Sunday, May 22, 2011

sitting on toilets: a sermon about fear and good and unexpected gifts

If you ever find yourself afraid of public speaking, like this, the proverbial ‘they’ say that one simple step will alleviate your fear: picture your listeners sitting on toilets. That’s what they say. And truthfully, I always wondered why you made those strange faces. But really, that’s the advice that they give you, the one with a fear of public speaking: picture your listeners sitting on toilets.

Now, that’s not an honest fear for me, but it’s good advice to keep, you know, in case that fear ever finds me. And isn’t it the way of fears - that they just seem to catch you, they pursue you, one day they find you? And isn’t that also our posture with respect to our fears - one of looking over the shoulder, having to always hide from them?

I wonder this morning...what are your fears? If we opened the floor, what would you say? I imagine that someone might start us off by saying unidentified spiders or venomous snakes. Someone else might eventually offer a more vulnerable fear - like not fitting in or saying the wrong thing in a group of peers. Still another might share the recurring dream in which she’s suddenly being given a written exam for which she hasn’t studied; she’s not the least bit prepared. Or the dream in which he walk to the office without first putting on clothes. I confess, I never did understand that fear, or rather, I’ve never understood how someone makes it all the way to the office. What about not having enough to make it to or through retirement - financial fears. Maybe of heights or strangers or change. And just what happens when we die?

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, heavenly Father, we give you thanks for bringing us together this morning around your gospel speaking the word we need not be troubled - be not afraid; but we are afraid. Of many things. And before we go on we take this moment in your presence to name our fears to you in the silence of our hearts, because not to name them would continue our hiding, and we don’t want to keep hiding. Lord, here are our fears. Take them. Here are our lives. Take them, too. Bless us to be people capable of naming our fears in your presence, and so also people capable of being healed at your hand in your presence. We love you, and pray this in Jesus’s Name.

Amen.

So Jesus said, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

And I wonder why the disciples were troubled. What were they afraid of?

A moment’s context: Jesus has just broken bread, shared the cup, with them. He has undressed himself and washed their feet. Peter tried to stop him. Confused, at best. Somewhere in the mix, Judas has slipped out to fetch the soldiers. The end is coming, and they don’t understand it, but they see it. Jesus feels it. He’s leaving them.

Fear of abandonment? Maybe. Fear of the unknown? Almost certainly. Fear that they will not meet the expectations of the coming hour? Perhaps. Fear of success? What if the disciples, the rebels, win the day? What if they become the earthly victors, the rulers? What next? What will it mean to follow Jesus into this moment? What is this moment? Fear that when they decide not to follow Jesus into this moment - the cock crowing three times - they will discover who they are.

A lot to fear. But nothing to fear. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he said. “Believe in God, believe also in me.”

I bet you already know that there’s a certain way to avoid any disappointment in life, and it is to never hold a hope or expectation. No sense in being greedy, we say. What will be will be. Don’t dare to dream and you’ll never have to wake up. Don’t ask for the Spirit and he’ll never not show up for you. But we also know that to live such a life is never to have lived.

Jesus was leaving. And he was soon to feel that God was leaving him, too: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Few greater fears than being forsaken by God. Separation. And yet into the chasm, he gives them these words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” And then, when the disciples wonder how these words present a concrete way forward, Jesus is firm, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

God asks a lot of the ones who would follow him. God’s call makes many demands on our lives. Perhaps no part of that call is more demanding than when he asks us to trust his love for us. That he himself will provide the way. That he’s got you; he loves you; will not forget or forsake you. That despite all your misgivings, all will be well in the end. And this is the heart of what it is to believe in God: to let go of those things which God alone can be and do for you and this world.

All of this is why, you’ll most often hear this gospel lesson read at funerals, in the burial office. The prayer book recommends its reading there because death is that moment when any illusion of your being able to do for yourself what God alone can do dies. And yet, in the death of that illusion, the brilliant Good News of the risen Christ: your share, your home, your dwelling place, in the resurrection life of God. Undeserved and unexpected gift.

I want you to think of an unexpected gift. Either you didn’t think you’d get it. Or you hadn’t thought to want it. Those are the best ones, aren’t they? Raise your hand when you’ve got one in your head (don’t worry, nobody has to share theirs).

Alan Jacobs, an Anglican and English professor, writes about receiving unexpected gifts that we could not give ourselves, and how they change us. He says that when unexpected gifts come each of us is led to admit that, on any given day, “I don’t really know where I am going, even if I like to think I do, or think Google does; that if I know what I am looking for, I do not therefore know what I need; that I am not master of my destiny and captain of my fate; (and) that it is probably a very good thing that I am not master of my destiny and captain of my fate.”

Unexpected gifts un-captain us.
Now, in the context in which we first brought it up, naming God as our captain might appear to be something we only need to worry about at the time of death or - wink, wink - the end of the world. Good to keep in mind, but not so much for now.

But then I read this article from a man reflecting on his terminally ill father’s decision not to end his life early by active, artificial means - euthanasia. The adult son writes that

‘Death with dignity’ seems to offer not only an escape from pain and humiliation but a rational and apparently noble way to leave this life. You look death in the eye and show him that you, not he, are in control. All ‘dying with dignity’ requires is that you declare yourself God. Make yourself the lord of your life and death, and you can do what you want. All you have to do, as a last, definitive act, is to do what you’ve been doing all your life: Declare yourself, on the matter at hand, the final authority, the last judge, the one vote that counts.’

“All you have to do...is to do what you’ve been doing all your life: Declare yourself the...judge...the one vote that counts.”

And in these words I saw that the opportunity to defer to the judgment and mercy of God - to receive the unexpected gift - is an opportunity that could change my life well before my death, if I let it. If I could trust it. In these words I saw that I sometimes don’t trust it. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he said. “Believe in God, believe also in me.”

The promise of Christ as he leaves his disciples, even to death, is that God does for them and for us infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. And so, as Dame Julian of Norwich once famously said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” And living in this conviction can change everything for the good.

I want to offer, as a kind of closing prayer, a song that takes these words to heart, by the Gabe Dixon Band. It’s called ‘All Will Be Well,’ and it’s the promise of the living God to us.



All will be well by the Gabe Dixon Band

The new day dawns,
And I am practicing my purpose once again.
It is fresh and it is fruitful if I win but if I lose,
Oooooo I don't know.
I will be tired but I will turn and I will go,
Only guessing til I get there then I'll know,
Oh oh oh I will know.

All the children walking home past the factories
Could see the light that's shining in my window as I write this song to you.
All the cars running fast along the interstate
Can feel the love that radiates
Illuminating what I know is true,
All will be well.
Even after all the promises you've broken to yourself,
All will be well.
You can ask me how but only time will tell.

The winter's cold,
But the snow still lightly settles on the trees.
And a mess is still a moment I can seize until I know,
That all will be well.
Even though sometimes this is hard to tell,
And the fight is just as frustrating as hell
All will be well.

All the children walking home past the factories,
Could see the light that's shining in my window as I write this song to you.
All the cars running fast along the interstate
Can feel the love that radiates
Illuminating what I know is true
All will be well.
Even after all the promises you've broken to yourself
All will be well.
You can ask me how but only time will tell.

Keep it up and don't give up
And chase your dreams and you will find
All in time.

All the children walking home past the factories
Could see the light that's shining in my window as I write this song to you.
All the cars running fast along the interstate
Can feel the love that radiates
Illuminating what I know is true,
All will be well.
Even after all the promises you've broken to yourself,
All will be well.
You can ask me how but only time will tell.

All will be well.
Even after all the promises you've broken to yourself,
All will be well.
You can ask me how but only time will tell.
You can ask me how but only time will tell.

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