1 John 4: 17-21
It was date night and David and I sat in the movie theater with the lights dimmed, expecting to be scared. We like a good scary movie and had picked that particular genre for this evenings date movie. What I didn’t expect was to be more scared by one of the previews for a children’s movie than by the horror movie we came to see!
Fear is a funny thing. On one hand it can be really helpful to us- our fight or flight response protects us from danger. On the other hand fear can be paralyzing. Fear can keep us from receiving love, and from having new experiences. On an individual level fear can hold us back from achieving our goals and living our dreams. Fear is ugliest when is expressed by entire groups of people. This is when fear leads to hate, and hate often leads to violence and chaos.
Theologian William Sloane Coffin accurately summed up the relationship between love and fear when he said, “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear.” 1 John 4 reminds us that God’s love casts out fear. Fear blocks us from experiencing God’s perfect love. Perhaps it is appropriate on this Valentine’s weekend- when the culture around us is focusing on romantic love, for us to remind ourselves about God’s love and how it works to dispel the fear in the world.
By the way, the preview for the children’s movie that terrified me to my core was this ridiculous movie called, “Gnomeo and Juliet”. You see, I have one of those external, irrational fears and it happens to be that I am terrified of garden gnomes. This is the first movie that I have ever avoided seeing because of this fear. In general the only thing this fear keeps me from doing is walking down the garden aisle at the store. My friends and loved ones think this fear is hilarious- so they often surprise me with gnomes- gnome postcards- gnome dolls etc. It is hard for me to believe they have made a movie for children with the thing in life that scares me most!
I don’t know what you were taught about God as a child, but I am grateful for my growing up in that I was taught from an early age that “God is love.” We learned about God’s love at Vacation Bible School, we sang about it at church camp. It seems that I have always known that God is love and that love is for me- whether I felt worthy of it or not. Our scripture this morning reminds us that God is love and that love is for each one of us.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Do you hear in these words of scripture the relationship between God and love? God is love- God loves us and love is the way we experience God. God showed ultimate love when he gave us the gift of Jesus who came and walked among us. God loves you because God is the source and actuality of love. If you don’t hear anything else this morning hear that you are loved by God.
The next most important thing that you hear this morning is that perfect love, God’s perfect love casts out fear. In the face of love, fear can’t hang around! It doesn’t know what to do- fear waves the white flag of surrender and goes home! This is powerful stuff. This is one of those scriptures I carry around with me. We all have that Bible that we carry around with us in our heart. Those scriptures that mean the world to us, that comfort us when we are alone and afraid- this is one of my most favorite.
By the way, don’t let that word “perfect” get you down. The scripture says “perfect love drives out fear.” The reality is- God’s love is perfect. The love we have is a little less perfect. We are not expected to be perfect. A commentary I read this week by David Bartlett said this, “Perfect love casts our fear in human relationships and even imperfect love diminishes fear perceptibly.”
God is love and God loves us. Because God loves us, we are able to love each other. We have that capacity because of God’s love. When fear arises, when it threatens us we have a very powerful weapon at our disposal and that is love. Love sends fear running for cover.
Love in response to fear is something we have to work at. In general the world does not respond in love when afraid. In fact in our biology we are programmed for that “fight or flight” response when presented with fear. When I’m afraid I often have the tendency to lash out. I feel like a cat in a corner- hissing and scratching at anyone that comes near- my only job is to protect myself from harm. Lashing out- my fight response only breads more fear. The only way to stop fear in its tracks is to channel some of that love from inside myself that God put there. Perfect love casts our fear.
*In 1955 a young black boy from Chicago went to visit family near Money, Mississippi. Emmett Till went with his cousins to a store called Bryant’s and made the mistake of whistling at the white female store owner.
Three days later in the middle of the night some white men showed up at Emmett’s uncle’s house and demanded to see the boy from the store. The uncle pleaded with the men to whip the boy- to give him a break because he was from the North and didn’t know any better. But the men took the boy- beat him badly and killed him. Emmett was found by a young boy fishing three days later floating in the Tallahatchee River- he had a heavy piece of equipment from a cotton gin tied around his neck.
Emmett’s mother Mamie Till made a powerful decision when his body was returned to her in Chicago. She wanted people to see what had happened to her boy. “What was happening in America at the time was symbolized by what happened to this 14 year old boy,” said one journalist. 50,000 people came by to see Till’s body and the magazine Jett ran pictures of his body. Although Emmett Till isn’t as well-known as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr. it can be said that he sparked the civil rights movement.
The further tragedy of the story is that the two men who took Emmett in the middle of the night, after only five days of trial, were found not guilty.
“When asked if she harbored resentment toward the two white men or whites generally, for the brutal murder of her son in 1955. This is what Emmett’s mother said: It certainly would be unnatural not to hate them, yet I’d have to say I’m unnatural… The Lord gave me a shield, I don’t know how to describe it myself… I did not wish them dead. I did not wish them in jail. If I had to, I could take their four little children- they each had two – and I could raise those children as if they were my own and I could have loved them…I believe that Lord meant what he said, and I try to live according to the way I’ve been taught.”
I believe the only way a grieving mother could love like that is through the strength of God’s own love. We can love because God loved us and came to show us how to love one another.
If we say we love God, but don’t love each other- we are liars the scripture says. The only appropriate response to the powerful and perfect love of God is for us to love each other. I saw a powerful picture in the news recently that speaks to the power of love. In Egypt protestors have been calling for change. Specifically they have been calling for an end to the 30 year reign of Hosni Mubarak (who did step down recently). As military forces were sent to the streets, protesters did not respond with violence, but in an image I won’t soon forget a woman stepped from the crowd to kiss one of the riot policeman.
In that simple act she humanized him. She acknowledged that he was a person and that it wasn’t just a faceless regime that was her opponent. Don’t you think a kiss can be more disarming than a bomb? Acknowledging another person’s humanity is one way to express the love of God. When we do not let our own fear change someone into a non-human monster, then we can truly say that we love God and mean it.
It is my prayer for us this day that we would not let fear dominate our lives. Fear can consume us, turn us into people we don’t wish to be and make it easier for us to hate others. As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day tomorrow, let us celebrate the source and actuality of love. God’s love for us, expressed most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, has the power to dispel all the fear in the world. It is up to each one of us to grab a hold of that love, and express it to others- not allowing fear to overtake us. God’s perfect love casts out fear. May we live in that love now and always. Amen.
*I gathered my information on Emmett Till from the New Interpreter's Bible commentary on the scripture referenced above and also from a wonderful PBS documentary called, "American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till." I highly recommend it!