Fear Itself

Fear Itself

Mark 6:30-56

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

11 February 2018

 

 

    Fear is a theme that runs through the Gospel of Mark. And in this story the disciples' fear get in the way of their understanding who Jesus is and what he's doing.

    We've skipped over a few passages since last week's sermon, in those stories Jesus calmed the storm on the sea, cast demons into pigs, healed a woman of a twelve-year hemorrhage, and raised from apparent death a young girl. All of this witnessed by the disciples.

    Jesus also sent them out on their own mission. They went two-by-two, ordered to spread his message. They were also given power to heal and cast out demons. However, no stories are shared about their time away from Jesus and whether or not they were successful.

    You think after all of Jesus' teaching and all of his actions and even having sent them out on their internship, the disciples would be farther along in understanding who he is and what he's doing. But they aren't.

    First is this famous story of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus and his disciples went into the wilderness to get away from the crowds, but now the crowds have followed them even here, so Jesus teaches them. The disciples are anxious—they didn't plan to feed all of these people. But they are forgetting what Jesus has already taught them.

    When he sent them out on their own mission, he told them not to take any money or any bread and to rely upon the hospitality and generosity of the people they were ministering too. Jesus is creating a new social order rooted in a new family, a table fellowship of radical hospitality. The instructions for the mission are meant to teach the disciples to let go of their anxiety and to trust in the kindness of strangers and the grace of God.

    Apparently, they've failed. Because now they are anxious. They also seem to have some money and five loaves of bread. You might miss the irony of them possessing two things Jesus earlier had specifically told them not to have.

    But Jesus shows that you can trust in God's provision and the crowd's hospitality and generosity, as more than enough food is produced to feed the masses. The message—quit worrying.

    And then we get on a boat again. Jesus has already calmed a storm. In that story Jesus questioned the disciples, "Why are you afraid?" Yet, here they are, once again in the boat in a storm, facing the forces of chaos and disorder, and they are, once again, afraid. Afraid because they still fail to understand. Afraid because their hearts are hard. Even these closest to Jesus are incapable of understanding what he is doing.

    Which prompts us to ask, what keeps us from understanding Jesus? What are we afraid of?

 

    Even as a kid, I was fascinated by history and people's stories. At family gatherings I would ask my relatives about their experiences. My great-aunt Lavenia enjoyed telling stories. She talked about how when the Depression came her parents had loaded up the six kids and all their belongings on the Model T. "It was like The Grapes of Wrath or The Beverly Hillbillies," she said, laughing. They traveled the country looking for work, though they never made it to California. She told how once, when they were in Colorado, the car couldn't make it up the slopes loaded down with so many people and things, so they all had to get out and walk as the car sputtered its way to the top.

    Your family probably has their own Depression stories.

    By 1933 one-fourth of the American workforce was unemployed. Industrial production had dropped by fifty percent. The banking system was on the verge of complete collapse, and at least two million people were homeless. According to Wikipedia, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the newly elected president "saw the Depression as partly a matter of confidence – people had stopped spending, investing, and employing labor because they were afraid to do so. . . . He therefore set out to restore confidence through a series of dramatic gestures."

    Roosevelt was convinced that the most serious problem facing the country wasn't the economic crisis itself, but the fear that had resulted from it. So, in his famous first inaugural address, he rose to speak to the people with "candor" and "decision." He realized that this was a moment of opportunity from which the country could learn and be transformed. Roosevelt declared,

 

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

 

    Roosevelt went on to thank God that the difficulties the country faced concerned material things, but that together the people could face the situation. Yes, it was a dark time, but "Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for." [By that way, that quote is an allusion to Mark chapter 5 where Jesus says, "Do not fear, only believe."] Roosevelt claimed that the country's problems had originated in the unscrupulous practices of its economic leaders; they had been a "generation of self-seekers." These leaders "have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish."

    Roosevelt challenged the people. "Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now." The situation called for "courage and devotion." Roosevelt intended to act boldly and called for the people's support.

    Facing a very complex economic and political crisis, President Roosevelt focused on one thing – unhealthy fear. Fear that was self-seeking. Fear that was paralyzing.

    Now, the Great Depression was one of the more frightening times in our history, so it is only healthy that one would be scared during such a crisis. Roosevelt's analysis was that the people had responded in unhealthy ways to their fear. What they must do is transform their fear into healthy action. They must pull together, take bold steps, and in the process they would be able to overcome this terrible situation.

 

    Herman Waetjen translates Jesus' statement to the disciples in the midst of the storm on the sea as "Keep on being courageous! I am. Stop being afraid!" What Jesus has been trying to teach them and show them is that God is creating a New Human Being which he, Jesus, is the first of but which is available to all of them as followers. Waetjen writes, "To be divine offspring means nothing less than full participation in the limitless possibilities of God." That's the meaning of walking on water and stilling storms, of casting out demons and raising the dead—this new way of God is an opportunity for us to share in God's power and glory to the benefit of all humanity. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ—all humanity is called to share in the power and glory of the children of God.

    The disciples' fear is holding them back from truly understanding this good news, from realizing their full potential as God's agents. Do we have the same problem?

 

    I was 29 when I began my journey out as a gay man. Part of what kept me in the closet for so long was fear. Fear that I'd lose my career as a minister. Fear that I'd lose my family. Fear that I'd never have children of my own.

    Finally, in the autumn of 2003, after much prayer and struggle, I had my epiphany, while watching the HBO film version of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. When, at the close of the film, Prior Walter looks at the camera and blesses the audience with "More Life" and extends the call with the words "The Great Work Begins," I finally found the resolve, the integrity, and the courage to pursue the truth.

    This week I was looking back over a sermon I preached on fear in the Gospel of Mark back in 2006, less than a year into my pastorate at the Cathedral of Hope in Oklahoma City. Near the close of the sermon I said, "The way to authentic human existence, the way to create God's reign, is to grab hold of the power of Jesus." I then spoke of how in the months before I had experienced moments of overwhelming joy. Some of those were in worship, some were as I experienced life finally as a member of the gay community.

    In that sermon, I then closed:

 

I'm overwhelmed by a sense of elation, excitement, confidence, hope, and freedom. It is a joy born of transformation. A transformation that was not painless, but was healing. An opportunity to release fear and experience the power of God.

 

    Reading that more than a decade later, I remembered how the fear I once had melted away once I spoke the truth about myself and began to live freely as God intended me to live. To give up our fear and claim our power and glory is to experience moments of overwhelming joy.

    I then realized something else about that sermon. I met Michael Cich that week. So, it was the last sermon I ever preached before I met my future husband. With hindsight, I see that I was ready. I had undergone a transformation, I was optimistic and joyful, and my eyes were open to new possibilities. So, a few days later, when he walked into the restaurant where I was eating with friends, and I saw him come through the door looking so handsome and confident, I was ready.

    My story is one of success and blessing. I kept my calling and career. I kept my family. And I found love which ultimately led to our blessed child.

    

    We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Instead, let us overcome our fear and claim our birthright as the children of God—our share of divine power and glory. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ.


Cutting for Stone

Cutting for StoneCutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My colleague Jim Harmon gave this to me for Christmas saying how much he enjoyed it and thought I would too. How correct he was. I think this will now rank among my favourite novels.

I was fully captivated by the characters, the setting, the plot, the writing--everything. At one point around 3/4 of the way through I wasn't sure the book hadn't made a mistake but then that plot development set up an amazing series of events to conclude the story. I finished the novel fully caught up in the emotion of these characters stories.

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Multitudinous Self

A good essay on the self, defending a realist position that is a development of William James.  An excerpt:

The multitudinous self is based on the psychologist Ulric Neisser’s account of the self, laid out in his paper ‘Five Kinds of Self-knowledge’ (1988). Neisser encourages us to reevaluate the sources of information that help us to identify the self. There are five sources, which are so different from one another that it is plausible to conceive each as establishing a different ‘self’. First there is the ecological self, or the embodied self in the physical world, which perceives and interacts with the physical environment; the interpersonal self, or the self embedded in the social world, which constitutes and is constituted by intersubjective relationships with others; the temporally extended self, or the self in time, which is grounded in memories of the past and anticipation of the future; the private self which is exposed to experiences available only to the first person and not to others; and finally the conceptual self, which (accurately or falsely) represents the self to the self by drawing on the properties or characteristics of not only the person but also the social and cultural context to which she belongs.


Hauerwas on MacIntyre

The website First Things sends out archived essays on Sundays, and this week's e-mail included an 11 year old essay by theologian Stanley Hauerwas on philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre.  Hauerwas is one of my deepest theological influences and MacIntyre's After Virtue has deeply affected my thinking on the virtues and practice of ministry.  In the essay, Hauerwas discusses the virtues of MacIntyre's work, particularly a focus on his philosophy of action.  An excerpt:

The “plain person” is the character MacIntyre has identified to display the unavoidability of the virtues. Plain persons are those characterized by everyday practices such as sustaining families, schools, and local forms of political community. They engage in trades and professions that have required them to learn skills constitutive of a craft. Such people are the readers he hopes his books may reach. Grounded as they are in concrete practices necessary to sustain a common life, they acquire the virtues that make them capable of recognizing the principles of natural law and why those principles call into question the legitimating modes of modernity.

MacIntyre has sought, within the world we necessarily inhabit, to help us recover resources to enable us to act intelligibly.


He’s Meddling Now

He's Meddling Now

Mark 3:7-35

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

28 January 2018

 

 

    There's an old phrase used in the South when parishioners get uncomfortable with what the preacher is saying, "He's quit preachin' and gone to meddlin' now."

    And one is tempted to think that about Jesus at this point in the story, especially when he rebukes his own mother. We are so accustomed to the close affinities between family and faith that Jesus' rejection of family startles us, maybe even offends us a little. Is he really saying that we have to be willing to break with our families if we are to follow him?

 

    Jesus is building a new community. Today's reading opens with the multitudes following him. He is drawing disciples from all over the region. Displaced persons are coming to him. Scholar Ben Witherington even asks whether this multitude seeking healing are people who have been beaten by the authorities and are therefore fleeing for their own safety.

    Herman Waetjen, a professor in the San Francisco Theological Seminary, describes the social setting of this Gospel:

 

    [This is] a society in which the process of redemption has broken down. The use and the control of power by the ruling class are self-serving, oriented toward the preservation of the existing structures and institutions without regard for . . . mutuality . . . . The system has no integrity.

 

    And so Jesus makes it clear that he is forming a new community which will challenge all of this and provide a better world. Ched Myers calls Jesus' action both a "government in exile" and a "community of resistance." He goes up onto a mountain—always a symbolic site—and appoints the Twelve.

    Now, Jesus didn't have only twelve disciples. In fact Mark makes it seem like there are hundreds of followers. Nor is it clear that these Twelve are to be seen as the leaders, because as we continue to read through the Gospel of Mark, you'll discover that Mark is highly critical of the Twelve and their inability to understand what Jesus is doing. In the other Gospels and in later tradition they do take on more a leadership role, but not here in Mark. You'll also notice that the Four Gospels can't agree on who they were.

    So, many scholars believe that this is more a symbolic action. There had originally been twelve tribes of Israel, so Jesus is naming Twelve followers as his apostles to signify his formation of this new social order.

    Herman Waetjen explains this new role,

 

By endowing them with the same authority he bears as the New Human Being to preach the good news and to exorcise demons, Jesus establishes the egalitarian character of this new people of God. . . . They serve only as representatives of the community at large in which there are to be no vertical structures or hierarchical rankings. Related to Jesus, to the twelve, and to one another horizontally, all are to participate equally in the power, sovereignty, and freedom of the New Human Being.

 

To summarize—Jesus has received power and authority from God through the Holy Spirit and now Jesus is sharing that exact same power and authority with his followers, as symbolized by the twelve. This is not a hierarchy, but a table fellowship, a new family, built around full equality where every follower receives the power and authority of God.

    And then they go to a home. I have pointed out before that the home is a repeated theme in the Gospel of Mark. The home symbolizes that Jesus is not only forming a new social order but a new family. The community of followers, the church, will be a new family, not based upon kinship and blood times, but a common purpose and mission.

    And so it is in this context, with Jesus surrounded by his new family, that his family of origin appears. They think he's gone crazy. Maybe they are only worried for his safety. Maybe they know that the authorities are now out to get him and instead of lying low he continues to do provocative things. Or maybe they really do think he's gone insane.

    Remember, in the Gospel of Mark there is no birth story, no genealogy. Mark doesn't care about Jesus' family of origin for it is not important to the story that Mark is telling. Jesus' mother is never named in Mark and never appears as a character, which is very unlike the Gospel of Luke where she plays a prominent role. This reminds us that the different gospel writers had different goals in telling their stories.

    As if to manifest his family's fears, some investigators from the capital arrive accusing Jesus of being Satanic. Now, how often do the authorities use inaccurate, charged language to try to turn a crowd against a reformer? They are also propounding a wild conspiracy theory—Jesus only looks like he's fighting Satan, he's really in league with him. The themes of this story are universal and continue to speak good news to us in our contemporary context.

    This conversation is central to Jesus' conflict with his opponents. If they are right, then what he is saying and doing is wrong, even evil. And if he is right, then what they are doing is wrong. There is no "agreeing to disagree." Someone is right and someone is wrong. Reality, truth, goodness—these things exist. People may have a legal or constitutional right to believe whatever they want, but they are not entitled morally and intellectually to be wrong. Wrong ideas must be challenged through persuasion and refutation.

    And so Jesus gives us a model of argumentation. He is casting out demons, destroying the power of Satan, and setting people free. Why would Satan destroy his own power? He wouldn't. It's illogical, nonsensical.

    No, Jesus says he is like a thief, who has entered the strong man's house and bound him so that the house might be plundered. What a subversive metaphor to use! In essence Jesus confesses that he is a criminal, but his actions correspond to the will of God. It is his opponents who are in league with Satan, because their policies exclude and harm other people.

    Jesus then announced a blanket pardon—everyone will be forgiven, no matter what they have done. This is the most subversive idea in all of human history. Grace and mercy are given freely, without merit or condition. We do not earn it. It is our free gift from a loving God.

    The only thing, however, that can separate you from God's love is to do what Jesus' opponents have just done—to call God's liberating work evil.

    If you exclude and oppresses people, work against justice and liberation, and the egalitarian new social order, then you are unable to participate fully in God's free grace because of your own blindness, fear, and hardness of heart.

    And this is one reason I am so shocked by our contemporaries who call themselves Christians and yet actively work to exclude other people. They have somehow missed the most fundamental and basic teachings of the Gospel. They don't simply believe something different than we do, they are wrong in the way that Jesus' opponents were wrong.

    Jesus has refuted the argument of the investigators from the capital and called them the agents of Satan. And then he turns back to his family of origin and rejects them for they have rejected what he is teaching. He will form a new family, centered on a common mission and purpose.

    So, yes, this is one of the places where the Gospel can be very difficult for us. We enjoy comfortable religion, but the Gospel of Mark doesn't want to make us comfortable. Last year when I was at the Festival of Homiletics retired Methodist Bishop Will Willmon declared that preachers are not called to care for people, that if we want to care for people there are other professions that do that. Preachers are truth proclaimers and that often is discomforting.

    I confess that I like comfort food. I often wish things were easier. But 39 years ago I told Jesus I was going to follow him and sometimes that way is challenging and difficult.

    Jesus is saying that we must be willing to break with what is familiar in order to participate in God's new work. Sometimes we do have to break with family and friends and elements of our past.

    But here's the thing. God's new work is intended to include everyone. God is constantly working to bring those intransigent folk into the fold; it is their hardness of heart that separates them. They need only open their eyes to the truth, repent of their sin, and embrace the good news that is freely given to them.

    Here's Herman Waetjen again:

 

The community of the New Human Being encompasses all who attach themselves to it for the recovery of their freedom and autonomy, their health and integrity, without any ranking of class and achievement, without any permanent levels of power and privilege.

 

    God is creating a new family where all are welcome, all are empowered, all are free. If you get that, then you are part of the family. Why wouldn't everyone want to join?


How Democracies Die

How Democracies DieHow Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After hearing the authors on NPR and reading an op-ed, I ordered the book and read it in about half a day.

The opening chapters are revealing, as they use their historical expertise on how democracies failed in Europe in the 1930's and Latin America in the 1960's and 70's to detail how elected officials subvert the system. They also discuss the nations where such attempts were thwarted and how.

They discuss America's history with demagogues and how the system has always been able to check them in the past. They identify the strengths of our system as not the written rules but the values of mutual toleration and forbearance.

Next they relate how since the 1970's these unwritten norms have been assaulted and weakened. Fault is spread around, but they rightly identify the Republican Party as having committed the most egregious attacks upon our democratic norms. In these chapters they illustrate how Donald Trump's election is a symptom and not the cause of our current crisis.

The chapters on how Trump's election and first year parallel the playbook of other authoritarian leaders may be necessary for the historical record, but this reader already grasped all of that before reaching those chapters.

What I looked forward to and found lacking was the ending. As they had given thorough historical analysis of how democracies die, I wanted a similar thorough analysis of how other nations had thwarted the attacks of demagogues or recovered from them. In other words, I was hoping analysis would lead to good, practical advice.

There is some of that, but not in the depth I had been hoping for. And they, unnecessarily, spend time on what policies they think the Democrats need to pursue--their "new" agenda sounding to me a lot like the policies of Hillary Clinton.

One takeaway is that playing hardball will only exacerbate the crisis, as will left-leaning ideological purity. Now is the time for moderation, compromise, and institution-building.

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