St Margaret’s Church, Binsey Evensong on Sunday 4th August 2019 [Trinity 7]
Revd. Professor Martin Henig
Psalm 107: 1-16; Genesis 50:4-26; Mark 6:45-52.
But Joseph said to them, ‘Fear not, for am I in the place of God? [Genesis 50:19].
…they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear’. [Mark 6:50]
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have heard two, apparently unrelated, stories. Josephs brothers have been convinced all these years that only respect for his and their father had prevented Joseph from wreaking a terrible revenge, and after Israel’s death they are very fearful. They have utterly failed to comprehend Joseph’s inherent gentleness, his love for them. The Hebrew Bible saw the reward for living virtuously was simply long life, though I have to admit being amused but also touched and moved by the information that Joseph was embalmed in the Egyptian fashion, bringing to mind Egyptian beliefs of the afterlife as recorded in the Book of the Dead. Joseph is undoubtedly my favourite amongst the patriarchs, simply for his compassion, as one who saved both his Canaanite kin and the Egyptians with whom he lived and who took him to themselves so he became one of them. But, as he tells us, no, he is not God.
Jesus who is, appears to his disciples walking on the water in a tempestuous sea. They are doubly terrified, by the wind and by his walking on the water as though he were an apparition. They have not understood the import of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes or who he really is, his true relationship with the divine. Their hearts were ‘hardened’, as St Mark tells us. They were beset by fear.
Fear and distrust continue to blight our world, and to drive us apart in myriad ways. There is, sometimes, good reason of course, and civil society and the Church have made ‘safeguarding’ a priority, but I often feel sad that in many cases the easy trust that should subsist between generations have broken down. If we think that every stranger is up to no good and deserves instant condemnation we lose out. Jesus said ‘Suffer little children to come unto me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God (Mark 10:14). How would such a statement by a religious teacher be taken today?
But there is often distrust within families; distrust that fuels abusive behaviour and divorce; there is distrust within and between communities. Fear of violence and theft causes the wealthy to barricade their houses behind steel gates, such as those I have noted increasingly erected in front of the entrances of houses in North Oxford. How sad, how pathetic is that? Similar gates and walls go up between nations, and peoples of which the wall between Israel and the West Bank is one example, the walls of Derry/Londonderry and makeshift walls between communities in Belfast are another and President Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico is a third. How pathetic and sad, but these examples nevertheless show how deeply fear lies at the heart of communal violence, war and the prospect of genocide. I see fear lying at the heart of so much in the modern world. Fear has led to the proliferation of guns and knives, which have led to horrific shootings and stabbings, with (seemingly) no end in sight. And so, I beg you, follow our Lord. Do not fear!
And we humans are not only fearful of each other; we fear the dark; we fear the silence of our own hearts; we fear the rest of God’s creation and though we are prime movers in desecrating the planet, we fear the wilderness, we fear the wildwood, though in truth it is the true Eden. We fear the vast Oceans and we fear the mountain ranges which we talk about ‘conquering’ rather than ‘loving’. And, of course, we fear other animals- we fear insects, we fear arachnids, we fear scorpions, we fear snakes and we fear crocodiles, we fear sharks and we fear the big cats. And as for any creatures we do not believe are out to get us, we exploit them without mercy, cattle and sheep, pigs, chickens and turkeys. We kill creatures we call ‘vermin; and refuse to accept the peace and love which a true acceptance of the natural world and our fellow creatures will bring us. Take the message of the Desert Fathers, of St Cuthbert, of St Francis to heart. I beg you live in peace with creation. Do not fear! Do not fear!
In the world of politics, we need a Joseph and certainly not a Joshua, whose genocidal actions against other peoples as recorded in the book that bears his name have nothing good to say to us, any more than do the more sanguinary parts on the Book of Revelation, except to reveal the worst aspects of humanity.
Joseph, as I said, was not divine, but the virtue he practiced was certainly of God and so can be considered in the same breath as Jesus’ command ‘Do not fear!’ Fear is a very negative emotion; Where one feels fearful, one needs to do something about it, by instead reacting with love. If one is concerned by the possibility of violence, of tyranny, of climate change, or anything else one needs to counter them by doing something about the problem, countering negative forces with the power of love. This is the true religious response of a Mahatma Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela or an Oscar Romero. Admittedly the first two endured imprisonment and Romero was assassinated, but they all, like other saintly people were fearless, even in the darkest places. Trust in God and the absence of fear of consequences was and is a characteristic of all the saints, Christian or otherwise. Christian saints are those who live in Christ and do not fear, because they know Christ is with them to the very end of the World and beyond; that was a message that Mark’s Apostles were yet to learn, as at times do so many of us amongst whom I have to include myself. Each of us needs to learn like Joseph’s brothers to accept forgiveness, needs to learn to accept God’s love and know that we are destined for Eternal Life, in which there is no place, no room for fear, because we will see Christ face to face. Do not fear!
As today’s psalm reminds us:
Some sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God…
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
And he delivered them from their distress. [Psalm 107:10,11 and 13].
Even and perhaps especially in the face of death there is no room to fear, because God is with us as he was at our birth. The great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, probably the greatest poet of our age and surely one of the most humane and most loved, as a Classicist of distinction and a Catholic, died with just two words of Latin on his lips, Noli timere: Don’t be afraid…Do not fear!
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen