Sermon Series Facing Fear with…. Love Mother’s Day 2019
But now thus says the Lord,
The One who created you, O Jacob,
the One who formed you, O Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are Mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Do not fear, for I am with you.” Isaiah 43: 1-2, 5a
St. Paul wrote to the early church, “I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited. I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone.” There’s been speculation for millennia about what this pain or disability was that St. Paul prayed to be delivered from. I think it was fear: the pounding heart, the sweaty palms, the clenching of the solar plexus, the shortness of breath. It’s the thorn in my flesh, in my psyche, and probably what prompted me to read Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times. I was apparently birthed under a sign that said, “Beware of Uncertain Times” because I was born into a fearful family of pessimists, worriers, handwringers, and Mylanta guzzlers. Although we were Christians and church goers, our family practiced, metaphorically, duck-and-cover exercises. If you don’t recognize, duck-and-cover was an exercise in response to an atomic bomb falling.
I’m drawn to the “do not be afraid” passages in scripture because I need them. I need to be reminded that although fear might be the first responder on the scene, faith (not a set of beliefs but the love I know in Jesus Christ) can change the situation. It can be too big a jump from fear to faith, so I need a practice, a steppingstone in the water, to help me across. “Do not be afraid.” It’s in scripture 365 times, perhaps one reminder each day of the year that fear is not what God desires for us.
This pericope taken from Isaiah is the beginning of a different direction (and different authorship) in this series of writings and prophesy. It’s referred to as “The Book of Comfort” and was addressed to the exiles living in Babylon. Chapter 40 is the beginning of this new direction, and begins, “Comfort, O comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” It’s reassurance for the exiles that they can return to Israel, that God’s judgement against them has ended. We hear excerpts from “The Book of Comfort” during Advent, because they’re in all four of the gospel narratives about the coming of Christ, the Messiah, who would institute a great homecoming, and restore all creation to the fullness of life.
“Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you.” These words in Isaiah are a reminder of the divine Presence with the Israelites. This message is for us as well, that God is with us, and part of our story, from God’s assurance to Moses, “I will be with you,” to the coming of Christ, called Emmanuel, which means God-with-us. In today’s reading we hear God’s voice saying, “Do not be afraid for I am with you.”
But to read two and a half verses from Isaiah as evidence that there’s no reason to fear, could be wading into the dangerous waters of taking a scripture out of context to prove a point. Some surrounding story is needed, to hear these words in their fulness. In chapters 40 through 42 Isaiah paints a picture of the future God dreams of for God’s people… “In the wilderness [will come] a pool of water, and in the dry land springs of water. Trees [will be] planted in the wilderness “the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, the olive, the cypress and pine.” Prisoners will be brought out from the dungeon, the eyes of the blind opened, and no one will be able to harm God’s people. The years of exile have ended and God’s anger against the faithlessness of the people forgotten. And then Isaiah says, “But now, thus says the Lord, the One who created you O Jacob, the One for formed you, O Israel, do not fear, for I have redeemed you.” This was God’s invitation and vision that the people would return to their homeland, planting and harvesting God’s dreams of shalom and love, and there would no longer be anything to fear. Ages later, one of Jesus’ disciples would echo Isaiah’s theme of redeeming love without fear. “There is no fear in love,” John wrote to the early Christians, “but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.”
I was at the Academy for Spiritual Formation this past week: five days of study, prayer, worship, silence, writing and reflection. Over the course of two years the Academy meets for eight weeks, and at each week there are faculty members who are authors, professors, pastors, rabbis, and theologians, and an introduction to different faith traditions and practices. This last week our focus was on spirituality and the body, facilitated by a professor of medical humanities at UC Berkeley; and on Orthodox spirituality, facilitated by an Antiochian Orthodox priest. Faith and the body seems like it should be an easy understanding for Christians, who believe in an embodied God in Jesus Christ. And yet from experience, it’s easier to feel fear in my body and have faith in my head. How do we learn to move – spiritually and physically – from fear to faith? Orthodox spirituality also embodies the senses… chanting liturgy, worship by candlelight, clouds of incense smelled and heard as a censer is swung. It’s hard to be stuck in the mind, in thoughts, when the senses are engaged in worship. During my week at the Academy I reflected on how practices of embodied spirituality can re-form physical responses of fear to love… and then to faith, and hope, and trust.
It’s said that God draws with crooked lines, and certainly the spiritual life is not a linear experience but zigs and zags and starts and stalls all through our lives. I lent the Adam Hamilton book, Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times, to someone and so I can’t quote from it, but it’s good, solid theology. It’s just that it’s also formulaic, and faith and life aren’t that simple or straightforward. But moving – not just metaphorically but physically – moving or facing fear with love is a spiritual practice that I’m working on.
This is my favorite picture of Jesus. Partly, I admit it, because I have chickens and I love them. They’re quirky and endearing and they are… chicken. Loud noises and shadows and all kinds of random things scare them, but they’re also curious, and responsive, and they fiercely protective of their eggs and their chicks. I don’t know why we persist in calling God “Father” (although Jesus referred to God affectionately in Aramaic as “Papa”) when there are so many names and images for God in scripture, including feminine: God as nursing mother, God as mother bear and mother eagle, God as a woman in labor, God as a comforting mother, and my favorite, God as a mother hen. This picture is a mosaic in the Church of Dominus Flevit in Jerusalem. I love this image of Jesus as fierce and protective Mother saving her chicks, and yet absurdly small and vulnerable for such a task.
This is Mother’s Day, and at some time the church recognized that this day can be fraught with emotional landmines of pain, and so it’s also now also the Festival of the Christian Home. This can be a hard day for anyone who buys into the Hallmark image of a mother as a combination of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Virgin Mary. Instead of dwelling on the virtues of motherhood as surpassing all others (because all people of all ages can be wise and affectionate, tender and comforting) I’d like us to look at the mothering nature of God. Jesus described Himself as a mother hen protecting her chicks from foxes. Jesus was facing vicious foxes, priests and scribes who saw Jesus’ compassionate, inclusive love as a threat to their religious authority, and they were committed to silencing Him. In response to their threats, Jesus showed His mother-hen’s heart exposed in radical vulnerability, His mother-hen wings outstretched to shelter and nurture anyone in need, and His mother-hen fearless in protecting her young and helpless. This is a picture of God’s love that transcends whatever harsh words are recorded in the scriptures, and reveals that God is simply… love. And if we can move towards God when we are afraid… we move towards love.
Isaiah’s prophecy can be summed up in an eggshell: too often God’s people (Isaiah was writing to the Israelites, but all people are God’s people) too often we’ve failed to understand and respond to God’s love. God is love… which could be formulaic if that’s as far as we experience it… but Isaiah, and all of the prophets, held people accountable for remembering God’s goodness and love and responding in kind… to God and to each other. God’s love liberated the exiles – it wasn’t just the promise of returning to their homeland that liberated them – but the love God expressed for them and the dreams God had for them. We can learn to step away from fear or worry when we remember (not just think about but feel) God’s love and goodness. In a manner of speaking we return like the Israelites to our home, our true selves, God’s beloved children, when we move from fear to love.
I invite you to stand as you’re able. If you’re not comfortable standing, you can still do this practice. If you are standing, without losing your balance, shift your weight onto your right foot. You might hold onto the back of the pew… and again, you can do this sitting down. Imagine your right foot holding down fear. Some of the things we’re fearful of are good, healthy responses, and some are irrational, learned behavior, and some fear we’ve caught and held onto. Can you name some of the fears your foot is holding down? Aging? Loneliness? Letting someone down? Failing? Being too vulnerable? Do you want to press your right foot down hard to keep those fears from rising? [PAUSE]
Now shift the weight from your right foot to your left foot. Imagine now that your left foot is holding down love. The roots of love go way down into the ground ~ God’s love for you has no beginning and no end and has always been there for you. To show you God’s love, God sent families and teachers and friends and music and art and nature and any medium God needed, to assure and reveal to you the love God has for you. God has first loved you, and in response you’ve loved back. Imagine God’s love too strong to hold down with your left foot, so you let it travel up your leg and through your body. And now God’s love has filled your heart and is spilling over. God’s love isn’t containable, and it’s filling you and spilling out. Can you feel that love is your true self, and who you were created to be? You are God’s beloved, and you are beloved in this world. I invite you to be seated.
Facing fear with faith is a long jump but moving from fear to love is a spiritual practice that can inform or re-form fear into incarnational faith. Because God has loved us, we’re able to love others. In the political climate we find ourselves – in the church and in the world – love is the re-formation we need. And now as we enter into a moment of silence, I invite you to hold within you the love that has always been yours ~ God’s tender, protective, comforting, mother-hen-love. Amen.