Paula Northwood April 2, 2017
Scripture John 11:1-16
In the verses before the ones I just read, we are told that Jesus is taking a break near the Jordan with John the Baptist. Jesus had escaped being stoned and avoided being arrested—one gets the impression that he is hiding out. But then he finds out that his very good friend Lazarus is ill. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’s sisters, want him to come right away. But he doesn’t. He waits two whole days and then says to the disciples, “Okay, let’s go!”
The disciples are incredulous and, I think, fearful, because they remind Jesus that members of the Sanhedrin had been trying to stone him or at least have him arrested. So they legitimately ask him, “Why would we go back there?” Jesus answers with the most confusing aphorism: “Are there not 12 hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble because they see the light of the world, but those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” What? Are there not 12 hours of daylight? Rhetorical question . . . yes, of course, depending on the season. And Jesus continues, essentially saying: “It’s easier to walk in the light than the dark.” There is nothing like stating the obvious. But what does he mean? Scholars think that Jesus is saying that he has the light within and if they follow him they are doing the right thing, in spite of the death threats. Not a very compelling argument to my ears but he is winning the disciples over. Jesus then tells them that Lazarus has fallen asleep but the disciples don’t get it, so he has to tell them plainly that Lazarus is dead. He makes a veiled reference to what he is about to do and that it will increase their belief in him.
Thomas, one of the disciples, says to the others, “Okay . . . let’s go, but we better be prepared to die.” He fully expects that Jesus will be killed and they along with him. When I read this verse, I tried to imagine the context. They were, for all practical purposes, on the run. They were hiding out at least for a while with John the Baptist in the wilderness. I imagine that they were terrified. The choice to follow Jesus put their lives in danger.
Most of us do not know this kind of danger or depth of fear, but we live with neighbors who do. Many of our Somalian and Ethiopian neighbors who were refugees have experienced this kind of life-threatening danger and made choices in spite of their fear to risk everything for a better life.
There are so many inspiring stories about people who have done amazing things in spite of fear. One that has been on my mind and in my heart these past few weeks is the story of Michael Sharp. Michael, a U.N. Security Council representative, was in the Democratic Republic of Congo trying to persuade rebels to surrender when he was kidnapped. I had been in seminary with Michael’s parents, and I read their concerns, fears and requests for prayers on Facebook when he went missing. It doesn’t take much to imagine their fear.
If you have been following the story, it does not have a happy ending. It was confirmed that Michael and his colleague Zaida Catalan were found buried in a shallow grave. Apparently Michael often went unarmed into rebel camps, and, by his count, he and his team persuaded at least 1,600 rebels to abandon the jungle and come home. He was committed to engage in dialogue with violent people who perceived the world so differently from him. He was passionate about nonviolent communication as a means to peace, and he paid a price for it. I am sure there were many times Michael was afraid. Is this what it means to make peace with fear? To walk toward it? Is that what is being asked of us?
Fear, of course, is not all bad. It is a built-in survival mechanism to help keep us safe. If we listen to the signals our bodies give us, it can keep us out of some trouble. But we also love a certain amount of fear. Some of us love scary stories and movies, amusement park rides and haunted houses. Others of you have had traumatic experiences that have meant dealing with fear on a daily basis just to be able to continue living. One cannot address all the aspects of fear in one sermon, so I want to focus on the personal.
Whether we have had traumatic experiences or risked our lives or not, who hasn’t had the feeling of fear? Fear can paralyze a person. It is a confrontation with the great unknown, and it can be devastating. We have all been in situations that if we speak our truth, the things that are bothering us, then we wonder what will happen. Will we harm a friendship, estrange a child or spouse, lose a job? If we give an honest opinion at the group meeting, will we ever get invited back? If I dare to be honest, will the marriage ever be the same? If we don’t repeat the party line, any party line—whether political, corporate, even religious—will we ever have a place in the system, a seat at the table?
It’s been said that fear cripples us more than any disease ever could. Fear takes eminent good sense and turns it to Jell-O. Fear takes utter sincerity and turns it into an echo, making us say things we think the other person wants to hear. Fear tempts us to sell our souls for the much lesser prize of false security. We see it as security because it buys us time. But it is false because eventually it falls apart. Fear keeps us from being who we really want to be. We struggle with fear of criticism as we try to hide our inadequacies—even from ourselves. We struggle with the fear of ridicule. We struggle with the fear of being different—the one young person in a group of elders, the one woman in a group of men, the only person of color, the only gay person in the room—in a culture that sells sameness. What are we willing to lose in order to have peace of mind and integrity of the soul and to face our fear? This is a difficult question. It’s a question that tests the fiber of our soul.
Here’s what I know: It is not struggling with these fears that defeats us, it is the unknown answers to the hidden questions that wear us down. Believe me, I know. I tried to live as a straight person for 40 years. But when one is willing to engage the fear and have the courage to face it head-on, then one begins to make peace with fear. But when there is not the will to stay in the conflict to the end, to work it through, to figure it out, then fear wins.
When our hearts starts beating fast, as ours usually do when we’re in the midst of a tense moment, can we step into it? Can we resist the impulse to circumnavigate? We think we can’t be uncomfortable even for a second, when, in fact, we can and we must if we want to move the needle on issues that have life-and-death consequences.
Believe it or not, the energy of fear often results in a byproduct of something wonderful. It pushes you to take a risk, providing an opening to expand your heart and your world. Saying yes in the face of fear is one of the most liberating and empowering things you can do. It can propel you into the greater realm of your potential, revealing a greater expression of who you are.
Yes, fear can be like a bully, making you feel small and powerless. But instead of teasing you or stealing your lunch money, it stifles your pride, your confidence and your luminous energy. Fear can throw you in an emotional gym locker and keep you trapped for years. The only way to stop the ongoing torture is to confront it. By facing your fear, you take your life back and gain the courage to stand down every other bullying worry that’s ever denied you your joy and bliss. The ability to make peace with your fear is always within you. When fear is managed, you are free to live the truest expression the Divine created you to be. Your deepest darkest fears are much less menacing when they’re bathed in the beautiful, radiant light of your authentic soul.
Jesus and the disciples left their hiding place, and they arrived after Lazarus was already dead. I’m sure you know the story. Martha and Mary are disappointed that Jesus did not show up in time to heal their brother. In the King James version, Martha says, “You are too late. He’s been dead four days and he stinketh!” But here’s the good news: It’s not too late! Jesus brings Lazarus back to life. In the same way, you can be brought back to life! No matter how long you have been in the dark tomb of fear. No matter what has kept or is keeping you bound. That is what this Lenten season is all about. This is the resurrection story! It’s a reminder that we can be brought back to life. That we can make peace with all that troubles us and keeps us afraid. There is a wonderful quote by Anaïs Nin, “And finally the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through.” And to do it we must make peace with our fears.
I don’t know what fears are keeping you imprisoned, but this season give some thought to them and ask yourself what will set you free. Sometimes it is simply sharing your fear with a friend. Or maybe it’s a visit to the therapist or spiritual director. Maybe it means making a big change. Maybe like Michel Sharp, it means living your life more fully in spite of the risk. Or maybe for you it’s a small change . . . maybe it means being more welcoming to those who have lived through tremendous fear and tragic loss.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, a Swiss playwright and novelist whose satiric, almost farcical tragicomic plays were very important for healing after World War II, wrote, “This is the only art we have to master nowadays: to look at things without fear and to fearlessly do right.” May it be so. Amen.