Monday, November 18, 2013


“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be afraid.”
Our gospel lesson is about a time Christians call “the tribulation.”
Jesus was thinking of the coming destruction of Judah
         by the Roman Empire – the one that happened in 66 A. D.

But his words have lived on for two thousand years,
         and have been applied to millions of tribulations.
Individually, I’ve had my tribulations,
         and I expect you’ve had yours.
As a society, we have some tribulation going on most years,
         and sometimes things are scarier than others.
The basic thing to know about tribulation is that it happens.
Count on them.
That’s what it says: “these things must happen first.”

The line in the Lord’s Prayer
we usually translate as “Lead us not into temptation.”
actually means “save us from the time of tribulation.”
It means: God help us. Get us through this. Deliver us from evil.

Jesus’ core message in today’s lesson is two simple points:
1.   Tribulations happen.
2.   When they happen, do not be afraid.
In fact the commandment Jesus gave his disciples
         more often than any other was this: do not be afraid.

This year in Jerusalem I bought a book by Martha Nussbaum,
         a fine Jewish philosopher and literary critic.
Ironically, I bought it in a Palestinian bookstore.
It’s called The New Religious Intolerance.
Nussbaum begins by noting that we are more afraid
than usual these days.
A lot of things are shaking us up.
Globalization is part of it.
Rapid technological and social change is another.
We are afraid of economic instability and war.
Migration is scaring everyone.
Sociological studies show that fear of immigrants
         is one of our biggest anxieties
--  not just in the United States, but all over the world.
Strangers make us nervous.
And, of course, there are terrorist whose modus operandi
         is to ratchet up fear.

Then Nussbaum says something profound
-- something that unlocks the code,
         that explains why Jesus’ most frequent commandment,
                  by far, was: do not be afraid.
She says: “Fear is the most narcissistic emotion.”
It sucks the consciousness right out of our frontal lobes
down into our reptilian brain stems
                  where all we can think about is saving ourselves
                  and a few folks nearest and dearest to us.

When we are in the grip of fear, Nussbaum says,
         we lose one of the mental abilities that make us human.
She calls it “participatory imagination.”
It’s related to empathy.
Participatory imagination is the ability to see the world
         through someone else’s eyes,
         to imaginatively walk a mile in their shoes.
In fear mode, we can make up reductionist stories about people,
         stories that portray them as two-dimensional caricatures.
But we can’t put ourselves in their place
         and imagine how the world looks to them.

Participatory imagination is a uniquely human capacity.
Without it, we have no capacity for relationship
         except with people who are just like us.
The narcissism of fear explains what Bill Bishop
         describes in his book The Big Sort.
Americans are fleeing from our historically diverse communities
         into smaller and smaller gated enclaves
         of people who look, think, and feel just like themselves.

The uniquely human capacity to see the world as other sees it,
         even to see ourselves as others see us,
         gives us a rich, complex view of things,
         and a wealth of vicarious life experiences
         from which we can glean wisdom.
But when fear strips us of that capacity for empathy,
         our world constricts.

When our arteries constrict, it shuts down life.
It’s the same with our souls.
Fear makes the soul small and cramped.
It chokes the life out of us.
And as we choke we get more and more afraid.

Today, we live in a time of heightened fear.
The airport P A systems remind us of that
         every time we catch a plane.
We live in an anxious time.
So did Jesus.
The terrorists and insurrectionists of his day
         were about to bring the wrath of Rome
down on the heads of the people.
So they were afraid.

That’s why Jesus’ favorite book of Scripture was Isaiah.
Isaiah is full of passages like today’s lesson.
I took up praying these lines every day
 during a personal tribulation a few years ago
and I’ve never stopped:
         “Surely it is God who saves me.
          I will trust in him and not be afraid.   
         For he is my stronghold and my sure defense
         and he will be my Savior.”

It was in Isaiah that the Lord said,
         “Fear not for I have redeemed you.
          I have called you by name.
         When you pass through the waters
                  I will be with you;
         (and) the rivers . . . will not overwhelm you;

When you pass through the fire,
                  it will not consume you.”

Or try this one:
         “Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel,
         ‘In quietness and trust will be your strength,
         In returning and rest, you shall be saved.’”

Isaiah is all about the quiet, confident strength of faith.
Jesus learned that kind of faith from his mamma’s knee.
But don’t think he was naïve.
He didn’t say that nothing bad or scary would happen.
He said bad stuff would definitely happen.
For the nation, he said  that there will be wars,
insurrections, earth quakes
famines, and plagues.
For himself he foresaw the cross.

For his followers, he predicted,
“They will put some of you to death.”
Faith isn’t naïve denial.
There will be typhoons in the Philippines,
genocides in Rwanda and the Central African Republic,
and school shootings in Connecticut and Nevada.
Each of us will have our own private tribulations.
All the frailties of human life are ours.

Faith doesn’t pretend disasters don’t happen.
Faith is how we face them when they do.
Faith is trusting that God alone is eternal
         and that God loves us infinitely.
When the forces of evil, chaos, and destruction
have done their worst, God’s love is still there.
Even when we go to our grave,
         we go like Jesus trusting God to raise us up.
Have you experienced the difference that kind of faith
makes in your life?
Or can you imagine it?
It doesn’t mean we don’t feel fear.
But it does mean we don’t surrender to it.
We don’t surrender our capacity to see the world
         through someone else’s eyes – even through the eyes
                  of someone who scares us.
 It is that capacity – precisely that capacity –
         that can make us instruments of peace in a darkened world,
         channels of blessing in a forlorn place,
         agents of healing in a broken land.

Brothers and sisters I wish you faith,
         because faith will not only give you the strength
it takes to live this life,
it will enlarge your soul.

It will let life flow in your spiritual veins again.
But your faith isn’t just for your benefit.
Faith will make you a lover of this poor world
         that is dying for love.
It will set you free to shine God’s grace
         like sunlight in a darkened land.