Monday, June 22, 2009

Fear and Faith Sermon

Isaiah 41:8-10, 1 John 4:16-19
June 21, 2009
Last Sunday before Sabbatical!

Fear and Faith
If you were a fly on the wall at First Christian Church this week you would have seen some amazing things. You would have seen a sea of orange t-shirts as 55 kids came through these walls for Vacation Bible School. You would have heard them sing like they did this morning. You would have seen an amazing group of adult volunteers teaching and leading them. And you would have even seen an adult class of “snapping turtles,” learning throughout the week as well.

A fly on the wall would have seen us take a Trek through the Bible each day. Our first Trek took us to the Promised Land with Joshua. Our next trek took us to Bethlehem to meet the new king, baby Jesus. Then we took a trek to the Pharisees house, the Upper Room (as we washed each other’s feet) and finally to Galilee to learn of the resurrection of Jesus. This is an incredibly important Children’s Ministry event that we do each year. All along the way there were truths about God learned, like God loves us and guides us; and there were also scriptures that we memorized each day. The first day our memory verse was Isaiah 41:10, “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God.”

“Do not be afraid, for I am your God.” I believe this is a timeless word from a God who loves and cares about the people of God. This word is as much for the Israelites as they were captive in a foreign land, or as they were about to step into the Jordan River to pass through to the Promised Land as it is for our children at Vacation Bible School this week and even as it is for we who sit in these pews this morning. “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid for I am your God.”

Do not be afraid: easy for God to say!! The reality of our world is that we have a lot to be afraid of. If truth be told, we are all afraid. We are afraid of what the bad economy will mean for us. We may be afraid of losing our job, or not having enough saved to help send our children to college. We may be afraid of failing at a goal we’ve set for ourselves. We may be afraid for our own safety- which the whole nation has felt to some extent since the events of September 11, 2001.

The little fears we each have are actually more paralyzing and hard on us than the big fears we have. Think about it this way, if you are diagnosed with cancer (which is a big, scary thing), suddenly you are surrounded by an army of support. People rally around you, acknowledging, “You have every right to be scared.” You will have people cooking for you, and driving you to treatment, and praying for you and generally acknowledging, “We know you’re scared and that’s ok.” It’s the little fears each day that leave us feeling alone. It is the fears of being inadequate, of not doing enough, or having enough or being enough that really get to us. Those little fears are the ones that cause the stress reaction in our bodies; that make us feel a little sick to our stomach. The little fears are the ones that keep us up and night. The little fears are the ones that make us feel isolated because we don’t share them with anyone- we try to bear them by ourselves. What I want you to know this morning is that we are all afraid.

Have you ever seen a movie where there is a nerd that gets picked on for the duration of the film? There is also usually a character that everyone views as cool and somewhere along the line there is a shift in thinking and action and the cool character admits, “I’m really a nerd too!” If each of us were to be truthful this morning we could stand up in the middle of the sanctuary and say, “I’m afraid too!”
By the way, if you are thinking, “I’m really not afraid of anything,” I would challenge you to look at what makes you angry. If you spend a lot of time feeling angry, then you are afraid of something because what psychologists have discovered is that fear and anger are almost the same thing. Anger is one reaction to fear. Some people express their fears as anger. And so if you find yourself angry a lot, you might want to think about what fears are driving that anger. If you’re angry, you can also join us in saying, “I’m afraid too!”

Ok, so we’re all afraid, now what do we do about that? We can be less fearful by loving ourselves more and cutting ourselves a little slack. We know that God created the world and that world is good. Part of the good creation God made is you and I, each one created in God’s image. God created each one of us to love and be loved and we have a hard time doing that when we are blocked by fear and anger.
As humans God gave us the good gifts to emotions and intellect. We cannot simply will an emotion like fear or anger to go away, but we can talk to ourselves about the situation. We can talk to ourselves and reframe our own thinking when we are in a fearful or angry situation. Someone just pulled out in front of you in traffic- how you react to it is up to you. Will you get so angry that you will be sick to your stomach for the next hour? Will you allow it to raise your blood pressure? Or will you acknowledge that the person is a jerk and move on?

Reframing our thinking can help us in fearful situations as well. If I am afraid to speak to someone I love about something that is bothering me about our relationship- what I am I really afraid of? Am I worried that I am not worthy of their love? Don’t I think my opinion is important enough to be heard? When we are afraid we need to remind ourselves that we are beloved children of God, worthy of love from other people and worthy of our own love. Sometimes we are better at the loving our neighbor part of what Jesus asked us to do than the part about loving ourselves.

Another part of feeling less fearful is acknowledging that we are not alone. Other people share the same fears that we have. Talking about your fears with a friend can help to alleviate or dissipate them. And maybe your friend will even confide in you, “I’m scared too!” Sharing our fears with others is another way we can feel less fearful.

When we’re fearful- we are not our best selves. When we act out of fear we are defensive, angry and not at all who were are at our very best selves. Fear is a distortion of reality, love is the reality. If God is love, and Jesus came to show us what that love looks like, then we should try to operate out of love in the world if at all possible. We are worthy of love because we are children of God. We are not alone when we are fearful. The less fearful we are, the more capable we are of loving others and loving ourselves deeply.

Sometimes we need to cut ourselves some slack. As Christians we have heard all of our lives that we are supposed to be Christ-like. The standard of being Christ is one we cannot possibly live up to. We are not God. If we put unrealistic standards on ourselves, we will have stress and fear when we cannot attain those standards. So while it is important to have Christ’s guidance for our lives, and to try to be followers of Christ who live his teachings, we are not Christ and we can cut ourselves some slack when we fall short of perfect. We can be ok with our shortcomings, because what we know is that God created us and loves us exactly as we are. We do not have to be paralyzed with fear that we are not good enough- we are good enough just as we are.

Fear is the enemy of love. Preacher William Sloane Coffin puts it like this, “Fear destroys intimacy. It distances us from each other; or makes us cling to each other, which is the death of freedom. Fear has so many ways to destroy life. Love alone can hold onto and recreate life. Only love can create intimacy, and freedom too, for when all hearts are one, nothing else has to be one- neither clothes nor age; neither sex or sexual preference; race nor mind set.”

The book of 1 John says that, “perfect love casts out fear.” I love the language of that, perfect love casts our fear. Oops, I wasn’t supposed to talk about perfect. But we know that the only perfect love is the love of Christ, a love that has the potential to drive all the fear from our hearts.

What I’m asking of us is to have pretty good love. Pretty good love that at its best looks a lot like perfect love. Pretty good love is the kind of love that starts with loving the self and remembers that you are a beloved child of God. Pretty good love is the kind of love that can diffuse an angry situation by reframing the thoughts in your mind and the messages you send yourself. Pretty good love values other people and cheers for their success and isn’t threatened by it.
Pretty good love is us at our best self, our true self not our distorted, fearful self. Pretty good love is being kind and decent and making the right choices over and over again. We all love a story about a person simply being a good person and making the right choices. This week my dad reminded me of such a movie, with just such a character, which is based on a true story. The movie is called, It Could Happen to You.

Charlie Lang is a cop in Queens in New York City. He loves his job and his neighborhood even though he is married to a difficult woman who just wants to be rich. He picks up a lottery ticket and goes to a diner and not having enough to tip the waitress he promises to split the winning with her or bring her a tip the next day. Of course he hits it big, and decides to make good on his promise. He has every opportunity to be unkind to his rude, money-loving wife, but time after time he proves to be a decent, kind and caring man. When asked about why he gave the money to a waitress he says, “I made a promise and I kept it.” This is a classic story of someone being their best self. We love a story where the characters are decent and kind human beings because that is what we are all striving to be. If we are more decent, we are less fearful.

Friends, I pray that we will be strengthened to leave here this morning and remember that we do not have to be afraid for God is our God. We will feel afraid of course, but we are not alone in our fear. May we strive to be more loving and less fearful, by treating ourselves with kindness and cutting ourselves some slack. May we also treat others with decency and kindness as we strive to be our best selves and have pretty good love for one another. And may we trust in God’s perfect love through Christ, and know that it is given to us freely and unconditional. May we live feeling loved, and act out of that love as we live in the world. Amen and Amen.

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