Second Sunday in Advent, December 7, 2014
Luke 1:26-30; Luke 10:30-37
Helen Cooper is a writer for the New York Times. Her coverage of the Ebola crisis is unique because she was born in Liberia and she still has family living there. Having immigrated to the United States, she escaped many of the civil war’s atrocities, which members of her family did not. One sister was kidnapped. After witnessing a gruesome murder, another sister sent her son away to protect him and they hid from rebel fighters for two years.1
During my travels in Liberia I discovered that such stories are the norm, not the exception.
As Helen Cooper traveled around Liberia, she discovered that she had become more American in some ways than Liberian, and it affected her judgment and desire to help others. Call it the “fear factor.”2
She was returning from covering an event four hours from Monrovia where President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was speaking. Needing to return that night, the President insisted that one of her personal assistants accompany her on the dark, partly dirt, and pothole-infested road. The roads in Liberia are atrocious and can easily leave a person with a flat tire or worse.3
Cain Thurmond of our church members can attest to this personally, finding a road into the interior impassable one day during his time in Liberia as big trucks became lodged in mud holes that would make our potholes seem like smooth riding.
As Helen drove, Varney, the President’s assistant, saw a body on the side of the road and insisted that she pull over. Helen was in no mood to play Good Samaritan. Flashbacks of ambushes that took place during the war compelled her to keep going and “what if the person had Ebola?” Most of us would agree with Helen. Our fears would compel us to ride on, too.4
After Varney had returned to the car and informed her that the man was only drunk and had run off into the bush, Helen had more time to formally protest the wisdom of such a stop. Varney looked at her and said, “That what y’all do in America? You can’t just leave somebody on the side of the road to die.”5
Such a question is an honest one and prods us to wonder, “Have we become prisoners to fear in our country?”
In 2000 it was Y2K. In 2001 it was Anthrax. In 2002, it was the West Nile Virus. In 2003 it was Weapons of Mass Destruction. In 2004 it was the SARS virus. In 2005 it was the Bird Flu. In 2006 it was E. Coli. In 2007 it was vaccines. In 2008 it was the bad economy. In 2009 it was the Swine Flu. In 2010 was BP Oil. In 2011 it was Obamacare. In 2012 it was the end of the world. In 2013 it was North Korea. This year it’s been Ebola. Next year we will be afraid of something else.
Fear is natural. It’s a part of the human experience. Fear is an instinctive reaction designed to keep us alive. If we were not afraid of anything, we would walk off the edge of cliffs and in front of fast-moving cars and perform surgery on ourselves. We are typically afraid of those things that we believe will bring us harm. Humans have an instinct for survival and fear has helped us live a long, long time.
We might live longer with a Helen Cooper mentality that says, “Take no chances,” but if fear always wins, we might survive, but discover that we are living in a world of darkness.
On Pearl Harbor Sunday, it’s appropriate to talk about acts of valor. The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States.
Last year, Matt Lauer of The Today Show, sat down with four recipients of the Medal of Honor and asked how many of them were afraid the day they were cited for their valor. All four raised their hands. Matt said that many people would be surprised to learn that they were able to do what they did even though they were afraid.6
Staff Sgt. Ty Carter said, “There is fear there but you are choosing to ignore it because watching somebody suffer, watching somebody die is far worse than the danger itself.”7
These men are lights in darkness and while their acts of valor were singled out, they each testified that they are just one man within a unit of men and women who often exhibit courage.
They remind us that courage cannot be exhibited apart from fear. Without fear, our actions might still be loving and kind, but not brave.
When we are afraid, it is a great temptation to enfold into the darkness that surrounds us. We need to find the light in the midst of fear, or perhaps we can be the light in the darkness.
When I read Psalm 27, I read about a man who has every reason to be afraid. Evildoers assail him wishing to devour his flesh. His enemies are camped all around him.
While he isn’t using words that tell us he is afraid, I still feel his anxiety as I read the text.
Have you ever been anxious enough in the darkness to yell out, “Hey, is anybody out there?” Of course if a voice came back, any voice, your heart would likely stop. Hopefully, no one answers or if someone does, it will be a voice you recognize.
That’s the anxiety I hear in the voice of the Psalmist. “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
In the midst of the darkness, the Psalmist deeply desires to hear the Lord’s voice to comfort him.
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face! Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” (Psalm 27:8-9a NRSV)
The Psalmist wants some assurance of God’s presence. He feels the darkness. He’s looking for the light, which is God.
Because he finds the assurance of God’s presence, this gives him strength and it gives him courage to wait on God. Remember, courage is what you demonstrate in the presence of fear.
When Matt asked the medal recipients what they feared outside of battle, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta said it was raising his 25-month-old daughter.8
Staff Sgt. Ty Carta said he feared he would fail as a husband or as a father. He said, “Every time I leave the house or every time my daughter gets up to start walking, I fear I will not be there to catch her when she falls.”9
As we wait for the Lord, as the Psalmist did, God wants us to find courage in the midst of our fears. When this happens, there is where we find the light. Think about what kind of world it would be if our fears always won the day.
In a country like Liberia, where there has been unspeakable savagery through the years, there has also been Christ-like sacrifice. During the Ebola crisis people have found courage in the midst of fear and with some, Christ-like love has proven to be more powerful than the love of self.
One of those shining lights is Napoleon Braithwaite. Napoleon worked for the Minister of Health in Monrovia so he was well schooled about Ebola. He was also well schooled in the Liberian way of life, a life of suffering and hardship.
His first wife died during childbirth. His second wife died because of a lack of medical care. During the war, the rebel soldiers invaded his home and took everything he owned. They even removed his toilet.
However, throughout the war, Napoleon and his third wife raised a family of eight children and he preached hope to his people. After graduating from the Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary, he became the pastor of Peaceful Baptist Church in the early 1980’s.
Once during a sermon, his notes fell from the pulpit and when he bent over to pick them up, a bullet from a rebel soldier came through the front door and went into the wall directly behind the pulpit.
A car given to him by FBC of Jonesboro was stolen at gunpoint by the rebels and used in the war. Once Napoleon saw it going down the road with all the doors ripped off being commandeered by young teenage boys armed with AK-47’s.
Napoleon understood death, hunger, disease, war, and poverty. Yet he remained a man of hope, promise, love, and compassion. With the establishment of a school at his church, he demonstrated his belief that the future of Liberia would be bright with a generation of educated children. Education would help bring light into the darkness.
In September, a very sick woman knocked on his door and asked to use his phone to call an ambulance. She knew he was one of the few people around who had a phone. An ambulance was called but he was told they could not respond.
Knowing the risks of what he was about to do, he put the woman in his car and drove her to a hospital. He knew he would be able to make it through the various checkpoints along the way. The pastor of FBC of Jonesboro said that “Napoleon’s compassion would not allow her to die alone without some dignity.”
Several days later, Napoleon began to run a fever. Fearing the worst, his friends prayed that he was sick with Malaria. But it was not to be. He succumbed to Ebola on September 25 at the age of 55.
The All-African News ran a story on the front page, “Death of Key Aide Changes the Focus of the Ministry of Health as We Face Ebola.”
In Jesus’ story we often call “The Good Samaritan,” the priest and the Levite get the bad press because they did not help the wounded man they saw in a ditch beside the road.
Could it be that they were simply afraid to offer help? What if it’s a staged trap? What if the man isn’t really hurt? What if he’s got accomplices hiding, waiting to ambush anyone who stops to give aid?
What if the man is dead? Wouldn’t the priest have been afraid to touch a dead man and be declared unclean and thus be unable to help people at the temple who’ve come to bring sacrifices to God?
Perhaps they noticed the man was from another region. What if they helped him and members of their family shunned them for helping someone most had come to hate?
Could it be that we are like the priest and the Levite, afraid to help others, afraid to get involved? Isn’t it true we find ourselves more like Helen Cooper than Varney?
Fear is natural. But if fear always wins the day, darkness will remain.
God knew when he sent the angel to Mary to tell her she was going to conceive and give birth to a son named Jesus, the Son of the Most High, that her natural response would be fear. So the first words of the angel were, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30).
The absence of fear is peace. Serving others even when fear is present is courage. We may need to demonstrate some courage before we experience peace.
Perhaps that’s what it took for the Samaritan to minister to the wounded man in the ditch, in addition to his compassion.
Varney got out of the car to check on the man beside the road. Napoleon got in the car with a woman he suspected had Ebola.
Both were afraid but neither allowed fear to dictate whether they showed compassion–and that’s called courage. That’s also how light enters a world of darkness.
It is true that sometimes being compassionate comes at a great price. The cross of Jesus is testimony of that.
But without the sacrifices of people who show courage and compassion in the presence of fear, it would be a very, very, dark world.
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” If that is true for you, how are you going to be the light during this week of Advent?
© Copyright 2014 by J. Michael Helms