Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
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.”