A few things come together this week – in a random sort of way… It is the week of All Saints Day. In fact, many churches keep All Saints on this very day. All Hallows or All Saints Eve, Halloween as it is popularly known, was also this week; a day built around bringing many fearful superstitions to life. While many congregations keep All Saints on a Sunday, nobody seems to move Halloween…
It is also the conclusion of the Colloquium here at Volmoed – a colloquium that has been considering faith in an age of darkness, fear, anxiety, doubt… It might not seem like the most obvious pairing, but just as Halloween pairs well with All Saints Day, I think the Colloquium pairs well with All Saints. Darkness makes the Saints seem brighter. And without a dose of darkness, All Saints runs the risk of being a shallow, triumphant and unnourishing sort of pudding.
So, let’s add a dolop of darkness.
In case we needed more reason than just the way the world is to be anxious, consider the words we heard from the Prophet Micah: “Therefore it shall be night to you without vision, and darkness to you without revelation… the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; for there is no answer from God.” It would be alarming enough if Micah were speaking for himself, but the Prophet is speaking for God.
“Hear this, you rulers …who abhor justice and pervert equity, who give judgment for a bribe, [who] give oracles for money… Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins…”
OK… So, we don’t have to worry about any of that because Micah is talking to someone else… At least I’d like to think so. But honestly, I don’t have to work too hard to find myself on Micah’s list. Our modern world is riddled with rulers who abhor justice and pervert equity. These are our leaders… working on our behalf… In many cases we elected them. Their guilt is our guilt. So, if we are not anxious, we should be.
We also spent some time this morning with the 121st Psalm – I lift up my eyes to the hills… from where is my help to come? This seems like a good answer to Micah – as long as we don’t look too closely. But where is the fun in that?
The crazy thing about Hebrew, the original language of the psalms, is that ancient written Hebrew did not use punctuation. Our modern psalters, as well as all the books of the Hebrew Scripture, give us periods, commas, questions marks, and such to help clarify the meaning.
But these are modern interpretations; in some way modern guesses. Take them away and we’re closer to the original. I will lift up my eyes to the hills – is that a statement ending in a period or a comma? Could be either. The psalms, and the totality of Hebrew scripture, is not nearly as clear as we would like to think. Anyone who thinks understanding “the Bible” is simple and easy clearly does not understand the bible…
We tend to hear this psalm as a statement that our help is coming from the hills… but the hills are also where danger comes from… The context does not clarify this. It could be I lift up my eyes to the hills, which is where God lives… specifically the hill of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Or I lift up my eyes to the hills, the frightening wilderness full of thieves and bandits live… please let someone come help me…
No matter how we’re hearing it, we could be hearing this psalm all wrong…
The psalmist doesn’t leave us hanging. The psalm continues “our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth”. You can try to change the punctuation there all you want – the meaning does not change.
As we live into our faith in anxious times both the psalmist and the prophet seem to have a common subtext: Look directly at the source of our anxiety. Face our fears. Lift our eyes to the hills.
And then we have this reading from Matthew. Jesus tells us “… not to worry about what you will eat or what you will wear…” Can I just say that one of my recurring nightmares is that I wake up in some public place somehow lacking clothes… Don’t tell me not to worry about what I will wear… It’s a common enough nightmare theme – perhaps others here share it. I have lots of other interesting nightmares, but those are best saved for spiritual direction…
Can any of us, through worry, add a single hour to our lives? There are lots of things we can do that will add to our lives both in terms of length and quality. Worry is not one of them… In fact, worry and stress diminish our lives both in terms of length and quality. Jesus concludes: “… do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I’m not sure Jesus is helping. He seems to be saying don’t worry about tomorrow’s trouble… you’re already in enough trouble today… cold comfort…
The way we read scripture is through the lens of scripture. The lens that Micah and Matthew give us is not one of anxiety. It is one of letting go of anxiety. We let go of anxiety not in a forgetful sort of way, but in a purposeful sort of way. As followers of Jesus part of our duty is to help build the kingdom of God – a kingdom that is not worried into existence. It is loved into existence.
In the First Letter of John, we are told that perfect love casts out fear. There is no fear in love. This is both an assurance of God’s unconditional and never-ending love and a call for us to live and act in that love.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, England’s Poet Laureate during the reign of Queen Victoria, in his epic cycle of poems, Idylls of the King, recounts the legends of King Arthur. In the poem he notes that not only does perfect love drive out fear, but that hate, if hate is perfect, also drives out fear. Lord Tennyson gives us a very important insight. Love and hate may be our most powerful tools for managing fear.
We humans seem to like fear in small doses. We like a good scary story or movie because we know it will end soon enough. But fear that goes on forever with no end in sight, perpetual fear… truly makes us sick both physically and emotionally. The modern term for perpetual fear is paranoia and it is a mental illness.
Dealing with perpetual fear seems to come down to two choices – we can face that fear in love, or we can drive out that fear with hate. Modern day politicians often seek to motivate us with fear that leads to hate. And in our Christian Tradition, the number of so-called “Gospel preachers” who seek to motivate with hellfire and brimstone are legion – apparently seeking to terrify us into God’s loving embrace.
Scripture is not above a little hellfire and brimstone – just read the book of Revelation… But scripture does not lead us from fear to hate. It leads from fear to love. Jesus leaves no doubt, we are to answer our enemies with love, not hate or anger. We are to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven.
Sweet, sentimental love comes from the same source as cheap grace. It has little purpose, little power, and no valute. But passionate, Godly love powers the universe. It is Godly, passionate love that casts out fear. That is the love that Jesus calls us to.
Was Jesus ever fearful? We believe that Jesus was fully human. So, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus did experience fear – he would not be fully human if he did not. In that last night in the garden before his crucifixion Jesus pleads with the disciples to stay awake with him. Perhaps Jesus feared the ordeal he was to go through, and he just wanted some company, some comfort. But there was none to be had. He could have let his fear turn to anger – you worthless disciples… wake up or I will smite you all. But instead, his response is tender… loving. He lets the disciples sleep.
In our lives we all face times of fear, of doubt, of darkness, of anxiety. All of God’s creatures face these tests. The challenge is not to avoid such times, the challenge is to stay conscious in such times. We can react on instinct – fight or flight. Or, if we stay conscious, we can react in love and let love drive out the fear. Consciousness is a choice: we must choose to be conscious.
We must choose to face our fears, we must choose to lift up our eyes to the hills. And to be certain, the consequence of driving out fear is not that we drive away the threat. We may want a “happily ever after” sort of ending. But that is not the assurance from Jesus. The assurance from Jesus is that whatever we have to walk through, Jesus will walk with us. The frightful things we may encounter have the ability to hurt our mortal bodies. But they have no power to touch our souls.
The siren song of denial is powerful in our modern societies. We don’t have to face reality when we have virtual reality… But virtual reality, like so many things of this world, is an illusion. Jesus’ call to us is a call away from illusion and into all truth.