Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 05, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
During some downtime on my New Orleans vacation, like a city slicker I forked over $50 for the privilege of spending two hours in a swamp. There was a lot to be afraid of. While we all waited to get on the tour boat, some people were slathering on the bug spray like their lives depended on it. I didn’t bring any, and for once that wasn’t an oversight. The tour operator claimed on their Web site that there were no bugs in the swamp during the day, and sure enough, I didn’t get a single bite, or hear a single banjo.
Turns out, during the day, a swamp is a surprisingly pleasant place. It’s not scary or stinky; It’s just a flooded forest, after all. Water flows slowly among shady cypress trees, turtles sun themselves, birds sing. There’s nothing to be afraid of, except alligators of course. Our guide was quite adept at calling them over to the boat. He would feed them by tossing them marshmallows, or make them leap out of the water to grab a hot dog off a stick.
Even after this display of lightning-fast meat consumption, one of the other tourists kept sticking his hands outside the protective rails on our boat. Our guide had to tell him three times not to give the ’gators an opportunity, because they can jump up and snap their jaws faster than you can pull your hand away. In this instance, that tourist should have been more afraid, not less.
Of course there’s a difference between primal fears and learned fears. Primal fears, like fears of dangerous animals, are part of our evolution. We can learn to control them through reason, as I trusted that if we followed the guide’s instructions, the alligators couldn’t hurt us. Otherwise, I reasoned, the tour company would have gone out of business long ago. But then there are other fears, like the tourists who were putting on bug spray because they didn’t know any better, or didn’t believe the promise. Nobody suffered from that, but other times, fear causes terrible suffering, and not just for the person who is afraid.
Unscrupulous state legislators and media outlets managed to whip up fears over transgender people using public restrooms, even though there’s no evidence that they have ever caused a problem, much less a crime. Those lawmakers and newsmakers were so successful at creating fear out of whole cloth that private citizens have now started attacking people whom they imagined were using the “wrong” toilet. This is hardly new, though. For decades, the media have been sensationalizing all manner of crimes, and we began to believe that danger lurks around every corner. The truth is that America is safer now than it has ever been. Overall crime, and violent crime, are at historic lows; they have been dropping steadily for the last three decades. But that truth doesn’t make money for media companies, doesn’t help myriad special interests drum up support, doesn’t make us give up power to people who claim they can keep us safe.
Things weren’t so different in Jesus’s day. The Pharisees don’t appear in today’s Gospel lesson, but their fingerprints are all over it. They had become popular and powerful by creating an ever-wider net of religious laws. People liked this because they wanted to avoid breaking the laws of Moses, and having a more specific and comprehensive code than what was written in the Torah could help them do that. For example, touching a dead body was the most severe breach of religious purity, but the Pharisees invented a prohibition against touching something that was touching one, like a bier.
The Pharisees enjoyed their position in society. As in every age, they found it more appealing to tell other people what to do from a secure position of comfort than to actually help those in need. Jesus’s compassion was no match for the Pharisees’ fear mongering and scolding. He saw a woman not only in anguished despair, but also in acute danger. In that society, losing both her husband and her son would condemn her to a life of miserable destitution.
Perhaps Jesus connected on a particularly personal level. Jesus and the widow might not seem to have much in common, but it wasn’t difficult for him to empathize. His own mother was most likely a widow at this point, and he knew that it was her destiny to watch her son die, too. In any case, his loving compassion drove him to defy the scolds, and not merely symbolically, but by solving an actual problem. Jesus’s fingerprints were all over that bier, and the bearers stood still. He commanded the dead man to arise, and death itself obeyed him and released the man back into life. Jesus took him, and gave him back to his mother.
The people were afraid. Of course they were. Overcoming fear takes courage and honesty, and humility, for old fears may be so familiar and comfortable that they feel like they are a part of who we are. We may even be afraid of fearlessness itself. Losing some fears means accepting change, new truths, perhaps new responsibilities. But then, miraculously, the people saw the end result of love and compassion overcoming fear. The power of God allowed them to see physically what we usually must learn by faith: love and compassion are the ways and the nature of God; they are stronger than fear, and even stronger than death.
We can’t raise the dead like Jesus did, or if you can, tell me later — we’re going to make a fortune! But by doing something only he could do, Jesus showed us what all of us can do. We can look with clear and loving eyes at the world, and at the outcome of the choices we make. Jesus has given us real power to change the world. Reason, grace, and positive emotion can take the place of the fears the world tries to cultivate. That’s another way to make miracles happen.
St. John's Homepage