Laughing at Our Fears

The Rev. Stephen W. Kidd
Trinity Cathedral, Little Rock
Oct. 30, 2011
Proper 26A
Micah3:5-12, I Thess. 2:9-13, Matt. 23:1-12

Jesus is agitated. This passage is “Scene IV” of a larger act in the Gospel of Matthew. You see, this day for Jesus began with a group of Pharisees trying to trick him with a question about paying taxes to Caesar, which he then answered with a riddle. It continued with a group of Sadducees also trying to make a fool of Jesus, with a legalistic question about who is married to whom in Heaven. This he answered by reading their own scriptures back to them.

Then, as we read together last week, the Pharisees returned for another shot at the rabbi: asking him to single out one of the Ten Commandments as the greatest. Jesus of course answers with the “great Commandment”: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your mind, this is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it, love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the law and the prophets.”

Our first glimpse that Jesus had, had enough was when he turned the tables on these successive huddles of troublemakers. In turn he asked them a question that they couldn’t answer, about the identity of the messiah. That scene ends with one of my favorite humorous verses in the Gospels. “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

Now, the picture of Jesus we usually bring to mind, the nice guy who pats children on the head and throws sheep over his shoulder. That guy, probably would have let this end there. But that isn’t the picture we get in Matthew. While Jesus is at times gentle and meek and kind in this Gospel, in this particular instance he sees a bully, and he isn’t going to back down. With the words of the great commandment Jesus quoted still hanging in the air, he calls out these leaders for how they put the law in practice. He accuses them of rigging the system, of applying God’s law so that they always come out on top. He says they have put heavy burdens on the people, but have no interest in helping them carry them.

Jesus doesn’t have a problem with Moses, or with the law, he has a problem with leaders who make their people less free in the name of God. In stark contrast to their behavior, Jesus offers an alternative view of what leadership looks like: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” It should not be lost on us that Jesus said these words, on his way to Jerusalem where he would offer his very life in service to God and too us. He gives us a stark example of what it looks like to live this way.

In this passage, Jesus was critiquing a particular set of religious, political and cultural realities. We might be tempted as 21st century Christians to say: “thank God we are not like that anymore.” But we would be wrong. It takes no more than a cursory glance at our news headlines to see that we have burdens heaped upon our backs as well. Facing political and economic unrest at home and terrorists who wish us ill abroad, it is no wonder that 3 out of 4 Americans say they are more afraid today than they were 20 years ago. Fear is an insidious kind of burden: it weighs on people in ways we may never be able to identify.

Virtues like patience, charity and trust are almost impossible when we are guided by our fears. Most of human history’s ugliest chapters have occurred when people were afraid. Sadly, when I look around I don’t see too many people interested in lightening our own constricting load. Most instead are looking for ways to control our fear, not to take it away. I doesn’t seem like we are very different from the people Jesus was talking to at all. Perhaps we will have to look in unexpected places to find our relief.

This weekend, we as a nation find ourselves immersed in a complex holiday. Children (and some adults) will be dressing up in costume, most as something frightening, in celebration of Halloween. There has long been a debate as to the Pagan versus Christian origins of such a holiday. But a quick look at its history reveals it has much more to do with commercial interests and clever marketing. Of course there are some tenuous connections to pagan holidays and to our own remembrance of the faithful departed on All Saints. But neither of them can really lay claim to the candy-fueled cultural festival we will find on our streets today.

But whether the Druids or the PR reps are to blame for it, it doesn’t really matter, because there is still a peculiar Christian truth to be exposed here. Tomorrow night the streets will be filled with ghosts, goblins, witches, and any number of other frightening creatures; any one of which on a normal night would send the average kid to hide under the covers. But tomorrow, children will themselves embody the great Christian truth that anxious parents whisper to them on most other nights. There is nothing to fear.

There is a profound courage in mocking what makes us afraid. It is an enactment of that age old adage: “laugh at the devil and he will flee.” Halloween, at its best, is an odd kind of witness to the same thing we do here on these steps when we bury our loved ones. In the prayer of commendation, as we stand next to the casket we say: “All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” This is the counter cultural message of Jesus – Love is stronger than fear, even stronger than death.

Children conquer fear with laughter,just as we conquer fear with faith. This is not to say the things we fear do not exist: crime, famine, war, poverty and death are all rightly terrifying. But when we place them in their proper perspective, within the context of the love of God and the work of Jesus, they are stripped of almost all their power to enslave us.

These tiny witnesses on our stoops and streets can remind us about Christian hope: that no matter how the economy affects our stock portfolio our worth will never change, that whether we are tea partied or occupied, the Kingdom of God is still coming, that no matter how many of us are killed, we serve a Lord who has already defeated death. There is nothing to fear.

So what is our proper response when these children come to deflate our anxiety? It is generosity. Just as we greet our neighborhood goblins with candy bars: when our fear subsides we find there is more room in our hearts, more room in our lives to give of ourselves in the way Jesus commanded.

This side of the grave, fear is a burden which each of us will carry. With God’s help we can lighten the load for one another, and resist together those who might be looking to pile it on. But always keep an eye out for witnesses to our resurrection; they might come in surprising places, and tomorrow night … give ‘em candy. Amen.