The only thing we have to fear

Sermon on Mark 13:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

History_Speeches_1147_FDR_First_Inaugural_Address_still_624x352When Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1933, the United States had been enduring the most significant economic crisis of its history for almost three and a half years. After the market crashed in 1929, the average household income plummeted more than forty percent. Half of the nation’s banks had failed, and crippling drought drove millions of people from their homes and livelihoods in the Great Plains. By 1933, one out of every four American workers was unemployed. It was, in other words, one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history. Roosevelt acknowledged this with astonishing candor in his inaugural address. He refused to sugarcoat or downplay the challenges of the Great Depression: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” he averred. This context makes that immortal line all the more surprising: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For Roosevelt, fear was more pernicious than any of the adversity we had endured or any of the calamities we had yet to experience. Fear was a bigger obstacle than unemployment, drought, or financial ruin. And so before the First 100 Days, before the New Deal, before he did anything, Franklin Roosevelt argued that that the biggest challenge our country faced in responding to the Great Depression was to cast out fear.

The gospel according to Mark was written during one of the darkest chapters in the history of God’s people, a time of great uncertainty and fear. Most scholars agree that the gospel was written around the time of the Jewish War, which was Rome’s final showdown with the recalcitrant residents of Judea. Though the Jewish people always retained certain privileges in the empire, including the freedom to worship their own God in the Temple, their repeated attempts to oust their occupiers finally exhausted Rome’s patience. While this was not the first time Judea had experienced violent retribution from the Roman authorities, most people in Jerusalem recognized that this time would be different, that Rome’s vengeance would be absolute. Mark captures the totality of the anticipated destruction when he quotes that ominous prediction of Jesus: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The situation was indeed bleak for God’s people: Jerusalem was surrounded by hostile forces, the Temple was about to be destroyed, and the Jewish way of life was about to come to a violent end. If ever there was a time to fear, this was it.

Yet, Jesus specifically enjoins his disciples not to be afraid. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars,” when you see armies at the gate, when you feel that your world is coming to an end, “do not be alarmed.” This advice is almost shocking, especially in light of the fact that Jesus goes on to list a host of other calamities, including uprisings, earthquakes, and famines. Nevertheless, Jesus asserts that the greatest trial God’s people will face is fear. This diagnosis seems almost laughably naive when we think about the state of the world. The calamities Jesus describes are painfully familiar: destructive weather events have become commonplace, millions of American children go to bed not knowing where their next meal with come from, and just this week, terrorists murdered hundreds of innocent people in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. It seems that every day our equilibrium is shaken, that every day we are reminded how truly vulnerable we are. As we bear witness to all of this human misery, devastation, and death, how are we not to be alarmed?

It’s easy to read the last line of this passage with a sense of dread: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” as if to say, there is much more to come, or “you thought this was bad, wait until what comes next!” But the word that Mark uses, the one our version translates as “birth pangs,” is very specific to birth. It is a word that connotes not only the agony of childbirth, but also the joy that comes with bringing another human being into world. Those of you who have children know: even though the process of raising a child can be difficult and painful, there is an persistent and inescapable joy that exists at the very heart of being a parent. The hours in labor, the sleepless nights, the disappointments, the feelings of inadequacy and failure, all melt away when you hold that child in your arms. This is why Jesus specifically refers to birth pangs: not so that we think about pain, but so that we think about birth, so that we remember the joy at the heart of the gospel. This is a joy that has the power to cast out fear. It is a joy that has the power to remind us that God is present even in the darkest moments of our lives. It is a joy that Jesus embodied on the cross, when he put his life and his death in God’s hands, when he trusted that both his life and death were part of God’s story. Indeed, by framing the end of the world as we know it within the context of birth, Mark affirms that God is present in all our beginnings and endings. This astonishing statement demands a mature sense of God’s Providence, a persistent and inescapable belief that everything; every beginning and ending, every victory and defeat, every life and death; that everything belongs to God. This fundamental truth of our faith is incompatible with fear; Jesus tells his disciples not to be alarmed not because he is naive, but because fear prevents us from recognizing that even the things we are afraid of belong to God.

On Friday, more than 125 people in Paris were killed by terrorists acting at the behest of ISIS. In the wake of the attacks, countless religious leaders from every tradition have condemned the attacks, giving voice to our collective grief and outrage. One imam in particular offered a particularly cogent reflection: “Terrorists have no religion whatsoever. Their religion is intolerance, hatred for peace.” The so-called Islamic State’s view of the world is warped, not just because it is predicated on violence and extremism, but because it assumes the world can be cleansed of anything inconsistent with its narrow and twisted interpretation of Islam, that the ap631649421158world God created somehow contains people who do not belong. This intolerance cannot exist in true religion, because true religion requires us to trust not in our own will, not in our own prejudices, not in our own power, but in the power of God. True religion requires us to recognize that nothing exists that is ultimately apart from God. This morning, it would be tempting for us to adopt a posture of vengeance or of apathy, to clamor for retribution or throw up our hands in despair. These responses, however, are ultimately rooted in fear, because they forget the all-encompassing reality of God’s Providence. The gospel calls us courageously to claim joy even in the midst of our darkest moments. It calls us to remember that the towers and temples in our lives, though built with toil and care, will fall to dust, but that our hope is ultimately founded on God. It calls us to put our trust in the God who is present in our beginnings and endings. Above all, the gospel calls us to cast out fear and remember this fundamental truth of our faith: that everything we are and everything we have belongs to God.

Belonging

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas.

Donna couldn’t sleep.  Even though she had had an extremely long day at work, even though she had spent the evening driving around town, asking people about her son, even though she had been up late, reassuring her mother over the phone that she was doing everything she could, Donna couldn’t sleep.  Donna couldn’t sleep because it had been three weeks since Sam had left, three weeks since the fight that had brought the police to the door, three weeks since Sam had said those words she didn’t think it was possible for a son to say to his mother, three weeks since she had seen the young man she still thought of as a boy in a Little League uniform.  Donna couldn’t sleep because she was searching her recollections, trying to recall something she had done, something she had said to make Sam act the way he had been acting.  Donna couldn’t sleep because she was trying not to imagine where Sam was, trying not to imagine what he might be doing.  She sat up, put on her glasses, and watched as the square numbers of her alarm clock changed from 3:59 to 4:00.  As her husband snored quietly next to her, Donna tried to push frightening images from her mind: images of Sam’s bedroom floor covered in vodka bottles, images of Sam’s face contorted in rage as he screamed at her, images of the twisted wreckage of a white pickup truck.  As she watched the clock march forward slowly, Donna tried to push frightening words from her mind, words like “emergency room” and “overdose.”  Just as she was about to remove her glasses and try to sleep for a few hours, the screen on her cell phone began to glow.  Her heart pounding, she reached for the phone and brought it close to her face.  She didn’t recognize the number.  Glancing at the clock, she noticed that it was 4:28 A.M.  People don’t call with good news at 4:28 A.M.  After waiting another moment that felt like an eternity, Donna pressed the button to answer the phone.  Bringing it to her ear, she held her breath and waited.

Return-of-the-Prodigal-SonToday we hear an incredible story from Scripture about a parent waiting for his child to come home.  The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most familiar and probably one of the most misunderstood stories from Scripture.  It is a challenging tale of grace, restoration, and an unconditional love that is far more powerful than we can imagine.  The story goes like this.  There is a man who has two sons.  One day, the younger son goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance.  This would have been just as shocking to Jesus’ hearers as it is to us.  This younger son essentially says to his father, “I wish you were dead so that I could have the money that is coming to me.”  Surprisingly, the father grants the request, and the younger son leaves town and spends his money wastefully.  After a severe famine strikes the land, the young man, who is working as a pig farmer, realizes the error of his ways and determines to repent and live as one of his father’s servants.  As he returns home, ready to grovel and beg for his father’s mercy, the father runs to his son and embraces him, proclaiming that his son “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found!”  To welcome the lost son home, the father dresses him in finery and throws a big party.  The older son, however, is miffed at the welcome his brother has received.  He goes up to his father and says, “Dad, I’ve been here, working my butt off for you and you have never thrown me a party!”  I imagine he might also have said, “You didn’t even invite me to this one!”  The father patiently explains how extraordinary this situation is, saying “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

One of the elements in this story that I find very poignant is the moment that the younger son comes to his senses.  He realizes that he has made a huge mistake and after he decides to return home he begins to plan what he will say to his father.  This is something that we all do.  Before we go on a job interview or make a phone call to someone we’ve never met or apologize for missing an appointment, we tend to rehearse what we might say.  I like to imagine the younger son revising and editing his speech as he began his long journey home.  He probably thought very carefully about what he would say and considered how he would say it.  He probably imagined how his father would look: arms folded, stern look on his face as his son kneeled before him.  The younger son probably polished the language and practiced the speech until he entered the city limits, when he finally settled on saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”  His father, however, takes him by surprise.  Instead of having to walk all the way to his father’s house to sheepishly knock on the door, the wayward son is spotted by his father, who is waiting on the front porch.  When the father spots his son, he picks up the hem of his robe and sprints out to meet his boy, which is not something that a man of means would be caught doing in the first century.  The father embraces and kisses his son, refusing to let him go even as he tries recite his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…”  But the father interrupts and begins organizing a celebration for the son who was once dead but is now alive.

The love and the forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal Son are obvious and palpable.  This story teaches us an important lesson about the expansiveness and transcendence of God’s grace.  There is, however, a subtler message embedded within this extraordinary parable.  Twice the father proclaims that his son was dead and is now alive, once when the son arrives from his journey and once when the father is explaining to his oldest child why he welcomed his wayward son with open arms.  “He was dead and has come back to life.”  While I think Jesus is using symbolic language, I also think it’s important to remember that for all he knew, this father thought his son was dead.  He never imagined that he would see his son again.  We only get the younger son’s perspective when he is away; we don’t know what things were like back home.  But what we do know, what Jesus implies in this parable is that the father waited for his son to return.  We know this because Jesus tells us that the father knew his son had returned while he was still far away.  This means that the father was standing in front of his house, scanning the horizon, hoping against hope that his son would return to him.  This means that the father trusted that he would see his son again even though he wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead.  This means that the father knew in his heart of hearts that no matter what happened, his son belonged to God.

In our funeral liturgy, as the body is carried into the church, we hear that wonderful anthem: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  At one point, the anthem quotes Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”  It is in this reality that the father trusts.  He understands that even if he never sees his son again, his son is the Lord’s possession.  Even if the son wastes his life and winds up destitute, he still belongs to the God who created and redeemed him.  This affirms the deep and powerful truth that whether we live or die, we belong to God.  This may seem like a small comfort to the father waiting on the front porch or the mother waiting to hear news in the middle of the night or the parent who has lost a child, but I think that it is crucial.  In our human understanding of the world, we often imagine that there are things we can do that are completely unforgiveable, that we are capable of running so far away from God that God has no claim on us.  But the message of this parable is that even when we have completely turned away from God, even when we have run away from those who love us, we still belong to God.  The season of Lent is meant to be an opportunity for us to trust that we are the Lord’s possession.  Our Lenten disciplines are daily reminders that God is present in our lives and will be with us no matter where we go or how much we refuse God’s abundant love.  During Lent, we are called to remember that even if we push our families away, even if we forget who we are, even if we die, we belong to the Lord who embraces us and refuses to let us go.

Worthy

urlOne of the more frustrating feelings we experience is the occasional sense that we do not belong somewhere.  Sometimes, we feel this way for superficial reasons: we go to a restaurant where we feel underdressed or we attend a party where we feel like we probably should have worn something a little more casual.  Other times, we might feel out of place for more intellectual reasons: perhaps we are participating in a conversation about a topic we know nothing about or attending a seminar about a book we haven’t read.  And every once and a while, we occasionally have a profound feeling that we do not belong, a gnawing sense that we may not be worthy to be in a particular place.

A few days ago, we commemorated the life of George Herbert.  Herbert was an English priest in the 17th century who has become known for his devotional poetry.  All of his poetry, however, was published posthumously.  During his life, Herbert was known as a country parson, a man who did his job: he visited the sick, comforted the dying, and did the sometimes menial chores required of someone who is in charge of a parish church.  The gospel appointed for George Herbert’s commemoration celebrates those people who might think that their lives are menial.  In the Beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Blessed are those who imagine that they are not holy, who think that the tasks set before them are not godly, for to them belongs the kingdom of God.  I think that all of us fall into the trap of thinking that other people are holy, that other people deserve God’s grace, while we are are miserable sinners unworthy of God’s grace and love.

George Herbert understood this tendency, and wrote an extraordinary poem about our reluctance to accept God’s grace.  The poem is a conversation between Jesus (whom Herbert calls “Love”) and the hesitant believer:

urlLove bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

The poem beautifully describes how we accept the grace of God.  We begin by refusing God’s offer of love, claiming our fundamental unworthiness, when God almost teasingly reminds us that it was God who created us and God who redeemed us; God has made us worthy.  Our response to this is not joy, but obligation: we feel that we must pay our debt to God.  God, however, gently corrects us as he invites us to sit down and embrace the grace he has offered.

As you travel through this Lenten journey, try not to think of your Lenten discipline as an obligation, but as an opportunity to open yourself to the grace and love of God.  Use this time of renewal as a way to accept the gracious invitation God has extended to you, to sit down and taste love.