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Advent 1: Fear and Freedom

November 29, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015. My wife, The Rev. Noelle Damico , shared the story of Janie Culbreth Rambeau, which was perfect for this sermon.

Jeremiah 33:14-16         Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

In a time of distress, Jesus spoke an encouraging word to his disciples, and through our Gospel reading this morning, he speaks that same word to the church, “Do not be afraid.” Though we hear of wars and rumors of wars, witness nation rise up against nation, hear the earth itself cry out, this is not the end. These are mere historical events, terrible and terrifying as they may be, but they are not the end of all things. These things will take place, but “the end will not follow immediately.” Instead, what is opened up is time, time between the announcement of the God’s Reign and the fulfillment of all God’s promises. It is this for which we pray and actively wait in the season of Advent, the fulfillment of all God’s promises. But before that time comes, we will be called upon – are even now being called upon – to testify and bear witness with our very lives to the peculiar way of God in the world, a way of love, hope and peace. This is the only way to usher in God’s promised future. And by endurance, we will gain our souls.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” But we live in frightening times.

Since I was last in worship with you, we have all witnessed

  • the violent terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad and repeated attacks in Nigeria;
  • the terrorist attack on the Radison Blu Hotel in Mali and now the bombardment of UN Peacekeeping troops there;
  • the mass shooting in Colorado Springs in which a 57 year old white male carried out a one-man siege on Planned Parenthood;
  • the release of the Chicago police dashcam video of an officer shooting a fleeing black teenage boy after seven security tapes from the local Burger King — that would have told the fuller story – were mysteriously erased.
  • 196 million cubic feet of mud and iron ore tailings that originated from the Samarco Mine disaster three weeks ago in Minas Gerais, Brazil, finally reached the ocean, killing rivers, ecosystems and marine life along the way and leaving multiple human communities uninhabitable in what is being called Brazil’s worst environmental disaster;
  • And of course this week Turkey shot down a Russian bomber on its way to Syria and now Russia and France have aligned while the U.S. has backed up Turkey. The stand-off between Putin and Erdogan threatens to overwhelm the long anticipated Climate Talks, which begin tomorrow in Paris, and social media has lit up with the unanswered question “is this World War III?”

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” But contemporary America is full of fear, and fear mongering.

Pastor Sarah spoke eloquently last week about the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant rhetoric that divides the world into some form of “us” and “them.”

Donald Trump alone, and he is not alone, has suggested making Muslims carry special ID cards and putting mosques, houses of worship, under surveillance.

“Fear,” however, “is not a Christian habit of mind.” Or so writes author Marilynn Robinson.

You may know Marilynn Robinson’s recent novels Gilead, Home, and Lila. Or perhaps you’ll recall that President Obama quoted her during his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pickney. Last week I had the privilege of meeting Marilynn at the American Academy of Religion which gave her an award. Robinson insists that “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” She explains,

As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” We learned that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved. These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made… The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, or primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.

Robinson echoes Jesus here: our lives may or may not be forfeit – that is not the issue. What is the issue is whether we will live with courage and joy in the time given to us, trusting God, loving our neighbor, witnessing to the just world that God intends. We are freed to do this because as followers of Christ we are not afraid of death. Jesus, knowing the Roman Empire and its collaborators would move on him and, after his death, on his disciples, prepares them with this speech. He tells them to expect trouble; to expect arrest, trial, jailing. For here Jesus speaks not as a prophet but as one who reads the signs of the times – he knows full well how Rome deals with any who stir up the people; they crucify them by the thousands. He and his disciples will not be exceptions. By the time Luke is writing his gospel two generations later, many followers had been jailed, persecuted and killed. If the followers of Christ were to continue, were to witness to a new way of life together according to God’s covenant, they needed to be prepared that the Empire would not take their resistance laying down: it would push back.

Freedom Riders

Janie Culbreth Rambeau, one of the students expelled from Albany State College in southwest Georgia for participating in the Civil Rights Movement looked back on how that movement coalesced in her college town. She remembers the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s, plans to demonstrate against segregated conditions from parks to water fountains to restrooms. Looking back more than 50 years later she reflects on why being prepared to go to jail was so important writing,

Soon we decided to demonstrate against these conditions, even though it meant going to jail. One of the main reasons we went to jail was to remove the hammer that the power structure held over our heads. For years, black people were threatened with jail. Jail became the representation of fear. The trumped-up charges, unfair trails, and regular beatings in jail were weapons in the white South’s arsenal of oppression. Thus, in an effort to maintain control of an already oppressed people, the hammer of jail hung heavily. To remove the threat, people moved against it. Hear God’s people singing, “We are not afraid.” [and here I actually sang, and we sang, “we are not afraid.”]

Jesus is calling to his disciples saying – know what the world gives to those who speak truth to power, and get ready. But do not be afraid.


Janie Culbreth Rambeau continues,

So we marched knowing we faced certain arrest and jail. I marched in the first large Albany demonstration on a cold, rainy morning in December 1961. Several hundred – old and young – marched down Jackson Street toward the jail, singing, “We Shall Overcome.” Policemen tried to break up the demonstrations, but the people were determined. Chief Laurie Pritchett came on the bullhorn, yelling in frustration, “You are all under arrest.” We continued to march and sing.[1]

In this time when nation rises up against nation, when terror’s violence knows no national boundaries, when climate catastrophe looms, we must march and sing. For as the unforgettable Sweet Honey in the Rock song says, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes, ‘til the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons, We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

Jesus knew this — listen to his words

The temple may have come to an end, but that is not the end;

peace will come to an end and be swallowed by war, but war is not the way the world ends;

security will end, shaken in earthquakes, but fear and certainty are not the end either.

Do not be terrified. You have an opportunity to testify. By endurance you will gain your souls.”[2]

“Do not be terrified. You have an opportunity to testify. By endurance you will gain your souls.”

For the opposite of fear is not peace – it is freedom. And we who believe in freedom cannot rest today, we cannot rest tomorrow, we cannot rest this Advent, we cannot rest until it comes.


Chicago #BlackLivesMatter on Black Friday

climate march

Climate March in Quezon City, Philippines


[1] “Ripe for the Picking,” in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, p. 93.

[2] Paul Willson, Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion, 2015.


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