March 13, 2022
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 13, 2022, Second Sunday in Lent. “Roots of Resistance” series.
Texts: Psalm 27, 13:31-35
What are you afraid of? It’s a powerful question. Some answers might be general, perennial fears—like failure or turtles. There are other times when, in a particular situation of anxiety or hesitation, I ask myself the question: “What are you afraid of, Ginger?” And I often ask the question of others as we talk through potential new paths or big decisions. What are you afraid of? Answers often include fear of pain, loss, death, humiliation, failure, hurting others, or being hurt ourselves. What others come to mind?
From all I’ve learned through study, experience, and observation, it seems that fear is at the core of so much human motivation. It’s no small thing to be able to identify what the root fear is for you in any given moment. Because when you can name it, you begin to have some agency to consider what you’re going to do with the fear. Or, perhaps, the key question is what will you allow the fear to do to you?
We know well enough that, as the hymn says, “fears and doubts too long have bound us.” Our fear can keep us from moving, from choosing, from stepping out of bondage and into liberation. Our fear can keep us from risking anything and therefore can keep us from receiving so many things. We yearn to feel safe and want to do what we think will keep us or our loved ones safe.
And that’s one reason I always get caught by the Gospel text for today. Jesus laments over Jerusalem saying, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Why would people—why would we—be unwilling to be gathered under the wings of God? Doesn’t that seem like a safe place? What is it that keeps us from running for our lives into the arms of God’s care?
In the Gospel text it makes sense that the power players in Jerusalem wouldn’t cozy up to Jesus, since he challenged the system of domination through which they got their power. But why would the average person reject Jesus? Jerusalem and its temple were the center and source of Jewish identity. Perhaps without realizing it, the people had made Jerusalem and certain interpretations of the ancient messianic prophesies into an idol—the center and hope of their life. Jesus was a different kind of messiah than expected. And he pushed against old boundaries and practices, even signaling that God’s grace and favor was for gentile as well as Jew. Jesus spoke of a “new temple” and pointed to himself. He celebrated a “new Passover” and pointed to his own death as the means of a new Exodus, a new freedom. But the people couldn’t receive that good news; they couldn’t perceive the new thing that God was doing in Jesus. They were caught in the old understanding, the old expectation, caught in the way they thought it should be. Perhaps they were afraid of losing these cherished understandings and expectations, of losing their identity, what they considered their safety. Perhaps they were afraid they’d been wrong somehow. Perhaps they were afraid of change.
Folks might have also rejected Jesus because they’d heard the word on the street, they knew that Jesus was a marked man, in danger of being killed by the state just for being who he was. Maybe people rejected Jesus because they thought his issues had nothing to do with them. Or maybe people rejected Jesus because they were afraid they would get identified with Jesus, that being too close to Jesus might put themselves and their families at risk.
Both fear of loss and change and fear of danger and harm are part of our current moment in all sorts of ways.
In the midst of significant and rapid shifts both cultural and environmental (even before COVID), these changes driven by all sorts of factors, a deep-seated sense of instability hums under and around everything and everyone. Change and instability unsettles us, consciously or unconsciously triggering our sense of vulnerability and our fear of loss. And when malevolent forces play upon the anxieties and fears that get stirred by human vulnerability and start chanting the old tribal and racist tropes for whatever selfish purposes, the violence and backlash that trail in the wake of those things aren’t really a surprise. And of course violence and backlash create more fear and lack of safety for siblings who already live each day with a target on their backs simply for being who they are.
And I’ve heard people say that “their” issue (whoever “they” are) has nothing to do with me. I’ve heard folks grapple with the vitriol that results if they speak up for themselves or for siblings who are marginalized, hurt, or disenfranchised. It’s a constant negotiation for many to figure out what risks to take, if any, in relationship or in the public square. And I’ve been told stories of colleagues in other parts of the country moving their families to a safe place out of fear of retaliation for taking a public stance and action for racial equity and justice. It can be dangerous to practice solidarity. Fear of loss and change, fear of harm and putting yourself or your loved ones in danger, these things are part of our reality.
In such a turbulent time in history, one question for us as people of faith is where do we locate ourselves and with whom? What are we afraid of? What will we let that fear do to us?
When the Pharisees warn of Herod’s murderous intentions against him, Jesus did not give in to the enemy’s fear tactics, didn’t allow fear to hold him hostage. He didn’t allow fear to trick him into believing he could move the hearts and minds of Herod and other enemies by playing on their terms and not God’s. Jesus entrusted his life to God’s love and power. That gave him the freedom to continue moving, to do what he was called by God to do. What set Jesus free from his fear? Love—God’s love for him and God’s loving intention for the whole world to which Jesus had committed his life. Jesus risked his own safety for the good not of himself but of the whole, not just for his tribe but for the whole, not just for his own family, but for the whole, Jesus risked himself for love of others, for the sake of God’s loving, Kin-dom vision.
This past Monday was the 57th anniversary of what is known as “Bloody Sunday,” the fateful day when, in response to voter suppression of Black citizens and the murder by state troopers of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African American protestor, more than 600 persons engaged in a peaceful protest march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were met with brutal violence from state troopers. The late, great U.S. Congressman, John Lewis, suffered a fractured skull on that day as he led the march. A few days later, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held a prayer session on the bridge, together with 2500 people who’d responded to his call to come and complete the planned march. That evening, several white clergy who’d come at Dr. King’s call were attacked by a group of local white men. One of those attacked, Rev. James Reeb, died from injuries. Of course, because Rev. Reeb was white, his death was “More widely reported than the death of…Jimmie Lee Jackson a few weeks earlier, Rev. Reeb’s death brought national attention to the voting rights struggle. The death also moved President Lyndon B. Johnson to call a special session of Congress, where he urged legislators to pass the Voting Rights Act.”[i] I was reminded of this last piece of the history by Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter, who shared the story on Twitter.
And all the names I’ve just mentioned—Jimmie Lee, John, Martin, James, Bernice, and even Lyndon—are examples of those who took and take personal risks for the cause of right, of justice, of love for their neighbor. To love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves is the heart of it all. Love is what fueled Jesus. Love has fueled all those through the ages who have risked themselves for love and justice. That same love can be our fuel.
“Somewhere I saw Stanley Hauerwas quoted as saying, ‘It’s hard to remember that Jesus did not come to make us safe, but rather to make us disciples’…Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart. And, at the same time, ‘the faint of heart’—those who are fearful and lack courage—are among those most in need of Jesus. In Jesus we meet the grace, strength, friendship, and perfect love of God. And, as it is written, ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ (1 John 4:18)” If God loves us, what do we have to fear? As we allow ourselves to comprehend the power of God’s steadfast love, that love will set us free from so much that binds us, our fears of failure, of being hurt, of feeling overwhelmed, of loss, of making a fool of ourselves, of living a meaningless life, and when it comes down to it, our fear of death.
“In Jesus we see God’s love fuel courage to face the worst the world can do, strength to love enemies, and triumph over death itself. God’s love is indeed powerful and can set us free to live more fully and with greater courage. But as one of my spiritual guides likes to remind me, ‘There’s no safety in being free.’
To follow Jesus means that personal safety is not our first priority. Instead, the priority is receiving and sharing the love of God made real. The priority is to become more like Christ. That will mean facing our personal fears and the obstacles to living with an open heart and mind. It will mean overcoming inner anxieties about living with open hands and open arms. So much in human experience and the brokenness of human relationship teaches us to be guarded and afraid, to clutch and seek to control. To learn how to be yourself and to share yourself generously, to ‘risk your significance,’[ii] is part of the curriculum for Christian discipleship…As [you] continue on the journey of this love-fueled freedom, Christ’s call will find expression in [your life] in some form or fashion…
Throughout the Bible, those called to follow God are often afraid and painfully aware of their frailties and shortcomings. It’s OK to be honest about your fear. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel the fear that rises up when threatened with physical harm or the loss of things we hold dear. Even Jesus prayed that the cup of suffering might pass from him. But those who engage in sacred resistance, seeking to embody the love of God and to become more like Christ, will put themselves in places of risk and danger for the sake of the call to love, peace, and justice.
One of the clarifying questions I often ask myself: …what is the story of my life I would be proud to have told?”[iii] Today, what am I giving up, how am I willing to be made uncomfortable, what risks am I taking to make my love of neighbor real in the world? In 1965 would I have traveled to Selma to march with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee? In 33 C.E. would I have run into the shadow of the enfolding wings of Jesus’ love as he lamented over Jerusalem? What about you? What will we do with our fear?
The promise is that when we bring our fear to God, it will always be met with love. And THAT love is stronger than anything else. That love gives us courage. That love sets us free. That love wins. The Lord of love is the stronghold, the refuge, of our lives. Of whom shall we be afraid? (Ps 27:1b)
 Peter Walker, “The Holy City” in “Living the Word,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2000, found at www.sojo.net.