A Critical Mass of Courage

A few days ago, the streets of our communities were swarming with all sorts of goblins, witches and fairies.  Halloween is arguably the most favorite holiday of children in America.  Maybe even more beloved than Christmas.

It is an occasion to vanquish through the magic of pretend and make-believe the subterranean fears that haunt our days.  Real fears.  Not the monster under the bed.  Though when I was a small child, I really, really knew that if I didn’t run fast enough to get to the bathroom and turn on the light, I would be a goner for sure.

I remember our boys’ first Halloween in the Bay Area, San Leandro.  Christopher was going to be a ghost.  But when we got the sheet over him and he looked out of the eye holes to see himself in the mirror, he decided that that was way too scary.  He decided to go as just a little boy.  Jonathan went as Coco Bunny in his jammies.  When we got to a friendly neighbor’s house Jonathan grabbed Christopher and shoved him forward, mashing him into the screen door, “You say it, Kefu.”  He couldn’t pronounce “Christopher” at the time.  Through our years, fears, real and imaginary continue to haunt us all.

The real terrors that we adults face are many times more threatening:  eviction, loss of job, children falling into drug addiction or being recruited into gangs. Don’t forget crippling student debt.  Almost one half of our people now live in poverty or near poverty.   Most of the families falling into medical bankruptcy actually had health insurance.  Garbage policies.  Many seniors worry about running out of retirement savings before they die.  Some have little or none, or they cashed out their 401K to survive the Great Recession.  These are the terrors that keep Americans awake at night.

Our selection from the Book of Daniel is an apocalyptic scene of terror.  In Daniel’s dream of the Great Sea, what we moderns know as the Mediterranean Sea, — its waters are churned up by the “four winds of heaven.” This is a cataclysmic and cosmic earth-shaking scene of wonder and terror.  That sea was believed to be the habitation to the worst sorts of foul creatures and monsters lurking in its depths.  It is a sailor’s nightmare in a raging storm.  And out of the towering waves of this tempest arise “four great beasts.”

I have images out of some Ghostbusters scene dancing in my imagination.  A phantasmagorical swirl of witches, poltergeists and zombies, wreaking havoc amongst the living.  It’s Mussorgsky’s “Dark-Night-on-Bald-Mountain time.”  As the orchestra crescendos towards the climatic end and the quickening swirl of phantoms reaches towards the darkening sky…Okay…, I have a very vivid imagination.

Anyway, the beasts are revealed by an interpreter of Daniel’s dream are to be understood to be four kings.  All of whom portend no good thing for him and his vulnerable community.  Indeed, there are external threats that have the power to be our undoing and extinction.  Threats that would scatter us each in our all-consuming fears.  In childhood, it was the monster under the bed.  Later on, it was a period of aimlessness and fear of failure.  In young adulthood it was the draft and the ruinous conflict in Vietnam. 

For a friend, the fearsome beast he battled was the fear of what he might have done the night before when he was totally blitzed – what he could not remember, but what became terrible reality when he went out to the street and discovered the grill of his Chevy all smashed in.  What, or who, had he run into?  He had absolutely no memory.  For my friend, his monster was King Alcohol.  It had taken complete and utter possession of his soul.

As a nation we presently sink into the black hole of impeachment.  Night after night, headline after headline, comes the steady drumbeat of malfeasance and corruption.  Witness after witness reveals a sordid story of electoral fraud and great danger to our national security.  Yes, definitely, there was a quid pro quo.  We would sell out the Ukrainians in a heartbeat.  All for dirt on a potential opponent in the upcoming 2020 election.  If a crime novelist had made this up, nobody would have believed it.  It is fantasy run amok. This Halloween, the specter of civil strife stalks our land.  No monster under the bed or small Frankenstein at our door gleefully chanting, “Trick or Treat.”  A narcissistic King of Political Ambition and Hubris presently haunts our national psyche.

Out of the existential tempest of these days awesome creatures have arisen.  Some of the worst are those which lurk in the inadequacies and failings that inhabit our imaginations.  The fear that I’m not good enough.  That I have awful misdeeds hanging over me.  The fear that if anyone knew, they would not like me.  These fears we bring from childhood – the fears that run rampant in our teenage years.  The fear in adulthood that some screwup will grab us in the dark night of our wounded soul.  We give the King of Inadequacy superhuman power.  That little voice that whispers, “you’re a fraud and a fake – people will find out.”

Yes, after Daniel’s vision of cosmic terror comes reassurance, “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”  Just wait a second, Daniel.  Not so fast.  That’s not my experience.  This all sounds too glib, too easy.  I’m not, by myself, capable of such happy endings.  Yet isn’t this the promise?  Isn’t this what the Beatitudes are all about?  Blessed are the sorrowful, blessed are you hungry, and the persecuted. Blessed are you heaped up with student loans and no job – yes, definitely poor!  In times of catastrophe, no one individual can endure such calamity.  An individual alone sinks in desperation beneath the foamy brine.  Isolation is the worst enemy.

Hillary was right, it does take a village.  It takes a village to survive, especially in our time. It takes a village to be our best.   I’ve been reading a book recently on the power of positive peer pressure.  For instance, we find out that if one person paints his house it is not uncommon for a neighbor to likewise spruce up his house next door.  We experienced this at our office.  We had a terrible front yard of devil grass and unruly shrubbery.  I had my friend Jaime and his crew from Greenland Landscaping come in and replace it all with drought tolerant planting.  It now looks great.  Within a month the State Farm Insurance office next door also redid their front yard, which had become as unkempt as ours.  There’s something contageous about a good example.

And there’s something contagious about courage.  Last Wednesday we at Pilgrim Place celebrated those no longer with us this year.  For each of the dead, a friend or a spouse processed up the center aisle of our assembly room with a lighted candle.  It was gently given to the officiant of the service and reverently placed on the altar.  After several light bearers had made their way to the front, our community sang together, “Saints of God abiding in the arms of mercy – be with us.”  Concluded by an affirmation of those in the struggle for workers rights, “Presente.” 

One man who had lost his wife a couple of years ago gave a moving homily on the Twenty-third Psalm.  As he spoke of the “valley of the shadow of death,” he acknowledged the fear of loneliness.  But more than that, Dwight affirmed the hope of one living surrounded by community.  His greeting to each new day as he prepares to take his Dachshund Sammy for her walk is, “Hello, Morning.”  Hello, Morning indeed!  “Each morning,” said Dwight, “I choose HOPE.”

The glorious affirmation of hope at last Wednesday’s service was not the affirmation of one but of many.  It’s when the community gathers that “hearts are brave again and arms are strong.”  That critical mass of courage resplendent is the Body of Christ assembled in bright array.  Saints alive — those still with us and those, only in memory. 

That was the gathered courage that moved an entire farm village in rural Germany to hide Jews from Hitler’s savage henchmen – at great risk to themselves.  That is the gathered courage that has brought brave civil servants to testify recently behind closed doors to the sordid events they had witnessed.  Gathered courage is what brought them at some personal peril and at great professional sacrifice.  That is the courage we gather from those who love us to enter rehab and begin the journey towards sobriety.  And if the physical visage of God-with-us is only in the form of a small wennie dog, it’s still God’s presence that yields up the courage to pull back the drapes, open the door, and lustily proclaim, “Hello, Morning.”

This past week a hearty band of folks from St. Francis presented our proposal to the Episcopal Enterprise Academy for House of Hope – San Bernardino, a proposed opioid recovery center.  We had been working at this for some months as we were tutored by seasoned entrepreneurs in the basics of starting businesses — businesses that might be congruent with and undergird the work of small mission congregations – like St. Francis.

Those meetings have meant folks, especially the ones living in San Bernardino and nearby, getting up on Fridays at O’Dark Early and braving the traffic on the 210 Freeway for a couple of hours to drive all the way into Los Angeles.  Left to our own devices, not a single one of us would have had the insanity to get out of a warm bed and make that trek.  But together!  As part of a Critical Mass of Courage – the Church – we prevailed. 

This past Friday, such perseverance and courage were rewarded with success.  St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach was chosen as one of three groups going through the Academy to present their project at our upcoming Diocesan Convention this November.  As my friend George is ever wont to say, “Keep your eyes on the prize and celebrate the incremental victories along the way.”

Paul proclaims to his community at Ephesus a fierce strength that comes from unity in Christ, “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.”  It is in and through this power alone that we go forth. 

Goblins and ghosts be gone!  It is as the Body of Christ assembled, this Critical Mass of Courage, that we proceed to do what any one of us would have dismissed as folly.  With what the historian Stephen Ambrose called, “undaunted courage,” and with trepidation we at St. Francis venture forth in hope.   Just as our early founders would have wanted us to. Just as Joyce Marx and her husband Gene, did — who persevered when the path was not clear ahead, when skies were overcast and the treasurer was reporting that the church was running on fumes. It was that Critical Mass of Courage, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone – it was that faith of our founders, that carried St. Francis along, even in years of decline.  Those blessed saints have now passed the baton for us to run their race.

 And now, folks, here we stand.  As St. Paul writes of the Saints at Corinth: 

“Ever dying, here we are alive. Called nobodies, yet we are ever in the public eye.  Though we have nothing with which to bless ourselves, yet we bless many others with true riches.  Called poor, yet we possess everything worth having.”[1]

On this glorious All Saints Sunday, we are bold to proclaim, “And hearts are brave again and arms are strong.  Alleluia.  Alleluia.”  Please join with me — Presente!  Presente!  Presente!   Amen.

[1] The New Testament in Modern English, J.B Phillips 1960, 1972 J. B. Phillips. Administered by The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. II Cor. 6:9-10.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach, San Bernardino

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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