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Sermon for 2nd Lent, Year C: For the facing of this hour (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

I overheard two clergy people talking the other day. One was telling a story about walking across a bridge and seeing a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. The pastor said he immediately ran over and said "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" said the man.

"Well, there's so much to live for," the pastor told him. "Like what?" "Well ... are you religious?" "Yes." "Me too! Are you Christian?" "Yes!" "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?" "Protestant." "Me too! What denomination?" "Episcopalian." At which point, according to the pastor, he shouted, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed the man off the bridge.”

It’s bad out there. We are a divided people – divided by politics, economics, race, and, perhaps most tragically, by religion. We have watched with horror over the last two weeks as one of the most powerful countries in the world invaded its neighbor, killing thousands of people who share a common language and culture. One of the least publicized features of this conflict is its theological aspect. A majority of both Russians and Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christians and used to be part of one church. Growing differences caused separation, and there are now three Orthodox churches represented in the conflict. At the beginning of the war, the leaders of all three groups called out for peace, but in recent days the patriarch of the Moscow church suggested that Ukrainians were at fault for the war. Meanwhile, religious scholars are warning that if Russia occupies Ukraine, members of its Byzantine Catholic, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish minorities will be in danger of persecution, imprisonment, and death.

This in the wake of a two-year pandemic that appears to have receded enough for us to feel some sense of normalcy, but not enough to believe that life will ever really be “normal” again. We worry that people have lost all civility, cursing at one another for taking too long in a dressing room and shooting at drivers who cut them off in traffic. We are living in a time and a place where you can lose your life simply by wearing the wrong clothes, having the wrong skin color, speaking the wrong language, or falling in love with the wrong person.

This makes us afraid. The Centers for Disease Control reports that rates of depression and anxiety increased by thirteen percent during the early part of the pandemic.[1] We are finding it harder to find the good news amidst all of the bad. And yet, we are no more depressed than our forbearer Abram, who, despite having turned down the riches offered to him as a reward for winning a great battle, still grieved for the one thing his heart desired most. We are in no more turmoil than Jesus’s followers in Philippi whose fledgling church was divided by disagreement and hypocrisy almost as soon as it was founded. And we have no more right to be frightened than the disciples who watched as their beloved rabbi was given and responded to a very credible death threat.

There are many different theories of emotion – where it is found in the brain, how it relates to evolution, and its relationship to higher-order thinking. One of the things we do know is that what we call “fear” is a primitive feeling linked to our survival instinct that can invoke automatic physical reactions in one of the deepest parts of our brains. Yet, our brains can re-route our reaction. We can work through our fear, taking a deep breath and recognizing that what we thought was a snake is really just a stick. That sorting has many names – impulse control, courage, rational thinking – and it is crucially important in avoiding mental illnesses triggered by fear reactions. Unfortunately, we also know that we are susceptible to deliberate manipulation by human beings who would like to permanently short-circuit our collective ability to resist primitive fear reactions. They teach a deceptively simple – and simply deceptive- idea: that as long as we belong to a certain group or espouse certain beliefs then we are safe and right – and that those who disagree are to be feared- and rejected.

It is hard not to react in kind when faced with this attitude. It is easy to find ourselves aggravating a bad situation by digging in – certain of our own rightness. And yet, Jesus, when faced with the very people who sought his death, responded not with frustration or aggravation, but with compassion and love. Imagine you had an argument with someone over morality or politics or the interpretation of scripture that got so heated that the other person threatened to kill you. What would your reaction be? Shock, likely. Anger potentially. Fear probably. But sorrow? Regret? Certainly not an understanding acknowledgement of their hatred followed by a desperate, heartfelt desire to take that person into your arms and remove their pain. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing!” When Jesus is confronted with all of the anger, fear, and distrust that has been incited against him, his response is to feel sorry for those who would exclude and hurt him. He doesn’t deny the reality of the situation. He doesn’t hide his frustration with it. He simply chooses to not to engage, stating, with immense love, that he doesn’t have time for such foolishness.

We don’t have time for it either. Like Jesus, we have demons to cast out and cures to perform. We have good news to share. We have love to give. But first, we have to get over the fear. We have to face the world around us and choose to believe that God has got this. This is the story of every human being that has ever made a difference in this world, of whom Jesus is our principal example: have faith - because it is faith that drives out fear. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid”? God is with us. All the time. In all things. When we complain that God is allowing something terrible to happen, we have forgotten something crucial: we are God’s agents in the world. If you do not believe that God cares for creation, then you have not seen the work of Doctors without Borders. If you do not believe that God is present in the war in Ukraine, then you do not recognize the courage of the Russian priest who was imprisoned for speaking out against it. If you do not feel God’s presence, then visit Camp Hope, Loaves and Fishes, or Monument Crisis Center. God is present in all of those places. God is present in this community. God is present in you. So if you are tired of hearing lies and you want to hear the truth, then speak it. If you think there is some place that God needs to show up, then stand up – and if you want to see God’s love in this world, then be God’s love in the world.

Let us pray:

“God of grace and God of glory, on your people pour your power…Lo! The hosts of evil round us scorn your Christ, assail his ways! From the fears that long have bound us free our hearts to faith and praise. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour.” [2] AMEN.

[1]“National and State Trends in Anxiety and Depression Severity Scores Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, 2020–2021,” (Oct. 8, 2021). Haomiao Jia, PhD1; Rebecca J. Guerin, PhD2; John P. Barile, PhD3; Andrea H. Okun, DrPH2; Lela McKnight-Eily, PhD4; Stephen J. Blumberg, PhD5; Rashid Njai, PhD6,7; William W. Thompson, PhD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report, [2] Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), found in “The Hymnal 1982, according to the use of the Episcopal Church.

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