Finding life through focusing away from evil and letting go of fear
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Lent 2, 8th March 2020
Our family cat is having a spiritual crisis. She is overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world at present, in particular, another cat keeps appearing at our back door, and as it’s a glass door, she can see it. When the cat appears, her tail starts flapping, the hissing begins and sometimes she even launches at the glass. Unfortunately for our cat (Leela), cats somehow trigger the teasing part of my brain, and so having discovered that by turning the outside light on and off, I can make the cat appear and vanish, I enjoy making Leela’s behaviour alternate between attack mode and relaxed. While my power over Leela’s behaviour amuses me, what amuses me even more, is the fact that there is no cat outside the back door. She’s just seeing her own reflection.
Leela has developed a habit of this now. She’s obsessed with this evil cat and keeps looking for it. I might try getting her to pray our Prayer of the Day, which asks God to help us renounce evil and cling to Christ. That could help, because at present she’s doing just the opposite: focussing on evil and clinging to fear. Fear and Jesus are opposites, because Jesus’ life is based in trust in God and therefore not afraid of what goes on in the world or what other people are doing.
We’re probably all familiar with the words Do not be afraid spoken by angels to various people in the stories around Jesus’ birth, but we may not be as aware that throughout his life, Jesus encouraged people to not be afraid, or at least if they were afraid, to not cling to their fear. Jesus also encouraged people to hold a light attitude towards themselves, on the grounds that God’s capacity to bring about good was always greater than their sin. That’s a way of telling people to not be afraid of themselves. Do not be afraid appears in scripture more than any other phrase. Clinging to Christ, or trusting in Christ, involves not focussing on fear, or not letting it get a hold of us.
It’s important to remember, that like our family cat, we may not have a perfect picture of what is really going on out there in the world – what we do have, is the picture we have formed in our minds, generally based on what those who control the news feed to us. So, it’s a combination of facts, possibly distorted, and then possibly shaped by the most dangerous force within us, which is the mixture of fear and imagination. That mixture robs us of trust (in God, ourselves and each other) and self-protection becomes our dominating desire. Isn’t that what panic-buying of toilet paper is?
Even though we may not have a perfect picture of what’s going on in the world, there are significant things going on and they are serious. But what is never helpful is to let fear or concern with what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with others or what’s wrong with yourself, run your life. That could be described a spiritually panicking. When it comes to physical crises, panicking never helps. If people rush to act, it usually results in more people getting hurt, and just because you’re not panicking doesn’t mean you’re not taking the situation seriously, there’s just a better way of dealing with it. The same goes for times of spiritual crisis.
At home, we’ve realised that we have to put things between the cat and the glass door, so that she stops focussing on the alleged evil lurking outside (aka her reflection). How can we achieve the same result for ourselves, so that the circumstances of the world don’t overwhelm us, so we don’t feel afraid of what’s going on, or what might occur, or so that our anger over other’s actions, or incompetence doesn’t dominate our lives? How can we avoid feeling that life is meaningless and not lose hope, ending up believing there’s no point in trying to make the world a better place?
A good way to start comes from today’s psalm (121), which begins I lift up my eyes to the hills: where shall I find help? To be able to lift up your eyes to look to the hills, you must be on the plain, which means to look up is to look above, or beyond, your present situation. In other words, to not focus on what you see or what you are being shown (on the news, in social media etc). When the psalmist looks up, they realise that help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. It’s the same God who created the world, who called Sarai and Abram to leave their birthplace, inspired St Paul to speak of love and came into the world as Jesus. It’s the same God who is with us and who helps us now. Our focus then, needs to be on God’s goodness.
In our first reading today, we hear of Abram and Sarai hearing God’s call to leave their birthplace and journey to a new home, thus taking God’s blessing into the world. We can think of our own lives as a journey too – a journey towards what we were made to become, and what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. Each of us have our own way of living out that journey, but essentially our journey is into God’s life. Or to put it another way, the point of our lives comes from receiving God’s love and living out that love towards others.
Today’s gospel says that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. That’s a fancy way of saying our lives have meaning and purpose through receiving God’s love and living out that love towards others. The first thing that involves is not focussing on what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with other people, or even on what’s wrong with ourselves, but focussing on God’s goodness. It’s said that one’s appetite grows according to what feeds it, so the more we focus on God’s goodness, the more we will become aware of God’s goodness, and that will change how we cope with the world around us.
God’s goodness can seem fairly abstract. What does it mean when there seems to be so much wrong with the world? To find God’s goodness, all you have to do is look within yourself, to your longings and dreams. Driving along the road just outside of Port Elliot, a convoy of about 2o semi-trailers loaded with hay came along. I guess they were heading for Kangaroo Island. It was a very moving experience – all those people in the trucks driving all that way to help people and animals who were suffering from the fires. In a way it was humbling, but there was something more to it, a sense of something deeply wonderful and profound, that people would do that. It made me aware of God’s goodness, working through those people. If I let myself imagine that I could do anything I want, I can imagine myself driving truck full of hay to people on Kangaroo Island. I would love to do that. That desire, within myself, is God’s goodness within me. It’s part of my longings and dreams, through which God is drawing me to experience and share God’s love in the world. The more attention I pay to those longings and dreams, instead of focussing on what’s wrong with the world, the more aware I will become of God’s goodness and the more I will live it out.
If you do that and still find yourself bothered by what’s wrong with the world, don’t despair, because that bother is coming out of your longing for things to be different. That’s God within you, nudging you through your frustration, your fear, your anger, to pay attention to your deeper desires for what is good. You’re being bothered by what’s wrong with the world is a sign of your longing for God – longing for God’s love and longing to be able to share God’s love. So feed that appetite for love.