Sunday, March 23, 2008

Hope that casts out fear

[The following homily was preached at the Easter Vigil celebrated at St Mary's Anglican Church in Vancouver BC on 22 March 2008. The appointed gospel reading is Matthew 28.1-10.]

+ My friends in Christ, I speak to you in the name of God the Weaver, who through the shuttle of the Holy Spirit weaves us into the pattern of the Word made flesh. Amen.

It was with great interest that I opened the Vancouver Sun this morning and discovered that the rector of St Mary’s had participated in a conversation with a Pentecostal pastor, a humane secularist and a Buddhist nun regarding heaven. Then I turned to the Globe and Mail’s review of recently published books to find a lengthy review of a book on Jesus written by a professor of religious studies in Toronto who began his life as a Christian and has since converted to Judaism. These articles appear in the context of the last several years when Christian faith and religion in general have been the subject of numerous books and critiques, some of which have gone so far as to say that religion of any form is the source of most of the conflict experienced in the world today.

Religion is, after all, controversial. By ‘controversial’ I mean that there are different opinions voiced with differing degrees of passion. There are several ways that one can respond to this public and, in my opinion, welcome controversy about the place of religious faith in social, cultural and political life. One response is to engage in respectful dialogue with others, whether religious believers or not, in order to seek common ground and, where necessary, dispel false impressions and caricatures. Another response is to refuse to engage in any dialogue at all and, in that wonderful Canadian phrase, live in two solitudes: believers on the one side of the divide, non-believers on the other.

While I have a clear preference for the first approach, respectful dialogue, the second can, at times, be relatively benign. We conduct our business without concern about the opinions of others. We do not actively condemn them, but we do not feel obliged to enter into conversation with them. This attitude, however, can give rise to a more dangerous response to a controversy about religion. This dangerous response is when we turn a controversy into a conflict. In a conflict our passions have become so aroused that we seek at first to convince those who disagree with us that they are wrong. When those who do not agree with us refuse to change their point of view or to make any concessions to ours, we can quickly become entrapped in the darkness of coercion as we seek stronger means to compel others to acquiesce to our position.

This descent from controversy into conflict and, in some cases, into oppression and persecution arises from one cause: fear. Here the familiar words of 1 John bear witness: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”[1] When we commit ourselves to protect the dignity of every human being, when we commit ourselves to each other as God has committed God’s very self to us, when we commit ourselves to humility, then fear finds little room in us.

I must not fear.

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 and through me.

And when it has gone past

I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

When fear has gone

there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.[2]

In the space of ten short verses, tonight’s gospel reading from Matthew speaks of fear four times. The guard is so afraid of the angel that they shake and become like dead men. The angel greets the women by saying, “Do not be afraid.” Even then the women run away in a combination of fear and joy. When Jesus appears suddenly appears to the women, his first words are, “Do not be afraid.”

In Matthew’s account of the visit of the women to the tomb, the women are not bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body. They have come to ‘see’ the tomb. This is a risky action; by doing so they associate themselves with a man condemned by the Jewish authorities for blasphemy and executed by the Roman authorities for sedition. Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel and in the New Testament, the verb ‘to see’ denotes ‘understanding or insight into God’s purposes’. These women have come to see Jesus; they know that there must be more than his death. What they will see, they do not know. But they are willing to take the risk.[3]

In 1995 I was elected to General Synod for the first time. When I arrived at Carleton University to register, the person behind the desk said, “Thank goodness you’re here! Come with me!” He took me by the arm, assured me my baggage was being taken care of and led me away down a corridor to another office. “Here he is,” my companion said to the woman at the desk, “Dr Leggett from the Diocese of New Westminster!” “Thank goodness you’re here!” she said, “Come with me!” A shorter trip brought me face to face with yet another member of the local committee.

I was finally allowed to sit down and was told the situation. Along with every other member of General Synod, I was scheduled to go to a local congregation for the Sunday liturgy, some four days away. The congregation I was to attend was part of a multi-point charge and the rector of the parish had just come down with a severe case of laryngitis. “Would you preach and preside at the services in the parish?” I was asked. I said “Yes” thinking how honoured I was until I found out later I was simply the first clergy member of General Synod from New Westminster who had shown up at registration.

That Sunday was Pentecost and I found myself preparing to preach on one of the major celebrations of the Christian year without any of my usual resources. Instead I had to sit simply and quietly with the Scriptures for the day and ask, “What do I think the people need to hear?” As I did so, a clear and succinct message came through to me.

I had been wondering what was the real gift of Pentecost. The apostles and other disciples of Jesus knew what he had taught. They had, according to Luke, witnessed the resurrection. But there they were, hiding away from the world, for fifty days, if we are to believe the traditional chronology. What happened on Pentecost that released them to undertake a mission that would change the world?

The community of the apostles and disciples were deeply afraid. The controversy aroused by their risen and ascended Lord had moved well beyond dialogue into active oppression and persecution. In John’s gospel there is the poignant statement that the doors to the place where the community was gathered were locked because of their fear of the authorities. Despite all that they had heard and seen, they were ‘tongue-tied’ by fear. Despite the message of the angels, despite visions of the risen Lord, they were hunkered down and dispirited.

After some thought I knew what had happened. The primary gift of the Holy Spirit was not tongues; it was hope. Hope is the deeply-seated conviction that there is a future, a purpose, worth living for, working towards and, if necessary, dying for. Hope is the realization that God has a purpose, a telos to use the New Testament term, towards which God is working. Through the Holy Spirit God invites us to participate in proclamation of this future.

When one lives in hope, the world looks very different. When one lives in hope, fear may indeed arise in us, but its shadows quickly disappear in the light of the hope that is within us. Our problems and challenges do not disappear, but they no longer define our lives. Instead, our hope helps us define how we will respond to those problems and challenges.

As I reflect on my time with the Anglican Church in Myanmar, I realize that I have spent three weeks among a people who have every reason to live in fear.

  • Christians are actively persecuted in the military and civil service in that they know that they will not be permitted to rise beyond a particular rank or position.
  • Clergy are not permitted to vote.
  • Church property may be seized or expropriated without warning and without recourse to law.
  • There is no secure or legal means of bringing foreign funds into the country for purposes of relief and development.
  • Clergy who study abroad risk being refused permission to return to their studies if they return home to visit their families.
  • Any gatherings of more than five persons, other than regularly-scheduled worship services, are forbidden unless authorized by the military.
  • Bishops are frequently prevented from visiting portions of their dioceses because of the on-going conflict between the military and tribal militias.
  • Postal workers routinely take religious books and resources sent to the church in Myanmar from abroad and sell them to used book dealers who, in their turn, notify the church that the books and resources are now for sale, usually at prices that stretch an already tight budget.
  • In a country where the majority of the population is under twenty-five unemployment is rampant.
  • During the recent installation of the Primate of Myanmar, security forces were present throughout the service, recorded any public remarks and took numerous photographs of the participants.

Yet I did not find fear.

What I found was a church that was living in hope --- even in the face of oppression and persecution.

  • Throughout the country pre-school children are being educated and cared for, regardless of their religious tradition, by Anglican pre-schools.
  • Throughout the country micro-credit is being extended to help people establish themselves in sustainable enterprises.
  • Throughout the country the Mothers’ Union provides health education, training and, in some more remote locations, supports medical clinics to provide basic medical care.
  • Throughout the country young people live out a commitment to the gospel which, on more than one occasion, led me to ponder our failure to imbue a passion for the good news of God in Jesus Christ in people of my ‘baby boomer’ generation and in those who have come after.
  • Throughout the country Anglicans, who make up one tenth of one percent of the entire population, gather Sunday after Sunday, saints day after saints day, and give thanks to God for all God’s gift to them and to all creation.

This vitality of Christian witness, this quiet but pervasive joy, comes, I think, from a deep well of hope. Anglicans in Myanmar believe that there is a future, a purpose, worth living for, working towards and, if necessary, suffering for. Anglicans in Myanmar believe that God has a purpose, a goal towards which God is working in us, through us and with us. Anglicans in Myanmar believe that we are called to proclaim this purpose to all and, when it is necessary, to use words as well as the witness of their daily lives.

My friends, this is the night. This is the night when darkness vanishes for ever. This is the night that dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence and brings mourners joy. This is the night when Christians are called to remember that we are not now nor have we ever been meant to live in fear. We have been called to live in love and, to live in love, we proclaim our hope.

There is no doubt that controversy swirls around and among us. That controversy is not limited to questions of sexuality but extends into

  • questions regarding how the Holy Scriptures are to be read and interpreted,
  • uncertainty regarding the future of our congregations, our dioceses and the national structures of our church and
  • differing opinions about how we understand the relationship between the Christian gospel and other religious faiths.

If we live in fear, we may find ourselves descending into the darkness of conflict, a descent that can arouse in us the desire to defeat our ‘enemies’ whomever we think them to be. If we live in fear, then we may find ourselves like the apostles and disciples in the Upper Room, so paralyzed that the good news that we have to share is silenced. If we live in fear, then we respond to our critics and those who may differ from us with accusations, threats and denials rather than with humility, promises and affirmations.

On this night when we proclaim the resurrection, we commit ourselves to remain ‘firm in the hope [God] has set before us, so that we and all [God’s] children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise [God’s] name’.[4] We gather to proclaim that Christ is risen and that his resurrection empowers us with hope. This is no vague hope, no wishful thinking. It is a hope grounded in God’s covenant fidelity, in God’s constant working throughout all of history, to bring about fullness of life for all creatures, human and non-human. It is a hope grounded in the tangible life of Christ expressed in the Christian community, through its engagement not only in direct service of those in any need or trouble, but in its willingness to engage the political, social and economic structures which deny and diminish the dignity of every human being.

To say, “Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!”, is to say to the whole world that lordship does not belong to those who crave power and instil fear; no, lordship belongs to the One who willingly goes to the Cross and who is raised to banish the power of fear and death. To say, “Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!”, is to say that lordship does not belong to those who would demean the dignity of others, those who rejoice in division and use our differences to distort and destroy; no, lordship belongs to the One who humbled himself to share our humanity so that we might share his divine life.

My friends, this is the night when we renew our baptismal covenant to choose justice rather than self-interest, to live in covenant fidelity with God and one another, to walk humbly in the presence of God and neighbour. This is the night when we affirm that we are a community of hope rather than fear, community committed to human solidarity rather than prejudice and suspicion.

Let us pray.

Sanctifier of time and space, maker of dancing quarks and ancient quasars, of energy and element, blessed are you, God of gods. Your saving love endures forever; your holy light pierces the cold darkness of death and chaos; you cut a covenant of life with your creatures, which no evil can overcome. May the glorious radiance of resurrection dispel the shadows in our lives and conform us more closely to your risen Christ, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honour, praise and glory. Amen.[5]

[1] 1 John 4.18.

[2] Frank Herbert, Dune.

[3] The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 1799.

[4] The Book of Alternative Services, 215.

[5] Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, 105.

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