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!

And So I Walk…

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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!

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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.

Me and My Good Friend, Job, Sitting in the Ashes…Again

152Jacob’s Blessing*

Is that IT?

 That I want someone to tell me

that this gets easier?

 This wrestling with the Word

This wrestling with God

Wrestling with what I believe

or

do not

believe

on any given day.

 

Each and every day

faced with

 Choosing…

 again

and

again

 Choosing…

 

Choosing Faith

Choosing Hope

Choosing to be vulnerable

Choosing uncertainty

unknowing

bewildering

and baffling

 

unclarity

 

Choosing

to follow

 

Jesus.

 

JESUS!

 

Will it always be this

wrestling match

through the long night?

 

Sometimes surrendering

Sometimes resisting

 

Always

 clinging

with grim determination

 

Always

walking away

wounded

 

Always

 aching

and broken

 and sometimes…

 

……and sometimes….

some

 times

 

walking away

 

Blessed.

*”Jacob’s Blessing”

A “Fabrication” by C. Steinbrecher

Genesis 32:22 – 29

         Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

          Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 

          Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.” 

          Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”  But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” 

 And there he blessed him.

 

The Christmas Prodigal

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On Christmas Eve, there is always one Prodigal son or daughter who slips in hoping to be invisible. One prodigal who sits in the back, near the door ready to make a hasty escape.

There is always one prodigal who has been battered by life’s storms, who has squandered themselves and their inheritance in some way…one prodigal who is lost and desperately hopes to be found…

or to find…

…something.

On Christmas Eve there is one Prodigal who has returned even if it is only to sip the bitter dregs or nibble on the crumbs under the master’s table.

I watch for the Prodigals on Christmas because Christmas Eve isn’t really for the faithful, the members, the committee activists, the Sunday regulars…

Christmas Eve is for Jesus’ lost lambs, the ones who creep inside hoping to find refuge, sanctuary, room in the inn, maybe even a glimpse of mystery…

But most of all…

…hoping to find home.

Unfortunately, like Esau, some are quick to judge the returning Prodigals. After all, where were they when the hard work needed to be done? Where were they when the fields were being plowed, seeds sown, crops tended, and the harvest was brought in?

Why do they deserve the fatted calf?

I’m glad I can’t remember the name some church folk use for those who only come on Christmas and Easter, because I watch for the Prodigals on Christmas Eve…

…slipping in late, sitting alone in the shadows of the back row. I watch for them and I smile and I wave whether I am reading or singing or praying.  I don’t stop or call on them or call them out…

I just I watch for them and I smile and wave so they know that they are not invisible…they are seen…they are welcome…and I am happy they have come.

At the end of the service, when we have sung Silent Night, Holy Night, and each of us has lifted our small light up to fill the darkened sanctuary with our combined and holy light, that’s when I move towards the darkness in the back of the church.

And like every parent of a prodigal, I smile and open my arms wide, meeting them in the shadows where they hide…

And in they come..

Safe harbor

Sanctuary

For the space of a hug and a heartbeat.

Sometimes there are whispered, rushed stories of illness, death, elder care, jobs lost, jobs found, a move, a divorce…

There are always apologies that I brush away like the wisps of sacred smoke swirling around us.

Not necessary

Not needed

Just glad to see you

Glad you’ve come.

Sometimes there are quiet tears…or deep sighs…sometimes there is simply silence.

Then they sigh and smile and slip away into the quiet, soft, darkness of Christmas Eve night.

To come again..

…or never come again.

Doesn’t matter.

What matters is this…

On Christmas Eve, a moment of Christ’s peace beyond understanding was offered and received.

A breath of hope was inhaled between smiles.

A spark of joyful reunion and a moment of unconditional love was exchanged.

For the space of a hug and a heartbeat,

…a Prodigal found their way home.

Bles-sed: “Made Holy; consecrated”

donation bucket

One of my favorite signs of spring is the bucket men. I’m afraid I don’t know what else to call them. As the snow disappears, there is a group of black men who appear at a busy intersection near my church. They wear bright yellow and orange vests, their colorful spring plumage vivid against the not-yet-green of the still bleak landscape.

They carry large, plastic buckets that say, “Feed Hungry Children.” I don’t know who they are but I trust there is a good purpose that has them standing for hours in the cold wind, the drizzling rain, and the spitting, sleety mess we are calling spring this year.

They approach each waiting car with a smile and a cheerful wave, moving easily along the line of closed windows on either side of them. I imagine person after person staring straight ahead in their comfy climate controlled cars waiting impatiently for the light to change so they can speed along their way.

I always open my window as soon as I see them so they know they will find welcome along the way. I scramble for loose change in my cup holder or whatever bills I have stuffed in my wallet and I wait for a man with a bucket to come to my window and give me a smile.

Today, as I dropped all the coins I had through the rectangle hole cut in the lid of the bucket, I said, “You are one of my sure signs of spring! Thank you for what you are doing for children in need.”

He grinned at me and said, “No one’s ever told me that. I like being a sign of spring! You take care now! God bless you!”

Perhaps still raw from a hectic Holy week, some gush of emotion, some broken remnant of Easter Alleluia, came rising out of me all of a sudden, and my eyes welled with tears. Around the lump in my throat I said, “I can’t remember the last time someone blessed me, thank you.”

Suddenly serious, he looked at me from the cold, drizzling rain as I sat in my comfy climate controlled car, and he said, “Ma’am, don’t you let anybody ever steal your joy.” He leaned closer and smiled at me. And I smiled at him through the rainbow of tears in my eyes.

And the world stopped for a moment.

And then, bam! There it was! God’s kingdom!

Not in the handful of scrounged coins, or even in the bucket for a worthy cause…God’s kingdom was, and is, in that silent place between strangers who have just recognized that they are related…the silent place where you suddenly feel connected to someone else heart to heart…that sacred place beyond words where you feel the spiritual strings that attach all creation into one living organism…that consecrated space between heartbeats….that holy place of unexpected Blessing…

He leaned back and nodded to me. He tapped the back of my hand with his finger and moved on. I watched him through my rear-view mirror, shuffling down the narrow path between cars, waving and smiling. I hoped to see another open window welcoming him along the way but there wasn’t one….I watched praying…open, open, open…

Then the light changed.

It was time to move on…..

As I watched him carrying out his ministry in the world, in the cold and wet…I thought, “He blessed me?” And I thought, “Hosanna, blessed is HE…blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord with a blessing on his lips, healing in his words, and love in his heart.”

I drove off realizing I was driving on the road to Emmaus that morning…

…and I’d just run into Jesus with a bucket in his hand.

Slum-ber-ing: To be in a state of inactivity, negligence, quiescence, or calm. To dispel or forget by slumbering.”

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It is Good Friday.
I am sitting in a silent sanctuary.
Seven candles are burning on the Communion table draped in the black of mourning.
The door, usually closed and locked, stands open to the dank and drizzly day outside.
I sit within.

The door is my window to the world outside.
I sit waiting to utter Christ’s last words.
To extinguish the candles one by one.
To ring the church bells marking the time until the temple curtain tears from top to bottom and the earth shakes and the wind of God blows fierce through the world.
I am sitting in a silent sanctuary.

Alone.

I am hidden inside looking out.
No one can see me if they look in.
I don’t know if seeing me would discourage or encourage visitors
to creep up the stone stairs
and take a peek inside the darkened room.

I feel as if I am sitting in the empty tomb.
It’s not so bad.
I feel safe from the ills of the world, the dangers, the pain and suffering, the clamoring crowds, the demands for nourishment, rescue, and healing.

I wonder…am I trapped?
or hiding?

Am I dead?

I have been reading, and praying, and dozing off from a restless, sleepless night,
coughing and coming down with something.
Half awake, I hang suspended in that place between dreaming and wakefulness
That liminal place where mystery dwells.
I find I am in the garden slumbering.
Jesus suddenly appears and asks, “Can’t you stay awake with me, one hour?”
And then he is gone.

Gone.

The spirit is willing but the flesh is so very weak.

Outside, I hear footsteps hurrying past.
People in conversation seemingly with themselves although I know they are somehow
plugged in to someone, somewhere…or are they?
Plugged in, but are they really connected?
To anything? To anyone?

I can hear the delighted chatter of the birds celebrating God’s new day.
Chirping, croaking, whistling…the abundance of song is dazzling.
I hear the whispered pattering of soft rain on the pavement.
I can smell the freshness of the newly washed air.

Inside, the candles aren’t flickering, even with the door open.
Not a breath of air… not a breeze …
…nothing stirring….

Only the cold seems to find its way in…
making me tremble….tremble….tremble.

It is only by the open door that I can feel the promise of spring and new life.

New life.

Outside.

Matthew tells us that when Jesus breathed his last, “The earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” [Matt 27:51 – 53]

And yet…here I sit.

Inside.

Have I not noticed that the stone was rolled away ages ago
and Jesus has long gone on ahead from here?

Gone.
Gone out.
Shaken off the sleep of death and gone out.
Out from the tomb.
Out into the world.

I hear the distant call of bells, sounding the alarm.
Is it time for me to wake up?
Is it time for me to go out?
To go out and join Jesus?

That is the question…Wake up?
Or go on dozing?
The snooze button is always so tempting.

Soon.

Soon the promised day will come!
Soon Jesus will arise!
Three days!
And all who are dead will rise up and follow!

We will!

We will!

Won’t we?