The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
What are you most afraid of? What wakes you up in the middle of the night? For some here tonight it's probably about where the next paycheck will come from. I have one friend who's just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and another whose son is in jail for statutory rape. For almost all of us, there is some primordial fear linked to thoughts about our freedom and our own mortality.
Fear can keep us from life and hope, and any possibility of new creation. I've known people who died a lot younger than they probably should have, because they just weren't able to acknowledge that their symptoms were signs of something serious. It was somehow easier to ignore that intuitive knowledge than it was to face the possibility and get more information, like going to the doctor.
We've been haunted this week by the story of an Irish immigrant girl in South Hadley who committed suicide because her classmates taunted her so unmercifully. She saw no hope.
Fear could paralyze the people of Haiti, but they go on, with the help of their friends, working yet one more time to build a society of abundance for all.
Fear could have stopped Martin Luther King that night after his house was bombed. But that experience of violence led him deeper into his conviction that God had something else in mind. He went forward in hope, even though it led to his death 42 years ago in Memphis.
Your own American Civic Association is going forward, even more deeply committed to helping new generations of immigrants and refugees. The deaths here a year ago could have been the end of that work of building community, but the fear engendered in the shootings did not prevail.
We're here tonight looking for hope.
We're here tonight to hear the old, old story of God bringing life out of death, and finding a new way through the fear that so often paralyzes us.
The ancient prophets have two responses to that kind of terror: "fear not, for God is with you," and "learn wisdom." We just heard each of those comfortable words twice. Moses says to his traumatized band, "don't be afraid, stand firm, God will deliver you." Zephaniah says to a much later band of depressed and terrified people, that the day will come when they will hear that “God has turned away your enemies, there’s no need to fear disaster any more. Don’t be afraid, God is with you.”
Isaiah and Baruch both talk about Wisdom -- and it's important to know that Wisdom is a personification of God. If God is the architect of creation, then Wisdom is its builder or crafter, and she's often spoken of as hosting a feast, which is what we hear in Isaiah, "turn in here and get what you need -- wine, milk, bread. Come and feast and return to God." Baruch speaks of befriending wisdom in order to find peace -- or in other words, the absence of fear.
In a few minutes we'll hear the oldest gospel account we have of the Resurrection (Mark). It tells about Mary Magdalene, another Mary, and Salome, coming to the tomb at dawn and finding it empty. The angel tells them, "fear not, he's not here, go find him in Galilee. He's waiting for you there." "Fear not, for God is with you." But they flee the tomb and run away, terrified.
Yet somehow those women at the tomb found the strength and courage to tell their story. They turned in at wisdom's door and discovered peace. We only know the good news of Easter because they told of their frightful encounter. Wisdom's invitation keeps on going out: "turn in here, join the feast, find blessing, life, light, and peace."
We still struggle to find the courage to tell frightening news. My friend who's just gotten the cancer diagnosis announced it in an email blast like this, "It is against my religion to share extremely personal information or to ask anyone for help, but the Universe has sent me a lesson here and it’s time for me to start learning it." I find it intriguing that she'd start that way -- and it's a reminder that religion doesn't always tell good news. I think she means that she wants to be self-sufficient, and not dependent on others. But she goes on to tie it to a sense of being connected to all that is. It's an echo of that ancient teaching, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." That "fear of the Lord" is an unfortunate translation in the old King James, because it actually means something more like a "deep awareness of God's otherness" or "being in awe of the Creator's majestic work." Yet it is that sense of awe and connection to all that is that encourages any of us to turn in at Wisdom's door and join the feast.
That's what Jesus did over and over again. He insisted that God's intent is for a feast for all people, not just the rulers of the Roman empire. He healed and fed and welcomed people who had been put out of the feast by religious rules or their own suffering. At the end of his ministry, he turned his face toward Jerusalem and the feast that waited for him there -- a feast he celebrated with his disciples in an upper room, and continued through the ages in the banquet we're going to share here -- but also the feast of his own life, made holy in its offering. He went to Jerusalem to challenge the un-wise, who insist that power, rules of exclusion, and violence rule this world. Jesus offered an alternative kingdom, where all are welcome to the feast, none is excluded, and no one lives in fear or want.
We all hunger for that feast. We search for a link with something or someone beyond our limited or painful or excluded experience. We have a deep yearning to transcend the nothingness of death, to bring meaning into what we most fear.
Fear not, for God is with us. Christ is risen, trampling down death, entering into hell to search for those who can find no way out, going ahead to wait for his disciples. Fear not, and join the feast created before the beginning of the world.
Photo from Bishop Katharine's visit at St. Paul's Memorial Church, Jan. 31, 2010