“Our faith should quell our fears, never our courage.” ~William Sloane Coffin
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
The world has been a scary place this year. It is difficult to sing and celebrate ‘joy to the world’ in the face of all our fears. We have a president who wants us to be afraid, for it is fear that divides us—over issues of transgender people, of immigrants, of fake news, of a government shut-down, of one another. The Syrian Civil War is entering the 7th year. Etched in my mind are pictures of Syrian children—a boy’s limped body lying face down on a beach, a boy sitting in the back of an ambulance stunned after an explosion with his face caked in dust and blood, boys just a little younger than my grandson. I fear for our coming generations’ future and what they will face. It doesn’t help when so many of us are addicted to social media, especially to Face Book and Instagram. Our social comparison radar has gotten all confused as we constantly try to figure out if we’re more or less attractive, smart, and accomplished than everyone else. We get anxious that everyone else is having more fun; or that everyone else has more friends, is more successful; and we worry about how we look in photographs.
Our cars are not safe on the streets of San Francisco, especially around popular tourist sites. San Francisco has the highest rate of porch piracy in the country. One of the fastest growing industries, providing tremendous job opportunities, is the prison and security industry. Fear rules our lives. Many years ago, at a memorable meeting of the Presbytery of San Francisco, I witnessed how fear forced a pastor to resign his position. The pastor had gone to Central America and returned a changed man. His preaching changed. He preached against the war with Iraq. He preached against the homophobia in his congregation. He preached against racism in his community. He taught the youth to be Christian first and American second. Because of fear—fear of the pastor’s prophetic preaching, fear of angry church members, fear of not meeting the budget—the Session forced the pastor to submit his resignation. And because of fear, the Presbytery voted to concur. I have known pastors of struggling racial/ethnic congregations and pastors engaged in specialized ministries—dependent upon financial support from large, wealthy suburban congregations—unable and unwilling to take positions contrary to their supporters for fear of losing their financial support. Fear of failure keeps us from taking risks, from taking on challenging and demanding responsibilities. Fear of being hurt keeps from being vulnerable in relationships. Fear of judgment and rejection keeps us from coming out of the closet with our secrets. Fear of the unknown keeps us from facing change. Fear of conflict keeps us from confronting the evils in our midst. Fear is a powerful force that rules our lives.
This brings me to today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Zephaniah. There is a line in today’s reading that haunts me. The line is: “Do not be afraid.” And the paragraph in which we find this line reads as follows: “Do not be afraid…because the Lord is with you; you will have victory. The Lord will punish your oppressors; the Lord will rescue the lame and bring the exiles home. The Lord will give you new life…” Israel is in exile when they hear these words. The nation had been ravaged by the conquering armies of foreign nations. Its people scattered, Israel lived in fear and disorientation. The people have been taken into captivity, into exile, far away from their home to a strange land where they were forced to live among people whose language, religion, customs and habits were different from theirs.
Today’s refugees arriving at our borders have not been forced to leave by an invading enemy; they are running away from violence and danger in their homeland. They are seeking safety for their families and an opportunity for a new beginning. Their experience of fear is no less and no different than the exiles in Babylon. This past week, a 7-year-old migrant girl, held at the border with her father, died in custody. How do we translate and apply the hopeful words of the prophet Zephaniah to the immigrants at our border? There is much debate going on with regards to our immigration policy. And there is much disagreement about the “how” of welcoming and caring and loving those born outside our national borders. But there is absolutely no room biblically to make a case that we should not welcome, care and love those born outside our national borders. Hear these words of scripture: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt”. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “In Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek.” “Whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to Jesus.” “Perfect love casts out fear.” We could keep going. The Bible is rich with texts that could be used as a lens through which to view those seeking to cross our borders. None of which justify separating families or arresting people for seeking asylum. If we assume immigrants and refugees are our neighbors, our call is to love them as ourselves. How can we live into a vision that chooses love over fear?
In the Sunday NY Times a couple of weeks ago, I was grabbed by the title of an article: Dutch Service Doesn’t Just Feel 5 Weeks Long, It Is! Taking advantage of an obscure law barring authorities from entering a church during worship, a Protestant church in the Netherlands has held services continuously since an asylum-seeking family was given sanctuary there on October 26. The Armenian family was given sanctuary by Bethel Church in The Hague after they had learned the Dutch government planned to deport them. The family had lived in the country since 2010, after reportedly fleeing death threats in Armenia due to their political activism. The chair of the General Council of the church told the Associated Press, “There was only one thing you could do and that was starting a church service to save the life of this family, but also call attention to the fate of so many children in similar circumstances.” The church’s pastor started by copying and pasting the liturgies of the last 10 years into one huge document and preaching from it until other preachers from the area volunteered to take shifts at all hours of the day and night. The effort captured the nation’s attention. There have been more than 450 different priests, pastors, deacons, elders from around the country, every denomination, wanting to be put on the rotation to participate in this service. You see preachers from every background across the country, bringing their own way of celebrating and worshiping that is different hour by hour. Even from abroad they’ve gotten help—there have been sermons held in English, French, and German. Here is a congregation that has chosen love over fear.
I came across a Joan Ryan column about a nurse named Linda Muller in my files. Joan Ryan used to write a regular column for the Chronicle. Here is an excerpt from that column: Linda Muller knocks on a door in the Boston Hotel on Turk Street. The odor from the communal bathroom wafts down the narrow second floor hallway, but Muller no longer seems to notice. This is where she works, in these residential hotels in the Tenderloin, where old people sometimes forget where they live or become so frail they can no longer get themselves to the doctor. “Yeah”? The voice inside the room sounds groggy and hoarse. “It’s Linda”, Muller says. “Door’s open.” Muller is a nurse with North of Market Senior Services. She has a degree in psychology and nursing. She could be working in a state-of-the-art hospital or in a suburban doctor’s office. But she and the rest of the staff at Senior Services have chosen to serve the Tenderloin’s elderly. Muller pushes open Mr. Smith’s door. He’s a hoarder. He once was trapped for 3 days when his junk finally toppled and pinned him to the floor. He has rolls of toilet paper stacked on his dresser, along with an ancient TV, a clock radio, 2 clock-radio boxes, piles of mail, packets of mayonnaise. Muller checks Mr. Smith’s abdomen for signs that his dysfunctional bowels and bladder infection are healing. Muller says nothing about the roaches that crawl by her feet. She never forgets she is a guest in the patient’s home, no matter what the home is like. Muller says this is the best job she’s ever had. “There are dealers and addicts but nobody bothers you. I might get pan-handled at the end of the month, but that’s it”, she says. “I’m sad at what I see…you know, this is the state of existence on this Earth. There have always been bad places. I’m just glad when I can help the people who need it. Joan Ryan concludes her article with this observation: Linda Muller knows that the real enemy inside these old hotels isn’t disease or age. She can do little to save her elderly clients from either one. What she’s really battling are the humiliations of poverty…and what she’s healing is DIGNITY. Because Linda Muller does NOT live in fear, but in love, she is able to bring hope and dignity to people trapped in bad and dangerous places. (SF Chronicle, December 10, 2000)
This is the time of year when children are mailing letters to Santa Claus, and we all know his address: “Santa Claus, North Pole, H0H-0H0”. But where would one mail a letter to God? What would God’s address be? Many might say “heaven” which to a lot of people means a faraway place that we can’t reach until we die. Here is my answer: God’s address is our churches and our hearts. This morning, God’s address is 2515 Fillmore Street. Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” And it is a place where we live in love, not fear. It is here that the words of the prophet Zephaniah can come to life: “Do not be afraid…because the Lord is with you…The Lord will give you new life… “ Our faith gives us the courage to welcome the stranger…really!