Delivered at First Church in Sterling, MA
February 21, 2016
Scripture: Psalm 27 and Luke 13: 31-35
Have you heard about the fight that Donald Trump and the Pope got in this week? This week the Pope was in Mexico, and he said, referring to Donald Trump, that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. That is not the Gospel.”
And Trump shot back that the Pope was “distasteful” for questioning his faith.
In an attempt to “broker peace” between the two men on the late show, Stephen Colbert asked, “Is it possible that you guys are fighting because you have so much in common?”
“After all, you both think you're infallible,” he continued. And showing a picture of Donald Trump’s gold plated toilet, and the Pope’s gold plated papal throne, he said: “You both sit on golden thrones and you both wear very silly things on your heads.”
I happen to agree with Donald Trump that it is distasteful to question someone else’s religious faith.
I also agree with the Pope that building bridges—engaging in relationship with others, particularly those we fear, particularly the least, the last, and the lost-- is what our Gospel calls us to do, and building walls is not.
(Colbert pointed out that the Vatican is 100% surrounded by walls, but never mind that fact.)
Fear builds walls, faith builds bridges.
That’s easy to say, but let’s be honest: most of the time our fears are much stronger than our faith.
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?
The only thing to fear, President John F. Kennedy Jr. said in his inaugural speech, is fear itself. And that is the truest thing I can think of to say to you about fear. Because it is fear that keeps us from living. It is fear that keeps us separate from each other, and from our neighbors. It is fear that causes us to buy more, and to love carefully, selectively and with tight control. It is fear that keeps us locked up in our homes, more prone to depression and obesity and loneliness and addiction and isolation. It is fear that drives us to build walls and gated communities and barbed wire fences—around our families and our neighborhoods and our hearts--to keep people out. It is fear that stunts our generosity and our curiosity. It is fear that even causes us to kill one another. Fear is actually lethal.
Our psalmist says: The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?
Turns out the answer to that question is long and complex, and it ranges from public speaking to death to spiders to clowns.
In the 2015 survey of America’s top fears done by Chapman University, they uncovered some interesting results. More than 1,500 adults around the country participated in the survey, rating their level of fear for each question on a scale of 1 (not afraid) to 4 (very afraid). Here are the categories in which Americans' fears fell most heavily:
1. Corruption of government officials
2. Cyber terrorism
3. Corporate tracking of personal information
4. Terrorist attacks
5. Government tracking of personal information
7. Identity theft
8. Economic collapse
9. Running out of money in the future
10. Credit card fraud
So we are scared of our government, and scared we are being watched, scared of terrorism (which is the point of terrorism, after all) and scared we will run out of money. As I said last week, studies show that when people are under stress conditions: like the anxiety of losing wealth or status, like illness, like worry over the decline of the middle class, like poverty, like crime, like fear of terrorism or war—people are less likely to welcome the stranger as the gospel calls us to do. Less likely to treat the foreigner among us as if they were native-born, as Leviticus cautions us to. Less likely to trust authority, or institutions. Less likely to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, as Jesus tells us is the second of only two commandments that matter in the end. In other words, when you and I are in the wilderness of perceived powerlessness--we adopt xenophobic tendencies to fear those different than us; to scapegoat, to blame, to become more tribalistic, and surround ourselves with people we perceive to share the same values and the same characteristics. Our fear erodes our faith. It makes us unable to see one another as beloved by God. Fear is invariably selfish and keeps our world smaller and more controlled.
And it keeps us walled off. We stay in our houses, we turn on our TVs, we don’t get to know our neighbors, we become more sedentary and depressed.
The most oft-repeated phrase in our scriptures is “Do not be afraid” for a reason.
But beloved, this is hard work because we are really invested in the business of being afraid. Marketers have made a lot of money capitalizing on our fears. Politicians have risen to power capitalizing on our fears.
Those of us who have children know so well how the culture of fear can take hold. Our children rarely leave the house anymore without our watchful eyes on them, except to go to very regimented activities where we think we can guarantee their safety. They are having difficulty learning who and how to trust, and how to become independent and self-reliant, because we won’t let them. People have gotten rich off of us—state of the art car seats and home security systems and organic baby food and after school enrichment programs and SAT prep tutoring for our 5th graders—there is an economy of parental fear.
And this economy is based on the false premise that our children are in more danger than ever, when the opposite is true. Articles from the Washington Post in recent years have said statistically there has literally never been a safer time to be a kid in America. The child mortality rate has never been lower, largely because of vaccinations, but also because child homicides and teen suicides are down to the lowest they have been in decades. The reported child missing persons are at record low levels and 96% of missing children are run-aways, not kidnapped as we fear. Child pedestrians are much less likely to be struck by cars than ever before likely do to safety and infrastructure for sidewalks, and so on.
And yet, we keep our children under lock and key, and we call the police if we see children playing in the park by themselves, or walking home from school. We call letting our children play in the yard or walk to the store at 10 years old “free range parenting.” My parents just called that “parenting.” If you ask your average parent at the playground about why they have followed their school aged kids there, you’re likely to hear, “in my day, we could play outside by ourselves. The world was different then. It was safer.” This is statistically and patently false. The world is far safer now, by every known statistic. And I know that it is important to teach children to be appropriately wary of strangers, to trust their interests and to keep themselves safe. But sometimes I worry that I’m teaching my children things I can’t unteach: that people are to be feared until they have proven themselves trustworthy.
More and more, the people we encounter in our country, or in our world are seen as a possible threat—to our bodies, to our wallets, to our way of life, rather than a possible friend; rather than an opportunity to see Christ in the land of the Living. And everything from play ground bullying to street gangs to institutional racism to religious persecution and war is fueled by this pervasive story that people are to be feared until proven trustworthy.
Our gospel teaches us something different. Fear builds walls. Faith builds bridges.
We need to use our fear to tell a different story about who we are as people of faith.
Sister Simone Campbell, founder of Nuns on the Bus told the UUA’s General Assembly this story two years ago. A reporter said to her: “Sister, it seems like whenever there is trouble, you walk toward it.” And she replied that it was then that she “realized that all of our spiritual leaders, when there are broken hearts or pain in our world, they have walked towards trouble. They walk towards the pain in order to embrace, touch, heal.”
Fear builds walls, faith builds bridges.
Sometimes transcending walls of fear and tearing them down means ignoring real or perceived threats to our bodies or even our lives in favor of bridge-building.
In our scripture today from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is still in Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem. The Pharisees came to Jesus, and warned Jesus that he better get out of there, because, they said, Herod wants to kill him. This was a legitimate concern. This was not the Herod who was killing babies in the Jesus birth story, they’re talking about Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s three sons who each rule one third of their father’s not very big territory. And this Herod was in the business of be-heading people, he had just be-headed John the Baptist, and he was after Jesus next.
But Jesus, when told this news that Herod was out to get him basically, says, “talk to the hand, ‘cause the face ain’t listening”, as we used to say in middle school.
He says: “Go tell that Fox for me, listen, I’m busy doing the work of the kingdom to come. And I will be doing this for three days. I’m not finished, and I’ll be done when I say so.” To call someone a fox, Mary Luti says, is to call someone “cowardly, silly, trivial.” He calls the guy who is out to savagely be-head him a cowardly, silly, trivial little man.
Jesus is walking toward trouble: doing God’s work of embracing, touching, healing, and no human king is gonna get in his way. Herod wants to kill me? Ain’t nobody got time for that. Go tell that Fox, Listen, I’ve got more important things to think about than my own death. Herod’s laws are human and finite and meaningless. God’s Law of Love is infinite and eternal, and on its own timeline, thank you very much.
[2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
3Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?]
Sometimes it is hard to, as the psalmist writes in our psalm this morning, to see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living.
You and I can choose to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living if we can tell our very real and very human fears to “talk to the hand.” But we can’t do it unless we break down the walls we have built up around our cities and our neighborhoods and our homes and our hearts. We can’t see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living until we see all people as our neighbors. We can’t see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living until we love our neighbors. Our homeless neighbor, our Muslim neighbor, our indigenous neighbor, our gay neighbor, our migrant neighbor, our Jewish neighbor, our Christian neighbor, our atheist neighbor, our disabled neighbor, our addicted neighbor, our refugee neighbor. As we love ourselves.
If you want to find God, my colleague Erika Hewitt says, you need to go to the fringes to see who has been pushed there. The goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living is found on the edges and the margins and the outside. You and I are gonna have to come out of our houses, look on the margins for the outsiders, see them as God’s beloved children, and bring them in.
And beloved: come to church more often, because it helps us to bridge-build to be here together. It reminds us of who we are. Seriously. Make church attendance a weekly thing. Don’t just come when you haven’t gotten any better offers, or when you’re not skiing, or when your kids don’t have a birthday party. Because it matters that we come together. We practice bridge-building here in this place because that is the work of faith, and the work of God. And practicing bridge building can’t be done on top of a mountain, on a beach at sunset, or in yoga class. It has to be done in the brokenness and beauty of human community. There is no human project more important than this one.
And, wherever you are, be the church. Love with extravagance and with wasteful abundance, without stopping to inquire who is worthy. Tear down the walls around your heart. Walk toward trouble. Go to the margins where you fear to go. Do not be afraid. The Lord is your light and your salvation, so there is no one and nothing to fear but fear itself.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.