Saturday, April 19, 2014

Do Not Be Afraid! (Easter 20 April 2014)

RCL Easter A
20 April 2014

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            When I was in grade 7, I went swimming with a neighbour, a year or so older than I, at a local high school pool.  At that time my swimming skills were minimal, but I enjoyed being in the water.  I usually kept to the shallower end of the pool, never venturing close to the 'drop off' where the deeper water began.
            After being in the shallow end for a while, my friend, who was a better swimmer than I, said he was going to the deeper end of the pool.  For reasons I cannot remember, perhaps boyhood bravado, I followed him.  He dove in and I did the same.  He surfaced and I didn't.  I knew that I was drowning, but I could not prevent it.  I panicked and struggled without success towards the surface.  Just as I was about to breathe in a lungful of water, a hand reached in and pulled me to the surface.
            When I recovered my senses, I looked up at the face of my friend.  He was laughing.  I think he said something clever like, 'So, now you know what it means to get in over your head,' but all I could think of was the fear.
            In the years following I took a number of swimming classes and improved my skills considerably.  I knew that I would never be a great swimmer, but I knew that I could survive long enough to reach safety with the smallest shred of dignity!  But my fear of water was always there, perhaps a good fear, but fear nevertheless.
            So you can imagine my parents' surprise when, at the end of grade 10, I announced that I was joining the rest of my Explorer post, the senior branch of scouting in the United States, for a white-water rafting trip down the Yampa and Green Rivers in north-western Colorado and north-eastern Utah.  'Are you sure,' my father asked, 'we're talking white water here not a pool!' 
            The trip was glorious through canyons very similar to the Grand Canyon.  Two days before the trip ended, we prepared to navigate the roughest rapids on the Green River.  It was my turn to be in the smallest raft, four Explorers and a guide in the stern.  We planned our route, packed the raft and waited for our turn to enter the rapids.  The other larger rafts had already gone through the rapids and we could hear the cheers of our friends.  Their plan was to tie up to the riverbank, take an easy climb to some high ground to watch us pass through the rapids.
            The time came for us to cast off.  We knew that we were to avoid the centre of the rapids where there was a phenomenon that our guide simply called 'The Hole', a place where the water was travelling so fast and so powerfully that it created a space that would swallow a small raft such as ours.
            We had honed our skills in paddling and knew how to follow the directions of the guide.  We entered the rapids just as planned, but a sudden bump sent a hard plastic storage container into the air and into the head of our guide who was stunned by the impact.  Without our guide to direct us since he was the only one looking downriver, we were caught in the current and went directly into 'The Hole'.
            It swallowed us.  Water washed over us.  We clung on for our lives, literally.  We knew that our life vests were no match for the weight and power of the water.  And I thought, 'Well, this isn't as bad as the first time I drowned!'  In fact, I was calm and peaceful.
            Before we knew it, 'The Hole' spat us out and we found ourselves on the surface of the river and floating towards the riverbank where the other rafts were tied up.  Our friends had raced down the hill when they saw us pop out.  They treated our guide's head wound and they wisely left the other four of us sit in silence for about an hour.
            Fear is a real force in our lives.  Sometimes it is healthy and protects from harm.  But sometimes it prevents us from becoming who we are truly meant to be and to become.  Sometimes fear arises from within us, perhaps springing up from a deep source of hurt, uncertainty or unhappy memory.  Sometimes fear comes upon us from external sources as a means of influencing and controlling us.
            Twice in today's gospel we hear the words, 'Do not be afraid.'  The first time they are spoken, they are spoken by the angel to the brave women who risk arrest and possible death to visit the tomb where Jesus was laid.  The angel then reveals to them that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that they must share this message with the disciples.  They become the apostles to those who would later be called 'the' apostles.
            The second time the women hear these words, they hear them from Jesus.  This time, however, there is a difference.  It is not the fear of arrest or of death they face; it is the fear of sharing a message, a message that will change their lives and the lives of others.  They will have to tell the disciples that the world is not what they thought it was.  The power of death has been broken.  The most powerful empire the world has known cannot silence a Palestinian rabbi who preaches peace, compassion and self-giving.  Who is going to believe these women?  Why would they risk ridicule and accusations of hallucinations and so-called 'women's fantasies'?
            But these women have learned how to swim in these waters.  They know that they are entering rapids that are powerful and will carry them far beyond any expectations they may have had of what life would be.  They may be afraid, but they know that courage is not the absence of fear but the choice to carry on despite one's fears.
            My friends, on this Easter we awake to a world in which fear is all around us.  Some of this fear has reasonable causes:  political unrest, environmental change, economic crises.  Such fears have the power to control our lives and the lives of other communities throughout the world.  We can become paralyzed and simply await the coming catastrophe passively, whatever form is it supposed to take.  Just let the fear wash over us like the white waters of the Green River, taking us down into the deeps.
            But those who have heard the message of the Resurrection have the same vocation as the women who went to the tomb so long ago.  We have good news to proclaim to the poor and to the rich, to neighbours, friends and families.  We have a message to share, a message that can help people navigate the turbulent waters of this life with justice, with compassion and with our sisters and brothers, whether of our faith or not.
            We proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth is not dead, simply a person of the past whose dust has mixed with the soil of ancient Palestine.  We dare to say that Christ is risen and that he continues to achieve God's purposes for us and for all of creation through communities of faith such as ours, some larger, some smaller, some able to practice their faith freely, some only able to do so covertly.
            These communities bring good news to the oppressed, those who oppressed by their riches as well as those oppressed by their poverty.  These communities bring healing to those who are broken in body, mind and spirit.  These communities break the bonds of those who are held in prisons, whether those prisons are made of concrete and steel or made of the hurts and fears that imprison the heart and the soul.
            But these communities, especially those in North America, are often afraid to share this good news.  We are uncertain of how our message will be received and how our friends, neighbours and families will think of us.  The generous, compassionate and future-oriented Christian faith in which many of us have been raised and nurtured is overshadowed by our wider society's perception that all Christians are narrow, judgemental and living in some mythical past.  So long as we remain silent, so long as we keep our story entre nous, this false perception will take the day.
            Friends, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!  The powers of his world and time that feed on fear are active in our own world and time.  But they cannot overcome the life that is Christ's --- and that is ours in Christ.  The message that these powers sought to silence two thousand years ago cannot be silenced for it is the Song of the One who made all things, it is the 'deep magic' that is at work around us, in us and through us.
            Just as the women left the garden and entered into the fast-flowing river of their time, daring to share with the world the message of the Resurrection, let us go forth into our river, into our rapids, facing our fears and sharing the good news of God in Christ.

            My sisters and brothers, do not be afraid.  'Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death; victory is ours through Jesus who loved us.'  (Desmond Tutu as quoted in Janet Morley, ed., Bread for Tomorrow:  Prayers for the Christian Year 1992, 117).  Amen. 

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