Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Fear Not

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 14:22-33:

In the third chapter, all the way back at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis, after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which was not actually an apple nor where they deceived by Satan, but after they eat, they hear God walking in the garden calling for them, and they run and hide from God. After God finds them he asks what they are hiding and for the first time in scripture we hear about fear. “We were afraid and so we hid from you,” they tell God, and the relationship between God and humanity is forever changed.  Something else important happens when fear gets introduced, and that is that blame and scapegoating also get introduced as a direct result. When God asks why they are afraid, Adam says don’t blame me, the woman made me do it, and Eve says don’t blame me, the snake made me do it, and the snake just shrugs his shoulders, which is probably the real reason that God removes its appendages and makes it crawl on its belly. Fear and blame and refusal to do something all come together at exactly the same time.

Today we embark on a new sermon series looking at what I am calling the nots of Jesus, fear not, doubt not, sin not, judge not, worry not.  These are the nots not only because Jesus says don’t do them, but also because they are issues that might cause us to tie ourselves in knots.  Andy Stanley has called these instructions the N Commandments because he said that Jesus considered them so important.  While I am not going to argue their importance, which is the reason I am talking about them, I am going to argue his use of the term commandments, because when Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength,” and that the second in just like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  And then on his last night, according to the gospel of John, he said “I give you a new commandment that you are to love one another as I have loved you.” So unlike the commandments, which are lists of things you shouldn’t do, Jesus normally talks about what you should do, how you should be living your life, like the golden rule, which says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s a positive statement of behavior, rather than a similar statement given by Rabbi Hillel who said “Do not do to others what is hateful to do.” So rather than being about what we should do, instead it’s about what we shouldn’t do.  And that certainly seems to be much more what we hear about from the church, or from Christians today, is a series of thou shalt not, or I cannot, so I thought it might be appropriate to look at some of the do nots that Jesus taught, which seem very different from what we might normally hear, and how they lead us to fulfilling what Jesus says are the greatest commandments.

Today we start with fear, because maybe this is the hardest one because fear drives us in so many ways.  It’s a primal force, coming from the oldest and most primitive part of the brain known as the amygdala, just above the brain stem. It’s where we get the flight or fight response, and unfortunately for us, it’s not a very hard thing to try and trigger fear, and in our history that has been a good thing. It’s fear that keeps us alive and uninjured. Fear, in the right amounts, is a healthy and productive emotion. We learn at an early age not to touch a hot stove and not to play in traffic.  We have a proper fear of those things for the danger they pose to us.  It is not a sin to fear and to be honest not fearing things would just be stupid and dangerous.  And I don’t believe that is what Jesus is saying, nor is it what is being said all the other times that this phrase is used in scripture, and it’s used a lot.

Jesus gives around 125 imperatives of things we should do, and of these, 21 are not to fear or be afraid, or something similar, like to take heart or to show courage.  And of course when people are first told about Jesus in the New Testament, what is it that the angels say, “Fear not.” That’s really how the New Testament begins, and while it’s often thought that we see a different view of God starting with Jesus, that the God of the Hebrew scriptures is judgmental and scary, and Jesus comes to tell us that we have all misunderstood who God is, that’s actually a misconception, because we hear lots about the God of love in the Hebrew scriptures and it also tells us, or others are told, not to be afraid more than 100 times, and I think that’s because fear is just a part of who we are. Just like you don’t tell someone to calm down unless they are already upset, so too you only say to someone don’t be afraid, unless they actually have something to be afraid about.

Max Lucado says that “fear, at its center, is about a perceived loss of control.” I’m not sure that I’m willing to concede that every fear is about a loss of control, mainly because I want to hold onto some of my own irrational fears, but I do think he’s right. And I for one, can say that when I have lost control, that I don’t deal with the situation very well, and want to get control back as soon as I possibly can, by either trying to get away or trying to wrest some control back.  Think about all the problems that the presidential candidates want us to be concerned about. Nearly every one of them is about things that we don’t have control over, seem to have lost control over, never had control over, but their solutions all seek ways to give us back control, or at the very least the appearance of having some control.  And that is the biggest problem with fear and control, Lucado says, because when we have lost control, when we are fearful, then we seek control and safety becomes our god. It becomes the thing we search after and seek, rather than seeking after God, and even worse it means we seek the risk-free life, and you cannot have lots of things, including faith and love, without being willing to take risks, without risking losing it all.  When we feed our fears, we starve our faith, Lucado says, but when we feed our faith, our fears will starve.  After all, as I’ve said before we talk about taking leaps of faith, not leaps of safety, and so it’s not really about not being afraid, but of moving past those fears to try something new, to do something new, to take a step closer to God.  And that leads us back to the passage from Matthew we just heard.

The passage starts with an interesting line that’s really easy to overlook, and that is that we are told that Jesus made the disciples get into a boat.  So right away, the disciples have lost control of the situation, which will lead them to be more fearful, and why does Jesus have to make them get into the boat? Because last time they got into a boat with Jesus, which happens in chapter 8, they encounter an enormous storm and they fear for their lives, and Jesus calms the storm for them. So they’re a little reluctant to have to go back out on the water, something most of us can probably sympathize, and this time they also know that Jesus won’t be with them if they encounter another storm. But the first step was to work past this initial fear and to go back out in the boat.  I think that’s important to remember because they had to get past this first initial fear to even go out on the water, and I think they all deserve a little credit for that.  But when they are out on the water, the thing they feared the most, what they were most concerned about, happens again and another storm rises up.

So here’s the bad news. Just because you work through one fear, doesn’t mean that you are home free, and it doesn’t mean that what you are afraid of won’t happen, even if you are working on moving past it.  Because the disciples feared a storm, and they got a storm, and then they see this strange figure walking towards them out on the water. Now I think they really have every reason to be afraid, and the entire story is set-up to make them afraid, but then Jesus says “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

My oldest daughter has one of the biggest hearts I know.  She even looks out for and helps people who are mean to her, and so it’s not surprising that she was the one who proposed collection teddy bears for the fire department.  But she is also the most hesitant of the two, and so has to constantly work to move past those fears to do things she really wants to do, but is really afraid to do, even when that fear is so real, even when doing it makes you even more afraid, and you can even see it in the pictures.  But it’s these little victories over her fears that gives her more courage and more ability to go out and do more. (and I did have permission to tell her story) It’s not really about not being afraid, but really about moving past and through that fear to something bigger and better.  One of the big phrases in the business world right now is about leaning in, based on a book by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. When we are afraid, we lean back, we shy away, we pull away, but when we lean in we put an entirely different face to the world. When we pull back the world pulls back, but when we lean in, the world leans in too.

But then is the most important piece for us as Christians that should make this easier, or if not easier, at least gives us the strength to go forward, and that is that we have Jesus.  When Peter sees that it’s Jesus, he then does something that’s a little bit crazy, and not just wants to move past his fear, but tells Jesus to ask him to come out on the water too, and see Jesus calls to him, and Peter gets out of the boat.  He gets frightened again, but not before he begins to accomplish the impossible.  Which means that if we are going to overcome our fears, we are going to have to be willing to climb out of the boat and to risk getting a little wet.  Stepping out does not mean that we won’t face troubles and high winds and more fear, but to know that Jesus is right there with us and that it is Christ himself who is calling us out of the boat.  In regards to this passage, Bishop Will Willimon said “If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity [to be rescued] by Jesus. I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith… If you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out into the sea,” you have to be willing to step out of the boat.

But there is one other key piece of information, by overcoming his fear, not only was Peter’s faith changed, but the faith of the other disciples in the boat was also changed.  We are no longer told that they were afraid, and when Peter and Jesus climb back into the boat, they all worship Jesus.  Peter’s courage changed them as well.  Which means that the fear we may have about doing something that we are called to do may not only be hurting our faith, but it may also be hindering the faith of others who look to us, it’s about showing courage, which is not the absence of fear, but the movement through the fear, away from what can’t be, to what might be.  In 1 Timothy, we are told that “God has not given us a spirit of fear.”  Instead we are called to recognize our fear and to know that Jesus is right there with us, calling for us to move beyond our fears into the life that God has called for us.

And we do that through some simple steps.  The first is to name your fear.  The girls and I are currently reading Harry Potter, and most of the people refuse to say Voldemort’s name, who is Harry’s arch nemesis, because it scares them too much to say it, but by not saying it it holds even more power over them.  What is keeping you from doing something? Say what it is, not just in your head, but out loud, or write it down. Name your fear, and when you do often it will lose its power over you. The second is to play a sort of worst case scenario. If what you fear would happen, actually did happen, what would be the result of that?  Sometimes the worst case scenario is worse in our minds that in reality, and then ask what are the real chances that is going to happen? There are lots of people who fear terrorism, but you are more likely to be killed by a cow or your television, or to accidentally suffocate in your own bed then you are to be killed by a terrorist. And finally, tell your fears to someone else, someone you trust, to either help you work through them, to help you make these steps, or just simply to help you carry them.  what these steps will do, most importantly, is to bring your fears out of the darkness into the light of the day, and things often don’t seem as scary in the light as they do in the darkness because that’s where fears dwell.  But that is exactly the point of what Christ does for us as well and why we should not fear because of Christ.

I need two volunteers to help me out for a moment.  One of you is going to hold this paper, and the other is going to hold this flashlight.  These items all cast a shadow, but in 1 John we read “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.” So notice when happens when we shine the light on the candle.  There is no shadow, because there is no darkness in the light.  What we are told about the coming of Jesus is to fear not, and what Jesus tells us is do not be afraid, because the light has come into the world, and Christ is with us, and Easter is with us. When we believe in the risen Christ, when we are willing to step out of the boat to encounter the risen Christ, then we know that we are never alone that we have the power to overcome our fears and we have the light to shatter the darkness of our fears.

Think about the things that you fear the most.  Those are your boat and your storm. What do you need to do to be able to move past your fear in order to step out of the boat in answer to Jesus who says to us come?  Then a step to take through the entire process is to pray. Pray for God’s guidance and assistance, not to take away the fear, but to help you get through it, and to know that Christ is present for us, not there shivering in the boat with us, but standing there shining a light into our darkness, calling us to come and saying to us “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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