Sermon preached February 21, 2016
Texts: Genesis 15:1-2, 17-18a; Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35
Morris Albert, “Feelings” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CyBcHUe4WeQ
We are getting into our Lenten series on “challenging emotions.” Last week we discussed how we are tempted to work badly with our emotions, but also noted that our emotions are good things, for the most part. It is a good thing that we feel. Our feelings are an important part of who we are. Working with them is an important part of our spiritual journey, our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Our feelings are an important part of what make us human. The French philosopher Rene Descartes famously wrote, ‘I think, therefore I am.” He thought that was a certainty on which we could base our knowledge of the world. In a way, he was also saying that this is what makes us human. I think it is as true to say “I feel, therefore I am.”
It is good that we feel. Working with our feelings is an important part of our spiritual journey, our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. And some particular emotions are good only in the most narrow sense. In a couple of weeks we will be discussing jealousy. What good is jealousy? Not much, except in a sort of diagnostic sense. If we are feeling jealousy, it is like a symptom that should help us ask what is going on in our lives – our hearts, our minds, our souls. But that is a sermon that is yet to come.
What about fear? Is fear just like jealousy, something that is only good as a sort of symptom to which we have to pay attention, or is there some even larger sense in which the feeling of fear can be good? I think there is a more positive dimension to fear than there is to jealousy, but fear is only minimally helpful as an emotion.
Fear can alert us to real danger. It can be a warning that we need to watch out. When I was a teenager, there was a swimming hole on Amity Creek, “the deeps,” that many like to go and swim in. There were also some places on the rocks from which one could jump into the water. I was afraid to do that, particularly when one had to run before jumping to make sure you cleared the rocks below. Fear was probably not such a bad thing in that circumstance, though it wasn’t exactly a prized emotion in adolescence. I only made that running jump one time, and that was quite enough, thank you. There are stories of kids getting hurt doing that.
Fear can be a good thing when it slows us down a bit, when it gets us thinking a bit more about what it is we might be doing. There are real harms and dangers in the world, and it is a good thing to be aware of them, to pay attention to them.
That said, fear is only a minimally helpful emotion, one which should have a relatively small place in our feeling repertoire. Yet it is an emotion which seems everywhere, one actively encouraged in many quarters. That makes fear a challenging emotion.
Think a bit about our current politics. Fear is prevalent. Some encourage fear of big banks and big corporations. Beneath the fear there are significant issues which need to be taken seriously, there is some important social analysis happening. We should be asking some serious questions about the place of money in our politics and about our economy. Yet it is often the fear that motivates, and we never get to some of the important questions.
Some encourage fear of the stranger, the immigrant. This issue arose again this week when Pope Francis questioned the depth of faith of those who only want to build walls but never also talk about building bridges. Again, beneath the fear there are serious issues about immigration that need to be discussed and addressed, including how we maintain safe and secure borders. Yet it is often the fear that motivates, and we never get to asking about the adequacy of particular plans to work with immigration and border security.
Beyond politics, fear of the stranger also manifests itself in deep fear of Muslim people. Some talk as if we should be deeply afraid of anyone who prays to Allah, wears a head scarf, or is part of a mosque. The threat of terrorism is real, and we need to take it seriously. Fear often prevents us from having good conversations about dealing with that threat, let alone having good conversations about living together with Muslims in our community, the vast majority of whom want nothing more than to live peaceably with their neighbors, to raise their families, to practice their faith, and to be good citizens and neighbors.
Fear is all around us, in part because it seems an effective way to move human beings to action. Typically fear-based actions are not our best or most thoughtful or most creative. Fear seeps in to our hearts and souls. Of course, there are also a host of inner fears that are already in our hearts and souls. We fear our own inadequacy. We fear failure. We fear the unknown.
Fear, when it is working well, slows us down to help us think. It alerts us to potential dangers. Yet fear can also shut down our best thinking and our most creative selves. When fear gets out of hand, we not only consider real dangers, we magnify them, and even invent them.
Fear, then, is a challenging emotion that needs to be challenged.
We challenge fear, and manage it well, when we pay attention to it, when we draw near and listen. Perhaps what we fear is the mysterious and unknown. In the story of Abraham, as he is paying attention to God it says “a deep sleep fell upon Abram and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” Sounds frightful, yet it is in that mysterious darkness that God shows up.
Parker Palmer, in his profoundly insightful essay “Leading From Within” writes about fear of the unknown. A fourth shadow within and among us is fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life. Many of us – parents and teachers and CEOs – are deeply devoted to eliminating all remnants of chaos from the world. But Palmer notes, “chaos is the precondition to creativity” (Let Your Life Speak, 89)
Pay attention to feelings of fear, and ask that feeling questions. Don’t simply take a short-cut around the feeling. What are you afraid of? If it is the unknown or uncertain, perhaps that is a moment of chaos preceding creativity. Perhaps God is inviting you to something new.
The other wonderful insight Parker Palmer offers about fear in his essay is that we need not be defined by our fears. This is how he puts it. All the worlds wisdom traditions address the fact of fear, for all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy. And all of these traditions, despite their great diversity, unite in one exhortation to those who walk in their ways, “Be not afraid.” As one who is no stranger to fear, I have had to read those words with care so as not to twist them into a discouraging counsel of perfection. “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear…. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith. (93-94)
Some Pharisees come to Jesus. In Luke’s gospel, the Pharisees so rarely come off well, but here they seem genuinely concerned about Jesus. They warn him that Herod wants to kill him. They are filled with fear, and think Jesus should know that same fear, and out of fear, should change his plans to go to Jerusalem. Jesus remains resolute. “Tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day, I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.
Is Jesus immune to fear? I don’t think so. Rather, Jesus has a stronger sense that his mission requires the risks he is taking. He will not be driven by fear, but rather by his responsiveness to his mission to heal and teach. Jesus chooses courage over fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, but it is choosing not to be the fear we feel. It is too choose to act from places call trust, hope, faith and love.
Facing fear is part of the spiritual journey. It is a challenging feeling that needs to be listened too, and challenged. We need not let our fear tie us into knots. We need not let our fear fray us. We need not be the fear we feel. Places of fear can be the doorway to places where we meet God in new ways.
And that is the bottom line in our faith conversation about facing fear, God is with us. God is always with us. God is our light and salvation. God is our stronghold. Light, space, zest – that’s God (The Message). God goes with us always, even into those fearful places and with God, we can keep fear in its place – feel it, know it, question it, but not be it. Like Jesus, we have better things to do than be our fear. Amen.