations they have endured--the heavy taxation and usurious debt, the encroachment of foreign aristocrats and occupying armies on their land.  They know Jesus, and so they imagine that when he sets out to right these wrongs, their needs will be uppermost in his mind. 
They ask, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” and there are other places in the Gospels where this question is asked with a kind of a sneer.  But in this context, the people of Nazareth say it with wonderment and just a hint of self-satisfaction.   They are impressed by the gracious words that come from Jesus’ mouth, because they think they belong to them.  They’ve heard rumors of the powerful and inspiring sermons he’s been giving in the neighboring towns, and now he’s come home and they’ve seen and heard him for themselves.  No doubt the great and powerful deeds that will follow on these words will be to their particular advantage.  
We discover that is what they are thinking because Jesus knows them.  He knows them better than they know themselves, and he provokes them to reveal how shallow and self-serving their faith in him is.  They want him to be their prophet, and so he tells them stories about the great prophets of old, of Elijah and Elisha, who acted in obedience to the purpose of God, not in order to be the home-town hero.   In times when Israel suffered famine and foreign hegemony, those great prophets performed miracles on behalf, not of their neighbors, or any of their own people, but of foreigners.   And when Jesus tells these, the fond hopes of the Nazarenes are dashed, and as quickly as they embraced Jesus as the instrument of their victory, their admiration turns to a murderous hatred.
There are a couple of taquerías here in town where I like to eat burritos, and one of the things I like best about these places is watching Mexican soccer.  Now, I am a sucker for sports on TV.  If I had a TV that was compatible with digital technology, and it was hooked up to a network that carried sports, and if I had control of the channel selection in my house, all of which are extremely big “ifs”, sports is mostly what I would watch.  And as much as I enjoy watching televised sports, I find Mexican soccer to be a uniquely satisfying form of entertainment. 
There are several reasons for this.  First of all, there are no commercials.  In a soccer game, play never stops, so there’s no way to fit them in.  Secondly, watching five minutes is just as good as watching an hour.  There’s no feeling of “if I leave now I might miss something exciting,” because nothing exciting ever happens.  The teams rarely if ever score.  They just play soccer. 
Finally, I like watching Mexican soccer because I don’t have to choose sides.  I have no need to root for the guys in the blue stripes over the guys in the solid green jerseys because I know nothing about either team, and there’s a wonderful freedom in this.  I know that somewhere in Mexico a stadium is full of tens of thousands of people who care passionately, and hundreds of thousands more are glued to their TVs, and maybe even here in this restaurant there’s a guy over across the room getting sweaty and clenching his fingers and feeling his stomach tense up in his gut the way I know I’m going to feel during those short breaks between the commercials this afternoon, and yet I’m blissfully oblivious to it all. 
I just eat my burrito, watching some guys who love to play soccer doing what they do best, and enjoying the beauty of the game.  When I finish eating and leave the restaurant, they are still at it, and for all I know it will go on for eternity.  I’ll get to heaven and blue stripes and green jerseys will be there, playing soccer, still tied at one goal apiece.
Now I’m sure most Christian preachers in America today would agree that we should root for the gospel of Jesus Christ as if it were our home town team, playing in the Super Bowl.  There are probably more than a few sermons being preached on that theme today, right here in the Bay Area and in the vicinity of Baltimore, Maryland.  And I’m sure those preachers are right, and that they are preaching better sermons than this one.  But for all the value that we place on our religion, and for all our culture of passion and fervor, for all our emotional investment in excellence and victory and vindication, I wonder sometimes if we might be closer to the mark if we embraced the gospel more like Mexican soccer.  In the 13th Chapter of his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul seems to be suggesting something like that when he writes about Christian love. 
Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, love that never ends, is a love that is profoundly disinterested in particular outcomes.  It does not set out with a personal investment in how we ought to be transformed by love, but only with the hope that we can love, and the faith that transformation happens.  Such love does not press its advantages, or trade on its own importance, and so it does not turn to hate when it is delayed or defeated.    
When Jesus says that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” he is not seeking fans for his team.  He is inviting us to join him in celebrating the freedom of life in the Spirit.  He is urging us to put aside our partiality concerning God’s work in the world.  He is telling us to let go of our self-centered, childish anxieties about when it will happen and what we will become and to trust that love is bringing everything to completion, and to look for the ways it is happening now.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.