Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter: Don't Be Afraid!

Homily for Easter 2015
Hermitage of St. Bernardine
Stroud, NSW, Australia
Br. Clark Berge

“Don’t be afraid!” This is the counsel we get in Matthew’s Gospel in the light of the Resurrection. Fear clouds our thinking, diminishes our generosity and inhibits joy. I was set to preach on this after our meeting last week, then doubly so after reading Tim Winton’s speech Bruce forwarded me from the Palm Sunday walk in Perth about the Australian response to immigrants. ( Fear is all around though we don’t always name it thus. Easter morning is a good time to weigh our fears, and to look at them in the brilliant light of what we believe God is doing in the world.

During this liturgy we are given numerous images of God and we hear stories of how God acts in the world: lovingly and creatively in creation, in the nick of time in the story of Abraham and Isaac, salvifically at the Red Sea, compassionately in the prophecy of Isaiah, and refreshingly with sprinkled clean water in Ezekiel. We believe God acts in loving, timely, saving, compassionate new ways; yes? All of this is released again in a startling way in the story of the Resurrection. Our beliefs about and our images of God control our actions, so we have our charter.

But what can dissuade us? Reluctance to confront others, busy-ness or preoccupation with other matters, sometimes we say we had no idea what was wrong. Offering ignorance as our defence is pretty shaky! But we offer it out of fear of being accused of callousness. I think fear lurks in the depths of all these defences.

Tim Winton spoke powerfully about the corrosive fear that has diminished Australia’s response to immigrants, and he called on his fellow citizens to shake off their fear.

America, to be even-handed, struggles with a fear of difference too: racism is alive and well in my country. Why else are 90% of inmates black? Why else do young black Americans walk in fear through the city streets? Fear twitches the fingers of the trigger happy. Where is the generosity, creativity, loving, saving compassion in deporting children to countries virtually foreign to them?

Bringing it closer to home, do fears make us friars not speak honestly to each other? Does fear make us flip into angry attacks rather than loving, honest exchanges? Why do I get so defensive when I feel criticized—even if nobody has said anything? As Winton describes Christians: we’re “lily livered” followers! When I got sober in 1999 I had to do an inventory of my life, step four of the 12 Steps of Recovery. Not only do you list what you did, but you need to say why you did it. Over and over again, I found myself saying, “I was afraid of what people would think.” “I was afraid he was trying to take something away from me.” “I was afraid I’d be left out.” I was afraid, afraid, and afraid. Just telling people “Stop it!” doesn’t actually change lives. It is a good consciousness raiser. It makes marvellous rhetoric at a public event. But what has helped me most is being loved. When I hear people laugh at my horror stories, and then share their own, I know I am loved and accepted. When I feel ashamed, I am often reminded I may have done something wrong but I am still a beloved friend or brother. As fear has diminished I have grown. Or, another way of saying it, as my self-preoccupation has died, Christ has grown in me. But if I live to be a 110, I may always get a knot in my stomach, may always feel a flash of fear, my old weakness. But by then I will perhaps banish it with the intake of a breath, and “know intuitively how to handle the situation.”

Fear can ruin our personal lives, thwart our highest aspirations as we sometimes seek to dull the effects with alcohol, or sex, or work…you name it. Fear can pervert our community and our countries. A world in the grip of fear can only pay lip service to new life. Fear is perhaps the only thing that could undo Jesus’ ministry and render his death meaningless. Demagogues always build on fear, it is second only to love as a great motivator.

God did what only God could do; he broke down the barrier of death, classically the greatest human fear. The only thing we have left to fear is fear itself, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously reminded Americans at his first inauguration. You see we aren’t the first or the only ones to struggle with this.

“Don’t be afraid,” the resurrected Christ implores us. “Don’t be afraid.” Thus even at the grave our victory shout rings out: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

I preached this at the friary chapel in Stroud: 4:30 a.m. Easter morning! I arrived in Australia on Tuesday night last week from the Solomon Islands; I attended their chapter, then gave a series of three lectures/workshops to 30+ brothers and wanna-be brothers, and finished my visit preaching at St. Francis church in Honiara, preaching to over 500 people. It wasn't all work though. I got in some great work-outs, nice long runs through the jungle on dirt tracks, and march 25 we had a beautiful Eucharist in the morning and then off to the beach for one of the nicest picnics: tinned plums were the highlight until the brothers caught some octopusses (octopi?) which we grilled: very tasty. A wonderful time.

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