Not Afraid to Shine

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, July 21, 2019.

It’s the middle of summer—we are in this time when the sun rises early and sets late, when weeds are flourishing and ripe tomatoes aren’t that far away; these days when we are surrounded by light and warmth—ample amounts of it! I hope you’re getting some time to enjoy this season—it’s invitation to slow down and be present to its gifts. Which you know is going to go by faster than we think. At the same time, I’m mindful that, for many of us, these are trying times, when our nation seems to have lost its way and is doing harm than good: oppressing people rather than advancing the cause of freedom and justice, dividing people because of race or ethnicity or immigration status. It would be easy, these days, to focus only on what’s broken, to be anxious about the state of our world, to fall into despair. 

But our world needs all the help it can get these days; it needs what you and I have to offer: our hope and faith, our energy and daring. With so much bad news, it can be easy to feel discouraged. I need ways to have my faith in humanity renewed, I need reason for hope, and I expect you do too. And recently that faith and hope has come from a surprising place: the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team.

Do you know them? And if not, where have you been? I loved watching them play in the Women’s World Cup, which is a truly worldwide competition. What sets the American team apart is not their talent, which they have plenty of. No, it is their confidence, and their fearlessness, and their joy. They seem to live for the big moments in the game, when everything is on the line. Rather than shrink back from the challenge, they seem to live for it, and love it.

They way they play so fearlessly makes me wonder about my own life. “Am I living a big enough, and bold enough? Or am I holding back, because I’m afraid of failing, of being criticized?” I am familiar with those voices of self-doubt that can come up, those voices that encourage us to play it safe, to avoid risks and minimize the chance of failure. And I expect you are too. But we aren’t here to play small, are we? Aren’t we here to shine? 

I don’t know how the American team developed their ethic of fearlessness. But they are now known for it. The coach of the English team said that over the past year he encouraged his players to emulate the Americans’ style of ruthless play. Now I’m no fan of how our nation has often acted on the world stage, with arrogance and swagger, acting as if we have all the answers and are always the best. I’d like to see us use our power to serve the common good, and not just our own self-interest. 

But the confidence and fearlessness of the American women seems different—it’s not arrogant or mean, it’s joyful. And I wonder if this is because it’s women, who have come into their own power, and they are having such a good time exercising that power, on the field and in their lives.

In the gospel stories of Jesus’ life and ministry, there’s this recurring message: “fear not.” Even before Jesus is born, the angels say this to Mary, and to the shepherds, “Fear not.” And in his ministry, Jesus repeatedly asks his disciples, “Why are you afraid?” Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). For Jesus, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s fear. 

I know there are healthy kinds of fear, that can keep us out of trouble, and from doing foolhardy things. But the fear Jesus was talking about is the kind of fear that keeps you from living a full and abundant life. And this is a message we need to hear these days: don’t be afraid. 

We don’t have a record of Jesus telling folks how to do this. But we can look at how he lived. Like other prophets, he challenged the authorities and he spoke truth to power. And was willing to pay the consequences. He knew he was God’s beloved, and It’s clear that this connection to the holy was what empowered him to live the big and influential life that was his own. 

If you are going to live a fearless life, you need something that inspires you and sustains you. I hope this church helps you with that. For the women of the U.S. national team, there seems to be this combination of individual effort and collective strength, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the individual parts. There seems to be a spirit among those women, a collective camaraderie, that holds them together and empowers them to play with joy, and without fear. What if our church was more like that? More sticking our necks out. More joy! Team jerseys!

In this time of division and distrust, these women on this soccer team exhibit the kind of patriotism our nation is hungry for. Writing about them in the New Yorker, Louisa Thomas says:

“As a group, the members of the national team are brash, idealistic, outspoken, thoughtful, disciplined, aware of their power and willing to use it, confident, and unapologetic. They have both inherited their claim to excellence and earned it, and they are unafraid to acknowledge their position. They are also, of course, women. Some of them are women of color. Some of them are gay. They are all underpaid and underappreciated… They see themselves as role models and revolutionaries, but they are also something more complicated to describe. They offer a new model on how to be an American citizen, one rooted at once in idealism and pragmatism. (It wasn’t enough to be morally good; the players also knew they had to win.) By their existence and their conduct, they offer an alternative to the nationalism of men who claim a monopoly on the meaning of country and flag. ‘I think that I’m particularly and uniquely and very deeply American,’ Megan Rapinoe said before the final. ‘If we want to talk about the ideals that we stand for, all the songs and the anthem and sort of what we were founded on, I think I’m extremely American.’ And she’s right: she is.”

This morning we heard that Rev. Robert Fulghum’s story about a little girl who doesn’t fit into the regular categories. I have to imagine many women athletes were once like that little girl, feeling that they didn’t fit in; that they were told to not be too athletic or too good, be girly, and don’t outshine the boys. To get to where they are, I have to imagine that some of them were like that girl Fulghum describes:

“She knew her category – Mermaid – and was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where the loser would stand. She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things, without giving up dignity or identity.”

“Well, where DO the Mermaids stand?”, Robert Fulguhm asks. “All the Mermaids – all those who are different, who do not fit the norm, and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes? Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation or a kingdom on it.”

This is the question our nation is struggling to answer these days: how do we deal with difference? Do we fear it or do we embrace it? Do we try to perpetuate the existing order, which has concentrated power and privilege in the hands of the few, or do we make room for more and more people at the table?  

The U.S. women’s soccer team is, for me, a powerful and beautiful example of the promise of our country, of what we can be. These women remind me of the words from Marianne Williamson that are at the top of the order of service today:

“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

These athletes challenge me to be less fearful and more joyful, to be bold and courageous. To use the power I have, to not be afraid to shine. What about you? 

You know, when you do this, when you stand up and speak out, when you live out your particular giftedness, doing this will threaten some people. And they will criticize you. “Who do you think you are?” they will ask. Especially if you are someone who has been expected to know your place, because of your race or gender of lack of wealth or education. 

This nation, and our faith tradition, are grounded in the belief that our diversity is a blessing, not a curse. We have not lived up to our ideals in this country, not yet anyway, and these days the struggle is right here: will we make room for all voices, will we celebrate our diversity, will be stop being threatened by what we don’t understand? Will we stop being so damn afraid, and make room for some joy?

None of us can do everything. But each of us can do something. And one thing we can do is to live as fully and boldly as we can; to be as shiny as we are able!  My spiritual companions, please remember that you have a light within you, and that you are here to let it shine. You have been given this gift. It’s time to take the field. Let’s get out there and play with everything we’ve got!