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Lent 1: The Fear of Being on Our Own

February 17, 2013

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Lent, February 17, 2013. This is part one of six on the subject of fear and desperation.

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11          Luke 4: 1-13

This is the first of six sermons I am going to offer during Lent on the subject of FEAR. It will be followed by six sermons, post –Easter, on COURAGE, which is a gift of God’s Spirit. The subject of fear comes right out of our adult education class that has been studying the Presbyterian Social Witness Policy Gun Violence and Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call since January.  The study continues, but I want to lift up one phrase from the document that was identified by the class as worthy of wider discussion. “We live in a culture of violence-acceptance,” wrote the authors of our church’s policy, “with undercurrents of fear and desperation.” “We live in a culture of violence-acceptance, with undercurrents of fear and desperation.”

A culture of violence-acceptance is one which builds on fear and desperation. After considerable conversation, Ruth Doehring suggested we might set aside time as a congregation to talk about what our fears are and where they come from, an idea that received amens from others. So I started asking friends, colleagues, and members of this congregation: What are we afraid of? What leads us to feel and act in desperation?

In response to my questions my friend Betsy wrote,

My sense is that we are afraid of being vulnerable to the point of having no control over our lives. We are afraid of being left unable to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. We are afraid that we are, in fact, totally alone and on our own in this life. That fear makes us desperate in the face of the whims of economic and political forces over which we feel we have no real control or even input. People feel like there is nothing they can do to protect themselves from losing their self-esteem, their dignity, their independence, their self-sufficiency in a world that seems to be moving so fast and so violently that they cannot possibly keep up. [and then most poignantly she adds,] And we are afraid that no one cares that this is so.

Do you remember that speech President Obama gave last year in Roanoke, Virginia? “If you’ve been successful,” he said, “you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own.” He continued, “I’m always struck by people who say ‘if I’m successful, it must be because I’m so smart.’ Well there are a lot of smart people out there. ‘It, it must because I’ve worked so hard.’ Well there are a lot of hardworking people.” There was a teacher, a researcher, a scientist, someone who gave you a hand or showed you the way.” The President was greeted with shouts of affirmation at the rally that sounded an awful lot like an amen corner, as well it should, because he was speaking the language of the church. “We’re not on our own,” he finished, “we’re in this together.”I recalled the words of Maya Angelou in her poem “Alone”:

I lay thinking

last night

How to find my soul a home

Where water is not thirty

And bread loaf is not stone.

I came up with one thing

And I don’t believe I’m wrong

That nobody,

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone.

.th

But the President’s words were also greeted, in the press and on the campaign trail, with anger: an anger born, I think, not only of ingratitude, and not solely political, but an anger that reflects a deep cultural fear that we are, in fact, on our own.

Bob Dylan encapsulated this sense of being unmoored singing back in 1965, “How does it feel, to be on your own, with no direction home, like a complete unknown, like rolling stone?” Well, it feels pretty scary, especially if you are NOT successful. And in the summer of 1965 Dylan’s song was also greeted with anger – not only because it had plugged in an electric guitar, defying the genre of folk music, or because the lyric ran counter to the community spirit of the civil rights movement, but because the song’s popularity touched on a new and widely held fear. We’re on our own. We don’t know where we’re going. And we are out of control. I think our cultural investment in the idea that the world always rewards hard work and effort, and that failure is our personal responsibility, is a futile and desperate attempt to claim individual control of our lives, when in reality our lives are subject to forces beyond any of our control, forces that even the most stalwart, responsible individual initiative cannot hold off. A good part of our American myth of rugged individualism is not only born out of pride in our own dedication and ingenuity, but it is born of a deep fear that at the end of the day, the only one I can depend on is me, all I’ve got is me, left to my own devices. It is a fear that visits us late at night, when we lie awake, worried, when loved ones suffer, when life deals us a hard blow, when pain lays us low, when circumstances escape our control: we are all alone, on our own. And once felt, this fear is hard to let go.

It has been said that it took forty days to get the Hebrew people out of Egypt, but that it took forty years to get the Egypt out of the Hebrews. It took forty years to break down habits of fear and mistrust formed through long oppression and suffering, “when the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, imposing hard labor on us.” Years of never knowing when the supply of straw would be cut, the quota of bricks increased, the lash let loose on one’s back, the agents of Pharaoh everywhere. It took forty years for God to train a people in new habits of holiness, habits of trust formed through collecting manna each morning and finding there was enough for everyone, habits of hope brought about by watching a new generation arise who never knew the hardships of Egypt, habits of love formed by setting aside one day in seven to rest from labor, as only free people can, and for giving thanks together. Habits formed and transformed during 40 years in the wilderness.

Therefore, there was a danger in finally arriving in the Promised Land, so the instruction for the community of faith was made very simple: remember.

“When you come into the land that the Lord you God is giving you,” remember where you have come from. Remember your experience of injustice and oppression; remember what it did to you as a people, remember how God brought you out and trained you in a different way of living; remember how God replaced your fear with trust, your despair with hope, your alien status with real community of love. Remember, so that when you are tempted to think “Look how far I have come” you remember how it happened, that you were among a whole people brought into freedom and you remember by whose power it was accomplished. It was not you alone, but God who has brought you and this people this far. So give thanks. Give thanks by bringing a tithe, your very best, and investing it in common good.

The community of faith is the community of those who know that we are not on our own, that we are intended for covenant relations of justice with our sisters and brothers, and we are in fact always in the presence of the living God who wills our liberation from all that oppresses and who provides abundantly for the human and natural world. Indeed, a community of faith may be the only evidence that this is so. But it is a community that thrives because it remembers: it is honest about the afflictions and fears we have all experienced. If one of us feel alone, well, we are not alone. We have all been there and feared that. What a blessing itself to be surrounded by such a community that can honestly remember where they have come from. Comedian Robin Williams once said “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up alone, it’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.” Thank God the church is a community that remembers, together, that there is a place here for everyone born.

[The congregation then sang together three verses on the hymn “For Everyone Born.”]

For everyone born, a place at the table,

For everyone born, clean water and bread,

A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,

For everyone born, a star over head.

Refrain: And God will delight when we are creators

of justice and joy, compassion and peace

yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy!

 .

For young and for old, a place at the table,

a voice to be heard, a part in the song,

the hands of a child in hands that are wrinkled,

for young and for old, the right to belong.

Refrain: And God will delight when we are creators

of justice and joy, compassion and peace

yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy!

 .

For everyone born, a place at the table,

to live without fear, and simply to be,

To work, to speak out, to witness and worship,

For everyone born, the right to be free.

Refrain: And God will delight when we are creators

of justice and joy, compassion and peace

yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy!

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