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March 23, 2003
The Third Sunday after Lent

What Are We to Do?
Thoughts on Community, Compassion and Comfort
The Rev. Dr. Robert R. Hansel

Gospel: John 2:13-22
(This sermon is also available in audio)

This nation is at war. Bombs and rockets are falling. Soldiers on both sides are being wounded and killed. In the face of that reality, our hearts and minds are torn. We want to believe that the cause is just and that there will be greater freedom and security throughout the world because of this military involvement. Still, we find it hard to believe that the nations of the world can't seem to come up with any effective way to settle these things besides the use of violence. People of conscience and good will are divided and separated on these issues. We can't help but wonder what God's word is for us.

Today our nation, the world, our community, each one of us faces potentially dangerous times, days filled with concern and unpredictability. War and terrorism can and will touch any of us in a variety of ways, personally and geo-politically. One would have to be an utter fool not to recognize all that and to take it seriously. And, while it's true that we all have to accept and deal with reality, HOW we do that makes all the difference.

Fear can grip our hearts and minds. Fear can paralyze us, preventing us from doing anything at all. I'm sure you've heard the same kind of expressions of helplessness this week that I have: "What can one person do?" "It's all beyond me!" "It's all in the hands of the government and the military." On the other hand, fear can just as easily propel us into angry attitudes and actions of hatred and suspicion. This week the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported a story of Middle-Eastern profiling—the intimidation of Iraqi grocers in the little northside Memphis community of Frayser, in which innocent immigrant citizens were victimized by ignorance and prejudice. This is but one of the negative consequences of fear. But, as Christians we have a word from God that relates directly and specifically to situations just like this one. We are assured that "perfect trust CASTS OUT fear."

What is "perfect trust?" Most of us would say that our Faith in God's capacity to bring meaning and resolution to all this turmoil is more like what Isaiah describes as "a dimly burning wick." We're a long way from "perfect trust." We're nervous and unsure about what's going to happen. We just hope against hope that somehow it will turn out OK. Perfect trust is the exact opposite. It's when we admit our lack of confidence, take it in hand, and turn it over to God—asking God to show us how to let go of our fears and anxieties and move forward with some degree of confidence. That kind of trust is a gift; not a last resort. It's a matter of recognizing that some things are beyond our control and there are some issues that just don't have clear-cut answers. But life goes on. No one is ever COMPLETELY certain—that's why another word for trust is "faith." But, like everything else, faith gets stronger when it's exercised.

Look at the example of Jesus. Do you think that he had no doubts, no fears? He lived in first century Palestine—a place of incredible political turmoil, warfare, and oppression. The people were in constant fear of torture and death at the hands of those in power. Jesus had no political clout, no army to back him, no protesters to take to the streets in demonstrations. Still, he didn't just give up, shrug his shoulders and say, "Well, what can I do? Instead, he placed his trust in God and proceeded to move into the very heart of religious and governmental hypocrisy—to confront, challenge, and change those problems that he had the power to address.

He didn't set out for Rome to try to start a worldwide political revolution. Rather, he went to work right where he was. Look at his decision to cleanse the Temple, to drive the crooked moneychangers from their tables. Here was a situation that he knew first-hand. These were his own people. These were circumstances for which he shared personal responsibility. He trusted that God would not tolerate such dishonesty and exploitation. Jesus was being called to show courage, compassion, and comfort for those who were closest to himself - to demonstrate that God's people far from being destroyed and divided by fear, are brought more closely together in the face of powerful and impersonal worldly forces. God moved with him because of his perfect trust. God cast out his fear because of his perfect trust.

I want to suggest that the "perfect trust" displayed here by Jesus is a model for each of us and for the People of God right here today. It is a model that we can see in all sorts of biblical narratives such as the trust of Moses that God would deliver the people from the bitter yoke of slavery under Pharaoh. When we are confidently trusting in God's purposes, our actions as a community of faith are characterized by three basic components:

The COMMUNITY with which we surround ourselves is one of humility and respect. In these difficult times we, as members and leaders of the Church, are called to be a non-anxious presence, living through troubling times with purpose and direction, knowing that—no matter what—this is God's world and God is the One who, ultimately, brings things to their purposeful conclusion. We don't have to have all the answers.

Secondly, that community needs to be characterized by increased compassion. I believe that the church is called to offer understanding and forgiveness, to reach out to people with whom we violently disagree. To say, "In the trust of God I love and embrace you." In these tough days in which we will be shocked by destruction and death, there are lots of peace movements, there are lots of patriotic rallies out there on the street, and if you want to join in those expressions within the wider community, God bless you. But they should be left behind when you come into [the church].The church should be a place of reconciliation, a place of community, a place of compassion. Because we know that whatever the outcome, there will be no reason for giddiness and joy. There are no winners in war. We are all losers, because people will die. And families in this country and in Iraq will be saddened at the loss. And so we gather together to offer compassion for all of them and for ourselves. To weep, as Jesus says, "not for me but for yourselves." Why do we find ourselves time after time in situations where we have no response but to take up arms? Our job is to pray that the end of violence and hostility will come at the earliest possible time. And our job is to hold this nation to the promises that have been made to us that there will be healing and rebuilding for those who suffer loss.

The third component is comfort. The comfort that we offer to each other and to the world must be without any limits. We need to join our prayers with anyone who wants to join us. Our intent in worship needs to be to seek The Peace of God, to look to increase and broaden peoples' understanding and appreciation of what Peace really is. I'm convinced that most people know more about the planet Pluto than they do about Peace. You can't make peace unless you KNOW peace.

Community, Compassion, and Comfort—those are the things that we have some say about. These are ministries that matter and that we can cause to happen. We can't change the world and we have no magic wand to wave that will stop violence and bloodshed, but we can make a big difference right here, among ourselves. If you feel like there's nothing you can do about this whole business of war, then you need to think again. I believe that God is calling us not to stand idly by but to work hard at making a difference in these difficult days ahead. The call is clear:

+ To build stronger ties of love between ourselves so that our trust in each other will strengthen our trust in God.

+ To show in direct, practical ways our compassion for everyone by listening, forgiving, accepting, and praying, and to continue to press for the ending of death and destruction.

+ To comfort those who are burdened by anxiety and fear, making our church even more truly a Holy place of sanctuary, healing, and peace.

We can and will make a difference during these difficult days. You can be an important part of making sure that happens.


Copyright ©2003 The Rev. Dr. Robert Hansel
Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN

Gospel Reading: John 2:13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in
three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he
was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
NRSV (New Revised Standard Version)

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