Something there is that does not love a wall.
A phrase from Robert Frost that has been running through my head this week. When I sat down to put my thoughts together for today, it kept coming again. And yet, I was certain I had used it before in a sermon since coming here. Looking back I found that it was my first sermon as your priest in charge in February that also began this way. Then I had recently returned from Israel and multiple encounters with the wall dividing the West Bank from the rest of the country – erected across streets and neighborhoods without regard to the people and families whose lives were disrupted, made more difficult, and diminished by its presence – a presence that in essence expresses the wish that those fenced out will be invisible, or better yet, simply go away. A wall that denotes them as less, as outside, beyond the pale of the dominant group. A wall erected out of fear.
This week Frost’s phrase returns as we watch horrified at the plight of the refugees who continue to flee wars and persecution; displacement and hate. We listen to radio news of more boats coming across the Mediterranean, not all their passengers making it. We see on TV the body of a young child washed up on the shoreline who along with his mother and siblings has been drowned. And lastly we see the crowds of the desperate gathered; blocked by the newly erected fence between Serbia and Hungary. Desperate men and women, bewildered children looking for a place to live – a place where they can raise their families in peace, a place they can contribute their skills and labor to, a place they can be without fear.
And of course the fence has been erected out of fear, as well as other motives. Fear of being overrun. Fear of having their culture diluted by people of other faiths, languages and practices. Our country has been limiting the number of refugees we would take, as well as wanting much time to process anyone we might take in, out of fear that terrorists might slip in among them. And so the refugees accumulate, try to go around any barriers, block highways and do whatever they can to gain the freedom denied them at home. It is hard to watch and it is hard to know what to do.
I don’t know about you but I have in my life made most of my worst decisions out of fear – fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of the other. Fear can easily lead us to misperceptions about both dangers and opportunities. It can paralyze us or cause us to build walls or fences around whatever we’re afraid of losing – whether tangible, or otherwise. It makes all our focus turn on ourselves and blinds us to the truth and to the needs of others.
We hesitate to be generous for fear of being taken advantage of, or we fail to reach out to avoid having our gesture rebuffed. We don’t ask the questions we have so that we don’t admit our lack of knowledge. We say too little for fear of saying too much – or of being ourselves for fear of rejection. “All of which is why it’s hard to be wise, or prudent or compassionate when we’re afraid.”
In our gospel reading Jesus tells them for the second time in Mark’s gospel that he is to be betrayed, killed and three days later he will rise again. We are told that they don’t understand what he is saying but they are afraid to ask. And the next thing we are told is that they are arguing with one another about who is the greatest. It’s impossible to know why they hesitate to ask Jesus what he means – whether not one of them wants to appear not to understand, or perhaps they understand too well and wonder what will happen to them and don’t want to face up to that, and so they start thinking only of themselves. Mark is setting up a contrast, as he does a number of times in his gospel, between faith and fear.
After he stills the storm that had terrified his disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40). And as he restores Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father (who had just been told that his daughter was dead), “Do not fear, only believe.” Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is, or at least that kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts, and drives to desperate measures.
And so I wonder this morning what fears you are bringing with you in this time of upheaval of populations in the near east and Europe; closer to home of the rapid changes to our city of growth and population, of our coming presidential election; and more personally fear about being alone, fear about losing a loved one or a relationship ending, anxieties about health or employment, concern for the future of one’s children or grandchildren, apprehension for the environment and the world we will leave behind? Or a lingering uncertainty or fear about the change coming to our parish with the change of leadership, however welcomed and anticipated.
All these and more strip life of pleasure and joy and make it very difficult to be wise and faithful stewards of the present moment and the resources with which God has entrusted us. These fears have a way of sneaking into our very being and robbing us of the abundant life Jesus came both to announce and to share.
Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties is an invitation not to faith as intellectual assent – as if believing in God somehow prohibits fear – but rather to faith as movement, faith as taking a step forward (even a little step) in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises.
Discerning the disciples’ fear and listening to their argument, Jesus next turns upside down their notions about power and security. Abundant life is to be had not by gaining a powerful position, or accumulating wealth, but by welcoming children – through service to the least, by being vulnerable. Opening oneself up to another’s need, welcoming the stranger, being honest and open about our fears and needs. These may see like small things, opportunities that present themselves everyday – but it is in these everyday moments of facing our fear and reaching out past it that we find it diminishing its hold on us, replaced instead by an increasing confidence that fear and death do not have the last word. And it is our daily individual action that will support our communal reaching out with compassion that can then change the world.
Fear can too easily blind us to God’s action in and among us. We gather to be reminded of God’s presence and movement here and now, and the invitation is there – to be part of God’s ongoing work in the world – even by taking the smallest of steps. We help remind each other of that fear-dispelling presence in our midst which then allows us to not be over whelmed and to move forward in faith. Faith that the strength to do so is readily available and God’s abundant life is always surrounding us once we can see past our fear and the walls we build.
Sources: David Lose. www.davidlose.net much of it verbatim