Matthew 5:43-47, 1 John 4:18-21
Unafraid: Fear and Security
My mom gave birth to my older brother Jim when she was just 21 years old. She’s often joked that he was her “practice baby.” More seriously, she’s said that she thinks being a young parent meant she wasn’t afraid of making too many mistakes because she didn’t know enough to be afraid! And so she mostly assumed that things would go right, that Jim would be okay, and she wasn’t full of worry about how she was doing as a parent, and how Jim was doing as a baby. Of course they were ok!
My brother and sister-in-law, on the other hand, were older parents when they had Sam, my nephew who is now 12 years old. They were old enough to be anxious, to be aware of everything that might go wrong in the blink of an eye. Collectively, as a family, I think we so loved and doted on and worried about everything being perfect for Sam that the poor child barely touched the ground for his first couple of years of life. And as a toddler, as a little boy, I could see the impact sometimes. He wasn’t very big when he could say “that looks dangerous!” about a slide or swing at the playground that he wasn’t feeling adventurous enough to try. I had to try hard, even in my Aunt role, to be a little less smothering-ly protective of him. I’ve told some of you this story: I used to take Sam often to the big carousel at the mall in Syracuse, and I would always ride with him, until he was old enough to kindly suggest to me that I could watch him from the sidelines like all the other grownups were doing. Reluctantly, I agreed. And he did fine on the ride, of course. But I found that I had to count the seconds that I couldn’t see him when he was on the back side of the carousel, out of my sight. Six seconds. Six seconds that I felt my heart in my throat. When I realized how brief a time it was, I willed myself to relax.
Seven years later, Siggy came along, and as second-time parents, aunts and uncles, and grandmother, our whole family was more relaxed with Siggy. And as a result, I think, Siggy is daring and bold. She doesn’t hesitate to try much of anything. If she says something is dangerous, she says it with glee and then goes ahead and tries it anyway.
Fear shapes us. It marks us and changes us. It isn’t just an emotion we experience that keeps us safe and alerts us to danger. When we’re fearful when we don’t actually need to be, fear can hold us back. We can miss out on vital experiences. We can close the door to new people, new places, new ways of thinking, because we’ll do anything to avoid the fear and discomfort and cling to safety. I’m thankful Sam is cautious and careful - he’ll need those traits to keep his sister out of trouble, I think. But I don’t want him to miss out on things that could bring him joy because we’ve taught him that everything risky is too unsafe to try.
We’re starting a new sermon series today called “Unafraid.” We’re using Adam Hamilton’s book by the same title as our guide. Over the weeks ahead, we’ll be thinking about Fear and security, fear and failure, fear and loneliness, fear and change, and fear and death. We’ll be trying to take a closer look at what things make us afraid, and how we live as people of faith, courage, and hope in spite of the fears we sometimes have.
What are you afraid of? When I was little, thunderstorms did me in. I’m pretty afraid of insects, particularly when they’re inside rather than outside where they belong, and most definitely if they come into contact with me. I’m afraid of flying on airplanes. These days, if I have a nightmare, it’s usually just that I’m on a plane. Nothing is even going wrong - I’m just on a plane, terror in itself.
But the kind of fear we’re talking about in the next weeks goes deeper than that. Adam Hamilton writes, “We can hardly overstate the extent to which worry, anxiety, and fear permeate our lives. We worry about the future, about politics, and about our health. We fear violent crime, racial divisions, and the future of the economy. Deep rifts in our nation leave us with an increasing sense of uncertainty. Fear in the financial markets can wipe out billions of dollars of wealth in a single day. Our fears, in the form of insecurity, often wreak havoc on our lives and personal relationships. Google fear and you’ll find over six hundred million websites in .98 second.” (3) “Fear can imprison us, paralyze us, and keep us from experiencing a fulfilling and joyful life.” (7) Instead of being paralyzed by fear, Hamilton shares an acronym that captures his hope for how we might respond in the face of fear: Face your fears with faith. Examine your assumptions in light of the facts. Attack your anxieties with action. Release your cares to God. (27)
At certain seasons in our history as a people, and for us today, particularly since 9/11, some of our most significant fears are related to other people and violence. We are so very afraid of violence, desperate to feel safe and secure, and our fears culminate in intense distrust of others. We lock our doors. We have security systems. We monitor our children’s play in ways we never did years ago. We protect ourselves with weapons. We’re more isolated than we used to be. We’re suspicious of people - on high alert at airports, or when we’re walking alone, or when we see people who don’t look like us or act like us or come from where we came from. And it is exhausting to our spirits to be so afraid all the time! In reality, violent crime has been on the decline for a while. (49) In reality, you’re 120 times more likely to be struck by lightning each year than you are to be the victim of terrorism. But fear and reason don’t always keep company.
We think we’re just being sensible when we respond with fear. I would tell you that I’m a pretty intuitive person. I “trust my gut” sometimes when I feel like there’s something off about a person or situation that I should stay alert. But we have to be careful. Remember last summer when we were talking about racism, we learned about implicit bias? That happens-without-our-even-being-conscious-of-it near instantaneous response to anyone we perceive as other? Our implicit bias makes it easier for our brain to categorize information quickly. But it doesn’t always tell us the truth. And helped along by an anxious, fearful culture, our brains are telling us to be afraid of everything that’s not just like us all the time. And our souls hurt because of it. It isn’t God’s vision for us.
So what do we do? How do we break away from fear that has a grip on us individually and as a collective body? Adam Hamilton talks about being grounded in prayer and meditating on the scripture. In the Bible, we find again and again this message, in slight variations: “Do not be afraid. I am with you.” Fear not. Be not afraid. I’m with you always. Hamilton says the purpose of prayer and meditation on God’s word is not “to deny the thing you are afraid of or the difficult situation you might find yourself in; rather, it is to be aware of God’s presence as you walk through it. I'm reminded, he continues, “of that night in late January 1956 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the Montgomery bus boycott following Rosa Parks's arrest for not giving up her seat on a bus to a white man. The boycott had been going on for weeks. At midnight on January 27, King received a threatening phone call telling him to leave Montgomery if he didn't want to die. He wrote that he was ready to give up. Weary from the fight, anxious and afraid, he bowed that night at the kitchen table and prayed, confessing his fears and exhaustion to God. It was then that he felt God's presence and heard an inner voice, the voice of the Spirit, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” His fear immediately dissipated, and, he noted, “I was ready to face anything.” (52) It’s not that Dr. King’s fears were unfounded in the sense of him being safe, out of danger, free from harm. After all, he was assassinated by people who were determined to stop the Civil Rights movement. But his heart and soul were safe. His mission was safe. His purpose persevered. And he was deeply safe with God even as he experienced violence from others.
We heard two short scriptures today that go together. First, in Matthew, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … for if you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Everybody can do that!” In our reading from 1 John, the author ties Jesus’s words explicitly to fear. He says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love … Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
It may seem obvious, but we can’t love people if we hate them. We can’t love them if we’re too afraid of them to know them. It is really hard to love our enemies if we’re so afraid of them that we can’t act, can’t reach out. When fear rules us, when fear drives us, when fear is leading us, there’s just no room for love. And likewise, the more we open ourselves to love, the more we’ll find that fear can’t find any space in our hearts.
I started today by asking what you are afraid of. I want to challenge us now to dig deep and ask who we are afraid of? Are there individuals? Groups of people that make you feel afraid? Does your fear of others sometimes masquerade as hate or anger? What relationships in your life are ruled by fear? When we’re ruled by fear, we miss out on so much that God wants to offer us. God is love, and God’s perfect love can cast out all of our fear. We just have to make sure our fear isn’t casting out God’s love as our fear casts out other people. Our hearts, our souls - they’re safe with God. And safe with God, we’re set free to love with abandon, love with risk, love dangerously. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Thanks be to God. Amen.