Sermon for Sunday, February 5, 2017 || Epiphany 5A || Matthew 5:13-20
It’s week five of our sermon series where we’re imagining our way into God’s point of view. Today we were going to talk about God seeing, naming, and celebrating us as enlightened. I’m still going to get to the content of what I planned to say in a bit, but I need to start from a different place today.
You see, like many of you the two weeks since the inauguration have set my head spinning. I sat down on Monday afternoon to try to find some clarity in the turmoil, and I accidentally wrote this sermon. I didn’t mean to. I was writing a list of recent events to help clarify for myself what’s been going on. After writing the list and reading it over again, this sermon started pouring out. The list was a distillation of recent tactics employed to centralize governmental authority in a small cadre of like-minded men.* As I reviewed what I had written, I found the feeling that has been creeping around inside me since the end of election season suddenly no longer creeping, but strutting. That feeling is fear.
As a white, middle-class, highly educated, straight, cis-gendered married male who has never been in combat, I have had few reasons to be afraid in my life. When pulled over by police, the highest order of emotion I have ever registered is annoyance. When walking down a street at night, I keep my eyes open, but I don’t race to my car. When out with my wife and children, I never fret that someone might come up and lambast me for the makeup of my family. When I go through customs, I am confident I will be allowed into the country.
The last time I felt true fear was when I was a passenger in a truck barreling down the roads of Haiti at (literally) breakneck speeds. But that fear was tempered by exhilaration, so I didn’t notice how terrified I was until the rides ended safely.
Not so now. I am afraid. Truly afraid. And now that I have recognized my fear for what it is, I find I have three choices.
- I can isolate myself from everything that makes me afraid.
- I can identify with those of whom I’m afraid and become a crony instead of a target.
- I can trust in the God of healing and reconciliation to whom I’ve devoted my life and live into one of God’s most oft-repeated commands: “Do not be afraid.”
The choice is clear.
Isolating myself from the source of my fear also isolates me from those who have so much more reason to fear than I. But several times a year in the Baptismal Covenant, I promise with God’s help “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” So #1 is out.
Becoming a crony seems like a sensible choice at first. After all, the cadre is made up of folks like me: white, straight, male, etc… But our teacher and Lord associated with all sorts of people, especially folks that were different from him, folks whom the elites of the day ignored or despised. In the end, Jesus gave his life instead of becoming the pawn of a misguided religious elite or a crony of the empire. If I truly desire to follow him, then #2 is also out.
That leaves choice number three: trust. It is the clear choice and also the hardest. How difficult is it to trust God when everything is in turmoil? When the solid ground beneath your feet suddenly shifts? The irony of the life of faith is that faith is most important when holding onto it is the hardest.
The good news is that God is faithful no matter what. When God or God’s representative says, “Do not be afraid,” this does not mean, “Do not feel the emotion of fear.” Do not be afraid means, “Do not let your fear shackle you. Do not let your fear undermine your true identity.”
The people in the Bible who are told, “Do not be afraid,” go on to do extraordinary things:
- “Do not be afraid,” says God to Abram who has just left everything to go wander in the desert with his wife Sarai. Of them, God makes a great nation.
- “Do not be afraid,” says God to Moses, who is going up against pharaoh to win back his people Israel.
- “Do not be afraid,” says Naomi to Ruth, an immigrant, who is about to become the great-grandmother of King David.
- “Do not be afraid,” says Elijah to the widow of Zarapheth, who brings him the end of her flour and then finds her ingredients lasting through a drought.
- “Do not be afraid,” says God to the people of Israel in exile; your true home is in me, no matter where you live.
- “Do not be afraid,” says the angel to Mary before she agrees to bear God’s son.
- “Do not be afraid,” says Jesus to the fishermen, who them become his first followers.
- “Do not be afraid,” says the angel to the women at the tomb, who then become the first evangelists of the resurrection.
The ground is shifting beneath our feet. And I am afraid. But God still speaks those four simple words: “Do not be afraid.” If I am called not to be afraid, then what can I be instead?
I can be love.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18a)
Fear debilitates. Love expands. Fear isolates. Love connects. The only way to live in this world of gathering darkness is shining the light of love.
“You are the light of the world,” says Jesus. “A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
God has been calling us to shine the light of God’s love ever since God awakened the soul of the first human beings. Moments of historical turmoil such as this have a way of recalling us to this awakening. Will we be a people of fear or a people of love? We must be a people of love, a people of generosity and welcome, of openness and acceptance. Indeed, the light of love casts out the shadow of fear.
This morning, I read an example of this. Riders on the New York City subway were horrified to find their car defaced with swastikas. As a group they searched out purel and tissues and cleaned that horrible graffiti off together. That’s shining the light of love.
Indeed, our mission is God’s mission: to replace the shackles of fear with the freedom of love.
As people of love, we follow Jesus to his favorite place – by the side of those ignored or despised or subjugated or scapegoated. We bring our light and mingle it with their light so that those in power can’t keep from seeing the plight of their own making. The brighter we shine together, the quicker the shadows flee.
Fear flees with the shadows, for true love is found in this shining. True love is standing with the powerless, being knocked down together, and then helping each other rise up. This is Jesus’ way, and I want with all my heart for it to be my way. And on my best days, it is. But the best days are fleeting, and so I must pray to God for the perseverance to let my light shine even when all I want to do is cover it with the bushel basket.
Today, I am afraid. I am afraid of where we are heading as a country and as a global community. I am afraid of the tangle of forces that led us to this place. I am afraid that I have my bushel basket by my side and I am so tempted to use it.
But God urges, “Do not be afraid.” Perfect love casts out fear. And the Light of the World will make the shadows flee.
* I had my political scientist hat on while aggregating this list. I was looking for instances that political reality in this country is moving along the axis of democracy vs. autocracy/kleptocracy rather than (or in addition to) conservatism vs. liberalism. Here’s a sampling:
- Clean out the State Department’s top brass right before issuing an order banning people of a certain religion from certain countries from entering the United States.
- Muzzle officials at certain agencies to keep them from saying anything that contradicts the regime. Turn press-briefings into one-way propaganda dumps instead of question-and-answer sessions. And declare the media should be covering the regime the way it wants to be covered.
- Change the makeup of the Principals’ Committee of the National Security Council so that two key members (Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff) are not always in the room (their places taken by two members of the regime) and two other members are gone entirely (the Secretary of Energy and Representative to the United Nations).
- Continue to grow the shadow of mistrust and fear of historically persecuted and marginalized groups.
- Begin neutering the system of checks and balances necessary to the integrity of the US government by ignoring court orders and belittling (“so-called”) judges.
- Suggest the need for a special private intelligence and security community answerable directly to the regime.
- Make sure to do so much so quickly that the people of the United States do not have the capacity to notice just how much has changed in two weeks.