20 Mar 2011
“Abram went as the Lord directed him … Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Gen. 12:4) In the name …
I was talking with a woman, I think it was on Ash Wednesday, and she was saying that she actually enjoys turbulence when she’s flying. She finds it exciting to be buffeted by the winds of the atmosphere when she’s tens of thousands of feet above the hard surface of the earth. But the same woman said that she can’t get on rides at an amusement park. Being bounced around on a plane she enjoys, but being thrown this way and that on a rollercoaster she can’t handle. For most everyone else it would be the other way around. For the unfrequent flier, passing through turbulence makes you wonder if the plane is going to crash. The plane isn’t supposed to be bouncing all over the place like it is during a storm. They’re supposed to be able to serve the meals, not have the stewards and stewardesses seat-belted into their seats for safety just in case. But on a rollercoaster you’re buckled-in pretty snug and it’s because you want to be thrown all over and even upside down. You waited in a long line to scream your head off. But the rollercoaster offers a controlled fear. You can be scared because the track disappears in front of you when you reach a peak or a sharp corner, but at the same time you realize you’re safe. People got on this ride before you and they’re going to get on after you. It does this all day long. Again, it’s controlled fear.
This is what the philosopher Edmund Burke referred to as the sublime. In his day he spoke about being terrified of a tiger in the wild because it could easily kill you, but place that same tiger behind bars at a zoo and the animal creates a weird sense of pleasure. You can get close to the animal that could threaten your very life in the wild, while at the same time the terror is gone at the zoo. This is the feeling of the sublime. It is a feeling of exhilaration based on the controlled experience of fear. It’s like going to a horror movie. You pay to get scared, but your brain knows you’re actually sitting in a comfy seat eating popcorn. The terror can be imagined, but at the same time it’s controlled and made safe. That’s the sublime according to Burke.
According to the Bible, that’s faith. Faith gives us the assurance so that we can face the unknown. Abraham, at the advanced age of 75, has enough faith in God to leave behind all that he knew as familiar and to go forth in spite of his fears and the danger. He packed-up his family and his possessions on the basis of a promise. He didn’t even know where he was going, but Abraham was able to face the unknown because of the power of his faith in God. And as we read in the prayers just before today’s Gospel, “Realize then that it is those who have faith who are children of Abraham.” (Gal. 3:6) Just like Abraham our faith should be able to help us face the unknown and the fearful. Faith is our trust in God, and God can give us some control over the otherwise uncontrollable. God, our faith in God, can help us to deal with the unknown and the unimaginable.
A movie is now playing out in Boston. It won’t be in our area until Bright Friday, the Friday after Easter. It’s called Of Gods and Men. It has won all sorts of arts-awards and Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal actually used the word “sublime” in his review of the movie. The word, as we just mentioned, is the awareness of controlled fear. I’ll include a link to the film’s trailer when today’s sermon is posted on our website [http://www.sonyclassics.com/ofgodsandmen/]. It’s about Christian monks living in Algeria in 1996 who are caught between the military government on one side and the Islamic extremists on the other. The monks will not choose sides, and they will not accept protection from either side. They rely upon their faith in God instead. They are fearful of what may happen to them, but they find the strength to face these fears because of the power of their faith. Their faith is all that they have to face the unknown and the unthinkable. Everyone else has guns and no reluctance to use them. All the monks have is faith. And the story of their experience is called sublime.
But this isn’t a fairy tale. It’s a true story. The monks realize that they could all die because of their choice to trust in God and to continue their good works among the local villagers. Their faith doesn’t mean “happily ever after,” but their faith allows them to face the unknown with a strength they wouldn’t have otherwise. When the movie opens after Easter, I hope to go and see it at the Amherst Theater – subtitles and all. Maybe if the trailer sparks your interest too, maybe we could make this into a small church outing. But before we get to Easter and the movie, we have to make our way along our Lenten journey first. We have to find the time and the means to strengthen our faith so that our faith can strengthen us. Lent is about preparing ourselves to stand at the cross. It’s about sacrifice so that we can understand a little bit better each year all that Jesus sacrificed. It’s about the humility of admitting our short-comings and our sins before the Saviour who died so that they could all be wiped away. It’s about the discipline of fasting, abstinence, prayer, worship and good works so that Jesus’ dedication to the point of death on the cross can be appreciated ever more deeply.
There are so many things that are unknown and scary in our world. We pray here every week for people battling the unknown of cancer and other diseases. We pray again today for the people of Japan who have to face the unknown threat of unseen radioactivity and what it can do to them silently. Now we have to pray also because of another war in the Mid East that started yesterday in Libya. The unknown is all around us, but so can be faith. Faith cannot remove all that gives rise to our fears, but it can give us the perspective to control them, to deal with them, to not let them control and define us. Abraham was able to venture into the unknown because his faith in God trumped his fears. Let us, the “children of Abraham,” face down our unknown fears and dangers with the help of our trust in God, and let this season of Lent be our time to grow in that faith. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo