Nations shall rise against nations and kingdom against kingdom. We could certainly make a case that we are living in the end times as Jesus describes it. But many people over the centuries have all insisted that theirs was the end times, and they all have one feature in common: every one has been wrong. Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus makes a point of telling us that we are not to speculate on when the end times will come. That is not for us to know. So what are we to do if we seem to be living in a time when nations repeatedly rise against nations and kingdom against kingdom?
It is safe to say that our behavior during the recent elections is not an example of what we are to do, end times or not. The months leading up to November 6 were marked by division, lies, manipulative behavior and most of all a stirring up of fear. That is the very opposite of what Jesus urges, for this or for any time.
Be not afraid, he tells us, even though we live in a time of fearful hearts. Be not afraid. How, then, can you and I find the courage that we need to drive fear from our hearts and from our lives?
We can begin, perhaps, by pulling back from certain behaviors. We can refuse to separate others out and proclaim them as being less than beloved of God because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or because they are fleeing the battleground of their home countries and seeking refuge – much as the Holy Family will do after the birth of Christ. We can choose not to be ruled by fear – and we can choose not to support individuals and agencies that encourage fear.
A recent survey shows that more of us are afraid of being the victim of crime, even as crime rates have reached a 30-year low. Why, then, are we so afraid? Why are we so sure that the worst will happen to us? Because we choose to fill our ears with maybes and what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. Tune in to any local news network and you’ll hear a teaser guaranteed to cost you a good night’s sleep. “Could what’s in your tap water be killing you? Tune in at eleven. Later tonight: How the fad of adult coloring is slowly damaging your nerves.”
In his documentary Bowling for Columbine, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore pointed out that Canada owns more guns per capita; the French see more violent movies; and people in Japan play more violent video games. So why do we seem to have exponentially more shootings than every other country combined? It turns out the answer is fear. All those teasers designed to increase ratings are making us sure that a danger lurks around every corner and in every cupboard. Every outlet fills our ears and our hearts and our minds with fear, and we soak it up.
Yet Jesus has a strangely compelling invitation for each of us. As you and I repeatedly see nation rise against nation, we are urged: “Be not afraid.” What does that even look like? What would our days be like if, instead of cowering in a corner and sharing conspiracy theories on the Internet, we stood tall and reached out in courage? What does that look like?
It looks like seeking out, and finding, common ground. Like welcoming the stranger and the refugee, not with barbed wire and with tanks but with shelter and a hot meal and a hand up. It looks like turning off the fear-mongering and stepping out beyond our own circle of familiarity and getting to know what is true.
Be not afraid, Jesus says, even as he has reached Jerusalem in preparation for going toward his unbalanced trial and his certain, ignominious death. When we refuse to conjure monsters and demons out of the dark unknown, one of the most helpful lessons we learn is that we are not alone. Everyone around us has similar concerns and needs. Everyone around us is having to draw on the courage to get through each day. One of the nurse’s aides at Trinity Elms is Muslim. She wears a headscarf. One or two of the residents were initially concerned about having her care for them. Over time, however, her constant smile and unfailing love for those in her neighborhood have made her among the most popular employees. She usually serves, by her own request, in the memory care neighborhood, pouring out her generous and genuine compassion for those who have lost their way and seek only a friendly touch.
From The Wizard of Oz to Lord of the Rings, from the Hardy Boys to Harry Potter, every great adventure store shows that the protagonist facing a terrifyingly powerful villain is able to keep moving forward, is able to advance to victory because he has friends. Reaching out to those around us – learning that the person who doesn’t dress like me or talk like me or vote like me is nonetheless my sister or brother in Christ – and beginning to build relationships – that is one way that you and I can be not afraid. Walking away from the television news and Internet sites that make money out of whipping up fear – that is another way. And reaching out to God in prayer – that may be the most powerful way that you and I can be not afraid.
In prayer, we make ourselves vulnerable. In prayer, we confess our fears. In prayer, we open our hearts to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. An when we open our hearts, and we reach out to those around us, and we refuse to swallow the exaggerations and the worst-case scenarios and the fearmongering, what happens?
When fear runs out, courage runs in. When we stop fearing the things that other people tell us might happen, we begin to realize that the Kingdom of God is not, after all, some far distant place and time. The disciples around Jesus in today’s reading are in the midst of the Kingdom of God, and they don’t even know it. They are there because they are surrounded by their brothers in Christ who will stand by them to and beyond the grave. The Kingdom of God is wherever and whenever any one of us reaches out to someone else. Whenever you and I build a relationship. Whenever we put aside our differences and realize that we are all on the same team and the same ship and start looking for the best in one another. Whenever we recognize, as the Quakers do, that there is that of God in every one.
Close your eyes for a moment. Visualize one person you really can’t stand, the person you would do anything to avoid. Now imagine the face of Christ on that person. Does that change anything?
Being not afraid is more than just closing the door on fear, although that’s a start. It is opening the door to courage. The courage to speak out for someone being mistreated. The courage to stand alone in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The courage to reach out in love to terrified refugees.
Be not afraid, Jesus tells us, and when we stop letting fear control us, our hearts open wide – and courage and relationship and love come in.