Fear: An Insidious, Divisive, Contagious Villian — July 17, 2016

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A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas LangNicholas
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
July 17, 2016

In the name of the God who made and knows us, the Savior who redeems and befriends us, and the Spirit who enlightens and sustains us.  Amen.

On a Sunday as hot and humid as this, this short Gospel will get a cut to the chase kind of sermon.

The passage has been used to take sides between Mary and Martha and think of these two women as opposite models for the active versus the contemplative life. Very often taking sides is what the Gospel asks us to do because most of the time the temperature of the text is not lukewarm. But this isn’t one of those times.

Why pit the ministry of good management against attention to God’s Word? Still, we may stumble over and struggle with this thing about Mary’s “choosing the better part.” What we have here is a translation glitch. The original Greek word (αγαθήν) does not really mean “better” but “good” and the entire phrase is best translated “Mary is playing the good part,” emphasis on “part.” It’s not that what Martha is doing is bad just that each is playing her part and that each role is different but is a necessary part of discipleship.

I’d like to offer another perspective. There are three characters in this story: Mary, Martha, and Jesus. That’s an important piece because what we have here is an example of a radically counter-cultural violation: that an unmarried woman would sit at the feet of a single man—a rabbi, no less—and be instructed in things religious. First-century Rabbi Eliazer said, “Better to burn the Torah than to teach it to women.” Add their brother Lazarus to the mix—three single adult people in a culture that encouraged marriage from a very young age.

I wonder if Martha’s concern was more about her fear of the ramifications of inviting a man into their home, serving him dinner, and engaging in deep conversation with him. This, at the time of Jesus, was extremely taboo. What would the neighbors say? How would the Temple priests and the Pharisees react?

The great question looming in America just now is: What the hell is going on? Why are such terrible things happening? What’s broken and how do we fix it? There is a great rift in our society—sign up for FaceBook if you have any doubts—and its genesis is in some large issues: race and gender inequality, income disparity, violence against police officers and police overreach, immigration , homophobia, and a profound sense that we are a divided country on the wrong track.

History has for centuries explained the brokenness of civilization with a four letter word that can destroy community and ravage a nation: fear. Fear of change, fear of anyone different, fear of loss, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown. It is an insidious and divisive and contagious villain.

A daily read of mine this week shared a rector’s story of an attractive, talented, well dressed, confident woman names “June” who was a devoted volunteer at his church. No one knew her closely guarded secret: She was scared to death.

One day she asked to meet with her priest to talk about her angst. She danced around her problem for a while and then blurted out what she was harboring inside. She told him that she had “a litany of fears.” She was afraid of men, she was afraid of black people, she feared financial ruin, she worried about her sexuality, she had anxiety about her faith.

They decided to meet a few more times to sort out these fears and help her find some release from them. About a month later, she appeared at the rector’s door and had found a way forward. “You know,” she said, “I’ve gotten so accustomed to my fears that letting go of them is more scary than clutching on to them. The terrible part, “she said, “is that, while it’s not at all good for me and certainly not for others, it feels better because it’s familiar.”

Yes, fear can serve us well when there is a real threat to our safety and the safety of others. It propels our thinking process to make quick decisions. It does not serve us well when our fear is not based in reality but on fantasy or on our preconceived, biased opinions about people or situations we have labeled stereo-typically.

In the wake of the several horrible events that continue to unfold, I have been asked “what can I do?” I think the only answer I can offer is found in Jesus and his way of life. When fear, distrust, and profiling emerged among his followers, he promised them that in prayer, sharing in the sacred meal of the Eucharist, and community-building they would find a new way. They would find “the better part.”

We can as well. It’s that part of ourselves we have difficulty owning. It’s that beautiful image of God in which we have been created. It is to be open to the great challenge to choose in any given moment the part God has given each of us to play—no matter what the risk or the cost.

You may recall the book and movie entitled “Pray, Eat, Love.” Perhaps it’s a good antidote for fear and a mantra for what God calls us to do in its path.


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