Many of you are familiar with our five-year old Brittany named Irie. She is a hunting dog who loves to frequent Tappan Square. On a good day, Irie might have the opportunity to point at several squirrels, sniff the usual bushes, and gallop through the grass. When spotting a squirrel, obliviously feasting on a nut, Irie crouches down and stalks the animal very slowly—all the while restrained by a carefully controlled extending leash.
As the squirrel looks up and notices the dog, their eyes lock, sometimes for several seconds. The tension between them mounts, and the squirrel makes a hasty exit by dashing up the nearest tree. A safe distance from Irie, the squirrel rhythmically pounds his tail up and down, as if to warn the others that danger is lurking.
One day recently, this scenario dramatically changed. As Irie approached, three squirrels happily nibbled on nuts. On seeing the dog, they all scampered up the nearest tree in no time flat. But then, one of the squirrels–a small one, maybe even a baby–came back down and stubbornly finished her nut. I’ve honestly never seen this before. Irie was crouching down–the whole time breathing rhythmically, her heart pounding, her mouth opening and shutting as it does when she is fully alert–poised for the hunt, not three feet away.
A minute passed; then two, then three…perhaps even five.
That squirrel wasn’t going anywhere. The longer I waited and watched, the more I realized that I was witnessing a parable akin to the nature parables Jesus told about seeds and soil, or wheat and tares. The ancient biblical stories of the giant Goliath and the young boy David entered my mind. I imagined a 12-year old Jesus, sitting in the Temple, stumping his elders with his wisdom. I remembered the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who outsmarted Pharaoh, thwarting his decrees by rescuing Hebrew babies. All the while, that little squirrel sat and ate a nut, with a hunting dog in spitting distance.
Another story came to me. The cast of characters this time included two siblings, one older and the other younger. In their youth, the older one had a fierce temper and was often given to screaming and slamming doors. Time after time, the younger cowered in the face of such behavior, until one day when the child snapped. Now, by “snapped” you might imagine an imitation of the older sibling’s behavior–yelling back and slamming more doors. But that isn’t what happened. Instead, the younger child looked the older sibling in the eye and boldly declared, “I’m not afraid of you!” The dynamics between them changed that very moment.
What are you afraid of? What would it be like for each one of us to name our greatest fears and, like the younger sibling, or that little squirrel, stand up to that fear and proclaim, “I’m not afraid of you!”?
Our two scripture stories today illustrate both courage and a lack of courage. The bleeding woman takes a huge risk in coming to Jesus. For years, no matter what expert she consulted, none could tell her what to do to alleviate her medical condition. Further, the condition renders her perpetually unclean in her religious community. In such a situation, it’s an enormous temptation to just adapt to the ostracism and the routine of endless searching. To get “unstuck,” she has to make up her mind to leave her house, leave her difficult but familiar routines, and bank everything on Jesus. And, if that isn’t enough, she actually has to get up and go, instead of just thinking about going.
Don’t we all have situations we think about changing, ways we want to adjust our own behavior, and we, too, get stuck? Once the woman leaves her house, she has to figure out how to actually get near Jesus with the crowds all around him. She has to decide whether to risk defiling him by touching him. Maybe just quietly touching his garment from behind will be enough to heal her. Finally, she has to risk having her anonymity shattered. And maybe that’s the hardest part–going intensely public with her vulnerability.
While the unnamed woman’s courage may have begun tentatively, it ends decisively. That gives me hope, because so often my first reaction is not my best reaction. In this story, the woman is healed and blessed because of her risk-taking and faith.
While courage sometimes has a happy ending, we also have to take the risk that it may lead to division. Such was the case in the story about Peter, Paul, and the Gentile converts to Christianity. Peter, a circumcised Jewish male by birth, had grown up believing that circumcision was necessary for full participation and acceptance in the faith. However, he slowly came to understand that faith in Christ was open to Jew and Gentile alike, with no requirement for Gentile circumcision. Mind you, women weren’t exactly included in this debate!
Peter finds himself in a situation that tests his new awareness. Like many of us, Peter fails this test. Instead of standing up for a Gospel that freely welcomes Gentiles as well as Jews, Peter caves in to his past beliefs and prejudices and refuses to eat with the Gentile believers. Sadly enough, the others follow Peter’s example—until Paul comes on the scene and lays bare the contradictions in Peter’s behavior.
This story reminds us that our courage–or lack of it–affects not only ourselves but also others. Had Peter openly stood on the side of the Gentiles, he would have offended those who insisted that Gentiles needed to be circumcised. However, he would also have demonstrated God’s grace by supporting the Gentiles whom God had freely welcomed in.
While courage or fear have deeply personal implications, it would be a mistake to avoid the bigger picture of courage and fear at this time in the life of our nation and world. Last week Steve preached about fascism, in light of the President’s recent warning about the dangers of what he called “Islamo-fascism.” Steve reminded us that we need to be just as vigilant about Christian fascism as Islamic fascism.
One of the many aspects of fascism in any society is creating and sustaining a culture of fear. If we watch the news on TV, or listen to it on the radio—if we have any awareness at all about what is happening around us and outside our nation–there is plenty to cause fear. In fact, if we do not fear for our nation and world at all, we might be in denial or not paying attention to the cataclysms around us.
There is a difference between a fear that is aware of the dangers we face and a fear that paralyzes us, leading us to complacency or conformity. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I’m trying to use my fear not only as a motivation to overcome evil with good wherever I can, but also to humble myself and remember that we in the U.S. are not immune to the global spasms of war, violence, and hatred. If we reap what we sow, we will be on dangerous ground, indeed. Our task is to follow Jesus, wherever that takes us.
Let’s return to the little squirrel on Tappan Square for a moment. Scampering up the tree, she first reacted like every other squirrel. But after following her squirrel instinct, she changed her mind. No hunting dog was going to keep her from eating her nut! Right in the middle of responding the way squirrels naturally respond to danger, she changed direction. It’s possible to change course! It’s possible to make midstream corrections! Sure enough, the little squirrel persevered, even as the other squirrels in the tree looked on, pounding their tails in warning.
As we close, I’d invite you to take some time and quietly meditate on your own fears, whether they are intensely personal, deeply global, or both. Think about the ways that you can “be strong and of good courage,” as the Hebrew scriptures so frequently enjoin us to be. Let us take our fears, needs, and resolve to the throne of grace, and see what God will do with us. Join me in praying for the courage we need to sustain us through the days and years ahead. Let us pray…