Fear and Faith

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Genesis 15:1-6 and Luke 12:32-40.

The word of the Lord came to Abram, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

“Do not be afraid.”

There seems to be a lot of fear going around these days.

The other day I saw a letter to the editor that someone had linked through their Facebook page, and the gist of the letter was “Aren’t you afraid of what would happen if this candidate were elected to this office? Doesn’t it worry you that this candidate has done so many bad things? Doesn’t it make you fear what they would do if they got elected? And won’t you support my candidate because you’re so afraid of the other one?”

What made this letter remarkable to me was not what it said about the candidates, but the fact that I had just seen virtually the same letter written from the other side, using the same fear tactic to try to whip up support for the other candidate. And it struck me then how much it seems that all our public discourse these days is being driven by fear.

Yet the scriptures say “Do not be afraid.”

And it’s not just our public discourse, but maybe even our entire public life. Dwight Zscheile, in his book The Agile Church, writes:

If I were to summarize in one word the predominant shift affecting contemporary American religion and spirituality, it would be choice. So many aspects of human life that in previous eras were decided for us are now matters of individual discretion. Everything from what career to pursue, to where to live, to one’s social and political affiliations, and even one’s sexual identity is now a matter of ongoing discernment and self-discovery in ways unimaginable to previous generations. We live in a highly mobile world, where the stability provided by generations of extended family living in close proximity over time is now frequently disrupted by economic displacement, desire for new opportunities, or the seeking of different experiences far from home. The idea of “home” has itself become highly provisional – something that must be identified and constructed (if it exists at all) rather than inherited as a touchstone of who we are. (15-16)

The upshot of this fluidity and choice, Zscheile says, is anxiety:

Massive unease lies below all this. With no fixed anchors of identity and belonging, there is little security. Life in late-modern culture requires a kind of denial or exclusion of the deeper questions of death, meaning, and purpose. We are haunted by the threat of meaninglessness and obsessed with security … because our way of life is profoundly insecure at a much more basic level. (18)

Zscheile says that in modern American life we are having to reinvent ourselves all the time, always make a case for why we deserve to be here – and that can lead to a lot of anxiety about getting it right. That make can make us feel very afraid of having anything go wrong.

Yet the scriptures say “Do not be afraid.”

And sometimes it’s not even our public life: sometimes it’s personal. I’ve known people who have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder; but even those of us who don’t have a diagnosis can still experience a debilitating anxiety, a being-afraid of things that can keep us from being our best.

I saw not long ago an article about what it is like to live with “high-functioning anxiety.” The author said

It’s when you’re social enough to get invited to things, but so often find yourself standing in a room where it feels like no one knows you. It’s being good at conversation and bad at making close friends because you only show up when you feel “well” enough. Only text back when you feel ready. Because you’re afraid they’d hate you if they really knew you. … Even though sometimes you do everything right … you’re still left with racing thoughts, the panic, the feeling that you’re not good enough.

I know I’ve felt like that from time to time. I wonder how many of us have inwardly felt that afraid, even though outwardly we seem to be functioning just fine?

So the scriptures say, “Do not be afraid.”

And it’s very important that we recognize what our scriptures today offer in the place of fear. When they say “Do not be afraid,” what is it that they offer instead?

We might expect the opposite of fear to be courage, bravery, derring-do, the strength of self-will to stand up and make yourself go forward.

But that’s not what they say at all. When our readings today say “Do not be afraid,” what they offer in the place of fear is God. God says to Abram, “Do not be afraid: I am your shield.” Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not be afraid: it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” What the scriptures offer as the opposite of fear is faith.

And these readings today get pretty specific about the qualities of this faith. It is a faith that is based on experience. And it is a faith that leads to action.

When God shows Abram the stars of the sky and says “That’s how many descendants you will have,” and Abram believes God, that is a very well informed belief. It’s not just an unquestioning acceptance or what we would call a “blind” faith. At this point in the story Abram and Sarai have been following God for about twenty years. They have seen for themselves that God promised them a land – and they’ve been living in the land. God promised them blessing – and they have been blessed with flocks and herds and servants and really quite a large household community that has gathered around them and shared and rejoiced with them. They’ve seen for themselves how God’s promises tend to come to pass – even if at the time they have no idea how they’ll come to pass. They’ve seen enough to know that God can be trusted.

So when God says to Abram “Do not be afraid, you will have descendants,” Abram knows from experience that he can trust that word. So he believes. And his faith that comes from experience rescues him from fear.

And faith that rescues us from fear also leads us into action. When Jesus reassures his disciples that it is God’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom, the next thing he says is “Sell your possessions. Give alms. Have treasure in heaven. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit. Be ready to welcome your Master when he comes.” The kind of faith to which Jesus calls his disciples is not just a sitting-back and waiting for God to do what God will do. The kind of faith to which Jesus calls is what opens the door to getting out there and doing with God what God wants done.

And what I find it so amazing in this teaching is that Jesus says when the Master comes home from the wedding banquet, and the servants open the door, it is the Master who will tell the servants to sit down while the Master brings the feast to them. If you know anything about how the servant economy of the first-century Middle East used to work, this image of the Master serving the servants is outrageous, it’s unheard-of. But it is Jesus’ chosen symbol for revealing how God and we work together. It’s not just that we put on a feast for God; it’s not just that God puts on a feast for us; but God calls us to be co-creators, so that God’s work and our work work together to make wonderful things happen.

That’s what we’re doing in this Eucharist, where our work works with God to make this sacrament. And that’s what we’re called to do in the world, where our work works with God to bring forth justice, peace, and love wherever we can.

And faith is what allows us to do this work with God. Faith gives us the experience to recognize how God’s promises work out. Faith frees us from debilitating fear so we can get up and do what we see God is doing. Faith is what happens when we truly hear God say “Do not be afraid.”

And where can your faith make a difference? Where can your faith go beyond the fear that so often grips our public and our private lives? Where does your experience teach you God is working, and where does your trust in God’s work make you able to work in love too?

“Do not be afraid,” the scriptures say to us today. Let us wake up from the nightmare of fear, and let us act in faith for God’s dream for us all. Amen.