I Can Be Love

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. Continue reading “I Can Be Love”

I Can Be Love

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. Continue reading “I Can Be Love”

Name the Stars

Sermon for Sunday, June 28, 2015 || Proper 8B || Mark 5:21-43

namethestarsImagine with me the thoughts of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, in the aftermath of his encounter with Jesus.

I have been afraid my whole life. When I was little, a scorpion stung my friend, and he died drooling and thrashing in his crib. So I feared scorpions. When I was thirteen, my father had a run in at the local garrison and came home a week later all black and blue. So I feared the Romans. When I met my wife, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide for her. When I became leader of the synagogue, I feared I would have no wisdom to share. And when my little girl was born, I feared for her safety every minute of every day. I have been afraid my whole life.

And so when my daughter showed me the tiny puncture on her forearm, and when she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out in pain, my world ended. I found the culprit and stomped its hard, scaly body into the dirt, and then I collapsed to the ground. My wife came around the corner and saw me rocking back and forth, the dead scorpion in pieces next to me. She dropped the washing and began checking me for signs of a sting. I could only find two words to say: “Not me.” She launched herself into the house to find our daughter.

Twelve years old, my little girl. On the verge of womanhood. My wife cataloging potential suitors. Me practicing my menacing glare for those same suitors. Twelve years old, and not so little anymore. She and I used to climb the hill at night, lie down in the scrub grass so that the tops of our heads touched, and name the stars. She always named them after the heroes of the great stories: David and Gideon and Deborah and Esther. “And that one’s you, Daddy.” She always named the brightest one after me. But at the

indefinable moment when she began her adolescence, she stopped wanting to climb the hill. I asked her why. “That’s kid stuff, Daddy.”

The night the scorpion stung her, I climbed the hill alone and screamed names at the sky – not the names of heroes, but blasphemous names I never thought I could utter. The darkness swallowed my rage, and I don’t know if my obscenities reached their intended target.

I stalked back home. The candle threw swaying shadows on the wall as I entered the room. All my fears were confirmed when I looked at my little girl. She was drenched in sweat, her neck twitched, and her eyes darted from corner to corner. I wrapped my arms around her and put my head on her chest. I could barely distinguish one heartbeat from the next. My wife wrapped her arms around me. Thus I spent the remainder of the night – embraced by and embracing the ones I love, but feeling only the heavy grasp of fear.

I awoke with a curse on my lips for having fallen asleep. I bent my ear to my daughter’s mouth, but the sounds of a commotion outside drowned out the low rasping of her breath. “Vultures,” I spat, and my wife woke up. I stabbed a finger at the window: “Here, no doubt, to console us with their wailing performance.”

I looked down at my little girl. I couldn’t just sit there and watch her die. I had to do something. I decided first to run the vultures off. I had enough grief of my own. I didn’t need to pay someone else to manufacture it. I squeezed my wife’s hand and kissed my daughter on the forehead. So clammy. I banged open the front door ready to unload on the would-be grievers. But the commotion was something else entirely. People were running up the street toward the shore. “Jesus of Nazareth is sighted off the beach. He’s coming here.”

Without thinking, I joined the throng. People recognized me as the leader of the synagogue and let me through. I reached the shore in time to see a fishing boat bump into the shallows. The crowd swelled around the vessel. Jesus’ disciples muscled a hole in the multitude and the man himself stepped off the boat. “Jesus, Jesus,” I cried. But mine was only one voice in a thousand. I feared there was no way he heard me.

But he turned and looked right at me. His disciples opened a path for him. I fell at his feet. “My little daughter, my little one is at the point of death.” I swung my arm back in the direction of my house. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” I didn’t know where the words came from. My fear was grasping at the words in my chest, but something stronger than fear ripped them out of me.

We walked back towards my house, but the great crowd slowed our progress. I wanted to run, to sprint home with Jesus keeping up beside me. But then, he stopped. “Who touched my clothes?” he said. I looked at him in disbelief. I wanted to scream: “There’s a thousand people trying to touch you right now. My daughter is about to die.”

A woman fell down at his feet and started speaking. She probably spoke for less than a minute, but it was a lifetime to me. As Jesus responded to her, my eyes found my brother pushing his way through the crowd. “No. No. No.” I backed away, but he caught me in a tight embrace. “I’m afraid your daughter is dead.” I thrashed about in my brother’s arms. He let go but kept a grip on my hand. “Why trouble the teacher any further?”

I turned back to the woman who delayed me, who kept the teacher from coming to my house on time, and curses curled on the edge of my lips. But Jesus stepped in between us and grabbed my shirt in both hands. “Do not fear,” he said. “Do not fear, only believe.” The stronger something that earlier had ripped words from my chest reflected in his eyes. “Trust me,” he said. The curses died on my tongue, and I let myself be dragged home to face my own death in the still body of my little girl.

The vultures had come while I was out, but I had no ears for their wailing. Jesus looked around at everyone. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” he said. “The child is not dead but sleeping.” A laugh erupted from my chest, but it felt utterly foreign in this house of death. Jesus echoed my laugh, and his sounded perfectly at home. I laughed again. It was not a laugh of disbelief, but of recognition. Did he really speak the truth?

Jesus took my daughter by the hand, brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she did. She walked up to my wife and me and we picked her up and the three of us held each other and turned in circles, laughing and crying at the same time. I looked at Jesus and realized what had ripped the words from me at the beach. Trust. Something about this man radiated trust. No. Not something about him. He, himself, radiated trust. Jesus stared back at me, and in his dark eyes I saw myself on the hill the night before. And I saw him standing there next to me. And I knew that hurling blasphemies at God meant that somewhere deep down I still believed. I knew that trust is something entirely stronger than fear. I knew that trust and belief are the antidotes for fear.

“She’s had a rough day,” said Jesus. “Give her something to eat.” He smiled at my daughter, who reflected it back at him, then at my wife, and then her smile rested on me. I dropped to one knee and pulled her tight. Twelve years old and still my little girl. “Daddy,” she said, “Can we go up the hill tonight and name the stars?”

“Of course,” I said, and I gathered her into my arms again. I had been afraid my whole life. But not anymore.

Image: detail from NASA’s astronomy image of the day, June 2, 2015: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap150602.html

Christ be with Me, Christ Within Me

(Sermon for Sunday, August 12, 2012 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51)

I don’t know about you, but these last two weeks, I have felt afraid. Last week, I was excited to go and see the new Batman movie. But then a self-proclaimed Joker – Batman’s chief enemy – calmly walked into a midnight showing in Aurora, Colorado and filled the theater with tear gas…and then bullets…and then dead bodies. Fear – and grief for the victims and their families – replaced excitement, and I haven’t darkened the door of a movie theater since.

This week, I was excited to come to church to celebrate communion and praise God with all of you. But then a white supremacist calmly walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and filled the temple with bullets of his own…and more dead bodies. Fear – and shock and more grief – once again replaced excitement, and I would be lying if I told you that I feel completely comfortable right now exposed like I am in this pulpit. I don’t know about you, but these last two weeks, I have felt afraid.

And so, as I sat down to write this sermon, fear was on my mind. And I started wondering just why fear is so debilitating. And as I wondered about that, the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel started seeping into my consciousness. And I found that, while my fear didn’t evaporate just like that, someone had sidled up next to the fear and made the fear seem very small in comparison.

But I get ahead of myself. First, why is fear so debilitating? Well, fear has a way of unmaking us. When God created you and me, God made our default position one of loving and trusting. Think of the toddler who will go up to any stranger and say, “Hello.” Then think of the frantic mother who grabs the child by the wrist and yanks him away. Or here’s another example. While on vacation, I met my two-year-old cousin for the first time (which was a real treat, let me tell you) and within half an hour of meeting me, he was flinging himself into my arms from the top platform of the playground. God programmed us to love and trust, not to fear.

So when fear inevitably takes hold, the fear overrides our initial programming. Love and trust move down the list of conditioned responses, and we are no longer the whole people that God intended us to be. Fear motivates people do all sorts of things, the kind of things that unmake us. Some people hole up in their bedrooms never to venture into the world. Some lie to their parents about where they’ve been. Some never settle into mutual, meaningful relationships. Some cheat. Some bully. Some abuse drugs and alcohol. And some go on shooting rampages through temples containing people who look and think differently than they do.

Fear is so debilitating because fear keeps us from being the people God made us to be. Fear hollows out our identity as God’s children. Fear replaces the loving and trusting identity with one that longs to isolate and control. When our identities are tied up in fear rather than in God, we lose who we are; we lose ourselves because there is nothing sustaining or life-giving about fear.

When we feel fearful, when we feel like we are being unmade, what is really happening is that we are losing our connection to our identity as those loving and trusting children of God. And this where the words of Jesus begin seeping into my mind. This is where we make the turn and place Jesus next to the fear and notice how small the fear seems in comparison.

Jesus spends much of his time in the Gospel according to John telling people who he is. His identity is a subject that crops up every other chapter or so, and Jesus signals to us that he is talking about his identity with a special coded phrase. He says the two simple words: “I Am.” But these two simple words carry a lot of weight. By saying “I Am,” Jesus essentially quotes God’s words to Moses. At the burning bush, God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt. Moses wants some insurance to let people know he really met God, so he asks for God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. When Jesus borrows this phrase, he reveals to his listeners and to us his divine identity.

Jesus uses these “I Am” statements over a dozen times in the Gospel according to John. Two of them happen in the story that runs the length of Chapter Six, a part of which we read this morning. I’ll get to the first one in a moment, but before that, let’s talk about the one in our passage today. “I Am the bread of life,” says Jesus. With these words Jesus reveals a piece of his divine identity.

As followers of Jesus, our identities are wrapped up in his. When he discloses a piece of his identity, we discover a piece of ours. When he says, “I Am the bread of life,” he invites us to imagine what bread can tell us about God. Bread nourishes us, just as being in relationship with Jesus nourishes us. Bread in the wider sense of food sustains life, just as through Jesus (as “the Word made flesh”) all life has come into being.

But this is no normal, everyday metaphor. I might say my wife’s smile is the sun on a rainy day, but we all know her smile is not actually the sun. Jesus doesn’t idly compare himself to bread. Jesus is the “bread of life.” Normal, everyday food and drink will satisfy for a time. But eating the food of the bread of life brings us into relationship with Jesus, who is that bread. One of the Eucharistic prayers says this beautifully, praying that we “may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, and [be] made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”

In the Eucharistic meal, which we will share in a few minutes, we take Jesus in, and the Bread of Life opens our eyes to the wonderful reality that his presence surrounds us and penetrates us always. The wonderful hymn known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” describes this ever-present reality:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

When Jesus reveals that he is “the bread of life,” he invites us into the reality that his presence sustains us wherever we are and whatever has happened. This is part of his divine identity, and our identity finds a home in this sustenance.

Whenever fear debilitates us, whenever fear threatens to unmake us, Jesus Christ is there sustaining us, nourishing us so that we can continue on our way, surrounding us with his steadfast presence. We were not made to fear, but to love and trust. The more we rely on the sustaining presence of the Bread of Life, the less of a foothold will we give to fear.

I told you that I would mention Jesus’ other “I Am” statement from an earlier part of this morning’s story. The night before today’s lesson, the disciples row across the sea in their boat. But a storm comes up and threatens to swamp them. Then they see Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water. And do you know what he says to them? He says: “I Am; do not be afraid.”

The Dragon’s Skin

(Sermon for August 28, 2011 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15)

Eustace Scrubb had read only the wrong books. The books he had read had “a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but,” says C.S. Lewis, “they were weak on dragons.” And so when Eustace accidentally accompanies his cousins Edmund and Lucy on a voyage aboard the ship Dawn Treader, you might imagine that he is, shall we say, out of his element. The further the ship sails from Narnia, the more ghastly becomes Eustace’s behavior. He is truly a horrible boy – lazy, selfish, dishonest, self-centered, and his attitude only goes from bad to worse.

So you won’t be surprised to hear that, when the ship finally comes ashore after a brutal storm, Eustace slips off by himself to avoid a day of hard work. And because he’s read only the wrong books, you also won’t be surprised to hear that, when he stumbles into a cave full of treasure, he has no idea that he has trespassed into a dragon’s lair. He has no idea that falling asleep on a dragon’s hoard turns one into a dragon. And he has no idea that he has become a dragon until he realizes that he’s running on all fours and that the reflection in the pool is his own. Now that he has become a dragon, “an appalling loneliness” comes over him, and he begins to see in himself the monster that his cousins and the crew of the Dawn Treader had tolerated for the entire voyage. How could Eustace possibly undo the enchantment? How could he shed the dragon’s skin?

Consider that your cliffhanger until later in the sermon. Before we return to Eustace the dragon, let’s turn our attention to this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture. Moses grazes the flock of his father-in-law far afield. At Mount Horeb, he sees a bush blazing merrily, but the bush isn’t turning to coals and ash. Intrigued, Moses turns aside to look more closely. And God encounters him there. “Come no closer,” God calls to Moses. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Remove the sandals from your feet. On the surface, this command reminds Moses that he and God don’t share the same position. Moses is a supplicant, and he comes into God’s presence unshod to show the vast disparity between the two. Okay, show of hands – which of you took off your shoes when you settled into your pew this morning? Yeah, neither did I. From a cultural point-of-view, removing our footwear signals informality rather than respect. So, we need to look at God’s command here from a different perspective.

On a deeper level than the simple removal of a garment, God’s command to Moses to take off his sandals presents a challenge to each of us who hears this story. This challenge begins with a question. What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter into God’s presence?

Our answers to this question build the wardrobe of costumes we wear all the time without realizing that we are dressed up. We wear these invisible costumes and affix invisible masks to our faces in order to set up buffers between ourselves and other people. If other people get too close, then they might impel us to change, to see the world differently than we desire, to remove ourselves from the centers of our existence. Our costumes are our first line of defense to remain the people we’ve always told ourselves we want to be. The trouble is that the costumes also disguise us from ourselves.

And so we stumble into God’s presence wearing carefully crafted costumes and masks that create barriers between us and everything that is not us. And just as God commands Moses to remove his shoes, God tells us to take off the costume.

What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter God’s presence? What makes up our costumes? Here I can only speak for myself, so listen for where your experience connects with mine. After praying with the question, I decide that the first piece of my costume to remove is Fear. This is the fear that forestalls any type of change. This is the fear that keeps me from entering into any kind of relationship because the other will cause some sort of transformation in me. This is the fear that keeps me from diving into a pool, not because I’m afraid of diving, but because I don’t want to get wet.

The second piece of the costume is Ignorance. When fear keeps relationships from beginning, ignorance is the necessary byproduct. I am blind to the situations of those I don’t take the time and energy to know. Again, this is part of the buffer. If I actively keep myself from developing an understanding of another’s plight, I won’t be putting myself in the position to have to decide whether or not to help, to relate, to get my hands dirty.

The third piece of the costume is Apathy. When ignorance fails, and I do find myself in the position to make a choice – to be in relationship or not – apathy sings the siren’s song. Apathy is the inertial force that keeps me complicit and complacent to the woes of others because I just can’t quite dig up enough empathy to care.

There are many more pieces of the costume, too many to talk about in this sermon, but there’s still the mask. My mask is Pride. When fear and ignorance and apathy all fail to keep me from being in an authentic relationship with another, there’s always pride to keep me living a disguised life. This is the pride that takes all the credit for my giftedness and assumes that I can get along quite well on my own because I seem to have done so thus far.

And this is where we return to Eustace, the horrible boy of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After he becomes human again, Eustace relates to his cousin Edmund how he left the dragon behind. A lion had come to him in the night and bade him undress. Since he had no clothes, he began shedding his skin like a snake. He scraped off his scales and stepped out of the skin. But then he looked down and saw another layer was there. He peeled this off as well. And “exactly the same thing happened again,” said Eustace.

And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? …So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

Then the lion said… ‘You will have to let me undress you.’

The desperate Eustace lay down and

The very first tear [the lion] made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been.

When we stumble into God’s presence, God invites us to remove our costumes. Like Eustace, we might be able to slough off some pieces ourselves, but the real costume only comes off when God intervenes and pulls the invisible garments away. When we pray, “I will, with God’s help,” we acknowledge that we cannot take off our disguises until we stand before the God who is the only one who truly knows what we look like. We cannot remove our costumes until we ask God to take them away, to leave them lying next to us, thick and dark and knobbly-looking.

And when we participate with God in this removal, there is just so much room to fill. Hope takes the place of Fear. Awareness fills in the gap left by of Ignorance. Engagement replaces Apathy. And Humility settles in where Pride once kept the disguise wrapped around us so tight. Shedding the costume is hard work that takes a lifetime. But we are not alone. We are in God’s presence, and God is forever helping us shed the dragon’s skin.

Facing Fear

(Sermon for August 8, 2010 || Proper 14, Year C, RCL || Luke 12:32-40)

The Bene Gesserit test Paul Atreides at the beginning of Dune. (1984)

Many years ago in a dusty volume, I read an old Bene Gesserit litany against fear, and this prayer has stuck with me every since. “I must not fear,” says the litany. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Now that dusty volume was Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best selling science-fiction novel of all time, but the words of the litany ring true nonetheless. “I must not fear… Fear is the little-death… I will face my fear.”

From the time we are young children, our parents echo these words and tell us to face our fears. Perhaps you were afraid of the dark. So you mother let you sleep with the lights on for a while. Then she turned the lights off and left the bedside lamp on. A few days later, she turned off the bedside lamp and plugged a nightlight into the wall near the door. Pretty soon, you didn’t even need the nightlight. Your mother helped you face your fear of the dark, and you overcame it.

Or perhaps you were afraid of the monsters under your bed. There they were: always lurking, rumbling, slurping, ready to pounce – until you summoned up enough courage to dangle your head over the side of the bed and chase the monsters away. You faced your fear, and you overcame it.

We look back on these childhood fears and chuckle at how intangible worries grew into monstrous fears. The shadow of your own feet under the covers cast a winged creature on the wall, and the creature moved the more you shook. Under your bed, a pair of shoes and a couple of tennis balls made the ears and eyes of a monster peering up through the floorboards. The fears were nothing really. Our imaginations ran away with us, that’s all.

At least, this is how we adults dismiss those childhood fears. We dismiss them as fanciful or as attention-seeking or as the fruits of overactive imaginations. But hidden within this easy dismissal is also a tacit dismissal of our parents’ advice. “Face your fear,” they said, and we did, and everything got better.

But those were our intangible, childhood fears. That advice couldn’t possibly work on our concrete, grown-up fears. Our fears are too immediate, too relentless, too real. Of course, we forget that this is exactly how our childhood fears felt, as well. Perhaps our parents’ advice, the same advice that I learned reading science fiction, really might work in our lives today. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to take our parents’ advice. He asks them to face their fears.

But before we get to that, we first need to address where fear comes from. The root of fear is deprivation. We fear when something has the potential to become scarce. We fear when we perceive that there is not enough of a certain something. Supply and demand economic theory is based squarely on this reality. The root of fear is deprivation. You can trace all fears to this specific cause, even though specific fears may appear quite differently. Fears manifest themselves one way or another depending on the nature of the deprivation. If you are afraid of the dark, you fear a scarcity of light. If you are afraid of contracting a terminal illness, you fear being deprived of a long, healthy life. If you are afraid of how you will live when you retire, you fear that you will not have enough income to sustain your manner of living.

You can trace all fears to specific deprivations, and by confronting the sources of scarcity, you can face your fears. Jesus identifies the disciples’ source of fear when he says to them, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.” Jesus assures them that their fears are baseless because their accumulation of stuff will not help them enter the kingdom of God. This assurance runs counter to the fashionable reasoning of the day, which stated that the more stuff you owned, the more blessed you were. “God obviously favors that person,” ran this line of thinking. “Just look at all the stuff he has.” Not too much different from today, I’m sad to say.

But Jesus changed the rules. Remember last week’s Gospel? Jesus told us the parable of the rich fool. His land produced more than his barns could hold, so he decided to tear down those barns and build larger ones. The more stuff the rich man had, the more secure and comfortable he would feel, he told himself. Surely, this man would have been considered blessed in his society. But he died the very night he planned to erect larger storehouses, and he surely couldn’t take his barn-loads of stuff with him. The rich man’s folly shows the misguided lengths to which people will go to ward off deprivation, the root cause of fear.

But Jesus shows his disciples another way to face their fear. Rather than accumulating stuff, give it away, he says. Face deprivation by depriving yourself of the things you think you can’t live without. And you’ll discover pretty quickly that you can, in fact, live without those things.

I’m sure that you’ve heard this interpretation before, perhaps so many times that you tune it out now. And if you’re like me, you really aren’t any closer to facing the root of fear than you were the last time you heard someone talk about this. I know for myself that I used to be able to fit all my possessions in a 1992 Mazda Protégé. When I moved to Massachusetts, I needed every square inch of a 14-foot U-Haul. With more stuff comes more fear of loss, more fear of that stuff not being enough.

And the more fear that we have, the more we deprive ourselves of fear’s antidote. That antidote is trust. When we were children, we faced our fears because we trusted our parents’ advice. We believed that they would not lead us astray, and they didn’t. The darkness did not frighten us to death. The monsters did not pounce.

So how come we have so much trouble trusting in God? How come fear tends to trump trust more often than not? I think the answer is this. Trust takes energy. While fear creeps along, keeping us from action, trust derives from the kind of sustained relationship, which establishes and nourishes fidelity. God always keeps God’s promises. God is always trustworthy. The trouble is we have to trust that God is trustworthy. We have to practice the faith that God has given us in order to maintain our ability to trust in God.

And fear constantly diverts this ability. But when we practice trust, when we believe that God’s keeps God’s promises, we can face our fears, we can keep at bay the gnawing dread of deprivation. Our grown-up fears may be concrete and relentless. But I am convinced that they are no match for the power of trusting in God.

This week, I ask you to take some time to be silent and to turn your thoughts inward. What do you fear? What kind of deprivation is at the root of that fear? And how will practicing trusting God help you face that fear? In your reflection, remember this good news. When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” he is not just giving a command. He is giving a promise that when we face our fears, we will not be alone. When we face our fears, they will pass through us, and when they are gone, only God, holding us in the palm of God’s hand, will remain.

Something stronger

(Sermon for June 28, 2009 || Proper 8, Year B, RCL || Mark 5:21-43)

Imagine with me the thoughts of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, in the aftermath of his encounter with Jesus.

I have been afraid my whole life. When I was little, a scorpion stung my friend, and he died drooling and thrashing in his crib. And so I feared scorpions. When I was old enough to understand the meaning of the scowling soldiers wearing shiny, metal armor, I realized what happened to people who looked at them the wrong way. And so I feared that my father might one day fail to return home. When I met my wife, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide for her. When I became leader of the synagogue, I feared that I would have no wisdom to share. And when my little girl was born, I feared for her safety every minute of every day. I have been afraid my whole life.

And so when my daughter showed me the tiny, insignificant puncture on her forearm, and she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out in pain, my world ended. I found the assassin and stomped its hardened, scaly body into the dirt, and then I collapsed – shivering – to the ground. My wife came `round the corner and saw me weeping, the dead scorpion in pieces next to me. She dropped the washing, raced over, and began checking me for signs of a sting. I could barely talk through my heaving: “Not me. Not me. Not me.” She understood and launched herself into the house to find our daughter. I couldn’t go back inside. I rocked back and forth: “Not me. Why not me? Why not me instead?”

Twelve years old, my little girl. On the verge of womanhood. My wife cataloging potential suitors. Me practicing my menacing glare for those same suitors. Twelve years old, and not so little anymore, if I’m honest with myself. She and I used to climb the hill at night, lie down in the scrub grass so that the tops of our heads touched, and name the stars. She always named them after the heroes of the great stories: David and Gideon and Deborah and Esther. “And that one’s you, Daddy.” She always named the brightest one after me. But at the indefinable moment when she began her adolescence, she stopped wanting to climb the hill. I asked her why one day. “That’s kid stuff, Daddy,” she said.

The night the scorpion stung her, I climbed the hill alone and screamed names at the sky – not the names of heroes, but blasphemous names I never thought I could utter. The darkness swallowed my anger, and I don’t know if my obscenities reached their intended target. He created the scorpion: for that, I could not forgive him.

I stalked back home and tapped on my daughter’s bedroom door. My wife opened it, and our eyes met – one empty stare gazing past another. The candle threw swaying shadows on the wall as I entered the room. All my fears were confirmed when I looked at my little girl. She was drenched in sweat, her neck twitched, and her eyes darted from corner to corner. I wrapped my arms around her and put my head on her chest. I could barely distinguish one heartbeat from the next. My wife wrapped her arms around me. Thus I spent the remainder of the night – embraced by the one I love but feeling only the heavy grasp of fear.

I awoke suddenly and cursed myself for having fallen asleep. Dawn was piercing through the gaps in the window’s shutters. I bent my ear to my daughter’s mouth, but the sounds of a commotion outside drowned out the low rasping of her breath. “Vultures,” I growled and my wife woke up. I stabbed a finger at the window: “Here, no doubt, to console us with their wailing performance.”

I looked down at my little girl. I couldn’t just sit there and watch her die. I had to do something. I resolved first to run the vultures off. I had enough grief of my own. I didn’t need to pay someone else to manufacture it. I squeezed my wife’s hand and kissed my daughter on the forehead. So clammy. I banged open the front door ready to unload on the would-be grievers. But the commotion was something else entirely. People were running up the street in the direction of the shore. They were laughing and calling to one another: “Jesus of Nazareth is sighted off the beach. He’s coming here.”

Without thinking, I joined the throng. People recognized me as the leader of the synagogue and let me through. I reached the shore in time to see a fishing boat bump into the shallows. The crowd swelled around the vessel. Jesus’ disciples muscled a hole in the multitude and the man himself stepped off the boat. “Jesus, Jesus,” I cried. But mine was only one voice in a thousand. I feared there was no way he heard me.

Then he turned and gestured to me. His disciples opened a path for him. I fell at his feet. “My little daughter, my little one is at the point of death.” I swung my arm back in the direction of my house. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

I didn’t know where the words came from. My fear was grasping at the words in my chest, but something stronger ripped them out of me. The fear fought back, reminding me of last night’s blasphemy. A new fear gripped me – that God had, indeed, heard my anger and would do nothing for me now.

We walked back to my house, but the great crowd slowed our progress. I wanted to run, to sprint home with Jesus keeping up beside me. But then, he stopped. “Who touched my clothes?” he said. I looked at him in disbelief. I wanted to scream: “There’s a thousand people trying to touch you right now. Who cares? My daughter is about to die.”

A woman fell down at his feet and started speaking. She probably spoke for less than a minute, but it was a lifetime to me. As Jesus responded to her, my eyes found my brother and his sons pushing their way through the crowd. “No. No. No.” I started to fall, but my brother caught me and held me tight. “Your daughter is dead,” he whispered. I sagged in his arms. Again, he picked me up. “Come,” he said. “Why trouble the teacher any further?”

I turned back to the woman who delayed me, who kept the teacher from coming to my house on time, and curses curled on the edge of my lips. But Jesus stepped in between us and grabbed my shirt in both hands. “Do not fear,” he said. “Do not fear, only believe.” The stronger something that had earlier ripped words from my chest reflected in his eyes. “Trust me,” he said, and he pulled me along the path to my house. The curses died on my tongue, and I let myself be dragged home to face my own death in the still body of my little girl.

The vultures had come while I was out, but I had no ears for their wailing. And I had no eyes but for my little daughter. Jesus looked around at everyone. “Why do you make a commotion and weep,” he said, “The child is not dead but sleeping.” A laugh erupted from my chest, and it felt utterly foreign in this house, which now had Death for a tenant. But then I laughed again, and I noticed that the laugh didn’t come from my fear. The stronger something caused the laugh. The laugh was my body’s involuntary response to the truth of Jesus’ words.

Jesus took my daughter by the hand, brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she did. She walked up to my wife and me and we picked her up and the three of us held each other and turned in circles, laughing and crying at the same time. I looked at Jesus and realized what had ripped the words from me at the beach. Trust. Something about this man radiated trust. No. Not something about him. He, himself, radiated trust. He stared back into my eyes and suddenly I knew that hurling blasphemies at God under the cover of darkness meant that somewhere deep down I still believed. I knew that trust is something entirely stronger than fear. I knew that trust and belief are the antidotes for fear.

Jesus’ own laugh pulled me out of my thoughts. He smiled at the three of us twirling around and said, “She’s had a rough day. Give her something to eat.” My wife rushed off to the kitchen to prepare something, tears streaming behind her as she went. And then my daughter looked up at me, trust shimmering in her eyes. Twelve years old and still my little girl. “Daddy,” she said, “Can we go up the hill tonight and name the stars?”

“Of course,” I said, and I gathered her into my arms.

I had been afraid my whole life. But not anymore.