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Sermon for December 21, 2014: What are we afraid of?
What are you afraid of? Do you know? Is it spiders? Close spaces? Heights? Or are you more like Charlie Brown, who, when Lucy read him a laundry list of phobias, was silent until she asked him if he had “pantaphobia.” “What’s pantaphobia”? he says. “The fear of everything.” “That’s it!” he shouts. The other night I had a dream. It was one of those dreams which is so vivid and seems so real that when you wake up it takes a while to convince yourself that it didn’t happen. In it, my son and a group of friends that were hanging around one afternoon when two of them got into an argument. Suddenly, one of them pulled out a gun and shot the other – dead. All of the other kids were horrified, but the shooter only looked confused, like, “What’s everyone so upset about”? And this group of seemingly nice kids conspired to cover it up – successfully. And here’s where it gets worse. It started a trend; so whenever a kid got upset with another one, he would shoot him and they’d cover it up. When the authorities became suspicious, they refined their cover-up techniques, pretending to be attorneys and calling the police to see what kind of evidence they had. At that point the dream did one of those illogical shifts and it became my husband and me who were part of this group, and it was my turn to make a phone call pretending to be an attorney. And everyone was telling me that if I didn’t, we’d all lose everything. But the idea of making that phone call made me sick to my stomach. And all I could think was,
“How did this happen”? “How did we get here”? “How did we turn into these people”?
That’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of a world in which there are not only no Christian values, but of a world in which there are no values at all. And that my family could live in that world – live successfully in that world. And everyone would think it was okay – that it had to be that way – because, you know, survival of the fittest. Better them than us. They asked for it.
Advent is a season of darkness which anticipates the light of Christmas. But this year, it has seemed particularly dark. Ferguson. New York. Fruitvale. Just saying these names immediately brings up strong feelings among us. Anger. Confusion. Fear. Probably the same emotions that fueled these incidents in the first place – especially fear. Because I have no doubt that the young men who died in those incidents – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant – were terrified in the moments before their deaths. Just like the several unarmed children who were recently shot by police in Arkansas, Ohio, and Georgia. Just like the police officers who shot them. Because I believe that the truth of all of these incidents is that in every case people did things because they were afraid. And people are still doing things in their aftermath because they are afraid. And people are not doing things in the wake of these events because they are afraid. Afraid of what might be instead of what is. Afraid of standing up to their friends as much as to those whom they view as their enemies. Afraid of the unknown – of the unseen gun, the unknown motive, the unknowable other. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” I say, “There is nothing to fear but the fear that is in ourselves.”
Of course, you have a right to be skeptical of that statement. Because there plenty of things to fear that are outside of ourselves. People do carry concealed weapons. People do hate others because of their race, their creed, their religion. People do laugh, scorn, and ostracize others. People do kill one another. Those things are real and frightening and out of our control. Except that they’re not completely, because we make choices about how to respond to them. Hard choices. Life and death choices. Choices like the ones made in Ferguson. In New York. In Oakland. Choices that may change the world. Choices like the one made by a teenaged girl in the last year before the Common Era in a small province in an occupied land in the Middle East. Choices like the one made by Mary when she encountered an angel.
There has been a fair amount of argument about what angels actually look like. Biblical scholarship suggests that there are several different types – or “ranks” – of angels and that they differ from one another in both power and appearance. What we’re pretty sure of is that they are not chubby little children with little wings and halos. Angels are God’s foot soldiers. They may be beautiful but they are also terrible- and terrifying.
Angels appear four times in the Christmas story – once to John the Baptist’s father Zachariah; once to Joseph, once to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, and once to Mary – and most of the people they approach are described as being terrified. But not Mary. Today’s gospel tells us that Mary’s first reaction to Gabriel is not fear but confusion. She is “perplexed.” She wonders at his greeting.
And when he gives her the bizarre and unthinkable news that she is pregnant with a Saviour who will be great and called the son of the Most High – a son who will be a king as great as David and who will reign for ever -she doesn’t cry or scream or argue – she simply asks how this can possibly be true. And when she is told that “nothing is impossible with God,” she accepts her fate as God’s will – because she has faith in him.
In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, Mary’s acquiescence is interpreted as simple and admirable obedience. In these traditions, the figure of Mary is viewed as the ultimate example of Christian – and more specifically female – piety. She is revered for her seemingly timid submission. All you have to do is look at artistic images of Mary to intuit the lesson you’re supposed to learn from her. She is gentle and passive, peaceful and empty. She is merely a vessel for the will of God.
But if you look more closely at what Luke’s gospel says, this view doesn’t hold up. First of all, Mary actually questions the angel, which is more than we can say for Joseph and the shepherds, who are too frozen with fear to say anything. And not only does she question Gabriel, but Gabriel demonstrates respect for her by giving her an actual answer. And notice that the gospel passage does not end with the angel’s pronouncement. It is Mary that gets the last word in the encounter. It would appear that she has to accept God’s call before the angel can depart.
So it seems like Mary had a choice. Not, perhaps, whether she will be the vessel of God’s earthly incarnation – but the choice of how she will live out that role. And Mary chose to accept her role not with docile subjugation, but with joy – with so much joy that she sang about it. Mary encountered a situation that invoked dread and wonder – awe – and for her it was not about fear but wonder.
The visit of an angel is the very definition of “awesome” – and all of the recipients of Gabriel’s messages had the choice of responding to them based on either fear or reverence. When they recognized that something new and frightening was happening, they had the option of cowering and attempting to defend themselves against it- or embracing it as a gift from God. Mary chose to see her perilous situation as a gift – as grace.
Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us that the revelation of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ was a mystery – a mystery that was disclosed in order to bring about the obedience of faith. Not obedience by law. Not obedience by threats. Not obedience by fear. Obedience by faith. Mary accepted her role not because she was afraid of Gabriel. And Mary is not a saint because she is passive and meek. She is a saint because of her faith. She is a saint because she acted not on fear, but on awe.
The Bible tells us that every stranger we encounter may be an angel in disguise. Perhaps that’s why those who are different than us often seem so frightening. Angels are supposed to be terrifying. But what if we, like Mary, approached our own terrors – those that are real and those that come from inside us – without anger, confusion, and fear. What if risking our hearts –even our lives – to truly know one another turns out to be not a nightmare, but a gift? What if we looked at everything – and everyone– with an attitude of awe, wonder, and blessing?
The truth is, we’re all afraid of something. That’s human nature. But being human also means that we share something much more important. We share a creator – a creator who loves us, watches over us – saves us. Truly knowing that – truly knowing God – means understanding that, really, we have nothing to be afraid of at all. AMEN.
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