Back to the Garden: from fear to faith

Text: John 16:31-33 (overcoming the world)

Should we be afraid, and if so, of what? This past week, some of us worried about war between Iran and the United States. Eight days ago, military drones bombed a major Saudi Arabian oil facility that provides five percent of the world’s daily output of oil, or five million of 100 million barrels.

Because of the dependence of the world economy on oil, this attack not only rattled the Saudis, who are waging a proxy war with their enemy Iran in Yemen. It also caught the attention of many around the world, not least here in Alberta.

In the aftermath of the destruction in Saudi Arabia, world oil prices rose almost 15%; and since successive Alberta governments have tied their fortunes to the price of oil, this was good news for Alberta. Prices have since stabilized, and so drivers can rest easy that the cost of filling up may not yet soar; and the Alberta government cannot yet rely on an artificial bump in oil royalties. We will have to wait and see how things unfold in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and in the United States, which is Saudi Arabia’s main ally. Perhaps last week’s bombing will be just a blip in the longstanding conflict between Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, represented by Saudi Arabia, and Shia Islamic fundamentalism, represented by Iran.

Conflicts like the one last week in the Arabian peninsula sometimes flare up and then subside. Last week, in the aftermath of the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, the U.S. President spoke about dastardly deeds the U.S. military might inflict upon Iran in response to the attack, including what he called the ultimate option. But so far, only words have been exchanged, and the media have already moved on to other conflicts and scandals – things like the U.S. President’s attempt to blackmail the President of Ukraine into engaging in a partisan intervention in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election; the revelation that Canada’s Prime Minister used to dress up in blackface in his teens and twenties; or any number of other disturbing or just plain weird news items.

One group with a lot to fear is the people of Yemen. Since 2015, the civil war there has resulted in 100,000 deaths and carries the threat of starvation for millions more. Unhappily, the West seems more concerned about the price of oil than massive death tolls in the Islamic world, even though Canada with its tens of billions of dollars in military contracts with the repressive Saudi monarchy and the U.S. with its hundreds of billions of dollars of similar contracts, are implicated in the slaughter. We have our fears. The people of Yemen have theirs.

Climate change is another topic that creates fear. Friday saw massive protests by young people all around the globe calling for action on climate change. Tomorrow is the start of a United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York City, which despite being in the U.S. President’s hometown, he will snub in favour of a meeting on religious freedom. The latter topic has relevance for his ally Saudi Arabia, which represses those that adhere to any religion other than its brand of fundamentalism.

I was cheered by the breadth and depth of Friday’s protests, and I hope that such protests will lead to policies that will conserve the world’s forests, prevent the oceans from drowning the world’s coastal population, and preserve at least some of the natural environment for future generations.

So, to return to my initial question — should we be afraid — the obvious answer may seem to be “yes.” Beyond living in fragile and mortal bodies, many of us are afraid of war in the nuclear era, of the destruction of the environment, and of governmental rule by racist clowns of one stripe or another.

And yet Jesus in the gospels continually tells his followers to not be afraid. In the reading we heard this morning, Jesus tells them that they will suffer but still urges them to have courage for he has overcome the world.

But in the face of pain, loss, and our fears about the world, what can Jesus possibly mean when he says he has overcome the world?

I like Jesus’ bold pronouncement, not least because it was the text used by my father in the last sermon he ever wrote and which I wove into a eulogy for him that I delivered at a memorial for him in 2007. I believe that there is a deep and mysterious way in which the death and resurrection of Jesus show us a path to fearlessness and freedom.

But before saying more about that, I turn now to another story about coping with fear. It is the same source I reflected upon on September 1 and 8, the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music from 50 years ago last month.

In a moment, I am going to show two excerpts from a PBS documentary called “Woodstock,” which aired in August. These excerpts relate to how security was maintained at Woodstock when 400,000 people instead of the expected 25,000 descended on Yasgur’s dairy farm in rural New York State 50 years ago.

Many people were afraid of Woodstock. The U.S. government feared the hippies who gathered there because they were opposed to the U.S. war in Vietnam. Many of their parents feared their children’s so-called sexual immorality, their drug use, and the loudness and rebelliousness of their music.

The organizers of the Festival were also worried. How would they provide security and adequate food and facilities for the unknown number of young people who would descend on the site?

The documentary details something I hadn’t known previously, that five weeks before the event in August 1969, the organizers lost a permit to hold the Festival at a venue where they had been working for several months. So, not only were the organizers unprepared for how many people showed up, they were not able to finish the new site at Yasgur’s dairy farm. In those frantic five weeks, they got the main stage and sound system built – just – but they didn’t have time to also build fences. This meant they either had to cancel the event or let people in for free. At the risk of a riot, they opted for the latter. They also chose an unusual security force; which is the focus of the following two clips from the film . . . and as I play them, please see if you can spot anyone who looks like Wayne Dooley!

I showed two excerpts from “Woodstock” that were about the security concerns, the existence of the Hog Farm communes, the leadership of Wavy Gravy, and how they helped maintain peace during the Festival.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the “Please” Force of Wavy Gravy as much as I did. As the musician Paul Butterfield remarked, the Hog Farm commune members knew the best way to keep order was to spread a peaceful and loving vibe. The Hog Farm members provided a sense of community to the huge number of people who came to celebrate on an unprepared site.

The example of Woodstock may be 50 years old, and the hippie movement may just be a tiny fraction of what it once was, but stories like this give me confidence.

Regardless of what results from today’s troubles like the conflict in the Arabian Peninsula, stories like that of Woodstock in which 400,000 people accepted the spiritual leadership of a clown-led commune and organized themselves to cope and thrive in the midst of a logistical mine-field, encourage me.

Should the young people who descended on Yasgur’s dairy farm 50 years ago have been afraid? There seemed to be much to fear. But the Hog Farm Commune members set a spiritual vibe that helped keep people relatively safe.

Should the friends of Jesus who gathered to hear him say he had overcome the world have been afraid? There seemed to be much to fear. Jesus spoke to them on the night before the day of his execution.

But his death also revealed a path on which they could transcend fear. In facing the death of Jesus and the prospect of their own deaths, they stumbled into a faith in the Love that survives death.

At one level, Jesus did not overcome the world because here we are almost 2,000 years later still facing many troubles. But at a deeper level, the path he revealed is one which helps us overcome the world. It is a path on which all tribulations can be transcended.

Should we be afraid? There is much that seems worrisome. But we needn’t fear because regardless of what befalls us, we can rely on the creativity and compassion of spiritual communities to help organize ourselves to cope and thrive. Communities of faith allow us to celebrate, mourn, and reach out in love together so that we can cope and thrive with life’s many joys and pains.

In a community like the one created by Jesus in ancient Palestine, or in the communes founded by Wavy Gravy in the 60s, or in a church like this one, we learn to turn away from anger to cooperation. We encounter challenges and arrive at creative solutions. We act with compassion and remember that eternal Love is always available to us.

So, take courage. Jesus and people who follow in his Way have indeed overcome the world; a new Eden glimmers on the horizon; and its Tree of Life, which we call the Risen Christ, lives within us. So, with this vision of courage in our hearts and minds, may we be confident that Grace and Love will be with us both now and always.