Sermon preached May 1, 2011
Text: John 20:19-23
Begin with a demonstration of rapidly preparing for airline security.
I don’t mean to boast, but I am really good at this, and you know why? I don’t want to be that guy that fumbles and stumbles and holds up the line. I want to appear competent and confident. I am afraid of looking incompetent and foolish and confused.
Fears. We all have them. They are a part of the fabric of all our lives, for better and for worse. Fear has some benefits. It is a good thing to have a healthy fear of lions, not viewing them as simply kitty cats grown large. Fear of looking incompetent means that I am the kind of person you want to be behind when going through airline security. So confident do I appear that because I sometimes have a blue suit on and have this black overcoat, I have been asked if I am airline staff. Now me flying a plane – that’s something you should be afraid of!
We fear failure. The upside of such a fear is that we strive to do well. We want the projects in which we are involved to succeed. I was often frustrated in school when we were assigned group projects and there was a person in the group who did not have some fear of failure. You knew you were going to have to do extra work because this person was not to be counted on. The downside of fear of failure is that it can lead to a paralyzing risk-aversion. If we are too afraid to fail, we will never try something where the chance of success is not weighted heavily in our favor.
We fear rejection. The upside of such a fear is that we work to present our best most charming selves. We spend some time on manners and hygiene. The downside of fear of rejection is that we will avoid social situations where rejection is a possibility.
We fear disappointment. Again, the upside of such a fear is that we will work to make things succeed. The downside, and this is a fear that has a much greater downside, is that we won’t ever venture forth into the new, the creative, the unusual. We may lock ourselves in tight psychic rooms to avoid being disappointed. We will do our best to isolate ourselves from large swaths of life. More on this shortly.
We fear meaninglessness. The upside of such a fear is a search for a life that has purpose and meaning. It is to search and work for a life that contributes to something greater than ourselves. The downside of such a fear is an anxiety that can lead to despair when our meaning-making projects don’t seem ultimately meaningful, when we doubt the importance of our own lives.
That is a brief catalog of individual fears, but there are social fears, too, and on these I am not going to try and articulate an upside. They are heavily weighted on the downside. We fear change which seems rooted is a fear of loss. That fear of loss is real and relevant because changes in life can bring loss. Not all change is good in every respect. Change can mean loss of relationships, as when we move away from our home town. But fear of change and fear of loss, on a social scale, can be detrimental. What happens in church if my favorite program is made different, or worship is not what it used to be? What happens when someone born of an African father becomes President of the United States?
We fear economic loss. There is a big upside to this. It can motivate us to work for more justice, more fairness in our economic life. The economy will change, but we are not powerless to help provide some direction for such change. The downside to such fear is that we can oppose any policy that seems to benefit someone else. Why should they have good health insurance if I don’t?
We fear the stranger, the Other. Part of our sense of identity is formed by acquiring a sense of who we are in relation to others. It begins early in our family life and continues on from there. We see ourselves as certain kinds of people. There is a benefit in that. But when fear of the other, the stranger gets woven into our sense of who we are, problems arise. Fear of the other, the stranger cuts us off from seeing the common humanity of persons and prevents us from learning other ways of being human. Part of the Biblical invitation to abundant life is the injunction to welcome the stranger. We are richer for learning from those whose experiences of the world are different from ours, but in this fearful time, fear of the other manifests itself in misunderstanding of the Muslim, hatred for the immigrant.
Fear. Psalm 139:14 reads, in part, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” We are creatures full of fear and wonder, a mixture of fear and wonder. The problem arises when the downside of fear prevails. The problem arises when we are more fearful than wondering. The problem arises when fear becomes a locked room so that we are isolated from that which is life-giving. We fear failure, so don’t try anything new. We fear rejection, so don’t offer ourselves in relationships to others. We fear disappointment, so we shut ourselves behind closed doors. We fear meaninglessness, so we refuse to ask questions of beliefs, tenaciously clinging to old forms even when they may no longer give life. We fear loss and thus fear change. We fear the other, the stranger, who invites change.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear… Jesus came and stood among them. Jesus arrives in our lives in those places of fear, even when we have locked the doors. Jesus, the rejected, wounded, crucified and now resurrected one comes to us when we are afraid. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Jesus comes to us, even in our places of fear and offers instead, peace. Often Jesus couples the offer of peace with the words, “do not be afraid” as in John 14 (v. 27).
Peace is not the exact opposite of fear. To have peace as people fearfully and wonderfully made is not to be without fear, it is not to let fear define us. To have the peace of Christ is to not let the downside of fear become its predominant manifestation in our lives. Peace is not the exact opposite of fear. It is the opposite of letting fear be a locked room in which we hide from life – its joys, its challenges, its hopes, its dreams, its accomplishments, and yes, with that disappointments and hurts. I have always appreciated Parker Palmer’s analysis of the phrase, “do not be afraid.” It doesn’t mean never having fear, it means not being our fear – do not be afraid.
And what are the grounds for having peace instead of being our fear? Jesus offers the word, “peace be with you.” In what is this offer rooted. It is rooted in an assurance that God is love and that God’s love extends to each of us. It is rooted in a firm conviction that love wins. Incarnate love could not be defeated by the cruelty of death by crucifixion. The offer of peace is an invitation to be a part of God’s mission of love, and we find our life’s meaning in that mission – a mission of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. The offer of peace comes with the promise that the Spirit of Jesus will be with us – he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
This has been a week for all things royal (Will and Kate’s wedding on Friday). Recently I watched again the movie, The King’s Speech. It is a wonderful story of the locked room that fear can be and how one might be released from it. Prince Albert, the stuttering Prince of England seeks help from one Lionel Logue. He simply wants to carry out his duties more adequately. He will never be king – that is his brother’s place, until his brother abdicates and Prince Albert, now King George VI, must lead his people as England enters again into war, the Second World War. It is a great movie, and a Christian parable. Logue calls the Prince “Bertie” and helps him find his voice. Jesus calls us by name, speaks the word, “peace be with you,” and gives us an ability to use our voice beyond the fears which may keep them locked behind closed doors. Amen.