Do Not Fear

A Sermon for Sunday October 31, Reformation Sunday/All Saint’s Day Eve, Jeremiah 10:1-6; I Peter, 3:13-15 and Matthew 14:22-33

In recent weeks, Katie has been playing October’s most time-honored game…“I wanna scare you!” In plain view, she will run and hide (behind a chair, sofa, kitchen counter or corner in the house), wait a couple of seconds and then run toward  Elizabeth, Anne or I and scream, “Aaaaaaaghhhhh!!! I scared you!”  Utilizing our best acting skills, we flail our arms and exclaim,  “Oh! Ahh!!! You scared me, you scared me!!!” Katie giggles and asks with much excitement, “Wanna do it again?”   And so we play along at least a dozen or more times before she zips off to another activity.  Sometimes she doesn’t even bother to run and hide, she just screams “Aaaaaaghhhhh!” and we act surprised and she laughs.

The irony of the game is that while Katie takes great delight in “scaring” us, she has become more aware of what truly scares her—the dark, sudden noises, strange people she doesn’t know, the singing Halloween tree from the Hallmark store, and the mean ole dinosaur that jumped out of the bushes on the PBS show for preschoolers, Dinosaur Train. The irony for Elizabeth and I as parents is that while we joyfully pretend to be frightened in front of our daughter, we are becoming more aware of what honestly scares us about raising this child—Katie severely burning her hand on a hot stove, Katie choking on a chicken nugget, Katie getting seriously hurt during a tumble down the stairs or (egad!!) Katie hating us when she is a teenager.

Fear, of course, is a one of our basic instincts, a primal reaction that moves us to act. But while it is innate, the specifics of “what we fear, when we fear and how much we fear are largely learned. Scientific studies have shown this to be true in animals” writes author Scott Bader-Saye in his book Following Jesus In A Culture of Fear. For instance, some studies reveal that if a mother rat is made to be fearful and anxious during pregnancy, the baby rats will exhibit fearful and anxious behavior. Bader-Saye notes:

“These studies lend credence to what Christians have long believed to be true, that our passions are not just given but are formed. Thus, we can be shaped to feel the passions in the right way, at the right time, and to the right extent—to rejoice rightly at the triumph of the good, to lament rightly in the face of suffering, and to feel anger rightly in the presence of evil… Fear is not evil. It is not a vice. It is not wrong to fear, but excessive or disordered fear can tempt us to vices such as cowardice, sloth, rage, and violence. It can also inhibit virtuous actions such as hospitality, peacemaking, and generosity…While fear itself may not be evil, disordered fear can certainly create the opportunity and (apparent) justification for great evil.”[1]

All of us can attest that we live in fearful times and that having a certain amount of fear about the dangers in our world is natural and reasonable. But these days it seems that fear has reached some unnecessary and extreme levels in our society, which is unhealthy for the average person but exceedingly beneficial for marketers and news agencies. Bayder-Saye reminds us:

“Fear has long been a profitable handmaid for marketers and news agencies. When Newsweek publishes an article entitled, “That Little Freckle Could Be A Time Bomb”, and when local news anchors lead into stories with the  words: ‘Why drinking too much water could send you to the emergency room,’ we can be sure that fear has become a bottom-line issue.”

Citing expert sociologists and stats from the Center for Disease Control, Bayder-Saye points out that people are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer and stroke than many of the sensationalized news stories we see on TV. [2]

The local TV news stations are the worst at manipulating fear for a buck.  They’re always stirring up viewers with absurd headlines like, “A man catches fire on operating table. Find out how you can avoid becoming a victim of Dr. Mayhem!!! What you don’t know may kill you!!!”  The marketplace feeds off the anxiety and fear created by the evening news by offering a new product that you can buy in two easy payments of $9.99 that will prevent you from catching on fire when your surgeon performs a routine out-patient procedure.

And then the politicians try to scare you right out of your pants and into the voting booths with outlandish campaign ads that maliciously attack their opponent.  Their aim is to make you tremendously fearful of the other guy and/or a certain issue or policy. I actually saw one ad where a California politician running for U.S. Senate accused his opponent of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The advertisement actually showed an actor (as the opponent) prowling among a pasture of real sheep while dressed in a fake sheep costume—his beady red eyes peering from behind a slit in the mask. [3]

If the campaign ads aren’t bad enough, there are the cable and radio personalities and pundits telling viewers to be overly fearful of Republicans, Democrats, Muslims, immigrants, the poor, other pundits, former presidential advisers, Tea partiers, the economy, corporations, oil, etc.  Add YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, smart phones and online news video feeds to the mix and nearly anyone can garner 15 minutes of fame with fear mongering.  Even major newspapers are peddling fear in the most eye-catching way—editorial cartoons.  Take a glance at Daryl Cagle’s Political Cartoon Index on MSN.com and you’ll find three categories with a trick-or-treat theme: Halloween, Scary Costumes and Bad Economy Halloween. [4]The majority of the cartoons in these categories feature variations on two controversial issues—the economy and the midterm elections—by depicting  10-year-old trick-or- treaters as members of the GOP, the Democratic Party or an economic downturn arrow; or portraying the White House as a Haunted mansion with Republicans dressed up as Frankenstein’s Monster and Democrats dressed up as zombies.  Like a wi tch with a bubbling cauldron, somebody somewhere is stirring the pot with fear and anxiety, and there doesn’t seem to be any way for us to escape.


The irony is that while we experience a heightened level of fear and insecurity, the reality is that life in the United States in 2010 is no more dangerous now than 50, 100 or 1,000 years ago. The types of danger have changed but in general, people are living longer and healthier lives than before:

  • Polio, measles and small pox are no longer plaguing developing countries as they did a century ago.
  • Traveling is less dangerous than centuries ago when folks journeyed long distances by horse and buggy.
  • Gang conflicts are nothing compared to those in 1850 New York where more than 200 gang wars occurred, mostly among adolescent boys. [5]
  • And the brand of wide-spread terror, corruption, death and violence personified by kingdoms and empires in biblical times toward Jews and early Christians is not part of our modern day experience.

Consider for a moment the book of Jeremiah in which the young prophet is called by God to speak out against the kingdoms of Judah and Israel for adopting the cultural practices of its oppressor, the Babylonian Empire, and worshipping numerous gods and false idols. Despite severe persecution and the threat of death by siblings, friends and the authorities, Jeremiah continues to urge the people to come back to a more enduring and covenantal relationship with God. “Do not learn the way of the nations…For the customs of the peoples are false…Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good. There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might.”

Do not be afraid for the LORD your God is near, says the prophet. Do not be afraid says the man who has every right to be afraid for his very life. Do not be afraid says Jeremiah who is eventually exiled from his homeland. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.

The command is echoed centuries later by the apostle Peter in his letter to early Christians who are enduring persecution under the Roman Empire.  As a way of encouraging Christians who are “suffering because their faith has called them to break with the social fabric of their community, (Peter) reminds them that though they are ‘aliens’ in this world, they belong to a new commonwealth, which is God’s own household.”

Peter tells Christians to continue do what is good and right in God’s eyes, even if they are harmed, even if the suffering is too much to bear. “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord,” Peter says. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”

Do not fear. Do not fear what others fear—the loss of control and power over another, says the apostle. Do not fear, says the man who has every right to fear for his life. Do not fear, says Peter who eventually dies upside down on a cross for believing in God’s love. Do not fear. Do not fear.

This command was probably engrained in Peter when he was a young man and disciple of Jesus. It was close to dusk when Jesus told Peter and the others to get into the boat and cross to the other side while he dismissed the crowds and went up a mountain to pray.  When evening came, Jesus was alone but by this time, the disciples’ boat was being battered by the waves and the wind.  Early in the morning, after the storm had calmed down a bit, Jesus walked on the sea toward the disciples’ boat. When they saw him, they were terrified. And they screamed, “It’s a ghost!”As soon as they cried out, Jesus said to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answers by asking Jesus to come to him on the water.  So Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking on the water toward Jesus.  But then a strong wind blows and Peter recalls the terrifying storm. And it’s likely that he remembers the ancient stories and myths he was told as a child about the dangers that could emerge from the sea like evil spirits and monsters. Peter becomes so frightened that he begins to sink. Descending into the depths of the water, Peter cries out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” Jesus, without hesitation, reaches out his hand, grabs Peter by the wrist and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus and Peter climb back into the boat and immediately the wind ceases. And all of the disciples worshipped Jesus saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Like Peter, most of us (at one time or another in our lives) allow fear to paralyze us to the point that we begin to sink into sorrow; or we give fear so much power so that we lash out angrily and violently at anyone with a different lifestyle or view from our own. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says there is a way, though to transform fear. He writes:

“All of us experience fear, but when we confront and acknowledge it, we are able to turn it into courage. Being courageous does not mean never being scared; it means acting as you know you must even though you are undeniably afraid. Actually, courage has no meaning unless there are things that threaten, that make you feel scared. Whether we are afraid of physical harm or social shame and embarrassment, when we face our fear instead of denying it, we are able to avoid it paralyzing us.”[6]

The 79-year-old Tutu, who retired from public life this month so he could spend his remaining years with his family, knows intimately about facing fear. He was instrumental in the difficult work of peacefully ending violent apartheid in South Africa, and creating opportunities for whites and blacks to reconcile their differences.  Tutu has long been an advocate for the love and peace of God which he says can eradicate all fear if we choose to recognize it in our lives. In his latest book, published this summer, Tutu says:

“When we deny our fears or try to run from them, they loom over us, larger than life. When we face our fears they do not metastasize into something else. When we dare to name our fears, they shrink to a manageable size. If you can name your fear, you may recognize the same fear in others. Then, rather than create division, fear can open our eyes to our common humanity…If we could see as God sees, what would we see? Would we see anyone who should fall outside the reach of our care? The pimps, prostitutes, and prisoners, the drug dealers, and the deranged, the illegal immigrants, the terrorists, the race baiters, the homophobes and haters—all are held in God’s loving gaze. God’s love overshadows us all. That drug addict on skid row, that street person smelling to high heaven—if we really had the eyes to see, they would give us a glimpse of God.”[7]

Often I don’t always see a glimpse of God in the other, particularly the drug dealers, the terrorist, the race baiters, the homophobes, and the haters as well as the rapists and murderers.  Instead I allow fear to consume me to the point that I rage at my TV. Or I become so paralyzed that I sink into this depressed convention of thought that says nothing is ever going to change for the better in this world. I think to myself, “Folks are going to just keep hating and abusing and killing other people because they’re different.  There is nothing I or anyone else can do about it so why even bother showing up at the church office today.”

But as I’m sinking, the presence of God reaches out to remind me of those in the faith who have courageously stood up for God’s love in the midst of fear, those beloved and imperfect saints like…


  • Martin Luther and John Calvin, fathers of the Protestant Reformation that challenged the abusive and oppressive power of the Catholic Church over the people during the early 16th century.
  • The Quaker Alice Paul and other brave women who, despite being beaten and imprisoned, fought successfully and peacefully for the rights of all women during the suffragist movement of the 1920s and 30s.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a small group of German Christian clergy who, at the risk of their own lives, publicly opposed the dictatorship of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis during the 1930s and 40s.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists who championed for the civil rights of black Americans during a time of deep-seeded segregation, racial hatred and violence in the 1950s and 60s.
  • The members of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian who teach about God’s love to children and adults and who serve God’s love to people in need during a time in which Christianity is viewed as being judgmental, hateful, and irrelevant in the post-modern world.

On this Reformation Sunday and on the eve of All Saints Day, we would do well to remember that we have nothing in this world to fear when we see and recognize that God is present with us and within…each…of…us.


We have nothing in this world to fear because God is here with us. And God reaches out to us whenever we begin to sink into paralyzing fear. God is pulling and will keep pulling us from the depths to be in relationship with one another and to be connected in our humanity…to be members of the community of saints and the body of Christ…whose love sees us through all the fear—real and perceived.

“And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him.”[8]

Amen.


[1] Scott Bayder-Saye, Following Jesus In A Culture of Fear. 2007
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Bizzare attack ad heats up California Senate race.” http://news.yahoo.com/s/ynews/ynews_pl1112
[4] Daryl Cagle’s Political Cartoonist Index, http://www.cagle.com/
[5] Ibid.
[6] Archbishop Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time. 2004.
[7] Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made For Goodness (and why this makes all the difference). 2010.
[8] Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. 1529. Hymn 260 in the PC(USA) Hymnal, Westminister-John-Knox Press, 1990.
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