~ Revelation 7:9-17/Matthew 5:1-12 ~
I read the San Francisco Chronicle pretty much every day – online. But I get the Sunday edition delivered to my door. For many years now my first read on Sunday morning is my favorite Chronicle writer, Mick LaSalle, the movie critic. Good writer, I like his style, and quite often has some poignant insights beyond just whatever movie he happens to be reviewing.
Well, last Sunday’s edition, being the week of Halloween, featured articles about (hold up paper) – FEAR. Mick’s article tapped into the fear-laden films of the 21st century that reflect the state of our politics and national life. Mick suggests that movies are how a culture dreams and of late we are having nightmares. These days the relentless onslaught of fear-based movies provide an endless feedback loop of our real-life fears. It’s no wonder we’re collectively depressed.
It hasn’t always been like this. True, American movies have a penchant for harshness and violence. In the 1890s while the French Lumière brothers were filming parents feeding their baby, Thomas Edison was filming the electrocution of an elephant. But despite American cinema’s harshness they mostly concentrated on vicarious thrills, putting you in someone else’s shoes.
Movies in the past certainly depicted danger, very difficult and upsetting situations, but the implicit assumption was that these situations were exceptional, not the norm. Someone gets sick, a ship hits an iceberg – even an asteroid heading toward earth ended up with a happy ending. We the audience understood these to be exceptional things.
We don’t have a tradition of fearful entertainment, but that’s what we seem to have now. Movies of this century, in the aftermath of 9/11, reflect a theme of disquieting anxiety and fear. Society hangs by a thread; a vast dystopia awaits. Space aliens are taking over. You can’t trust anything the government says. In short, American movies tell us that nothing we have or see is permanent. And if you live in a city it will probably be destroyed or buildings will be knocked down. Fear, pessimism, paranoia have dominated our movies for most of twenty years now. And, lest we forget: Everyone in those movies woke up that morning feeling safe.
What is this fear that these movies tap into? What is the fear that has infected our movies? Basically, it’s the fear of helplessness before a malevolent world. It’s the fear of unseen evil elements working to undo our very existence.
For the last twenty years, ever since 9/11, there seems to be an underlying anxiousness that pervades our collective consciousness. And that’s before we even got to this year, 2020. There has been nothing subtle about this year. Dread upon dread upon dread. It has been a fear-inducing year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll, literally and psychologically. Month after month after month, the count continues; indeed, getting worse. Over 100,000 new cases just yesterday. We are averaging almost a 1000 deaths per day. But it’s not just the sick and death toll, it’s also the psychological toll. There just does not seem to be a pathway for going back to normal and it’s depressing. Even this week, San Francisco announced expanded opening-up criteria that had to be pulled back due to an uptick in cases in the city. Will it ever end, we wonder?
In the middle of all that, this summer saw the deeply embedded racial tensions of our society boil to the top. As we, even here at Noe Valley Ministry, engage with addressing these deep-seated problems, the prospect of finding a healing path seems quite daunting, overwhelming, in fact. The white supremacy of our history is so much with us. Can we overcome? It can be quite depressing.
One year ago Brian and Austin got married. We celebrate their anniversary with them. But the recent Supreme Court appointment somewhat puts a damper on that celebration. As Brian has written, “…in the back of my mind, I still panic that this right could be stripped from me.” These are fear-inducing times for our LGBTQ+ community.
Finally, but certainly not least, looming over all of 2020 is our national political situation. Talk about fear-inducing! Jon Stewart, of Daily Show fame, probably spoke for all of us, when he said this week, “I’m terrified. I’m anxious. I’m lonely…I wanna know how much longer we have to keep going through this…?” As we move into this week, into Tuesday, we all, most likely, are feeling somewhat fearful, somewhat anxious. OK, very anxious, very fearful. These are, indeed, fearful times.
Given that, is there any hope to be found to get us through these fears? Ah! Maybe our scripture readings on this All Saints’ Sunday can help us out. This fantastical scene Dawn read from the Book of Revelation always shows up on this Sunday. The “great multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” gathers around the throne. In this vision, this revealing, John is looking to bring hope to his readers there in the 1st century Mediterranean world. They, too, live in fear-induced times, living under Roman persecution. “Who are these, robed in white” standing before the throne? Well, they are those “who have come through great ordeal.” But here they are, where they will “hunger no more, and thirst no more…” God “will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Now, the prospect of having to wait until we get to heaven to find relief is not what we bargained for. And I don’t really think that was the message for those 1st century Christians. Rather, the message for them and for us is, keep on. Keep on keepin’ on! Don’t give up. Don’t submit to the fear. God is with you, with us, and is our salvation. This is a message not for the dead, our dearly departed loved ones but is a message for the living – us. Keep on keepin’ on!
This is brought home with the other scripture lesson on this All Saint’s Sunday – the Beatitudes from Matthew 5. This passage does not obviously fit the theme of celebrating the saints who have passed on – except for maybe the line, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” But this passage is not about the dead, but about the living. It is about how we are to live in this world as followers of the Christ.
My good friend in Denver, Bill, who is a New Testament scholar, back in early October began posting on FB a different translation of The Beatitudes every day. He figured that if he sent the same message everyday it just might sink in. With each post a simple commentary:
- “Jesus’ words that express what he values in his followers.”
- “Jesus’ words on the people who will flourish.”
- “Jesus thinks that people such as these will receive God’s blessing.”
- “Jesus’ followers are measured by how well we live up to his words.”
- “Jesus’ words continue to challenge his followers. It’s easier to default to the values so dominant in our culture.”
- “In a day when character does not seem to matter to some people, we need again to hear Jesus’ reminder of the virtues he praises and desires for his followers.”
- “Jesus’ Beatitudes call all his disciples to obedience.”
In short, what Jesus’ tells us here is how we should then live, especially in fearful times. These characteristics – poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for justice, merciful or caring, pure of motive, peacemaking, willing to take it, even if it hurts – these characteristics are the ones that will get us through these fearful times.
I don’t know what lies on the other side of Tuesday. I admit one outcome is more conducive to hope that the other. But no matter what happens, as God’s people we will and must continue to be and do what God calls us to do. There is a lot of work yet to be done, hard work. May we find hope in the doing; let us not be afraid. Amen.