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Be Not Afraid

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Fear can be incredibly destructive if we let it take control of our lives. It can paralyze us, it can isolate us, it can turn us against one another.

Text for today: Psalm 34: 1-8 and Mark 10: 46-52 

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

Welcome the season of Halloween, to the weeks of horror movies – those movies that capitalize on and profit from what seems to be the desire of a lot humans to have the bejesus scared out of them.

There is a new movie based on a classic kids series – Goosebumps. There are classics of the genre –Dracula.

This year we’ve got Crimson Peak with monsters emerging in a gothic mansion in the English hills and Jurassic World set off the coast of Costa Rica where genetically engineered dinosaurs once again run amok.

FearThis is not new. Consider these from Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the top 100 horror films – King Kong in 1933, Psycho in 1960, Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978, A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, The Blair Witch Project in 1999.

Trick and treat.

Maybe going to horror movies helps some of us exorcise our fears of real life terror. Maybe they just give some of us more vivid nightmares. They speak to the fears that live in our lives and how we deal with them.

The words we heard today from Psalm 34 never quite seem to come into play: “I sought the Lord and God answered me. God delivered me from all my fears.”

That sounds good – but what happens when we really do confront the fears in our lives?

The fears that don’t show up on a movie screen but
on a monitor in a doctor’s office with a brutal diagnosis,
on the Weather Channel as a monstrous storm bears down on our homes,
on a dark street as we walk home,
down the block as we hear gun shots ring out in a place we thought was safe.

We are no strangers to fear. Sometimes fear is rational. Sometimes it is irrational. But whatever its cause, it affects the way we choose to live.

When I was a kid, one of my hidden fears lurked in my room as I was going to sleep. What if someone came in through the window and tried to kill me?

There was nothing in my vast life experience of eight or so years to suggest that anyone might actually be interested in killing me. But the fear was vivid, even if no more real than the monsters that live in some kids’ closets or under their beds.

That was an irrational fear and not a particularly useful one. But fear can be useful – even essential in our lives. It is one of our survival mechanisms.

If I am walking in the woods in Montana and a grizzly bear comes around the corner, there is nothing irrational about my fear. That fear will trigger quick – and hopefully wise – reactions on my part to protect myself.

If I am told that I am diabetic and I need to take insulin or risk death, my fear of death will prompt me to act.

But fear can also be incredibly destructive if we let it take control of our lives. It can paralyze us, it can isolate us, it can turn us against one another.

Here’s another story of a rational fear that affected my reaction to a stranger – and caused me to close off options that could have been helpful.|

iphoneA couple of weeks ago, I was in downtown Madison for an event and as I neared my destination, a man approached me and asked, “Can I use you phone to call a cab?”

My response was polite but firm – “Sorry, no.” And I kept walking.

I know enough about cell phone thefts to know this can be a set-up line. I felt possessive enough of my phone not to risk it.

But what if this guy really needed a cab? What if instead of letting fear rule my response, I had offered to make the call for him? Or had invited him inside so we could call from there?

My fear – my instincts – got in the way of looking out for a fellow human being. It’s not the first time. I’m sure it’s not the last. But I keep hoping I can do better.

Because fear is part of who we are as humans, people have become adept at using it to gain power for themselves, to advance their causes, to separate us from one another.

It is part of the undercurrent of the racial divides in our nation. “Can white people admit that we fear black people?” asks Rev. Joe Phelps, a white minister in Louisville, Ky. “What does our fear look like? I recognize that if my car were stalled at night and a group of young black men approached, I’d be more afraid than if they were white.”

It is part of the politics around immigration. We hear threatening descriptions of those who might want to come to our nation, descriptions extrapolated from isolated cases into a torrent of intimidation.

It is at the heart of the inability of our nation to come to grips with its fetish for guns. Guns are sold as a way to protect ourselves, our families, our communities from those who would hurt us. Be now afraid – and buy another gun.

It clashes so sharply with what Jesus said: “Be not afraid.”|
Jesus keeps asking us to go against our instincts.

Turn the other cheek.
Give your coat to the one trying it to take it from you.
Walk the extra mile with the one oppressing you.
Love your enemies.

And if you really want to be good, sell what you have, give the proceeds to the poor, join Jesus’ group of followers and risk death for proclaiming a message of love in a world that values self-interest.

Oh yeah, and be not afraid.

Be not afraid?

When we wait to hear whether or not we have cancer?

When we feel the rumble in the sky as a tornado approaches?

When someone we perceive as menacing is approaching our car?

When a Palestinian approaches an Israeli? When an Israeli soldier bursts through the door of a Palestinian home?

When terrorists shoot at Muslims over parking places, Christians gathered for Bible study, Jews at a senior citizens center or when they obliterate federal employees in an office building or people at work in the nation’s tallest buildings.

Be not afraid?

You can see why “be now afraid” sounds so much more rational, so much more appealing.

And yet.

And yet.

When we choose to live in fear, we close off the possibilities of helping bring the world closer to the vision God has for it. We separate ourselves from one another and in the process, we separate ourselves from God.

I had a chance to sort of eavesdrop on a fascinating conversation last week. Actually, anyone could eavesdrop on it. It was published in the New York Review of Books.

robinson and obamaIt was a conversation between Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist from Iowa who has a new book of essays coming out this week and Barack Obama, the president of the United States. It was a conversation he initiated because he is a big fan of Robinson’s work.

It’s an interesting conversation in part because Obama is, in effect, interviewing Marilynne Robinson and that is not a role we often see a president in. And it fits into today’s reflection because part of what prompted their conversation was one of the essays in Robinson’s new book. The essay is a called, simply, “Fear.”

Robinson is a member of the UCC congregation in Iowa City and brings deep theological thinking to her novels and essays. In this one, she writes:

“My thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”

In her conversation with Obama, she expanded beyond the theological to the political in the sense of how we as nation deal with fear.

“Fear is on my mind,” she told the president, “because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people. You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing…But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with.”

She said when the idea of the “sinister other” becomes part of our political conversation, then, in her words, “I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.”

So from a theological standpoint and as citizens in a democracy, we do well to face the fears in our lives and not let them control us. Because when we let fear control us, to quote Robinson, “Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.”

I’d ask you to pause for just a moment and think about what are the things you fear most. I’m not going to ask you to say them out loud. But I am going to ask you as the day turns into the week ahead, to give a little thought to how much that fear controls you and how you might take control. So let’s just sit with that for a moment. (Pause)

I talked about getting control of your fears. I think that one of the underlying causes of fear is that we feel whatever it is, it is something we cannot control. Or it is something unknown. Or it is something that will overpower us.

Now think how Bartimaeus must have felt in the story we heard today.

We don’t know much about him. His father was named Timaues, He was blind. He was a beggar.

We don’t know when or how he became blind. We can be pretty sure that the folks of that era would have blamed this condition on the sins of his parents or his own sins. We can be pretty sure they would have kept their distance.

So here he was, being buffeted about by the crowd gathering around Jesus. Can you imagine how he felt? Can you sense his fear, being pushed and shoved by people he could not see, people who might even pilfer the few coins he could beg along the way, people who might push him down to get him out of the way.

We certainly know they did not want him to get in the way of Jesus. But he had the courage to shout out anyway. “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” He took the risk of defying the crowd and he took the risk of being ignored by Jesus. He did not let his fear paralyze him.

Jesus noticed the commotion. He was used to this sort of thing. It was out of the chaos that he touched people.

So out of the chaos of this dusty road on the way to Jerusalem from Jericho, Jesus heard the man’s voice and invited him out of the crowd.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. No assumptions here. Find out what the man wants. Maybe it is sight. Maybe it is courage. Maybe it is compassion.

“My teacher, let me see again,” says Bartimaeus. And he could see.

As the Psalm writer said, “I sought the Lord and God answered me and delivered me from all my fears.”

As we face our fears, there are many ways to deal with them. Let me suggest that one is to find that place in the core of our beings that let’s us be at peace in the midst of chaos.

Let us find the presence of God within us that assures us that love is what sustains our lives, love is what knits the universe together.

God may not fend off the deadly illness or stop the careening car or melt the gun in the hand of an angry man.

But if we can sense God’s presence within us, if we can hear Jesus’ call to overcome our instincts and find new ways to react, if can let the Spirit of Love infuse our beings, maybe, just maybe,
we will not need to say, “Be Now Afraid,”
but we can join in the call to “Be Not Afraid.”

“Be Not Afraid,” sung by the St. Louis Jesuits