Sermon: Do Not Be Afraid, Stand Firm

Painting of Moses and Red Sea
“Moses and the Red Sea” – Mural at the Visionary Art Museum

Ex 14: 5 – 14, 19 – 25
John 14: 18 – 20, 25 – 27

When Moses leads the people of Israel out of captivity, they go out boldly, rejoicing in their liberation, confident in God and Moses. But then Pharaoh and his officials change their minds. I imagine it suddenly dawned on them that there were a lot of major building projects, and road construction, and gardening, and farming, and fruit picking, and laundry, and cooking, and cleaning, and childcare…

Basically, a lot of hard labor wasn’t going to get done without the convenience of an enslaved people under their control. So Pharaoh decides to re-nig on his deal, and he and his soldiers take off in hot pursuit.

When the people of Israel see the soldiers coming, their boldness dissolves like sugar in water, and they cry out to the Lord in fear. They turn on Moses and bitterly criticize him for leading them, not to freedom, but to death…their shouts of rejoicing turn to shouts of accusation and recrimination.

Moses says to them, “Be not afraid, stand firm. See the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.”

“Be not afraid.”

We hear that a lot in the Bible. When angels appear, the first thing they say is, “Be not afraid.” Jesus is always telling the disciples and those who gather to see and hear him “fear not.”  In the face of seeming, certain death, Moses says to God’s people, “Be not afraid.”  It’s much easier said than done. Maybe that’s why we hear it so often in Scripture.

There are just so many things for us to be afraid of…afraid of losing your job…afraid of not finding a job. Afraid of not being able to pay your bills or put food on the table…afraid of losing your home…

…afraid of not getting into college… afraid of not getting into a GOOD college …afraid of not being able to pay for college…..

We are afraid of our physical failings…afraid of falling…breaking something…afraid of cancer…or the return of cancer…afraid of heart disease and diabetes…afraid of hospitals…

Our media feeds and inspires fear because it helps get good ratings. We are flooded with stories about threats from terrorists, ISIS, stagnant and divisive government, scary immigrants, and immigrant children who are coming to take over our schools and bring crime and disease into our midst…

And now this past week, we are once again afraid of random shootings, lone-wolf gunman, concealed carry laws, living with guns, and living without guns…

And then there is the weather to fear…rising temperatures, fearsome storms, increasing climate issues.  There are even the mundane close-to-home scares…local sightings of wild cats, coyotes, bears, infected ticks, rabid mosquitos…and on…and on….and on…and on. There is so much fear in our country, that the use of anti-anxiety meds continues to increase among adults, teenagers, and even children as young as three and four.

I am not in any way criticizing the use of medications when they are needed and can provide relief. I am lamenting, that as a society, we have allowed ourselves to become so scared and anxious, that we are making ourselves and our children sick with fear.

Fear in and of itself is not a bad thing. Fear is helpful when we are in dangerous and risky situations. A healthy dose of fear when mountain climbing; or walking on unfamiliar, dark city streets; or being on a subway platform late at night; or getting lost in an unfamiliar place, keeps us alert and prepared.

Healthy fear, provides adrenaline that sharpens our responses, clears our minds, and wakes up our senses. Fear is not healthy when it begins to consume our lives and influence our ability to set goals, or accomplish tasks, or to find joy in our lives. Fear is not healthy when we become trapped and paralyzed, unable to move or grow. When fear becomes toxic … it is a tidal wave that washes over us and threatens to carry us away and drown our spirit.

Moses says to God’s people, “Be not afraid. Stand firm. See the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.”  Being fearful is a part of being human. And it is difficult to just stop being afraid.  So what are we to do when we become entangled in our fears?  What are we to do to go boldly into the world?

I would revise Moses command and say, “Be courageous, be firm in your faith in God, and face what you fear.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, a mystic and world advocate for peace, says, “Fear keeps us focused either on the past, or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.”

He teaches us that one way to overcome fear is to “Be,” to be here and now, and to live mindfully, in the moment…or to break down what we fear into something that is manageable.

I hate shots. Who doesn’t? The way I have learned to manage shots is to ask the nurse to tell me “Now” and “Done”. That lets me be worry free until I hear “Now”, and I can always hold on through “Done.”  That small space between “Now” and “Done,” is completely manageable for me. That is a small example of living in the moment.

Let’s practice!! I invite you to close your eyes for a moment, and simply “Be” present in this moment. Take a deep breath in and slowly breath out. Relax your neck and shoulders. Sink into your seat.  What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you sense around you? What do you feel?

Embrace this moment, this moment, where you have shelter, warmth, the company and support of people who care about you and that you care about….Delicious smells that promise coffee and a lovely meal later…the sounds of birds chirping…the whisper of soft rain.  Here, in this place, and in this moment…be not afraid.  Rest in God. That is the peace beyond understanding that Jesus prays for us.

As a spiritual practice, I invite you to look for, and to create, these “not afraid” moments in your life, moments of safety and comfort, moments of love and joy, moments of peace and hope, in the presence of God.  Notice them.  Savor them.  Hold on to them.  Collect them in your heart like precious jewels. These moments are the divine antidote that will inoculate you against the power of fear.

Moses says, “Do not be afraid, stand firm. God will fight for you.” God is with you…face your fear, even though what you are facing seems impassable or impossible, step forward with faith and God will open a way…God will get you through.

Facing our fears means taking that first step onto dry land where water was only a moment ago.  It means stepping out in faith, standing firm, acknowledging and carrying fear, but not letting fear carry you away.

One of my favorite books is a Sci-fi classic called Dune. The main character’s mantra that gets him through is this, “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 has 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.”

Let your fear wash over you and through you and then imagine it draining out of you, emptying like the Red Sea, until you find yourself standing on dry land, standing firmly on God, the rock of ages, the foundation of creation.  Letting fear pass over and through us and letting it drain out of us, allows us to remain intact, strong, and firm within ourselves and within our faith.

Moses says, “Do not be afraid, stand firm. See the Deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.”

When you are afraid, Step out boldly, with faith in God. See the Deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you….today.  This day…this blessed, gift from God, day.  Not tomorrow. Not some day in the distant future.

Today!

Do not be afraid. Stand firm, and see what the Lord will accomplish for you!

Did Jesus Dream?

glowing lights in darkDid Jesus dream while he lay in the tomb?

Did God send him dreams of clouds and glory
to make him sigh and smile?

Or, did Jesus dream of simpler things

Freshly baked bread
warm and fragrant

charcoal baked fish
crisp and tender

warm hands holding his
laughter
tender friends

Was there the comfort of murmuring voices
he could almost recognize
comforting to hear

a relief not to have to answer

Not just yet.

Was it cold in the tomb when Jesus woke up?

Dark?

Certainly.

Or, did his own radiance bathe the hand-hewn stone
with light

Did he know right away
where he was?
who he was?

Did he remember what had happened?

Or, did God let him lay awhile luxuriating
in the safety and comfort of the linens swaddling him
once again a new born babe.

Was there a moment of panic when he opened his eyes?

Where am I?
Who am I?
What happened?

O yeah…

O yeah…

I remember…

Them.

Will they,

remember

me?

Was there a shuddery moment of fully awake now
or,
did he shrug it all away along with the linens so carefully enshrouding his body?

Was he angry?

For a moment?

or, simply relieved to wake up

alone

at last

safe

in the dark tomb.

No reaching hands
no pain, no suffering
not even his own.

Did he draw a long breath in newly resurrected lungs
whispering a prayer of thanksgiving and praise
exhaling a sigh
of release.

Was he happy?

To still be here?

or was he longing to be there…
anywhere…
but here…

with us.

Did he look forward to the looks on his friend’s faces
when he would show up?

SURPRISE!

TOLD YOU!

YOU WON’T BELIEVE IT WHEN I TELL YOU WHAT HAPPENED TO ME
WHILE I LAY DREAMING!

YOU

WON’T

BELIEVE

IT

WILL YOU?

DO WE?

Alleluia!

Christ is Risen!

 

And So I Walk…

 img_4301

The platform at Woodland station was crowded as my daughter and I waited for our ride into Boston to join in the Women’s March for justice. When the door of the overly packed D train opened, the irate driver shouted out the door, “Trump is already elected! What is the point of all of this?!”

This is my reply…

There are still hungry people in this great country
Pinched faces pressed against the warm cheery windows
of the latest trendy restaurant
Not knowing when they will eat again.

And so I walk.

There are still discarded people in this great country
sleeping on cold concrete sidewalks, living in dirty alleys
calling collapsing refrigerator boxes “home.”

And so I walk.

There are still women and children in this great country
who are afraid in their own homes
who live with the threat of violence not from without…
but from within.

And so I walk.

There are people different from me in an infinity of ways in this great country:
different skin color, eye color, hair color, education, gender identity, religious practices and beliefs, heritage, language, upbringing, food preferences, skills, talents, and perspective…

…like snowflakes, each unique…

…all the same human family…

yet, too many are afraid to leave their homes or walk the streets of OUR country…

One

afraid

is too many.

And so I walk.

It’s time!
Time for quiet, decent comfortable sideliners like me
to stand up for what we believe in.

Time to stand up
and be counted.

Even though it takes me a minute or two
to get to my feet these days.
Feet which hurt
Back that aches
Knees that pop
Ankles that crack
Feeling every one of the extra 40 pounds I carry.

And yet, like Tolstoy’s guardian Ents,
those ancient tree shepherds,
Creaking…

I rise.

I am walking.

And the march has only just begun.

The threat of oppression already tests my spirit and my stamina.
The weight of the world slows my steps.
I am only one.
I grow weary.
I fear that on the long road ahead
I will falter or fall.

Then I look at my daughter
Walking at my side
I look at my sisters and my brothers
Spread as far as I can see.

And I remember…

WE are walking

Together

Stronger

TOGETHER!

Stronger than fear.
Stronger than apathy.
Stronger than hate and prejudice and cynicism
and selfishness and cruelty and greed
and injustice and oppression

and ignorance.

STRONGER!

Walking together for justice
Walking together in Jesus’ footsteps
We will not grow weary.
We will not grow faint.

One body

Stronger

Walking together.

And so,

WE rise!

And so….

WE walk!

img_4291

I Didn’t Know…

11-27-2016-mom-for-blog-2

I didn’t know the last time I talked to my Mom that it would be the last time.

I can remember everything we talked about because, after she died, I found a note tucked in her calendar – her “brain” she used to call it.  The note was a list of things to talk to me about, so she wouldn’t forget.

Now I won’t forget either.

She asked me about our recent trip to New Jersey.

It had been awful! Pouring rain and stuck in traffic for HOURS with a 4 month old baby girl that wanted to be nursed every one hundred and twenty minutes…

…on the dot.

Hard to do with the baby safely strapped into the back seat facing away from the parents trying so hard to soothe her crying. Desperate, I finally jumped into the back seat…

…did I mention we were STOPPED IN TRAFFIC?

I nursed her while the windows steamed up because of the pouring rain. Sweat and tears were running down my face and from under my arms and my huge swollen, aching breasts, because it was a sweltering, rainy day in July and we were…

…did I mention?

Yeah.
Right.
Stuck.

Mom told me she was glad that I was nursing my daughter and “hanging in there” as it had been a painful, awkward process at first…not at all like the beautiful, perfectly coiffed, slender, woman on the cover of Modern Maternity magazine. She was holding her nursing child gently in her arms, beaming with that glow of motherly ‘bonding’.

Yet another thing we sweaty, straggly, tired, real women can feel like we are failing at.

It’s “natural” – so why does it hurt? Why doesn’t the baby “get” it? Why does it take practice? Why does it involve stacks of pillows, lying awkwardly on your side, or sitting awkwardly in a chair with arms at just the right height. Why does it require being stared at in the Women’s room of the department store because it seems vaguely, (or completely), disgusting to those who have never done it or seen it.

Which seemed to be most of the American women that I encountered.

My Mom said that when she had her babies, the doctor said that formula was “better than mother’s milk. Scientifically formulated to provide all the nutrition that baby needs.” She said that in her day, she just went to sleep and when she woke up, she had a beautiful new baby.

In those first days when she was there helping me with her new granddaughter, she would look at me nursing my daughter and there was a wistful look on her face…a regret…maybe a feeling that “Science” had let her down. In spite of my complaints and discomfort, I had to agree with her.

The last time I talked with my Mom, I didn’t know it would be the last time. I thank God that when she had come to the end of her list of things to talk about, she said,

“I guess that’s all I have to say…but I don’t want to hang up just yet.”

I’m thankful, because on that day, instead of giving her the list of stuff I had to go do, and because her granddaughter was sleeping peacefully, and because I hadn’t talked to her for a few days, and because I loved her so much, I said,

“then let’s not hang up yet.”

I don’t remember what we talked about then.

It wasn’t on her list for me to find…

…two weeks later…

…after she died.

I just remember that I will be grateful all my life, that I sat down and let that conversation flow between us, that I felt that close connection with my Mom who was so far away.

She gave me a parting gift without me knowing it…

…and I hope I gave her one as well…

…even though…

…we didn’t know.

So Reasonable or The Incredible Shrinking Woman

woman-behind-blurry-window-2

As we sit in the freezing courtroom, I whisper to the woman huddled next to me,

“What shall we pray for?”

She sits quietly shredding the balled up tissue clenched in her small hands. She is waiting her turn to stand naked and alone before the judge. She is hoping for a restraining order to keep the devil at bay. There have already been many women ahead of us. Mornings in this court are set aside expressly for these kind of petitions.

….because there are so many.

I can tell the woman who is currently pleading her case is going to lose. Even from where I sit, I can see her shaking with emotion while her battering ex stands to her right, calm and collected. The judge’s body is angled towards the ex, talking mostly with him, the calm reasonable one.

They are almost chummy.

I can tell that this judge is a woman who is accustomed to being a voice of authority. Accustomed to wielding the power represented by the gavel lying before her. Accustomed to being shielded by the robes she wears, sheltered by the huge towering desk, like a fortress, that protects her from all danger.

The judge seems to have no patience for this powerless woman who is clearly mustering up every ounce of strength and courage she has to raise her voice on her own behalf. The voice of authority has no understanding of those who have spent most of their lives without a voice.

“It’s been 10 years,” says the judge, reinforcing the myth that time heals all wounds. “Mr. X, has been skyping with your son at school, which you agreed to in a hearing a year ago. Now that the school will no longer allow this activity, it seems perfectly reasonable that Mr. X be allowed to skype with your son when he is at home.”

“Not in my home.” says the shaking woman. “I won’t allow it. I can’t have it. Not in my home.”

Visibly bristling, the judge says, “I decide what will and what won’t be allowed. It seems perfectly reasonable that Mr. X be allowed to skype with his son when he is at home.”

“Perfectly reasonable?” REALLY??

Maybe if their lives together had been filled with playing catch in the backyard, help with homework, encouraging words, hugs, smiles, and everything we are brought up to believe families should be.

Perfectly reasonable?

To allow Mr. X access? This man who can still make her nauseous with fear and helpless anger, that can still make her tremble so hard we can all hear her teeth chattering when she tries to speak up and explain what cannot be explained?

Perfectly reasonable?

To let him continue to molest and violate her with petty prosecutions and court dates month after month, year after year, just to show her who is still in control of her life?

Perfectly reasonable that she should have to hear his voice once again mumbling in the other room…to know that his eyes are avidly peering over her son’s shoulder into the room she painted with bright colorful murals to help chase the monsters away…

…The room filled with smiling, happy pictures of their precious and so precarious life together…

PERFECTLY REASONABLE?

TO LET HIM INTO HER HOME?

INTO HER SANCTUARY?

THE ONE PLACE LEFT ON EARTH WHERE SHE COULD FEEL SAFE?

Can’t the judge see that she is letting that malignant presence inside…back inside this shattered woman holding herself together with every ounce of strength left in her world weary soul…letting him back inside her head? her home? inside her? and her son??

Dear God, don’t allow him to be present IN HER HOME IN ANY WAY!!!!!

Mr. X clinches the deal.

“Your honor, I am a reasonable man, even just once a week is enough. I just want to stay in touch with my boy.”

Perfectly reasonable.

“I concur.” responds the judge. “Mr. X has permission to skype with his son on a weekly basis when he is at home.” The judge and Mr. X go about setting up a reasonable schedule. The two of them slowly erase the woman shaking with fear and disbelief. She shrinks before my eyes until I almost can’t see her, she has gotten so invisible.

I am startled when they call the name of the woman next to me.

I whisper to her,

“What shall we pray for?”

She stands up.

Straight and tall.

Maybe for the first time in her life.

For the first time in the years I have known her, she looks me straight in the eye…

…and smiles.

A Madonna smile.

Calm.

Somehow,

Holy.

“What shall we pray for?” she replys.

“Freedom.

Let’s pray,

for Freedom.”

My Son’s Field of Dreams

(Picture, “The Little Prince”)

the-little-prince

My son is the one on the Flag Football Field
staring into the night sky looking for stars.

He’s the one listening so intently to the cicada’s siren song
that he doesn’t always hear the shrill trilling
of the referee’s whistle the first time…

…or the second.

He’s the one that skips over to the huddle
standing respectfully
with his hands clasped behind his back.

There is something so rooted about his stance,
like an ancient oak standing tall amidst
the jostling and swaying saplings surrounding him.

His teammates ebb and flow around him
like a fast moving river flows around the rock
anchored deep in the riverbed.

In the river…

…but not carried away by the river.

My son is the one who runs to me and says,
“See that little glowing light up there?”

I strain to see past the intensely bright lights
now flooding the playing fields.

“It’s a bug,” he says, “but if you look at it just right,
it looks like a far-away plane.”

I finally see the bright shape darting erratically,
high overhead the commotion below.

“I wonder what kind of bug it is,” I say.

My son says, “I think it is a silky white moth.”

He runs back onto the field
as his coach calls him once again
into the huddle.

My son is the one who thinks white moths are silky.

My son is the one staring into the night sky…

…looking for stars.

The Open Door

the-open-door

There was a day not so long ago when I was feeling discouraged.
Grumpy even.

I was feeling sorry for myself,
muttering around alone in the sanctuary picking up used tissues,
tossed music, broken candles, crumpled bulletins,
broken crayons, discarded inserts,
and all the detritus of weeks of winter worship.

I was preparing the way for Easter coming.
The stone rolling away.
The tomb yawning open.
Jesus set loose once again to be among us
until the end of days.

I had the church door open to bring in a breath of spring on the way.
And because the door was open,
there were suddenly two strangers in the sanctuary with me.
A young man and woman appeared excitedly exclaiming as they looked around at the beautiful wooden beams, the glowing stained glass windows, the gleaming organ pipes. They asked me if they could pray for the church. They said they were on a mission to go around town and pray.

I found myself feeling suspicious.

I wondered if this was some sort of scam.
I wondered if they hadn’t expected to find someone muttering around alone in the sanctuary and had made up something to cover their surprise.

I wondered what they were up to.

And then I wondered how I could be so cynical.
Standing in the sanctuary.
Standing in this place where people have gathered to pray together
for over 100 years.

“Yes,” I said, “Please pray for our church.”

The three of us took hands, and they prayed.
Out loud with great exuberance.
They prayed for the life and mission and ministry and people and programs and heart and soul of the church. They prayed for our neighbors and the town and the community and our country and for the whole world.

And then they asked if they could pray for me.

I felt the spirit flowing through our small circle carried by their enthusiasm.
I felt Jesus present in their great daring to pray with strangers.
The spirit was flowing and when they finished praying for me,
I prayed for them.

Tears in my eyes.
Cracks appearing in my hardened heart.
I prayed for us all.
Amen

They smiled.
We hugged.
And they bounced out as energetically as they had come in.

The spirit was flowing.

I felt peace as I basked in the warm flood of colored light streaming in through the stained glass windows. My heart was burning warm within me.

I felt full.

As if I had just finished a delicious meal of all my favorite foods.

As if I had just recognized Jesus in the breaking of a loaf of bread.

Or, in the faces of a young man and a young woman who came into my church
asking me if they could pray.

The spirit was flowing.

Jesus set loose among us.

All because

I had left the church door

open.