Preacher: Diana Bender
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Three and a half weeks ago, I preached at Evening Prayer, and the gospel that day was very end of the book of Luke. Three weeks ago, I ended my 7 year job as co-executive director of a non-profit I co-founded in 2005. Two days later, my son Tieran was confirmed here at Epiphany: a beginning for him, but an ending of sorts for me, as he enters adulthood and I end my role as the mother of a child and transition to becoming the mother of an adult. Two weeks ago, I did a 7 day silent retreat so that I could listen to God more closely, hopefully hear more clearly, during this time of major transition for me. The end of the gospel of John featured prominently at my retreat. Today, we just heard the end of the gospel of Matthew.
So, to recap, within 3 weeks, I studied carefully the end of Luke, the end of John, the end of Matthew. At the same time, I experienced the end of my job and a major life work, and the end of a big phase of my parenting career.
I think God is trying to get my attention. Something about endings maybe?
There has been deep work for me here. And the synchronicity of this was quite helpful. It is interesting to contrast the ends of the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. Matthew and Luke end relatively soon after the resurrection- within a few days or a week. And all three gospels have Jesus appearing to the disciples in the flesh.
What must it have been like for the followers of Jesus?
They enter Jerusalem triumphantly (we celebrate this on Palm Sunday), three days later Jesus is dead. All their dreams, all their visions for a new Israel, all their hopes for a new worldly kingdom here on earth: dashed. And then shockingly, (perhaps even a little scarily) they get the message that Jesus is actually mysteriously alive and they should meet him 70 miles north of Jerusalem, on the mountain where other deeply spiritual events, like the transfiguration, had also transpired. All 11 of them went.
They arrive, and suddenly Jesus is there, in person, not a ghost, alive. The gospel says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. In Greek, the word used here for doubt also means “hesitate.” Some hesitated.
Here they were, face to face with this person they love, who is alive, and yet different. I can see I might hesitate. Even in the face of divine love, even when divinity is directly shown to us, which I think does happen sometimes (even today), we do doubt. We do hesitate.
I wonder, why?
In the end, we truly need not hesitate because, as Jesus said at the very end of Matthew, “Remember, I am with you always.” “Remember,” he says, maybe because he knows we’re going to forget!
Last Sunday Doyt posited that our only true freedom was the freedom to choose God or not. So, what makes us forget Jesus is with us always? What holds us back from choosing God? What makes us doubt or hesitate?
At my silent retreat a few weeks ago, I worked hard to let go of my beloved job that just didn’t fit me anymore, worked to let go of my old parenting role( because my child is growing up) and worked to turn my face more fully towards God (which I feel I am called to do).
And what emerged for me, what made me hesitate, was fear.
Fear of emptiness, fear of the loss of my identity. Because as so many Americans do, I fall into the trap of thinking I am my job. So, no job – does that mean there’s no me?
And so, fear. Now, we know that fear is outside of God’s divine economy. A few weeks ago, Doyt explored what was within the walls of the kingdom of God and what was not. Love, of course, firmly inside the walls of the kingdom of God and featured prominently in God’s divine economy. But evil: not so much.
As Doyt said, “Fear is the one-size-fits-all straightjacket that evil employs.” Fear and evil do not fit within the walls of the kingdom of God.
So, intellectually, I know this, but my heart still feels fear. And as I sat with my fear at my retreat, I remembered how many times in the Bible Jesus, and angels and God said “do not be afraid.” So, I looked up every example in the New Testament of the word “fear” and the phrase “do not be afraid.” And I discovered two things, first: Jesus said this A LOT. And second, most of the people in the New Testament were afraid at least some of the time.
Maybe Jesus told us so many times “do not to be afraid” because being afraid is part of being human. Maybe fear is a normal human response to change, to challenge, to the unexpected, to the unfamiliar. So, maybe the best question is not “why do we fear?”, but “what do we do with our fear?”
The Pharisees allowed their fear to lead to murder- the murder of Jesus. But it doesn’t have to be that extreme. I think fear is a driver behind so many societal problems we face today. Fear is behind prejudice and bigotry. Fear is behind the way we think about poverty and scarcity. Fear is behind why so many of us are stuck in jobs or situations we hate. According to a recent Gallup poll, 70% of Americans hate their job. There is much that employers can and need to do to improve workplaces and I think all of us have a role in undoing racism from an institutional perspective and in turning around global and national poverty through changes in policies, funding and institutions.
But I think there is individual work to do as well.
What do we need to do to loosen the tight grip of fear? To turn our face towards God? In the end, the answer boils down to love. I believe, as 1st John says, that “Love drives out fear.” I can be compassionately and tenderly present with my fear, rather than acting on the basis of it, knowing that Jesus said “Take heart daughter, do not be afraid.” I can’t tell you how helpful that phrase has been lately as I have let love in, and overcome my fear, and allowed myself to get to joy.
Today’s gospel and the Romans passage we heard gives us some pointers as well. “Baptize every nation,” Jesus says: let go of our fear of the “other” and reject prejudice and bigotry. “I am with you to the end of the age” Jesus says: so you can overcome whatever has been holding you back and take that step towards change. “Love your neighbor” Paul reminds us in Romans, and through actively loving others in our community, we will find ourselves less afraid.
But all these types of actions I just described: (to let God’s love help us release fear, to use God’s love to give us courage to overcome fear and to love others to drive out fear) requires an underlying faith. I don’t know if that kind of faith comes 100% naturally.
This is why I believe the spiritual disciplines are so important. I can get caught in fear or doubt or hesitancy, as the disciples did. But when I begin my spiritual discipline of daily prayer and read those words in the prayer book, I am reminded of the presence of God’s love and often find myself more aware of how evil or fear might be playing out.
While I may not believe every single thing I hear at Epiphany, but I do feel I belong here, and I hope you to do too.
Because in fact, you do belong here, even if this is your very first time at Epiphany. Belonging not belief is the priority of a community that values relationship. That values relationship above all else, that loves our neighbors as ourselves. And I see that we at Epiphany are at least trying for this. So, my spiritual discipline of attending church each week orients me to this priority. As I receive love from others here, every Sunday, I am reminded that I myself need to do some of my own loving of my neighbor.
It’s a double-whammy- in daily prayer we are reminded that God loves each of us so deeply and in attending church each week we are reminded that the act of loving others drives out fear. Together these give us the faith to exercise our true freedom and fully choose God.
All the spiritual disciplines have an effect on fear and doubt, I think. They all remind us of and help us orient towards our true priorities. So while it was initially hard to give up sleeping in and staying in bed with coffee and the Sunday paper, once I really established the habit, I found I got so much more out of getting up and coming to church than I did from my coffee and my newspaper. Now, even I when I travel, I almost never miss a Sunday at church because the exchange and reminder of love is too important for my soul.
In all three gospels, in all three of these endings I studied, the disciples did not let their doubt, or fear or hesitancy get the best of them. And thank goodness they didn’t! With divine guidance and inspiration, they have made the world a much better place than it was. Because they did overcome fear and hesitancy and doubt – they did turn their face towards God, along with the millions who followed them. Perhaps not perfectly, there were many set-backs and terrible things done in the development of Christianity. But one step at a time, they, and now you, have been, and I hope will continue to build the kingdom of God here on earth:
spreading love and
To you my dear neighbors at Epiphany, loving you as I do, I hope you will choose God.
This leads me to a question for you, that I encourage you to ask me back. My question for you is this: what step will you to take? How will you identify and let love trump your fear? How will you love your neighbor?
Fundamentally, how will you choose God?
Diana Bender is an Epiphany parishioner and leads the discernment groups at Epiphany.
Diana Bender is an Epiphany parishioner. She usually attends the 10:30 am service and leads the discernment groups at Epiphany.