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Fear in the Wilderness

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How we deal with fear has deep spiritual implications. As with so many things Jesus said, he asks us to go against our instincts when it comes to fear.

Today’s texts – 1 Timothy 1: 12-17 and Luke 15: 1-10

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

I would imagine that just about everyone here over the age of 20 or so can remember right where they were on this morning 15 years ago. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and all the horror that accompanied them were among those moments in our lives that seared themselves into our consciousness.

I was in a hotel meeting room in Pittsburgh with a group of journalistic colleagues who served on the board of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. We were about to begin our annual convention the next day. It never happened and it was days before I could even get a rental car to drive back to Madison.

911-crossI am sure everyone here has a story. But I also suspect that almost everyone here carries with them one of the emotions of that day – the emotion of fear.

In those first hours, we knew our country was under attack and we did not know where this was going to lead. Along with the shock and the horror and the grief and the anger, there was fear.

Fear is a common companion in our lives, even when it is not as dramatic as that awful morning 15 years ago. At one level, it is a protective emotion, keeping us out of danger. At another level, it is a destructive emotion, actually increasing our danger.

How we deal with fear has deep spiritual implications. As with so many things Jesus said, he asks us to go against our instincts when it comes to fear.

You know the phrases that crop up over and over in our scriptures – “Be not afraid” or that paraphrase from the letter of John that we have on our front door – “Love casts out fear.”

The actual quote from the first letter of John is a bit longer. It starts out with the familiar phrase: “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God in them” Then it 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.”

Imagine you were that sheep who wandered off in today’s Gospel story from Luke. The way Jesus tells the story, this is the one who has strayed from the herd, the one who has done wrong, the one the good shepherd must rescue.

But imagine you were that wandering sheep. It’s not hard to do, I don’t think. There are times all of us wander away from the herd, I suspect.

So there we are, alone in the wilderness. We have lost safety in numbers. We know the wild beasts might be out to get us. We are so vulnerable. We are afraid.

Good Shepherd
Good Shepherd from the old Memorial church on Madison Street.

Then the shepherd shows up, lifts you onto his shoulders and is rejoicing.

Let’s be clear – for Jesus, this and the other parables in this story are parables of God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace, much as the writer of the letter to Timothy was proclaiming in our first scripture reading.

Let me broaden the image, though. This is God’s love surrounding and sustaining us in the midst of the terrors of the wilderness.

Molly Ball, a reporter for The Atlantic magazine, describes the wilderness we are in today in an article about how fear is driving the politics of 2016.

“Fear is in the air, and fear is surging,” she wrote last week. “Americans are more afraid today than they have been in a long time: Polls show majorities of Americans worried about being victims of terrorism and crime… Overall crime rates may be down, but a sense of disorder is constant.”

She went on: “Fear is not the same as anger; it is a unique political force. Its ebbs and flows through American political history have pulled on elections, reordering and destabilizing the electoral landscape… While anger makes people aggressive, prone to lash out, fear makes them cower from the unfamiliar and seek refuge and comfort.”

Politicians know how to play to our fears – and that is a bi-partisan game plan. It seems to me that the challenge to us as followers of Jesus is to find ways to, in fact, let love cast out fear.

It’s not just the love we might have for other people. It’s the love that God has for us.

The stories in our scriptures are filled with people living in fear and then deciding their only hope was trusting in God’s love. The way the stories are told, God often comes to the rescue. But I think our trust in God need not depend on our physical rescue.

It depends on us believing that no matter what happens to us, God’s love is there. It depends on us remembering that even when we are that lost sheep in the wilderness, God is there for us.

One of the things I remember from that day 15 years ago, and from the days right after Sept. 11, was seeing God’s love reflected in the way people looked out for one another.

Oh, all was not sweetness and light. We know that some Muslims in America faced vicious attacks, that a Sikh man was killed because someone thought he must be a Muslim. We heard loud cries for revenge.

uaafter9-11-380pxBut we also saw people embracing one another across boundaries that might otherwise separate them. We saw people gathering in churches trying to make sense out of the incomprehensible, trying to find God in the midst of the horror, trying to hold on to our common humanity in the midst of barbaric acts.

I know that once I got back to Madison and was getting ready to go to church the following Sunday, I wondered what the pastor that day might have to say. Would it be about loving enemies – a notion that seemed almost impossible at the moment? Would it be about seeking justice by holding those who organized this evil deed to account?

What Dave Michael, the pastor at Lake Edge UCC talked about that Sunday was all of us being in the place of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Something terrible had happened and we could not yet see the hope of resurrection, even though we had heard promises of that. We were lost.

I remember his words. But I remember even more one of the hymns we sang that Sunday. It’s a familiar one, a hymn that dates back to the early 1700s, with the lyrics coming from Isaac Watts as he paraphrased Psalm 90.

Watts, it might be noted, was part of the non-conformist movement in England, those Protestant Christians who did not conform to the established Church of England. They were among our ancestors in faith in the UCC. We’ve always been an unruly bunch.

But this hymn by Watts, it turned out, was the perfect hymn in the aftermath of the stormy blast of Sept. 11 and the need to remember that God is our hope and our shelter.

Let’s join together in singing the first four verses of Hymn #25, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” And as we sing, let’s hold in our thoughts all those whose lives were irrevocably changed by the stormy blasts of that day 15 years ago.