Standing or Fainting?
A meditation on Luke Luke 21: 25 – 36 and Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church December 2, 2018
August 21, 2017. Do you remember that day? Not since 1918 had a total solar eclipse been visible across our entire country. I drove up to Nashville; I had two purposes. August 21 is my middle son’s birthday, so heading to a city directly on the path of the eclipse was an added bonus.
Despite the scientific explanations, there is only one word to describe a total solar eclipse: magical. We, unlike earliest peoples, have the privilege of knowledge, which allows us to enter into these liminal moments without fear. Standing on the lawn, we could delight in the anticipation of knowing what was about to happen rather than finding ourselves confronted by eschatological realities. We could hold the facts in our minds, while our eyes were dazzled by the unbelievable.
Animals instinctively know how to respond to an eclipse, despite the disruption to their bodies’ clocks. My dog, who was zooming and rolling around in the grass prior to the moment, immediately laid down when the sun disappeared. Instead of fearing the darkness, animals respond to it as an opportunity, however brief, to rest. They don’t panic, they simply do what they would normally do. They find a safe place. They quiet themselves. They wait for what comes after the darkness.
As the light grew dim, the cicadas began to sing and the birds filled the sky en masse as they flew home. Then it was still, and cool; the temperature dropped. The birds and cicadas stilled their voices. And the most marvelous thing of all happened: the sky was filled with stars. The stars, always present, yet hidden to us in the daylight, glowed in the eclipse-darkened sky. The stars came out – ever so briefly – to remind us of all that we cannot see in the steady light of day.
Darkness and light. Chaos and peace. Disruption and calm. Noise and silence. Mystery and reality. The dichotomies one experiences in an eclipse. The dichotomies one experiences in the season of Advent. It is only the second of December, but we are already feeling the pressure: what to give, whether to replace the Christmas lights, how to delight the children, how to be a family, where to find meaning; and what to believe about a God who would choose poverty over wealth, humility over prestige, powerlessness over authority.
Here we are in Advent listening to the words of prophets and wondering if we should find comfort or fear in their speech. Jeremiah wraps us in words of hope: God’s generous promise that justice and peace will fill the land, that God’s people will live in safety. Sometimes those promises seem as invisible to us as the stars in the daytime sky. Especially in light of the words of another prophet, Jesus. He speaks to his disciples, words of warning, words of caution. “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars…there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea.” “People will faint from fear,” Jesus says, so you must “stand up straight and raise your heads.” Collapse from fear or stand from strength? Those are the choices that Jesus presents to his disciples. It all comes down to this: how will we read the signs? Will we read them with the assurance that God’s people can live in safety or will we interpret them with panic and fear? Will we, like the sparrows before the eclipse, understand this moment in time as part of the natural order of things, full of mystery and power, or will we allow fear to consume us?
Will we faint or will we stand?
We have witnessed the tragedy of natural disturbances: from fires and flooding in California to hurricanes on the gulf coast. These weather phenomena are to be feared, especially as we consider how our own disrespect for our earth has triggered greater and greater events. There are equally vital cultural signs around us. Flashing neon signs, loud voices, but if our hearts are dull we can’t read them. We can’t comprehend just how far we have wandered from God’s ways.
Will we faint from fear or will we stand and raise our heads so that we may respond with the compassion of God?
One week ago, at the San Ysidro border crossing, CS gas, an aerosol compound considered a chemical weapon that has been outlawed on the battlefield by nearly every nation on earth, including the United States, [i] was thrown into a crowd that included many women and children.
Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor-elect of California, argued that images of kids sprinting from tear gas run counter to American ideals. “These children are barefoot. In diapers. Choking on tear gas,” he tweeted. “Women and children who left their lives behind — seeking peace and asylum — were met with violence and fear. That’s not my America. We’re a land of refuge. Of hope. Of freedom. And we will not stand for this.”
Democratic Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, tweeted: Asking to be considered a refugee & applying for status isn’t a crime.
It wasn’t for Jewish families fleeing Germany.
It wasn’t for targeted families fleeing Rwanda.
It wasn’t for communities fleeing war-torn Syria.
And it isn’t for those fleeing violence in Central America.[ii]
Newsom and Ocasio-Cortez are standing up. Will we stand up and respond to these signs such as these? Or will fear of the other, fear of our own discomfort, fear of disruption cause us to faint in these earth shaking times when asylum seekers are labeled as outlaws?
Bethel Church in the Hague has found a way to stand straight and raise their heads in the face of confusion. They have found a way to peacefully stand for justice for the Tamrazyan family. For 800 hours, Bethel Church has been holding a continuous worship service. They are not trying to break a record or make a name for themselves. They are simply trying to protect a family threatened with deportation. “Under Dutch law, police officers are not permitted to enter a church while a religious service is taking place. So, for more than a month, hundreds of pastors and volunteers from across the country have been meeting to maintain the 24/7 service in support of an Armenian family whose asylum claim has been rejected.”
What is this deep rooted fear to which we cling? This fear that there is not enough room, not enough food, not enough help, not enough work? These same fears swirled through Bethlehem when a young couple began to knock on doors in search of shelter, in search of a place in which they might welcome new life into this world. A life to save the world.
What if we open the doors of our hearts this Advent season? We might discover that fear needs to find a way out and has been waiting for that open door. We might also find that when fear vacates those rooms, we have space for God’s welcome, space for Christ’s hope, space for the Spirit’s mischief.
One night I was working late at the church in Nashville. My office was tucked in a small space behind the back wall of the sanctuary, the original pastor’s study. The other offices – pastors and office administrator – were located on the opposite side of the sanctuary. In the course of a day, I traversed back and forth many times through the choir loft to get to the copier, to speak to a co-worker, etc. I could either climb the choir risers, and walk across on them; or enter through a side door, go up the chancel stairs, and slide between the communion table and the organ to reach the other side.
This night, I forgot that the communion table, which was basically a heavy wooden box (more of a coffin than a table) had not been returned to its usual location after Sunday’s service. Loaded down with laptop, purse and miscellaneous items, I left my office, turning out lights as I went. With so much to carry, I thought it best to not try navigating the choir risers. I opened the sanctuary door and realized no lights were on in the office. When the door closed behind me, I would be standing in complete darkness. I don’t know why – but I had that tickly feeling at the back of my neck. I decided to run…so run I did and I crashed into that communion table. My knees hit hard against the wood, and my stomach took the rest of the blow, knocking me to the floor. In the pitch black darkness, in the middle of the sanctuary – the sanctuary! – all I could do was laugh through the tears. In my fear I had slammed right into God’s table. It took the breath out of me. Brought tears to my eyes and laughter to my throat. I wondered, I may have even said it out loud, “Did you have to hit me so hard, God?”
If I had had any light to see by, I would have opened the nearest Bible to Psalm 139.
Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I [fall down] sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me…
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139)
Darkness and light. Chaos and peace. Disruption and calm. Noise and silence. Mystery and reality. We have come to Advent. May God go with us all, as we journey together. Thanks be to God, the giver of darkness and light. Amen.