“What Are You Afraid Of?”

Delivered by Ruling Elder James Parks, August 13, 2017

Psalm 22: 1-5, 19-26; Matthew 14:22-33

In the movie “Monsters Inc.” the fictional city of Monstropolis is literally fueled by the screams of frightened human children. Ironically, the monsters who are best at scaring the children are terrified of them. It is common knowledge in Monstropolis that human children are “poisonous.” Their very presence threatens to contaminate the purity of the city that the monsters have worked so tirelessly to maintain.

It is not until someone inadvertently brings an actual human child into their world that the story of these dreaded others begins to unravel. As it does, the fear-based economy of Monstropolis is revealed to be unstable. By capitalizing on unfounded fears and painting outsiders as infectious others, the monsters had unknowingly denied a power source deeper and far more renewing—love and laughter.

In today’s world, we’re all afraid of something. If you’re not afraid, you haven’t been paying attention.

We are afraid because new polls show race relations are worse now than in the 1990s. We are afraid because 3 people are dead after white nationalist groups marched in Charlottesville spewing hate and racism. We are afraid because four days ago, a store employee was gunned down in a robbery next door in Edmondson Village, leaving one more family to grieve.

We are afraid because the man in the White House and the dictator in North Korea are playing “my nuke is bigger than your nuke.” We are afraid because the powers that be, including TV News, tell us we must be scared of every Muslim, Mexican or young black male we see. We are afraid because the price of everything is going up, but wages are stuck in neutral. We are afraid because liberals and conservatives are going spastic over every aspect of public policy and neither side is willing to even consider that the other side is not evil incarnate, much less talk to each other.

We are afraid because there is a new dangerous disease discovered every week and there is a new computer game where you have to commit suicide to win. We are afraid because of the opioid and heroin epidemic. We are afraid because police are killing unarmed people and armed people are killing police. Not to mention Afghanistan, Cameroon, Syria and Ukraine.

And there are our personal fears: How many of you have said to yourself “I’m too old, too fat, too out of touch with the fast pace of technological change, too bored with my job, too tired to do anything but sleep and too stressed to get to sleep. My finances are a mess, I’ll never get ahead and my boss hates me.” We have our phobias—fear of water, fear of heights, closed rooms, darkness, loneliness.

It is normal to be afraid. Fear is one of the first emotions we learn. Psychologists say babies are born with only two natural fears: falling and loud noises. Everything else is learned. Some fears are necessary to warn us of impending danger. My almost three-year-old grandson knows the meaning of the word “hot” so he doesn’t touch something that will burn him.

Fear can be powerfully creative. Fear of the dark, for example, led to the discovery of electricity and the light bulb. Fear of pain led to advances in medical science. So some amount of fear is normal and necessary for our survival.

Fear also can lead you into some very dark corners of your soul. If you dig real deep and admit what causes you to get angry, to hate, to covet, to want to kill or to actually murder, you will find fear at the root.

In today’s texts, we see two very different responses to fear. In the Psalm, the writer is pleading with God—“why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

But as the Psalm goes on, the writer praises God’s consistency—“in you our ancestors trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved.” Finally, after starting out pleading with God, the psalmist ends up praising God—“he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. From you comes my praise in the great congregation.”

Contrast that with what Peter does when he sees Jesus walking towards him on the sea. Just the day before the disciples had seen God’s power manifested through Jesus when he fed the 5,000. At the end of the day Jesus sent the disciples out to sleep on a boat while he went off to pray.

Now the point of this story for me is not that Jesus was walking on water. Theologians have argued for centuries whether he performed a miracle or if it was low tide or if he found stones under the water to walk on.

That doesn’t matter. To me the point of the story is Peter’s reaction. How quickly he forgot the lessons from the day before. He doesn’t believe what he sees, so he tests Jesus—“if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” When Jesus complies, Peter starts walking towards Jesus, until…Until the wind, which had been strong the night before, whips up again. So what does Peter do?  He stops. Think about this for a minute. Jesus, himself, whom Peter sees, has told him he can walk over to him. But the first ill wind comes and Peter stops and begins to sink. He cries out for Jesus to save him and Jesus reaches out to rescue him.

How often have we asked God to help us walk across troubled waters and when God answers, we do what God says until that first ill wind blows and then we panic and sink? Doubt and fear creep in and we figure we know better than God and we stop in the middle of the water.

When I was doing research for this sermon, I found out that in the Bible fear is considered a sin. It’s not a minor fault, but a full-blown, big time sin. Revelations 21:8 says

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

Why is fear such a bad thing?  Jesus gives us a hint when he says to Peter “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

Fear causes us to doubt God’s power and love. That’s why it is a sin. As long as Peter kept his focus on Jesus, he could do the impossible, but once he began walking by his own sight, fear took over. Under its control, he was no longer able to do the impossible.

So how do we conquer fear?

As Christians, we are committed to love God and others as much as we love ourselves. And there is where the secret of overcoming our fears lie. It will take honesty, courage, faith and love.

First, we have to be brutally honest with ourselves and others about our own fears. When we focus on our fears, we separate ourselves from God by denying God’s power to move us beyond our present circumstances. We put more faith in our money, our doctors, our employers and our auto mechanic than we do in God. We take our mechanic’s word that our car is fixed, pay him and drive away. But how often do we question God when we are asked to love our neighbor, forgive and pray for those who hurt us?

In their book, The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama point out that we have set our priorities on the wrong things. Our fears lead us to have unrealistic expectations and ambitions. Right from the beginning we focus on what we want, what we need, what we can get. It’s a selfish attitude. When we get it, we find out whatever we thought we wanted is not enough and we go after more which still doesn’t give us what we want.

We are trapped in a web of fears. How, in God’s name, do we get out of this web?

We cannot stop bad things from happening to us. Darkness is a part of life, but we as Christians have a choice of whether to let the darkness overwhelm us or to choose to see the light. So our task is not to eliminate fear but to find a way to turn it into light.

One way to put your fear in perspective is to understand that whatever you’re afraid of, whatever you’re going through, somebody else is going through the same thing. God is not picking on you. Stop worrying about yourself and start thinking about how you can help other people who are in the same boat as you are.

Researchers have found that being generous and helping others actually stimulates the same brain centers as receiving an unexpected gift. It also produces a protein antibody that the immune system uses. Doing good actually helps you feel better.

So if you’re having money problems, think for a minute about helping the nearly one half of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — who live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live on less than $1.25 a day.

If you’re sick and worried about your health, think about what you can do for the 36.7 million people globally who were living with HIV at the end of 2016.

 

God does not abandon those who fear. But God does promise to walk with you. God even promises to walk with us through our biggest fear—the fear of death.  Think about what power all your fears have over you—fear of rejection, fear of physical harm, fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of not being loved—all of them are mini-versions of being afraid to die and thinking that nobody cares. But God cares. God loves you just the way you are—unconditionally.

 

It’s kind of like the love that Florida Georgia Line sings about in their hit song “God, Your Mama and Me”:

Never gonna run dry, never gonna come up empty
Now until the day I die, unconditionally
You know I’m always gonna be here for ya
No one’s ever gonna love you more than
God, your mama, and me

God has promised that through Christ death, darkness and destruction have been overcome. There’s nothing the forces of darkness can do to you that is beyond God’s power.

Every Sunday some congregation, sometimes even here, says these words in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” If you believe that, why are you afraid of death?

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou are with me.” If you believe that, why are you afraid of death?

When you know that God has your back no matter what happens on this side and the other side of life, you feel this amazing freedom. You are free to be what God intended for you to be, not what society tells you that you ought to be. You are free to do things that make your life meaningful.

When he turned 38, Martin Luther King Jr., said:

You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid…. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer…. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand.

Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.

A year later at the age of 39, King was killed. Where would we be now if he had lived his life hiding from death?

To overcome fear, we need courage. Having courage does not mean you are not afraid. Instead it means that you go on despite being afraid. It reminds me of a Joan Baez song that was popular in the 1960s civil rights movement:

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Gonna build a brand new world

Ain’t gonna let the administration turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let the administration turn me around
Keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Gonna build a brand new world

Along with honesty and courage, the two most important antidotes for fear are love and faith.

Every Sunday we proclaim in word and song that God is in control of history and that the Christ is God’s promise of the ultimate goodness and fulfillment of all things. But do we believe it?

God has promised that all Her children are supposed to have a full, abundant life, that we do not have to accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction.  If you believe that, what are you afraid of?

God has promised that war and hatred will end and one day peace will be the rule.   If you believe that, what are you afraid of?

God has promised that the low will be made high and the high shall be made low.  If you believe that, what are you afraid of?

Once you give up your fears and make the choice to live in faith, your life changes forever. You are transformed. When you have a real encounter with God and let divine love consume you, then you experience a peace that cannot be explained. You are loved by the creator of Love with a capital “L.” God’s love heals the bleeding soul.

Love casts out fear. 1 John 4:18 says:

 

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

 

Fear creates otherness. Love reclaims the other. One of fear’s powers is its ability to dehumanize other people and blame them for your problems. Love has the power to help you reclaim the foreigner, the alien, and the outcast as brother or sister. Monsters, Inc. reminds us that, while fear often fuels our individual and corporate lives, it is fundamentally limited. Love, on the other hand, knows no bounds, for it draws upon a different source of power altogether.

When we are filled with God’s love we want to share it with others who are outside our immediate world. To do that means we have to look at the society we live in honestly and admit how the society is structured especially in ways that favor certain groups of God’s children over others.

That means we must admit that the bigotry and hatred we  saw on display in Charlottesville over the last three days is a sign of how deeply engrained are the irrational fears of some who think they can drown out the inevitable march to justice through violence and intimidation. As the Body of Christ we must stand up and declare racism and xenophobia as sins and heed God’s call for us to do something about it. We can begin right here in Baltimore, one of the most segregated cities in the country. According to The Wall Street Journal:

The Baltimore—Columbia—Towson metro area is one of the most segregated places in the United States. Roughly half of the area’s white population lives in predominantly white neighborhoods, just as 41.6% of the area’s black population lives in predominantly black neighborhoods.

As is the case in many of the most segregated cities, Baltimore’s present day racial division is the product of a long history of racist policies designed to keep white neighborhoods white. In 1910, it was illegal for a black family to move to a block where over half of all residents were white, and vise-versa. As recently as the 1970s, the Baltimore County executive made it a priority to keep black families out of the county. Segregation does not stop at housing, and in fact contributes to most aspects of life, including poverty, education, police practices, and public order.

We are social animals. We need each other to reach our goals, to fulfill our dreams and to grow and learn. As Christians we see the face of Christ in everyone and we remember that God is at the helm and no matter what happens, in the end it will be alright.

But unlike Peter we have to keep walking the walk of love, the walk of reaching out to our neighbors, the walk towards a world where everyone has an abundant life, where love, not hate, rules.

We will have hardships—everybody does. God through Jesus teaches us to see our problems as challenges and opportunities to do good, to serve, to reconcile.

I will end with the words of Bruno Mars in his song “Move On.” I don’t know what he meant when he wrote this, but to me, it sounds like he’s talking to God in a way that we all should:

 

How do I end up in the same old place
Faced again with the same mistakes
So stubborn, thinking I know what is right
But life proves me wrong every time

Taking roads that lead me nowhere,
How do I expect to get there
But when will I learn to just put you first

I come to you now when I need you
But why do I wait to come see you
I always try to do this on my own
But I was wrong, cause only with you
Can I move on (can I move on)

 

But I was wrong, cause only with you
Can I move on (can I move on)

 

 

Amen.

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