Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Eve: Be not afraid!

“Be not afraid.” Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
The Eve of the Nativity of our Lord – 11 PM Service – December 24, 2006
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul – Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

It’s a curious thing.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but whenever something amazing is about to happen – or has happened – in scripture, the voice of God, or that of an angel usually shows up and says, the approximate same thing, in equal variation.

“Fear not!” Or: “Be not afraid.” Or: “Do not be afraid.”

God spoke to Abram in a vision and said, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.” (Genesis 15:1). God spoke to Hagar, banished in the desert and weeping that her son Ishmael was about to die, and said to her, “Fear not, for God has heard the cry of your child.” (Genesis 21:17). Angels assured Zechariah (Luke 1:13), and Joseph (Matthew 1:17) and Mary (Luke 1:30), with these words: “Be not afraid.”

Tonight we hear that an angel appeared to the shepherds who watched their flock in a field the night Jesus was born and said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.” (Luke 2:10).

“Be not afraid.” With these words, Jesus constantly exhorted or comforted his disciples as he walked on water, or calmed the seas, or appeared to them after the resurrection.

Here’s what I want to ask you tonight: What are you afraid of? What are your “worst fears?” What are your “nightmares?” What keeps you up at night? Or, wakes you up from a sound sleep in a cold sweat? What are the demons that haunt and torment or terrorize you? What makes you anxious? Or apprehensive? Or, distressed?

It may seem a strange thing to consider fear on this night when we anticipate the Birth of the Savior, but I assure you it is not. Indeed, fear and anxiety are precisely why we are able to celebrate this night. Or, at least, we celebrate the reason to “be not afraid.”

I fear that, in this postmodern, well educated, highly intellectual technological world in which we live, we don’t acknowledge our fears and anxieties. We live in a very rational world. Got a problem? Read up on it. Study it. Master it. We have come to believe that whatever you can understand, you can master – control – explain – and, therefore, no longer fear.

And yet . . .and yet. . . this time in which we live, these days of our lives, are filled to overflowing with anxiety and fear. Some would have us believe that we live, in this time post 9/11, in The Age of Terrorism.

If you have traveled anywhere by air or rail you know that you must add 45-60 minutes to your travel plans in order to go through something we routinely and blithely call “security.”

As if surrendering up our underwear or lingerie for close inspection or carrying less than 3 ounces of cosmetics or shampoo or perfume will actually keep us safe.

I saw an announcement for a lecture scheduled in February at a near-by university that was entitled, “Does observing human rights standards impede the war on terrorism?”

Another was entitled: “Diplomacy in the Age of Terrorism: What is the State Department’s strategy?” Hmmm . . . What’s that old saying? If you have to ask the question . . .

There’s even an exhibit making the rounds of museums entitled “Art in the Age of Terrorism” which, it says, “explores various ways in which art can help articulate the zone of gray that lies behind the back and white term ‘terrorism.’”

I believe that it’s not so much the living in the ‘black and white’ of the world that is so scary. I believe that it’s the shades of gray that lie behind the black and white that terrify us. We can set aside our fears of terrorists if we all just give up a few of our civil rights for the cause.

I mean, what are a few ounces of shampoo among friends, right? You’d gladly take off your shoes and walk barefoot on the cold floor of an airport if it keeps us safe from ‘those’ terrorists.

Right? No problem.

That’s the black and white of our fear. We can deal with that – and we do – by giving up a few rights and making up more rules. I am convinced that this is the appeal of the current wave of evangelicalism that is sweeping religious denominations of every order, from Roman Catholicism, to Traditional Protestantism to non-denominational mega-churches whose pastors masquerade as self-help “Answer-Men.”

Got a problem or a question? Just like that advertisement for Radio Shack – “they got an answer.”

The message of this night is not that easy. Indeed, the message of the Nativity of our Lord raises as many questions as it answers. Yes, for one bright moment a star shone brightly over the ancient city of Bethlehem and the Wise – from lowly shepherds to sage men of affluence – followed that light.

But, what they found was not a solution to the fears that followed them by day. What they found was much more complex than that. What they found in seeing that newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger, was not an answer to calm the terror that stalked them by night. What they found was much more compelling than that, which is why, I’m convinced, the story of the Nativity endures.

Look past the easy answers, the glib explanations, and the slick responses. Look deep into that manger – past the nostalgia and the romanticism and see for yourself. What is really lying there is this: possibility.

Hope is what was born this night. That’s what those shepherds saw. That is what the Magi were seeking. Hope. And, my sisters and brothers, somewhere deep in your heart you know that the only way to deal with the fears and anxieties of our daily life is not to look for the answers but rater, to seek out possibility. To look for hope.

Here’s the truth of it: Hope is the only antidote to fear. ‘Blessed hope’ is how it is described in the reading from Titus. Not structure. Not rules. Not easy answers. Those things provide an illusion of security – an illusion of safety. That’s what Rome offered. It’s what most institutions offer: mediocrity, and mediocrity never provides hope because it never risks vulnerability, or authenticity or integrity.

Hope is born this night.

A most excellent hope is born this night.

Tonight, an angel of the Lord is speaking a word of hope to an anxious world, weary of terror and war – where 3,000 American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as untold Iraqi and Afghani men, women and children.

A fearful world, plagued by famine and disaster where young children the world over die of malaria – a completely curable disease.

A world that trembles under the threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of a mad despot in North Korea.

A people who quiver in the face of unspeakable acts of violence in Ireland and Palestine and Israel and Iraq and Iran and Africa – all performed in the name of God.

Hope is born this night.

Possibility wrapped in bands of the stuff of our human existence and lying in the most unexpected place.

Potential lying hidden in plain view.

This is the good news brought to us on the wings of an angel. It is the great joy whispered into our hearts. It is the music we hear as a multitude of heavenly hosts who are praising God are saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

The question this night is not whether or not you will follow the light, but will you live in the shades of gray?

How is it that we live in the ambiguities of our lives of faith?

How do we, in this Post-modern age of reason coexist with mystery?

For this is why God chose to come among us – to be beside us in the midst of our humanity and call us to be our best selves, to redeem us from our fears and guide us into hope.

This is why we, like Mary, must treasure these words of scripture and ponder them in our hearts.

Hush the noise of the terror in your heart. Hush the anxieties that prey upon your soul. The gift of this night is to hush the sound of our human fears and for one night, just this one night, let the angels of the Lord greet you where you are, in the shades of gray of your lives, and hear the angels say to unto you and yours,

“Be not afraid.”

For, if we do, then we, like the shepherds of old, will glorify and praise God for all we have seen and heard this night.


No comments: