Saturday, May 26, 2012

Fear Not, I Am With You!

RCL Pentecost B
27 May 2012

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
            Two thousand years ago a group of Jewish women and men gathered in a location somewhere in what we now call the 'Old City' of Jerusalem.  More than a month and a half earlier the group had experienced the trauma of the arrest, trial and execution of their leader, a rabbi from Galilee by the name of Yeshua ben Yosef.  The trauma was further complicated by the apparent resurrection of Yeshua on the Sunday following his execution.  The news of Yeshua's resurrection had caused concern to the Roman and Jewish authorities and the group gathered in secret knew that their lives were in danger.

            We know little about those fifty days from the events of Pesach, the Jewish celebration of liberation from Egypt, to the festival of Shavuot, when Jews celebrate the giving of the Law on Sinai.  Some accounts suggest that Yeshua or Jesus, as we know him, remained with the community and gave them further instruction about the coming reign of God.  Other accounts suggest that Jesus ascended into heaven shortly after his resurrection, leaving his followers to ponder the meaning of his life and his teaching.  Whichever story is true, one thing is sure:  the followers of Jesus, filled with the experience of his life, his death, his resurrection and his ascension were not sure what they ought to do and were afraid.

            So on this Shavuot or Pentecost, as we now call it, they gathered for the sake of fellowship and perhaps for prayer.  Only Luke, the chronicler of the early days of the Christian movement, tells us what happened next.  God's Spirit came upon them and they began to speak in the languages of all the peoples gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate God's revelation on Mount Sinai.  The silence of the early Christian community was broken and, from that first Pentecost until this Pentecost, the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth has been shared with every known human culture in all the languages spoken by humanity.

            Some Christian commentators are intrigued by the gift of languages that the apostolic community manifests on the first Pentecost.  This fascination has given rise to the insistence, in some Christian communities, on the gift of tongues or glossolalia  as the sign of one's true baptism into Christ.  I have served in a congregation where some members of the community believed that there were two baptisms, one with water and one in the Spirit.  Only those who had experienced both were truly Christians in body, mind and spirit.  It is not a point of view that I share, but I do understand the desire to seek a deeper relationship with the living God that some Christians believe glossolalia demonstrates.

            Over the years I have come to believe that the true gift of the Spirit is not the gift of tongues.  When I look at the story of the early Christian believers from Easter to Pentecost, I see a story about people who are deeply afraid, despite their experience of God's incomprehensible act of raising Jesus from the dead.  The resurrection of Jesus does not empower the community, but rather it seems to have dis-empowered them and left them dazed and confused, uncertain as to what they should do, even where they should be.

            But on this day God, through the agency of the Spirit, entered into that uncertainty and fear, and gave the Christian community the most important gift I can think of:  God freed them from the bonds of fear that kept them from sharing the story of Jesus and from living the new life heralded by the resurrection.

            As I look around the Anglican Church these days, I see a lot of fear.  Some of our fears are well-founded:  our numbers are declining, our members are aging, our sources of funding are decreasing and our institutional structures do not seem agile enough to meet the challenges we are facing.  In contrast to our situation more conservative forms of Christian discipleship seem to be growing, seem to be younger, seem to have funds and seem to require less structure than our own.  I have been privy to conversations in national settings that let me with the impression we were just trying to figure out who was going to turn off the lights, shut off the gas and turn in the keys to the building.

            We are just like that first group of Christian disciples:  we know that we have good news to share and we have all had experiences that cause us to trust in the God of Jesus of Nazareth.  But we are, for many reasons, paralyzed and need God's grace to break free and share what we know and what we have experienced.

            When I was in seminary, I spent a summer working in a mental hospital with adolescents who had been incarcerated for psychological assessments.  It was not an easy summer, but it was made easier by living in my old fraternity house with some of the younger brothers who knew me from my time as a member of the alumni board.  I could come home, relax and live in a totally 'un-church' environment, at least for a few hours.

            One afternoon, after a particularly bad day at the hospital, one of the younger brothers asked me why I kept going back to a place where I was routinely insulted, frequently tricked and, sometimes, at physical risk.  "Because," I said without thinking, "visiting the sick, feeding the hungry and caring for the prisoners is what Christians do."  Some years later, when I went to my first parish as a curate, I met the young man's parents.  "Thank you," they said, "you gave Brent the gift of faith."  It seems that my words aroused in Brent's heart a re-examination of the faith in which he had been raised and he decided that it actually meant something if someone like me would continue to do what I was doing, day after day.  I thank God that I was not silent that afternoon.

            Sometimes we do not share our faith because we think we are being polite.  Religion is not often spoken about in Canadian society unless it is a complaint about the ills of religion.  But religious faith is the origin of public schools, public health care and public care of the vulnerable.  Have we raised our voices to tell people this or have we simply kept silent?

            Sometimes we do not share our faith because we do not want people to think that we are religious fanatics or thoughtless fundamentalists.  But our silence simply reinforces the stereotype that many Canadians have about religious believers.  Think how surprised our friends and co-workers might be to discover that we are religious believers with open minds, open hands and open hearts.

            Sometimes we do not share our faith because we afraid of forcing our views upon other people.  But our vision of a future where every human being is valued, where peace and justice governs the nations and where every human being has enough to eat and to drink and can dwell in dignity is certainly a view that speaks to the deepest longing of every human heart.

            For many years I have been a reader of science fiction.  Unlike other forms of fiction, science fiction allows the writer to create and the reader to explore worlds that might be, some good, others not so good.  Among the more famous writers of science fiction is Frank Herbert whose series of novels associated with a world called Dune have kept several generations of readers intrigued.  In the first novel, simply entitled Dune, there comes a point when the lead character, Paul Atreides, recites the 'Litany Against Fear' as he prepares himself for a life-or-death trial of his abilities:

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 me and through me.
And when it is gone past,
I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone,
there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

There have been many times in the years since I first read these words that I have returned to them and found them a catalyst to face my fears and act.

            My friends, Pentecost is a day to celebrate the coming of God's Spirit to liberate us from our fears and to fire up our hearts, our minds and our love.  We are surrounded by people who need to hear our stories, our hopes and our visions.  They need to know that there are communities such as ours that work for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being.  They need to know that religious faith is more about a relationship with the living God than with dogmas written in obscure languages.

            May the Holy Spirit come upon us and free us from bondage to our fears.  May the Holy Spirit come upon us and empower our witness to the God of Jesus.  May the Holy Spirit come upon us and send us forth in love and peace to share the good news.  Amen.

1 comment:

James J. Olson said...

I knew I liked you. I love the Dune reference.