In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Comforter. Amen
Jesus was born into anxious times. It was a time when a threatened Jewish King Herod could order the slaughter of innocent children under the age of 2 because some Magi came by looking for a newborn king. It was a time when the Jewish Queen Herodias could ask for the head of John the Baptist because he declared her marriage was illegitimate. It was a time when a woman without the protection of a father or husband or son was vulnerable. It was a time when the sick and disabled were shunned and thought to be unclean or possessed by demons. It was a time when the poor gleaned the leftovers from the wheat fields of the rich. It was a time when the mighty Roman Empire taxed the peasants of Israel. It was a time when the Romans tortured criminals with a slow agonizing death on the cross. And it was in these times that Jesus of Nazareth lived and moved and had his being.
In these anxious times, Jesus went out to the desert. He spent 40 days and nights wrestling with his demons, wrestling with temptation and distractions, illusions of grandeur. But Jesus did not give in. He prayed, kept his focus on God, and surrendered to God’s guidance and preparation for the days to come. When he returned from the desert, he began to declare, “The Kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom, has come near.”
Can’t you just imagine people’s reaction? What! Where’s the Kingdom of God in this mess? Show me! Or–Hush, hush, hush! You’ll get those Romans all stirred up. Or–Yeah. Right. This guy is looney tunes. Or–I wish the Kingdom of God would come. Cynicism, fear, dismissiveness, longing—no doubt those were some of the reactions to Jesus’ message.
When Jesus saw Simon and Andrew casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee, he said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Had Simon and Andrew known Jesus before he went off to the desert for 40 days? Was that why they dropped their nets and followed him? Or is that “immediately they left their nets” a bit of hyperbole? Maybe they had to sit with Jesus for a while and listen to what he had to say, experience the man, before they signed on. After all, Simon and Andrew must have had people who depended on them—women, children, older relatives. And the same for James and John the Sons of Zebedee. Jewish sons do not just walk out on their father. They do not just drop their nets and walk away.
The nets were the tools of everyday life for fishermen. Nets brought food up from the sea to feed the family. They caught the fish that could be traded for bread or wine or figs or oil. These men provided for the physical needs of their families with their nets.
Jesus must have been a compelling presence to pull them away from these responsibilities. Jesus said there were other ways to provide for people’s needs, other ways besides fishing with nets. And there were people beyond the immediate family to provide for. That idea must have made Simon, Andrew, James and John stop and wonder. They were being called by Jesus to something bigger than the family fishing business.
And once they joined Jesus, he began teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of heaven, and curing every disease and sickness. This is how he began his ministry and this is what he did for the rest of his earthly life.
This is how Jesus responded to the anxious times in which he lived.
You and I live in anxious times. There is plenty to feel anxious about in the 21st Century, just as there was in the 1st Century. Fear fuels anger and anger boils into rage and incivility and defensiveness and selfishness until the air vibrates with tension. So how can we stay grounded in an atmosphere taunt with fear and anger?
In 1985, a book was published called Generation to Generation. It was written by Rabbi Edwin Friedman who was a family therapist and a consultant on leadership in Christian and Jewish congregations. Clergy were reading and discussing his book trying to learn how to be better leaders. Friedman’s suggestions to clergy are good for all of us.
First, he said, try to separate yourself in the emotions swirling around the community. (Easier said than done!)
Next, he advised, step back and clarify your own principles and vision.
This is a process of soul searching. Turn off all the chatter and give yourself a quiet space to think, ponder, question, pray, change your mind.
Then he said, once you know where you stand, be willing to be vulnerable and exposed. This is not about hardening your position and coming out swinging.
This is about knowing where you stand and staying connected to others by listening and conversation.
And finally, Rabbi Friedman said learn to regulate your own emotions even when others try to sabotage you. They will accuse you of all sorts of things, spread rumors and attack you personally, but stay calm.
This is not natural behavior. We human beings are programmed for fight or flight.
As soon as we feel threatened, we either want to take off for the hills or arm ourselves to the teeth. Being a non-anxious presence is NOT natural to us.
It is something we have to teach ourselves and practice every day.
One of the great Christian teachers for staying grounded in God is Father Thomas Keating. He is a Trappist monk and priest who is 94 years old and lives at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts. The story goes that back in the 1970s, father Keating saw all these young people going passed the abbey to learn meditation with the Buddhist down the road. The Hindu practices of Yoga and the Buddhist practices of meditation had begun to appeal to the spiritual hunger in American youth. Father Keating knew that Christianity also had a contemplative tradition, but it rarely left the monetary so many Christians were not aware of it. Eventually, Father Keating and others co-founded Contemplative Outreach, an international, ecumenical spiritual network.
Another well-loved Christian teacher is Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk and priest who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation. He says, “When prayer is authentic, it will always lead to actions of mercy; when actions of mercy are attempted at any depth, they will always drive you to prayer.”
The world’s religious traditions have long practiced silence and meditation as a path to hearing God’s call. When Jesus went into the desert, he wrestled with his demons, and came to a deeper understanding of the work before him. He committed himself to this vision wholeheartedly and came back to the community willing to be vulnerable to the attacks and temptations there.
And he invited others to join him, to help him, to be present with him, and he taught them how to be grounded in God and not react to the tensions around them.
Sometimes the disciples understood and sometimes they didn’t.
There are many stories about when they let fear and anxiety get the better of them.
What! You want us to feed 5,000 people?
What! You want us to go out to preach with only a staff in our hands and sandals on our feet? No food! No money!
What! You are really going to let that woman pour expensive perfume on your feet when we could have spent the money on the poor?
In all these situations and ones much more life threatening, Jesus remained Jesus.
He stayed centered in his call from God.
Each of us can move into a quiet space and ask what we are called to do.
What do we know in our head and in our heart that God is calling us to be and do in these anxious times? The problems we have are global, and we can do our part to relieve them. We can do our part through programs right here at St. Dunstan’s. Help out with Family Promise. Make a casserole for Holy Comforter.
Get involved with a refugee family. There are so many ways to help both near and far. If we make time in our lives for prayer and contemplation, then the path that leads to action becomes clear. And when we understand what God is calling us to do, we will find that others are similarly called and we will have companions in our work.
Our job is to be the light, the light of Christ, the light of God’s love. And we cannot be the light when we are afraid or angry or confused. So fear not.
We follow Jesus who carries God’s light. Jesus has called us to be people of light.
God is our light and our salvation; whom then shall we fear?
God is the strength of our lives; of whom then shall we be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)