What Are We Afraid Of?

April 9, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 21:12-17

Palm Sunday is complicated, and with the news this morning of the bombings in Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, it just got more complicated. It’s not the cheery, frond-filled parade of memory.

On the surface, of course, it is: we see Jesus entering Jerusalem to a rousing welcome, riding a donkey, accompanied by a throng of followers shouting Hosanna to him.

But life is rarely as simple as it appears to be. There’s a backstory. Something else is going on that day. The single word “turmoil” captures it best. “When Jesus entered Jerusalem,” Matthew says, “The whole city was in turmoil.” (Matthew 21:10)

The biblical Greek here means “moved.” The whole city was moved, but not in a good way. It was more like being moved by terror at an earthquake.

Turmoil. The word fit that day in Jerusalem and, frankly, it suits our time, as well. With our 24-hour news cycle we have a gnawing sense of things being out of control, of random chaos and violence, everywhere, whether in Egypt or Sweden, the Philippines or Venezuela, Chicago or Minneapolis.

Turmoil. In the 16th century John Calvin read this Palm Sunday word and described it as “secret fear.” Doesn’t that capture what hangs in the air today? A secret fear we inhale and exhale with every breath. Fear of our neighbors. Fear of immigrants. Fear of refugees. Fear of people of other religions or languages or racial groups.

Our cultural obsession with fear shows itself in many ways…in how we cluster into enclaves of the like-minded, in how we divide ourselves into opposing religious, political, and social camps, and, perhaps especially, in the incessant drive to make guns more readily available. To assuage our fear, we arm ourselves with far more weapons per capita than any other nation on earth.

What are we afraid of?

There are now more guns owned by Americans than there are Americans. Last week the Star-Tribune reported a record number of gun permits issued in Minnesota in 2016. And now legislation introduced in St. Paul would create a “permit-less” or “constitutional carry” law, eliminating the need for gun permits altogether. (http://www.startribune.com/with-republicans-in-control-gun-rights-advocates-make-their-move/417858093/)

We’re not that different from the city Jesus enters. Turmoil abounds, and a secret fear has a lock on hearts and minds.

Yes, Palm Sunday is complex. It’s not quite what it seems at first. There’s a shadow side. An alarming shudder shakes Jerusalem, and it moves with Jesus like a spreading tremor, across the branches and cloaks on the road, through the gates of the city and along its streets, until finally it arrives at the great Temple itself.

The “one who comes in the name of the Lord” goes straight from the parade to the house of the Lord, where he conducts a serious cleansing. If those in power were afraid before, their secret fear just got worse. The turmoil has burst into the open. A serious threat is on the loose in their midst – as they perceive it – and it will have to be stopped.

In a fit of righteous indignation, Jesus knocks over the tables at which money-changers are raking in profits at the expense of religious pilgrims. And who are those pilgrims? Those who cannot see. Those who cannot walk. Those who struggle with illness and infirmity, people with one need or another who have come for prayer to that place.

Instead, they find a Temple system set up to enrich the few at the expense of the many, a system that exploits them precisely because they’re vulnerable. In contrast, Jesus responds to those in need that day, restoring sight and healing and bringing new life, right there in the Temple.

In the bedlam of that scene a different kind of blindness has struck the scribes and Pharisees. It’s one we should recognize, because it happens within us and among us all the time: fear gives way to anger, and anger escalates to rage, and rage leads to violence, and someone gets hurt or killed.

But then, from somewhere on the Temple grounds, a different sound can be heard, lifted by new voices. Hosanna! Jesus looks up from his healing. Younger voices! Hosanna. Little voices! Hosanna to the Son of David.

Children, Matthew tells us. Children are now in the Temple, crying out Hosanna in the midst of the mayhem. The term comes from the Hebrew hoshiana, meaning “to save” or “to rescue.”

Hoshiana, the children are crying out. “Save us!“

I never noticed this part of the Palm Sunday story before. I always focused on the adults crowded along the parade route, not seeing the children who show up later in the story, looking for Jesus, after the cleansing of the Temple. Children, crying out to be saved.

I hear their voices this Palm Sunday and see the faces of the children everywhere, always innocent, lost to violence. They are not the decision-makers, the life-takers, the war-makers. We adults are. I hear the Palm Sunday children crying out to be saved and images from Syria come to mind. More than 55,000 children killed in six years of civil war in that nation. Twenty more lost in the horrific gas attack this past week. The same number who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Hoshiana! Save us!

We choose to hear the cries of some and respond with military might; others, we ignore, or seek instead to ease access to the very weapons used against them. Or we close our shores to them.

What are we afraid of?

Writer Marilynne Robinson says in a recent essay, “Contemporary America is full of fear… Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.”

So we struggle to protect ourselves from circumstances and people we have convinced ourselves are a menace to us. From there it’s easy to let our fear, our national addiction, our insatiable appetite for alarm, get the better of us. Then we slip into anger, and if we cannot reverse the impulse, it’s only a matter of time before we strike out against someone. We see this in ourselves and in our politics and in our communities, and it is dangerous.

Robinson offers wisdom on how to resist. “Fear,” she says, “Is not a Christian habit of mind.” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/09/24/marilynne-robinson-fear/. My thanks to Jim Gertmenian for reminding me of this essay.)

Fear is not a Christian habit of mind. The people of God are characterized not by their failure of nerve but by their courage, by their trust in God, by their confidence in a power greater than any other power on this earth.

The prophet Isaiah writes in the voice of one such person whose trust is steadfast:

“I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and… I did not hide my face from insult.”

The prophet anticipates Jesus.

“The Lord GOD helps me…Therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that…the one who vindicates me is near.”

When we give in to fear we assume we are alone – but the people of God are never alone.

“Who will contend with me?” Isaiah says.

“Let us stand up together… Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me.” (Isaiah 50-5-8)

People of faith are called to resist the fear that too easily arises out of the turmoil of our time. That is the Palm Sunday message. We see it in Jesus confronting the powers and principalities arrayed against him and abusing the poor. He knows what lies ahead for him, but the prophet’s words sound in his heart: I have set my face like flint.

Courage.

We see it that day in the Temple in those without sight and those who cannot walk somehow still finding their way into that sacred place, refusing to be defeated by their circumstances or by those who take advantage of them.

We see it in the children that day. In the midst of a city seething with conspiracy theories and false accusations, careening from order to chaos, falling captive to a wave of terror they stand up and let their voices be heard. Save us! they cry out. Hoshiana!

The children lead the Palm Sunday resistance against the secret fear that has enveloped the city. Can we do any less in our time?

What are we afraid of?

When the crosses process at the end of today’s service, I invite us to think of what fear we need to hang on that tree. What fear you and I need to place on that cross, giving it over to Jesus, setting ourselves free from it, letting the love of God overpower it.

The subject of the widespread fear in our culture came up this weekend at a retreat for the new officers of this congregation. We talked about how difficult it is to live in a frightened world. One of the elders raised her hand. “I’m glad Westminster is not fearful,” she said. “I’m glad we as a church are not afraid. We take on difficult things and face the hard stuff.”

That was a Palm Sunday moment. As followers of Jesus, we walk with him into that city long ago and into our world today, fully aware of the turmoil swirling around us, but we refuse to give in to the secret fear. We will not get it right all the time, but we will resist.

Holy Week. It opens with a day full of complexities and sub-texts that begins with a raucous parade and concludes in threatening chaos.

Through it all let’s keep our eyes on Jesus, and listen closely to the children, then and now. On Palm Sunday they insist we face down the sinister impulses that course through our own hearts, and through our communities, and around this world.

The good news is that we do not do that alone.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship, Brennan Blue

O God of passion and palms
O Christ of suffering and sacrament

O Spirit who yearns with words too deep to name

We worship you with love and wonder

With joy and even sorrow this Holy Week

As we are intentionally, even painfully mindful of the depth of your love for us

We that while we were yet sinners

Christ, you came to die for us

Christ, you came to live for us

Hosanna, Lord
save us from our fears

Hosanna, Lord
we praise you

As we recount and relive the story of palms and passion

We stand in awe of you

That, knowing the road before you, you somehow still found the way

To love us, fearful and selfish in spirit

To teach us, stubborn and apathetic in mind
To heal us, hurtful and hurting in heart

We stand in awe of you

That, knowing the road before you, you somehow still found the way

To ride through palms and praise

That would twist and spoil into enmity and betrayal

To humble yourself

In the washing of feet

And in the offering of thanks
As breaking bread became breaking body

And pouring the cup became your very life poured out for our sake

We stand in awe of you

That, knowing the road before you, you somehow still found the way

To pray without ceasing in Gethsemane’s gardens

To stay the violent hand of Peter

And to bear the cross of your crucifixion

Bearing the weight of sins, sorrows and fears

Too heavy to name

Yet too important for your labor of love to lay aside

And to cry at your last, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”

We stand in awe of you, O Christ

Though the light of Easter’s hope may shine in our hearts

We pray that you may slow our desire to be done

with the bitter deeds of this week

So may we hear anew the depths of despair that your love was willing to bear

For the sake of we who are hurting and in need of a savior

Even so, O God, we come to you this day

In prayer for the hurts and hopes of our world
We pray for all those who are mourning and broken
following the violence of chemical attacks and airstrikes in Syria and bombings at Coptic churches in Egypt early this morning

We pray for those wounded and dead

For those made refugees, widows and orphans

And ask that healing and understanding may somehow find a way
to root and bloom in this valley of despair

We pray for those grieving and recovering in our community

Those enduring chemo and rehab

Those facing difficult paths of discernment

May your Spirit tend their hearts with care

God of grace, be near to us in the coming of shadow and sacrifice
May your Spirit unite our community
And our wandering and worshipping hearts with you

That we may truly be one in purpose

As we join in the prayer that Christ taught us, saying…

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