Tuesday, August 23, 2016

No Fear

A sermon delivered at Heritage Baptist Church, Wake Forest, NC on July 31, 2016

About twenty years ago, I heard a sermon on the passage I am preaching about today. I knew this passage because verse 7 was one of the first lines I’d ever memorized: Let us love one another, because love is from God. It was in needlepoint and hanging on my mom and dad’s bedroom wall—it still is, too.  But that sermon I heard one day when I was driving from Raleigh to Forest City or vice versa was the first I’d ever encountered the phrase “Perfect love casts out fear.” It seems to be an odd thing here in the midst of talking about love, God’s love, that fear should enter the picture at all.

Fear is something that is common to each of us. In fact, some fears are so great that we have to dig into the Greek and call them phobias. If you go to the website, phobialist.com, you can see hundreds of phobias—real fears. 

Barophobia- Fear of gravity

Cathisophobia- Fear of sitting

Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia- Fear of long words

Homilophobia- Fear of sermons

These aren’t small terrors—they are fears that debilitate. I thought I had a fear of heights, but it isn’t a phobia. When I was in Petra in Jordan in 2001, I was walking with a couple of friends to a place called the monastery. To get there you have to walk along a ledge that is probably 15 feet wide, but has a hundred foot drop off on the left. And in Jordan, they aren’t worried about putting up rails like in the US. My friend Heather could not get close to that pathway. She folded up and would not move. We had to leave her to wait. And I’d always thought I was scared of heights.

Phobias are psychological. But there are many more fears that we each have at some point in our lives. As babies we are afraid when we can’t find our parents—who are probably in the next room. As children we fear the dark or thunderstorms or monsters under the bed. Will we make friends at the new school? Will I be able to find all my classes? Will I get teased? Will I say the right thing? What was that scary sound outside my window? I’d better work on this paper or I’ll get a bad grade. Will my roommate be normal? Do I have enough money this month? Those are all pretty personal. 

There is another list that reads: ISIS, the economy, terrorism, Zika Virus, failing schools, global warming, and shark attacks. These fears get the news coverage and if we weren’t afraid before, then we are now. Fears in the media can create panic, hysteria. Those fears can make us feel hopeless and defeated and scared to step outside our door into the world. The media doesn’t help. According to psychologists: 

“Watching the news can be a psychologically risky pursuit, which could undermine your mental and physical health. Fear-based news stories prey on the anxieties we all have and then hold us hostage. Being glued to the television, reading the paper or surfing the Internet increases ratings and market shares - but it also raises the probability of depression relapse.”[1]

So I guess we can add watching the news to the list of our fears as well. All the stirred up fear leads to more fear. Kind of like the way you feel when you eat candy all day. You feel bad. Just one piece more leads to that sick feeling. Stirring up fear inside of us is the spiritual equivalent of eating candy all day long.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

Fear and punishment. Not a deserved punishment necessarily, but something that is going to be bad if the fear isn’t overcome. You see the Syrians escaping from the cities they know and fleeing into refugee camps. I mean, look at the pictures of those cities like Homs. Those were modern, cosmopolitan cities. They worked in offices, had their coffee every morning. Their kids went to school, took dance lessons, played video games. The streets were safe, until war came. And fear drove them out. Stay and be killed or live in a tent in a land far away.

In our own country, a policeman pulls over a woman. Asks her if she knows why he stopped her. The look of fear on her face even though it is only to offer her an ice cream cone. She didn’t know that though. The fear and terror that I see is a look that suspects the worst and never dreams that it is going to turn out the way it does. 

A girl locks herself away for years so that she won’t harm her sister with her power to freeze things. After the secret is out, the younger one is confident that they don’t have to live in fear, that love can be the answer. And it is in the end—the love between the sisters can break the spell and save the town. Yeah, that was from Frozen, but we like our movies to have that element of love—a love that is going to save us all. It must have been on the mind of our letter writer in our Scripture passage as well. “Perfect love casts out fear.”

One more story though: A boy is 8 years old when he and his sister are brought to the United States by their mother and father. They overstay their visas and live under the radar. The parents work. The boy keeps his sister quiet after school and out of sight of the neighbors. Even as he grows into his teenage years, there is a signal that his parents work out to warn him that they have been taken by immigration officials. He lives in fear, every day, that their lives in this country will be turned upside down. Yet to go back to his country, a place where he does not even understand the language, where martial law is in place, is an unthinkable fear far greater than the daily one he faces. When the boy is grown, he falls in love and at some point has to tell his girlfriend that he is undocumented, illegal. But that girl knows that their true citizenship is in heaven and it doesn’t matter to her either—cause she is in love with him, too. In their first year of marriage, she applies to get him permanent resident status. She also hears a sermon on the radio that is the first time she has ever encountered “perfect love casts out fear.” She takes his wedding band and has the words engraved because it is true.

Now the words actually say, “Love casts out all fear” because that girl was theologically smart enough to know that perfect is something only God can do. 

That’s the key, isn’t it? We can’t ever create a perfect love ourselves. In our relationships, there is always some hurt, some disappointment, some betrayals that keep love from being perfect. Perfect love isn’t something that we as humans can do ourselves. Only one human ever had perfect love, and he was divine as well as human—which is the only way that Jesus could ever have perfect love: a perfect love for those children, those misguided disciples, that woman who was an outcast, the Pharisees that wanted to entrap, the Roman soldier who came to arrest, his own murderers shouting “Crucify Him!” And through it all, perfect love was all that Jesus ever showed us. Jesus is our perfect picture of love. 

When this letter of First John was written, Christians had not yet been under persecution. It was coming in the next decade or so, but the tiny little sect of Christians were still under the radar of the powers that be. The writer of this epistle really wants to have those early Christians understand the nature of God’s love. And it was a foreign concept to the early converts around Ephesus—the place that most scholars believe this letter was intended to be read. Ephesus has a Greek culture—as most places in the “known” world of that time. The religion was based on the Greek gods and later the Roman variations of those gods. Greek mythology was lacking an understanding of a deity that loved humanity. Sure the Greek gods interacted with humans in the stories, but it was for short-lived affairs and nearly always went on to explain how something in the world worked—which is the point of a mythology.  
The culture in the first century was new to the concept of one Supreme Being who loved humanity. Even the hints that are in the monotheistic Jewish religion still were developing a God who loves. Christianity pushed that idea into the forefront primarily with those stories of Jesus—both divine and human—who loved everyone he met. Jesus is the model for those early Christians in how to act toward their neighbors. Jesus is the model in dealing with enemies and friends. Jesus is the model for when we are content and agitated, happy and sad, calm and fearful. The stories of how Jesus was calm in the Garden of Gethsemene at his arrest. How Jesus was silent before Pilate. How Jesus went to his death at Golgotha. The divinity of Jesus lets us know that sure he must have known the outcome. But Jesus was human as well. And we know Jesus felt the range of emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear. Yet Jesus’ death was one where we can see perfect love in action. 

Jesus has been our model throughout the years. As the persecutions of Christians began in the decades after our text was written, there are stories after stories about Christians going to their deaths yet they are elevated to sainthood because they didn’t show fear. Later, during reformation, the Anabaptists were tortured and burned in much the same ways. Yet they all seem to go to their martyrdom willingly. 

We are not being called to lay down our lives here in this country where we have free worship of God. But we are still called to be like Jesus. To create relationships with others. To love our neighbors—indeed everyone—and offer them respect and understanding and compassion and justice and mercy—just as we have been offered by God. It sometimes takes a lot of work to see past our prejudices and the stigmas we attach to certain situations. We cannot automatically think terrorists when we see a woman in a hijab. We cannot automatically think thug when we see an African-American boy walking down the street. We cannot automatically think loser when we see the homeless man with a sign at the intersection. We cannot automatically think pervert when we see two people of the same gender holding hands in public. Terrorist, thug, loser, pervert are not in Jesus’ vocabulary; and Jesus is not fearful of the people he encounters on our streets today. Our call is to get to know our neighbor: to see their humanity, to understand their situations, to have relationship with one another. That is the job of love. 

Perfect love is what connects us to God. Our imperfect love is what connects us to one another.

In the 1960s, there was a song, most popularly sung by Dionne Warwick, that says:

What the world needs now is love sweet love,
It's the only thing that there's just too little of.
What the world needs now is love sweet love,
No not just for some but for everyone.

I happen to be a big fan of music from the 1960s. And it seems like this world is in the same kind of chaos that it was in those 50 years ago. No matter how this decade, or even this year, is going to end; we still need love to overcome fear. Love to cast out all fear. For Perfect love to cast out fear. We here in this place know the secret is holding fast to the love of God and following the example of Jesus’ life. It is our call to live out loud in full knowledge of that Love.

There is no fear in God. Fear and the realm of God are complete opposites. Our hard work is to stay hopeful.  To keep setting aside the unnecessary fear, taking a deep breath, and returning ourselves to peace, patience, and an open mind.  
This day, may grace keep opening our ears to each other, and making us deaf to stirred up fear. May hope keep our hearts alive, to God and each other.  May love keep us attentive to the realm of God among us.  
Let us pray:

God, builder of new connections and unseen gifts,
teach our hearts to respond more deeply 
to your purposes, we pray.
Make us calm before the voices of anxiety, panic and rage.    
Settle your Spirit to brood within us and among us,
forming us in wisdom and compassion, 
immune to false fears and alert to grace. Amen.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/two-takes-depression/201106/if-it-bleeds-it-leads-understanding-fear-based-media
[2] Mary Austin in “False Fears” at http://us3.campaign-archive2.com/?u=c0807dddec356f1ff98667d7c&id=310ca9655b