Devotional – Psalm 85.9

Devotional:

Psalm 85.9

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

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I spent a lot of time last week considering how I might impress upon the congregation the need for darkness in order to appreciate the light. I weighed the options of telling stories from my life when I was particularly afraid of the dark and therefore grateful for the light when it arrived, I pondered the possibility of asking the congregation to announce their fears until someone said something about darkness, but I ultimately decided to shut off all the lights in the sanctuary for the majority of the service.

We therefore were guided by candlelight (which made singing from the hymnal particularly challenging!) but my hope was in the fact that we would all consider the darkness in our own lives in a new and different way. Additionally, while using Isaiah’s language about our righteous deeds being nothing more than a filthy cloth, I challenged the congregation to confront the truth of their sinfulness in a way often missing from the mainline church these days. And finally, I even talked about nuclear weapons to drive home to point about admitting our recklessness with the power we’ve been given and the need to repent.

After worship ended, I stood by the narthex doors shaking hands with everyone on their way out and someone said, “Pastor, I don’t know if I’ve ever been afraid in church before, but I was today. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

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Fear, perhaps more than any other emotion, is the typical response and reaction from those who encounter God in scripture. Again and again we read the same words from the angels, or from God, “Do not be afraid.” But there are also many times in scripture when fearing the Lord is exactly what we are told to do.

Fearing God has less to do with being spooked when the sanctuary is dark and more to do with recognizing that God is God and we are not. When we perceive the great gulf between God and humanity, we are forced to consider our sinful souls and the need for God’s grace. Therefore fearing God might be just what we need this season.

Whereas the world worries about whether or not all the right gifts are under the tree, Christians worry about whether we’re living into the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. While families hang lights on gutters, we wonder whether or not we have really clothed ourselves with Christ’s righteousness. And as individuals assume that the reason for the season is some plump red-dressed man, or remembering the names of all the reindeer, we know that God, whom we fear, has come near.

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The Politics of Easter: A Reflection

Matthew 28.3-5

His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”
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A few weeks ago I told the church I serve about my experience of voting during the Virginia Primary. When I arrived at my voting location I was disappointed with the limited number of participants. But by the time I left, the parking lot was starting to fill rapidly.

When I got into the building I went over to the table to receive my instructions and eventually got set up with a machine to cast my vote. While my wife finished registering and voting I stood off to the side.

I really try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes it feels impossible. When people walk into a building and starting shouting things, it’s hard not to notice.

The first man came in wearing bib overalls, dirt all over his boots, with his hair going every direction. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” The man stared blankly back and then declared, “Well, I ain’t no socialist so I’ll be voting Republican.

The second man came in wearing a perfectly pressed suit, with a tie clip, and an expensive looking watch on his wrist. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” Without taking time to think about his answer he said, “I can’t trust Hillary but I’m still voting Democrat.

The first woman came in wearing a completely coordinated outfit, her hair and makeup looked perfect, and her heels were so high they started giving me vertigo. When she arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” I don’t think the woman was really paying attention because she filled the next few minutes trying to convince the volunteer that our country is in a mess and the only good option we have left is the Christian Ted Cruz.

The next woman came in wearing a sweat suit, with spit-up on her shoulder, while making a comment about her baby waiting in the car. She was clearly in a rush so when the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting…” She interrupted and yelled, “Anyone but Trump!

It didn’t take long for me to notice that all of the people coming in to vote were doing so out of fear. None of them were particularly satisfied with any of the candidates, they represented different walks of life, and the one thing that united them was fear.

The two most well known stories of the New Testament bookend Jesus’ life. The two most well attended church services in the year similarly reflect these bookends: Christmas and Easter. As a pastor, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some of the hardest services to plan and preside over. And honestly, I feel guilty about how much they stress me out. They’re supposed to be the most joyful and incredible worship services in the year, and they leave me feeling anxious.

Part of the problem is the fact that a whole lot of people show up on Christmas and Easter who otherwise never attend church. That means that we’ve got one hour to show them how powerful regular worship can be in the hope of getting them to attend worship between the major holidays.

The other problem is the fact that most of the people who attend on Christmas and Easter already know the story. It has been told for two millennia and a 15-minute sermon from a pulpit is unlikely to shine a new light on either narrative.

But the biggest problem with Christmas and Easter is the fact that many of us read ourselves into the story as the wrong characters.

On Christmas Eve we hear about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and Joseph to share with them the Good News that they will be bring God in the flesh into the world. They, of course, are terrified by this news but the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” We like to stop the story there because it fits well with our sensibilities. We like to think about being afraid of starting something new and God showing up to reassure us.

But the story goes on to talk about Herod’s fear. Herod heard about a messiah possibly being born in Bethlehem. Out of fear that this child will one day usurp his power, he ordered all of the babies born in Bethlehem to be murdered. Obviously, this is not a popular topic for Christmas Eve. But it is important. It is important because most of us have never, nor will we ever be in a position like a Mary and Joseph. We have families and a government that support our way of life. We know we have people to count on, we know that there is money in our bank accounts. Many of us will never know the fear that Mary and Joseph experienced on that Christmas Eve.

But many of us can connect with Herod’s fear about people in a faraway place whose existence threaten our power and way of life. (Think Syrian Refugees or ISIS)

On Easter we hear about Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’ dead body, and instead they experience an earthquake and an angelic presence. The angel says to the women, “Do not be afraid.” But he scares the Roman guards nearly to the point of death. We like the story to focus on God’s power over death and Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. We like to hear about how Jesus’ victory over death opens up the gates of heaven for people like us.

But the story specifically sets up a distinction between the women at the tomb, and the guards at the tomb. And if we’re honest, most of us are like the guards in the story; we’re Caesar’s people. We might know about loss and suffering, we might’ve experienced the awful power of death in a loved one or friend, but we’ve never had to tread lightly for fear that our political system will murder us for speaking out, we’ve never known what it’s like to watch someone die on a cross and then be placed in a grave, we’ve never had to guard our political opinions because we live in the land of freedom.

But what we do know is that most of our lives are pretty good. Many of us have the right skin color, the right passport, the right education, the right sexual orientation, and the right amount of wealth to be rewarded in our society.

And Jesus, the guy Christians claim to worship on Christmas, Easter, and every Sunday in between, came to make the first last and the last first.

So maybe we should be afraid. We should be afraid because God raised his Son from the dead and calls us to sacrifice our own lives for people who betray us. Maybe we should be afraid because we’re told to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Maybe we should be afraid because Jesus tells us to love our enemies, whether they support Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.

When angels show up in scripture, but in particular at Christmas and Easter, they come to people who have every reason to be afraid and they bring words of comfort: Your Son will be God in the flesh; Jesus has been raised from the dead. God speaks to the outcasts, to the last, least, and lost and brings them Good News.

We, who have nothing to fear, we who are so comfortable and content in our lives… Maybe it’s time to recognize that following Jesus’ will disrupt the comfort and the contentment we feel. Maybe it’s time to start praying for and acting on behalf of people who are belittled and broken by our political system. Maybe it’s time for us to stop ignoring everyone with a different way of life, particularly if have a different skin color, a different passport, a different education, a different sexual orientation, or a different socio-economic status. Maybe it’s time to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and let it shake our lives.

 

 

(with thanks to Jason Micheli for inspiring parts of this reflection)

Calming the (Political) Storm

Mark 4.35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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On Tuesday morning, Lindsey and I woke up early to hit the polls before work. We were expecting long lines so we made sure to plan for enough time and double check our voting location. When we arrived, we were both a little shocked to discover the limited number of participants but we walked into the building with excitement.

I went over to the table to receive instructions and eventually went over to the machine to cast my vote. Lindsey, however, was forced to reregister because of a filing error, so I stood off to the side and waited patiently.

I really try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes it feels impossible. When people walk into to a building and start shouting things, it’s hard not to notice.

The first man came in wearing bib overalls, dirt all over his boots, with his hair going every direction. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” The man stared blankly back and then declared, “Well, I ain’t no socialist so I’ll be voting Republican.

The second man came in wearing a perfectly pressed suit, with a tie clip, and an expensive looking watch on his wrist. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” Without taking time to think about his answer he said, “I can’t trust Hillary but I’m still voting Democrat.

The first woman came in wearing a completely coordinated outfit, her hair and makeup looked perfect, and her heels were so high they started giving me vertigo. When she arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” I don’t think the woman was really paying attention because she filled the next few minutes trying to convince the volunteer that our country is in a mess and the only good option we have left is the Christian Ted Cruz.

The next woman came in wearing a sweat suit, with spit-up on her shoulder, while making a comment about her baby waiting in the car. She was clearly in a rush so when the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting…” She interrupted and yelled, “Anyone but Trump!

It didn’t take long for me to notice that all of the people coming in to vote were doing so out of fear. None of them were particularly satisfied with any of the candidates, they represented different walks of life, and the one thing that united them was fear.

On that day, when the evening had come, Jesus said, “Let us go across to the other side.” As the sun was setting in the distance, darkness was hovering over the waters, and Jesus suggested that it was time to go across the Sea of Galilee. And this was no simple journey; Jesus had been ministering to the Jews in the Jewish territory, but now he wanted his disciples to go across to the other side, to the gentiles.

This is probably Jesus’ first foray into dangerous territory, his first opportunity to proclaim a sense of inclusion that still mystifies most of us today.

And while they were out on the water, making the journey from their side to the other side, a great windstorm arose, smashing waves against the boat so hard that it was being swamped with water. But Jesus was asleep! So the disciples woke him up and asked, “Teacher, do you not care that we are going to die?

Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and there was a dead calm. He turned to his disciples and said, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

They were definitely afraid; afraid of the wind and the waves crashing against the boat, afraid about the journey to the other side, afraid for their very lives.

And notice that Jesus does not say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” There are plenty of things for Jesus’ disciples then, and now, to be afraid of: isolation, pain, illness, losing one’s job, money problems, failure, death. Instead, he asks, “Why are you afraid?”

            Why are you afraid for your lives when I’m here on the boat with you?

            Why are you afraid of rejection and failure when I’m here with you in life?

            Why are you afraid of death when you know that I rose from the grave?

What a fitting text for this political season in our lives. While many of us grow tired of the countless fights and arguments that break out on the news, while the chain of endless debates rattle with sound bite after sound bite, while people go to the polls to vote against someone rather than for someone, Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid?”

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We are afraid. We are afraid of the wind and the waves that assail our fragile ships. We are afraid for our lives, our church, our cities, our politics, our country, our world. We fear disapproval, rejection, failure, meaninglessness, illness, death… We are held captive by the power of fear.

And perhaps our greatest fear is of anything that differs from us. We are so contented in life that we fear death. We are so rooted in our Republicanism that we fear Democrats, or we are so Liberal that we fear Conservatism. We are so constantly surrounded by white middle-class Christian America, that we fear anyone who is black, or Hispanic, or Muslim, or Atheist. We are so used to seeing the traditional family unit of a husband and wife with 2.5 children that we are afraid of anyone who is lesbian or gay.

And Jesus is the one telling us its time to go to the other side. Jesus is the one who knows, even better than us, that there is plenty to be afraid of, but those things do not have the final word.

What we fail to remember and realize, is that we were once the outsiders that Jesus welcomed in. We were the gentiles waiting on the other shore for an incredible Messiah to show up and graft us in. If it were not for the incredible inclusiveness of Jesus’ ministry, none of us would be here in this place, none of us would have been blessed with grace, and none of us would have received the gift of the cross.

And now we face a time with other outsiders, people for whom many of us are afraid of, people who will rock our boats. And as we get closer, as the scales begin to fall from our eyes, as we begin to see others as brothers and sisters instead of enemies, that’s precisely when the storms start billowing in, playing toward our fears.

“If we start working with the Republicans, we will lose everything we once deemed sacred…”

“If we let another Democrat into the White House, God only knows what kind of terrible things will happen to us…”

“If we start changing what we do on Sunday mornings, the church will die…”

“If we start affirming their relationships, the traditional family will die…”

“If we start opening our borders, our country will die…”

Jesus knows best of all, that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion.

The call to not be afraid bookends the gospel. It is there at the beginning when the angel Gabriel shares the news of the coming Messiah with Mary, and it is there at the end when the disciples encountered the angels on the first Easter. Not because there are no fearsome things on the seas of our days, not because there are no storms, but rather, because God is with us.

That night on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus brought peace in the midst of the storm. This kind of thing happens all the time when people are willing to look past their fear and remember that Jesus is in the boat with us.

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It may be at the polls while people are arguing about the fate of our country, it may be at General Conference when people are arguing about homosexual relationships, it may be in our own families when people are arguing about anything under the sun.

We will face strong winds and huge waves in the middle of a storm. Jesus wants us to remember that he will always be in the boat with us; that we can rely on his strength and mercy when ours runs out; that the prince of peace will always calm the waters.

On Wednesday night I had the youth of our church read the story of Jesus’ calming the storm. We discussed the types of storms that we have witnessed in our lives and then we started to talk about fear. I gave each of them a permanent marker and a plate with the instructions to write down their deepest and truest fears. I promised them that whatever they wrote was between them and God, but they also talked about fears they felt comfortable sharing…

“I’m afraid of death.”

“I’m afraid of our government.”

“I’m afraid of being alone.”

Then we went out into the back parking lot and we smashed the plates into tiny pieces. After we collected all of our broken fears, we started to glue them back together in the shape of the cross (you can see it right here).

Christ’s cross shatters our fears, it breaks down the moments that haunt us, and remind us over and over again that we are not alone. To wear a cross around our necks, to see one in the sanctuary, is a witness to the fact that the cross shatters our fears. The cross is a reminder that God is with us; with us in on the seas of life, with us in our most frightened moments, with us when we need him.

This part of the sanctuary is called the nave. The word comes from the Latin navis, which means “ship.” If you look up at the ceiling, it looks like the inside of a boat. In this place we are bombarded with images of the cross and the ship on the sea as a reminder of how God is with us.

Every week we gather here into this boat, with Christ as the captain, calming the wind and the waves of our fears.

Every week we hear scriptures, and hymns, and prayers that help to remind us who is our real hope and salvation while the world feels like it’s falling apart.

Every week we gather in the boat to remember that Jesus promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age.

Don’t be afraid. Amen.