Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fear not

A Sermon for Lent II (A) preached Sunday, March 20, 2011, by The Rev. Thomas Miller, Canon for Liturgy and the Arts at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.                                                                                                                   
"If I say, 'Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night,' darkness is not dark to thee, O Lord; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to thee are both alike."
That verse from Scripture, from Psalm 139, is one of the sentences we read at the beginning of Evening Prayer.  And it comes to mind more and more these days.  These days, as the darkness threatens to overcome us, as anxiety and fear creep into our consciousness, and as we realize just how afraid of the dark we are.  There is so much upheaval and calamity in the world that there sometimes seems to be no escape, try as we might to look the other way or to convince ourselves it’s not really as bad as it is.  Well, I’m sorry to say, it is pretty bad, which may be all the more reasons to remember Psalm 139 and the first chapter of John, and all scriptural witness to the divine light of life that rescues us from darkness and from the shadow of death, and not only rescues us but gives us new life.
One of Lent’s more bracing challenges may be to encourage us, not to turn away from darkness, but to face right into the darkness and to dwell in the shadows for a time: the shadows in our own lives and the darkness that seems always to be threatening the world around us.  We are able to look into the darkness, that place of unknowing and uncertainty, that place of nothingness, when we believe that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” as Paul proclaims to the Romans, and that Christ came into the world not to condemn it but to save it.  To save us, Jesus looked into the very depths of human darkness, even into the darkness of death, and he did not turn away.  And through that darkness he showed to us the light of life.
It’s easy to forget that the dark and the shadows are as much a part of life as the light.  If we fail to acknowledge and face the darkness, to see what lurks in the shadows, we may fail to see what needs to be amended in our lives so that we can move through the darkness to the fuller light of God’s glory within us and all around us, and to appreciate its power to illumine our path and to lead us even when the days seem darkest.  And yet fear of the dark persists.  It pervades the history of the world at least as much as our sense of enlightened progress.
It is now just coming up on 100 years since the beginning of the Great War, World War I, that war to end all wars, which started in 1914.  On the eve of that horrific, and often said pointless, conflict, Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, famously said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe.  And we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”  And he was not far wrong.  The years 1914 to 1918 were among world history’s darkest days, and we have been living with the legacy of that war ever since.  After the giddy and nearly delusional respite of the so-called Roaring Twenties, the world was plunged into a decade of financial collapse and the resumption of war.  Just 70 years ago, London and Great Britain were being devastated by the Blitz, which began in September 1940.  The world was again being subjected to the darkness that can threaten to extinguish the light of life and enlightened civilization as we know it.  But the light was not extinguished. 
And today, though not the result of war, our brothers and sisters in Japan are facing a great darkness, both literally and figuratively, and yet, hundreds of nuclear technicians are looking into the face of death so that millions might be saved.  The light has not gone out.  Perhaps one of the reasons we are shocked and sobered by the breadth of this devastation is that it is not the result of conflict among nations, but the result of an uneasy and essentially unstable alliance between humanity and the Earth.  As the rolling blackouts plunge Japan into darkness, and the death toll rises, we become more and more aware of our own vulnerability to the dark and our own fear of dwelling in the shadows, the shadows of life and the shadow of death.
Now, in some ways, you would never know this.  The other morning, as I summoned up my e-mail, the MSN home page offered up the usual flash of news stories which the user might want to click on and read more about.  The first flash asked the question, “Scared of omelets?  There’s an easy answer.”  Before I could quite comprehend what fear of omelets might actually be, it disappeared, and another flash said, “Japanese Reactor Out of Control.”  Well, now, I thought, that’s something to be really afraid of, but before I could click on it, another flash came up, which read, “March madness invades the office.”  Is that anything like the monster that ate Cleveland?
In this country, despite our denial and distractions, we are living under a fearful shadow.  Almost ten years ago, we experienced something so dreadful that many of us still don’t quite know what to make of it.  The horrendous criminal acts of September 11th, 2001, disoriented the country and there was wide-spread fear, fear of the darkness that might hold more surprises than we could ever imagine.  As a nation, our leaders put on a defiant face and retaliated against an unseen enemy with the sanctioned violence of war and an extensive scheme of homeland defenses.  And by doing so we admitted just how afraid of the dark we were.  Almost a decade later, fear continues to be one of the instruments that drives our national psyche.  It is often an instrument used unashamedly to advance a political agenda.  We are told to be afraid:  afraid of deficits, afraid of immigrants, afraid of unions, afraid of anyone different from us, afraid of anyone who wants to regulate us or take away our guns.  It seems we’re even afraid of omelets.
People’s fears are real enough, but the cynical manipulation of fear is a blot on the nation and all nations where it persists.  There are forces in the world that foment fear, even feast on fear.  We must see them for what they are, expose them, and reject them.  We see them at work abroad, most prominently today in the tragedy of Libya, and we see them at work at home.  Fear is too real to be exploited.  Such exploitation is morally reprehensible and not even remotely related to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 
We can face up to our fear of the dark.  The good news of Christmas and Epiphany has not been revoked.  The angels who encouraged the shepherds with the good news, “Fear not,” are still proclaiming that message.  Gabriel’s reassurance to Mary to fear not is still at the heart of the good news of God’s beloved incarnate son.  The Epiphany star still leads us.  And that assurance is ours to take to heart as we confront the darkness before us and the darkness we perceive within ourselves.  God is waiting for us, even in the dark.  The writer of Psalm 16 observes:  “My heart teacheth me, night after night.  I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not fall.”  God is waiting to lift us up and to reassure us even in the midst of our fears, perhaps especially in the midst of our fears.  It’s a revolutionary thought, but it’s a reality that lives among us as the Risen Christ.  Fear not.  Having faith in the Lord who entered into our darkness so that we might see the light may indeed be our salvation in these dark days, our hope for getting through the night.
I close with this prayer from Evening Prayer that might serve us in the daytime as well:  “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.” 

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