January 17, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Martin Luther, the famous Protestant Reformer lived in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, now central Germany. If you were to toodle around that region today, you might stumble upon a sandstone rock nearly 1000 feet tall and on the top of that massive hill, you could see the remains of the famous Regenstein Castle. The castle, built in the Middle Ages, is a popular tourist destination where the townspeople hold an annual tournament of knights, but the modern day knights joust among fallen stone and moss covered rock because the once relatively impregnable Regenstein Castle consists today of only ruins.
Today, you decide to skip the tournament of knights and drive a little to the east into the Harz Mountains. Soon you stumble upon the Old Falkenstein Castle, built in the 11th century by the German Emperor Henry IV. It too, however, is little more than a pile of rocks and partial walls since it was destroyed in the Battle of Welfesholz in 1115 and never rebuilt.
Driving on, you come to the Anhalt Castle built around 1123 by Otto the Rich. This particular “invincible” fortress lasted only 17 years, when a feud between the Archbishop of Magdeburg and Margrave Conrad of Meissen led to a battle that brought down the castle walls. All that remains of the castle today are a few sections of the chapel, living quarters, outbuildings, and the bottom nine feet of the base of the watchtower.
In your tour of Martin Luther’s old stomping grounds, you might find almost 300 castles and fortresses, many of which were already in ruins by the time Luther was born in 1483. When he wrote his famous hymn: “A mighty fortress is our God,” he knew that his audience would think of those piles of rubble and the failed promises of the men who built them. They would remember all of the times when their man-made defenses had failed – when walls had fallen to enemy armies, when disease had crossed the strongest defenses, when they had huddled in frightened misery behind stone listening to the pounding of ramrods on the doors.
“Do not put your trust in princes,” the psalmist warned, “in mortals, in whom there is no help…..Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
So too Luther reminded his congregation that our mortal hands are not strong enough to protect us from the dangers that beset our hearts and souls; God alone is a bulwark never failing.
Now, all this talk of castles and fortresses may not seem to apply to our 21st century world because with the exception of the Steinheim, you’re not going to stumble upon many castles in western NY. Luther knew, however, that bricks and stones are not the only materials we use to build up defenses designed to hold the darkness at bay. Fear is a compelling emotion and it’s power over us has not eased in the intervening centuries. If I asked you to name things that we as 21st century human beings are afraid of, I’m guessing you wouldn’t have to think too hard to come up with a substantial list. We, like Luther’s congregation, are afraid of the physical threats of war and terror. And we are afraid of the vulnerability of our own bodies — afraid that we might get cancer, or a loved one might die. We are afraid of the threats to our hearts and spirits — afraid that we might never recover from the failure of a relationship, afraid that we might not heal from an abusive childhood, afraid of the temptations that lure us away from wholeness and the life we know we could be living. We are afraid that we are failing those we love, or afraid that those we love will fail us. At the heart of it all, we are simply afraid that we are not strong enough to endure the unknown that lies before us.
And so we, like the medieval lords and ladies, build our fortresses, shutter our hearts, and hide behind our brave facades, and then lie in bed at night worrying that it will all come crashing down around us and we will not have the strength to face the next day.
Fear is a fearsome thing.
Many years ago, my uncle died of cancer and because he and his family were not church goers, my aunt asked me to do his funeral. I flew to Texas with my parents and the first evening of our stay, we visited my aunt to discuss details for the funeral the next day. In the end, however, I had to write the funeral on my own because, though we spent three hours with my aunt, we never talked about the funeral, nor did I have a chance to ask for her input. Instead, my aunt talked non-stop telling us in great detail the story of my uncle’s final hours. She poured out her words in great heaping piles, returning again and again to particular parts of the narrative checking for gaps, plugging up tiny holes with the most minuscule of details, cementing the words in place in the re-telling, a trowel traveling back and forth smoothing out the mortar. As the evening grew late, my father said that we needed to be heading back to the hotel, but this only prompted my aunt to talk faster and heap up more details of the last days of his life. We didn’t have the heart to stop her because we knew what she was doing — she was trying to build a wall of words that would keep out the agony of loss lurking at the threshold of her heart. If she stopped talking for even a minute, she was afraid that the pain would wash over her and drown her.
We build fortresses because we are afraid. We talk nonstop because we are afraid of the silence that will reveal our loneliness. We busy ourselves with a thousand tasks afraid that if we stand still, we will start to question the meaning of it all. We numb ourselves with alcohol and drugs afraid that if we allow ourselves to feel, the feelings will be too much for us to bear. We discipline our children with an iron fist afraid that they will make choices that cause them sorrow, or we indulge them, afraid that they will stop liking us if we don’t give them their way. Think of how many things we do because we are afraid: afraid of an uncertain future, afraid of suffering, afraid of death, afraid of loneliness, afraid of weakness, afraid of others, afraid of ourselves. And because of our fear, we build our walls and fortresses, and hunker down behind them only to discover that the walls haven’t banished fear — they’ve just imprisoned us inside it.
Christians often say that the central message of Jesus’ gospel is love, but I have come to believe that though love is the central message of the gospel, the beginning and the end of the gospel is this: Do not be afraid.
Before Jesus is even born, the angel Gabriel says to Mary, “Fear not.”
A whole army of angels declares it to the shepherds on a hillside: “Be not afraid.”
And I think that this was the reason that Jesus went into the wilderness before he spoke even a word to the people. Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism and immediately turned his face toward the wilderness — toward the land of the unknown, the unforeseen, where demons lurked and monsters might devour you, where life is reduced to locusts and honey, and every comfort is stripped away, so that your soul is laid bare to everything that might harm it — and Jesus lived there for forty days and forty nights, unprotected by castle walls or watchtowers. In the end, he emerged whole and ready to serve as if to say to us, “Don’t be afraid. There is nothing here that can destroy you.”
And at the end of his life, Jesus strode into the wilderness again, into the wilderness of death and evil. He took on the worst that the world can do: he suffered and was deserted by all of his friends and he died a terrible death, and once again, in case we hadn’t believed it the first time, Jesus emerged whole, made anew by the hand of God.
Jesus’ message was love, but it was book-ended by a word that we need to hear before we can even begin to love: “Do not be afraid.” There is nothing out there, or nothing in here, in our own hearts, Jesus promises, that is capable of destroying us when we walk with him. Rather than walling up our hearts in an attempt to keep out the pain and loneliness, Christ invites us to are to enter the wilderness with him. There we will allow our pain to be pain and bare our souls to our suffering. We will cry our tears and face our demons, and discover that though they may have the power to hurt us, they do not have the power to destroy us. We can bear the hurt with Christ at our side; and emerge whole and ready to love and live.
The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says, “I think of it as an Outward Bound for the soul…..[because in the wilderness] you give up the illusion that you are in control of your life….” In the Outward Bound program, she says, people sign up for a week of mental and physical challenges where “… you place yourself in the hands of strangers who ask you to do foolhardy things, like walk backwards over a precipice with nothing but a rope around your waist or climb a sheer rock face with your fingers and toes. But none of these is the real test, because while you are doing them you have plenty of people around and lunch in a cooler.
“The real test,” she says, “comes when you go solo. The strangers put you out all by yourself in the middle of nowhere and wish you luck for the next 24 hours. That is when you find out who you are. That is when you find out what you really miss and what you are really afraid of. Some people dream about their favorite food. Some long for a safe room with a door to lock and others just wish they had a pillow, but they all find out what their pacifiers are — the habits, substances or surroundings they use to comfort themselves, to block out
pain and fear.”
What we can learn in the wilderness, she concludes is that the “…. hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord our God. Nothing on earth can fill it…” except God’s own Spirit.
Jesus entered the wilderness to show us that there is nothing out there that can destroy us when we walk with him. He can’t promise that we will not be hurt, that we will never know suffering, or that our lives will be free of pain and sorrow, but he does promise that with him we we be able to bear what comes. With him, we will be freed from our fear.
To be freed from our fear is the beginning and the end of the gospel; it is the lesson of the wilderness, and it is the way to resurrection because when we stop being afraid, we can bear all things, believe all things, and endure all things. We can love as Christ loved and finally become the people that God created us to be.