Living Courageously in a Culture of Fear

Many know that I preach from what is known as the Revised Common Lectionary (most of the time), and it is a series of prescribed readings over a three-year period. While not every pastor does this, there is good chance that if you attend any of the churches in a more liturgical tradition, you will hear some of the same passages read. Our lectionary is also closely aligned with correlated weekly readings in the Catholic and Episcopal traditions, as well.

I do this because it makes me study … reflect … preach on topics that I would just as soon avoid. Often late in the summer and into the early fall, we begin to hit on some of the really hard teachings of Jesus. In the weeks ahead, we will be talking about how Jesus comes to bring, not peace, but division … in families … among friends … between neighbors (see Luke 12 – 14). I’m thinking he might even be talking about local churches and whole denominations.

At one point, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, NRSV). It is so easy for us to rationalize this … somehow to make it a bit more palatable … but the word used is the Greek word “misā” (μισει). It pretty much means “hate,” but I want to clarify that it isn’t hate as we think of it in our culture. It is, in the purest sense, not clinging to … letting go … of people and things that keep us from the hard truths that Jesus teaches.

What Jesus teaches is that God’s love is a radical, inclusive love that calls us way beyond our comfort zones into a faith that is not comfortable for people who enjoy undisturbed power and privilege. In that same large section of Luke’s gospel, we hear that Jesus has brought to the banquet the poor, the crippled, the lame, those who live in the countryside … people who are outsiders. His proclamation that “theirs is the kingdom of God” is an affront to those who have long claimed the kingdom … and religious control … as their own possession.

What was one key way they maintained such power? Fear!

As Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, he knows his controversial message speaks truth to power … confronts fear head on … and offers a new way to live free of fear. And it all begins with letting go …  of the need to be affirmed by others (some of whom we love deeply) … to let go of even our own power and privilege. For the followers of Jesus, it is enough to live unafraid and only with what God provides.

A culture of fear.

Today we face incredibly harmful rhetoric in our country that stokes racism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, nationalism, and any other of our many “-isms” that are used to marginalize people, bring literal physical harm and death to people, and destroy families and communities. For those who claim Christ, we must now speak the truth of Christ. The very people who are forced into the margins … or cages … or behind border walls are the very people whom Christ has invited to the banquet. They are the ones to whom the kingdom of God is given.

What we are told about these very children of God by hate mongers is that they are to be feared. They are here to take our status, our money, and our way of life. They are not welcomed in the world that created Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best (apologies for the dated cultural reference). And while that world no longer really exists across a broad section of US American life, for some reason we have given in to those political and religious leaders who peddle fear in order to maintain some mythical religious, family, and community life that never existed in the first place. In that mythical world, everyone knew their place and no one questioned structures that maintained power and privilege.

For those of us who claim to be Christians, it is time to follow Jesus!

Following Jesus takes courage … it takes heart (literally what courage means) … to stand against a culture of fear and say with Jesus that we will not be afraid. We will not give into the reptilian portion of our brain that creates only fight or flight options for us … we will use heart, soul, mind (the frontal lobes), and strength to love God and love neighbor … even if it isn’t as peaceful and serene an exercise as we would like to think.

Courage wins.

The Reverend Fabian Marquez is the parish priest of El Buen Pastor Catholic Church in the impoverished colonia of Sparks, on the outskirts of El Paso. The New York Times had a great article about his work in the days following the shooting at a Walmart where people were targeted specifically because they were Mexican or hispanic, 22 of whom died in the gunfire.

The article captures perfectly how Father Marquez walked with families through the tragedy. He was the only religious leader who stayed with families all through the night at a school that authorities had designated as a “family reunification center” as they waited to hear about their loved ones. As people discovered their loved ones were safe, they began to leave, and then he sat with each of the remaining 17 people as they were pulled aside and individually told that they had lost loved ones in the shooting.

Father Marquez wrote down each of their names on a crumpled piece of paper and vowed to go to each of the memorial services whether they were part of his parish or not … whether they were Catholic or not. A friend of his was worried about his safety as a religious leader standing with these people.

Then, as clergy well know, Sunday tends to show up with alarming regularity, and Father Marquez had to write a sermon.

He looked first at Matthew’s command to love God and neighbor. He took solace that his faith and the teachings of Jesus had prepared him for such a time as this and that he could respond with a defiant love that is greater than a culture of fear and hate. And when he preached, he used the lection for the day that came from Luke 12  (remember, I said that many of us use those prescribed readings … we read it at Wellspring), and it began with Jesus talking to his disciples about how hard it is to be his followers.

How does that passage begin? “Do not be afraid, little flock” (Luke 12:32, NRSV). And Father Marquez knew that was the message he had to bring to them: “You do not have to be afraid.”

I think the name of his church is signifant: El Buen Pastor. The Good Shepherd. When we stand with the good shepherd, we can speak boldly and courageously against a culture of fear and hate.

Don’t give into fear … el buen pastor is with us!

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