From Fear, Through Faith, To Freedom
A Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter
In 2001 I sold everything I had, except the things that would fit in my car. Packed up tight, I drove back home, where, as the saying goes, they had to take me in. I had lost one job, then landed another that turned out to be a really bad fit. So I quit the second job, called one of my sisters, and asked if she still had a spare bedroom I could live in for awhile. She said yes. I got in my car and drove home – terrified and excited, all at once. I was really scared about what the future would bring, and yet, deep down, underneath it all, I knew God had brought me through some other tough times and had shown me how to find a new freedom and start my life all over. I knew this was a new chapter of my spiritual journey, and once again, no matter how terrified I might get, I knew that God was with me.
Tonight we are gathered, at this Great Vigil of Easter, to begin the latest chapter of our spiritual journey together, here at All Saints' Episcopal Church. Tonight we will watch and welcome Kaitlin, Joanna and Jack, as they become the newest Christians on the planet! Whether they know it or not, they're starting all over again. For two of them, it hasn't been all that long since life began. But no matter what our age, we can always start life over. In our spiritual lives, St. Benedict said centuries ago, “always we begin again.” Tonight, on this most holy and blessed night, we begin our spiritual journey once again. It's a journey from fear, through faith, to freedom. The very first lesson we heard tonight, the long Old Testament reading, required to be read at every Easter Vigil service, is a good way for us to think about our spiritual journey together – a journey from fear, through faith, to freedom (this alliterative image comes from George Ryant Wirth, in Feasting on the Word, p. 335 ff.)
Fear is one of our most basic human emotions. All of us can get mad, or glad, or sad. And sometimes, all of us will become afraid. Even Mary Magdalene and the women at the empty tomb were afraid. That's why the expression “fear not” or “do not be afraid” is found more than 175 times throughout the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments, from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus. “Fear not” is right for our own time, too. We heard these words tonight: “In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord.” Why were they so afraid? If you read the chapter in the book of Exodus before the one we heard read from tonight, you'll find that “When Pharoah let the people (of Israel) go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer,. . .God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness, toward the Red Sea” (13:17-18).
One of the ways we get scared is to find out that the way we thought we were going to go is not the way that God, throughout our lives, wants to lead us. And when someone or something is chasing us, as when the Egyptians were right on the heels of the Israelities, when terror is on our tail, it creates an even greater fear. “In great fear” – those three words truly capture this situation, for the children of Israel, for any children of God. “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (14:11), they demand to know. How many of us have asked that kind of question: “God, just what are you doing?”
We live in a war-torn, anxiety-ridden and fear-filled world. In some ways it seems that nothing has really improved since Bible times. Whether it's the days of Moses or Jesus or our own days, we still get anxious and fearful. Our own Prayer Book, in a prayer written for young persons more than thirty years ago, probably understates our 2012 situation: “God, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 829). Unsteady? Our world, it seems sometimes, is more like total chaos, like an earthquake or tsunami. Confusing? Maybe our life is, like, bewildering? That prayer ends with these words that do seem more helpful: “Give them strength to hold their faith in you. . .” Tonight, amidst our fears, give us strength, God, to hold on to our faith.
Moving from fear to faith. Easier said than done. It's not a smooth transition in this Exodus passage, nor is it a smooth one in Jesus' life or our own. A great Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once said that faith is “the assurance. . .found in fear and trembling,” which means we can still have fears, amidst our faith. “Will our Children have faith?” a book title asked years ago. The author's answer? Our children will have faith. . .if we do. And when we don't, we can pray or ask others to pray for us. Prayer is faith and courage – you may have heard this – that has said its prayers. Faith can give us the courage and strength to carry on, even in times or seasons of fear, even when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. These are the things we see in the Exodus story, as the fearful Israelites find dry ground while making their way through the Red Sea. God parts the sea for them, makes for them “a way out of no way,” and leads the children of Israel safely to the other side.
More than 3,000 years ago those ancient Hebrew people found their faith in God, through their Red Sea experience, reaffirmed. More than 2,000 years ago other faithful Hebrew women and men found their faith in God, through the resurrection of Jesus, renewed. Tonight in these Baptisms you may find our own faith rekindled, led by the light of Christ we first kindled in that outdoor fire. Tonight, after we say the Baptismal Covenant, rehearsing again the promises that were made at our own Baptisms, vows we may have made more than once since then, we will also say prayers for the Baptismal candidates, including this prayer: “Keep them in the faith and communion of your holy church.” This is, if we are honest, a prayer we pray for ourselves, also. Help them and us, God, in the midst of our fears, to be faithful. Empty us out and fill us up with your love, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Empower us and make us into the community, the church you would have us be and become.
From fear through faith to freedom. For Moses and his people, freedom meant not only their release from slavery and captivity, but also the promise of God's covenant, that they would dwell in a new land and become a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). For Mary Magdalene and the other women at the empty tomb, as well as for the men they ultimately told about Jesus' resurrection, freedom meant not only being liberated from the ways of sin, darkness and death, but also be able to receive the grace, forgiveness, and love of God, here on earth and ultimately, in heaven. Promises of a new life and a new freedom are ours as well, if we would only believe we need them – and then, receive them.
When Harriet Tubman, who helped create the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, was congratulated for the hundreds of people she “conducted” to freedom, she is supposed to have said, “I have could have brought ten thousand more, if they had only known they were slaves.” Sometimes we don't even know how captive, how enslaved, how bound up we really are. When we are facing some kind of dramatic change in our lives, as people or as a community, God wants us to be ready, willing and able to face our fears, to step out in faith, and to receive the freedom that only God can give.
It took me years to realize just how enslaved I had become to that job I left eleven years ago. But within a week after I moved back home, I had a new job, which led within six months to another, better job. And within that same few months, a new romance was kindled, when I met the woman who is now my wife. In the midst of my fears, through my own prayers and the prayers of so many people who love me, I rekindled my faith, and I found a new freedom. Please understand that I know this is not everyone's story. But it is my story, and I wanted to share it with you tonight, in hopes that it might in some small way inspire you to journey with Jesus and with us – from fear, through faith, to freedom.
Tonight, as we begin a new chapter together on our spiritual journey, let us dare to believe God is with us. Let us dare to believe in starting over. Let us dare to believe that Christ is risen – not just once, more than 2000 years ago, but over and over again, even here, even now – even in us. Let us dare to believe in the God who calms our fears, bolsters our faith and sets us free to live resurrected lives!
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
April 7, 2012