Wednesday, September 09, 2015

September 6, 2015 A Faith That Is Stronger Than Fear

September 6, 2015
I John 4:7-19

On Tuesday evening of this past week I was in Georgetown, Indiana for our weekly band rehearsal.  Usually, it’s a late night for me, but I was pleased that we ended earlier than usual and I could get home at a decent hour, even with the bridge construction traffic in Louisville.  As I drove down Perry’s long, gravel driveway, something felt wrong with my car, as though it were sinking into the gravel.  When I got to the end of his driveway and onto the pavement of the road, I knew immediately what it was – a flat tire.  Perry’s driveway had not flat space to be able to change the tire, but thankfully, it was a very short distance to the next driveway, which was long and flat and had a streetlight at the end.  I pulled into that driveway, with a couple of the other cars pulling in behind me to help, and started changing the tire.  It wasn’t long before the man who lived in the house at the end of the driveway came out to see what was going on.  By that point, I had the flat tire removed and was putting it where it belonged, on the back of my rear door.  The man who lived at the end of the driveway picked up the spare, slid it onto the hub, and began twisting the bolts on.  I thought it was very kind of him to help, and I began to say a prayer for him – Lord, bless this guy for his kindness.  Bless him, please.  I told him he didn’t need to help, as the tire was dirty and it was still very muggy outside.  He didn’t need to get dirty and sweaty, I told him; I was grateful to be able to change my tire in his driveway.  He said he didn’t mind at all, and besides, I’m a lot younger than you so I should be the one changing the tire.  Well, with that comment I edited my prayer a bit.  I still asked God to bless him for his kind help, but maybe not quite as much!

Throughout the week I’ve wondered why his words discouraged me?  Probably because they were true, and sometimes we fear the truth.  He was younger than me, and the truth is that there are more and more people younger than me and fewer and fewer who are older than me.  His words touched on my fears of ageing – am I as relevant as I once was?  What will happen to me as I get older? 

This morning’s message is about fear – specifically about A Faith That Is Stronger Than Fear.

We are all familiar with the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  We have nothing to fear but fear itself?  Really?  Isn’t that a bit na├»ve?  There are plenty of things of which we might be justifiably afraid, and, in fact, we rightly teach our children to fear certain things.  We tell them to look both ways before they cross the street and in doing so instill in them a healthy fear of the dangers of traffic.  Fear is not always something to, well, fear.  But the real question is how much we will allow fear to consume and control our lives.

Our Scripture text for this morning comes from I John 4:7-19, with one verse in particular shaping this message –

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.
10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.
14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.
15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
16 We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
17 By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world.
18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.
19 We love, because He first loved us.

I have to admit that there is some amount of irony any time I speak about overcoming fears.  Not that I want to put myself on the psychological couch this morning, but I have spent a lot of my life consumed by many fears.  There was even a time, early in my ministry, when I wondered if entering into ministry was itself a way to force myself to overcome specific fears.

When I speak to new, or younger ministers, I often tell them they must be on guard against fear.  Ministry, I remind them, can be damaged by our fears and insecurities, and in many ways will prey upon those fears.

But it’s certainly not just ministers.  In some way, fear is driving your life, today, and most every day.  It might be in your job.  Maybe things aren’t going well.  Maybe you go to work and wonder if you will still have a job at the end of the day.  Maybe it’s your marriage.  Maybe you wonder if you’ll still have a spouse at the end of the day.  Maybe it’s your kids or grandkids, fearing for the future, or their present.  Maybe it’s a fear of what the doctor is going to tell you when the tests results come back.  There are so many things in our lives that make fear an ever-present reality in our lives, and that fear is always lurking just below the surface, manipulating and controlling us without us even being aware.

John says that perfect love casts out fear.  Is it possible to live without fear?  Perhaps the question of whether or not we can live without fear is not the right question.  Perhaps the greater question is – can we live, empowered by the love and power of God, without the tyranny of fear?  You’ve most likely heard the saying that courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it.  In the same way, I believe, we can say that faith is not the absence of fear; it is the ability to overcome fear.

Let’s consider a few things about fear.

Fear is controlling and destroying our world.
I was thinking the other morning about the terrible tragedy of the murder of those nine souls worshipping at Emanuel AME Church Charleston, South Carolina.  Many commented on the hatred that moved Dylann Roof to commit that heinous crime.  It was not, however, just hatred that moved Dylann Roof to murder.  Hate was the outward evidence of the crime, but there was something deeper than even hate, and it was fear.

Before anyone can hate another human being, before they can be moved to harm another person, they must first fear that person.  This means that the oldest weapon in the arsenal of humanity is not the sword, not the bow, not even the brute, raw force of a fist used as a club.  It is fear.

Fear becomes a very effective tool, and an effective weapon, because one does not have to raise a fist, or a bow, or a gun; one only has to sow the seeds of fear in another human heart.  When that seed has taken root it grows and crowds out the empathy, compassion, and love that is far healthier not only for the heart and soul, but for all of humanity.

Fear becomes a powerful weapon when we are told be afraid of this candidate, be afraid of this group, be afraid of this person, because they will take over our neighborhoods, take away our jobs, restrict our rights, or commit some greater atrocity against us.  When we sow fear we till the ground of the heart for a harvest of hatred and harm. The seed is fear, but when it has taken root in our soul, it springs through the soil of our humanity and grows to a terrible harvest.

Fear over people’s reaction to our faith.
I read an article the other day from the London Telegraph in which two religious figures claimed that publicly identifying with any religion has become an “act of courage” in many western countries because believers are now routinely assumed to be “naive, unsophisticated and narrow minded” (according to Britain's most senior Jewish and Roman Catholic clerics).

“In many places to be a person of faith can be, in and of itself, an act of courage,” they explained.
“To confess your belief in God no longer commands universal respect for a deep commitment to a lofty ideal, self-discipline and moral conviction.
“In many societies you are more likely to be dismissed as naive, unsophisticated and narrow minded.
“As such, when a view is expressed which is informed by one’s faith on issues such as assisted dying, the value of family life or social responsibility, that view is often treated with scepticism, as though it is somehow less rational or ill-founded.
“And all of this amid the alarming increase in the brazen persecution of Christian, Muslim and Jewish minorities which has become one of the most pressing and shameful issues of our time.

Perhaps that is true in some places, and if it is, I don’t care.  I couldn’t care less what people think of me because I am religious.  When I was a teenager I was often harassed – and sometimes bullied – because of my faith and didn’t like it, but it didn’t stop me.  We often speak about the peer pressure that teenagers face, but the reality is that we all feel the pressure of the opinions of our peers.  But we should never be afraid of what anyone thinks of us because of our faith.  And it’s not just individuals, as churches sometimes often operate out of fear.  In our day and age there is a great deal of fear and anxiety in churches, which keeps them from their mission and calling.

There is so much fear among people these days as our world is changing, and they fear the impact it will have on their faith.  Perhaps this is what is at the root of all the talk about religious liberty these days.  I am going to wander into an area this morning that touches on this subject, but before I do I remind you that we are a Disciples church, and in a Disciples church we understand it is not necessary to agree with one another to be able to walk together in faith.  Disciples churches believe we can have different opinions and can disagree – without being disagreeable in the process.  In fact, I sometimes joke about how we operate as Disciples by paraphrasing a passage of Scripture – where there are two or three Disciples gathered together, you’ll find five or six opinions (paraphrased from Matthew 18:20 – For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.)  If you disagree with what I am about to say, that is certainly your right, and feel free to do so, and to let me know, if you so desire.

Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk, was jailed a few days ago because of her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  People keep asking me what I think about this, so I’ll tell you what I think.  I admire the determination that would compel someone to be willing to go to jail for her beliefs, and I hope that I would have the courage to go to jail for what I believe.  And I think there are times it is important to stand up and be willing to go to jail, as many have done throughout our history.  But no one has infringed upon Kim Davis’ religious liberty.  She is not in jail for what she believes or for how she practices her faith – she is in jail because of her refusal to act in accordance with the law, as she is supposed to do as an elected official.  If her job clashed with her religious beliefs, she can resign from her job.  I understand that can bring about a financial hardship, but that, to me, would be the proper course of action.  This is, to me, more of a spiritual question than a political one, and I take my views from the manner in which Jesus and the early church did ministry.  Jesus asked us to take up our crosses and to follow him; he did not ask us to place that cross on someone else (Matthew 16:24-25 – 24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it).  Likewise, the early church did not use the power of government to accomplish their purposes, and if we would desire the church to use the power of government to further our mission and our purpose it will only serve to weaken the church and to diminish the power of our message.

The fear of God not doing what we want.
I would never minimize the struggles of anyone, but sometimes we forget how blessed we are.  When I opened my closet to get something to wear today I had ample choices.  When I walked into our kitchen to have breakfast, I opened our pantry and refrigerator and found them fully stocked.  I did not face what so many in our world face, which is where will I find food for the day?  Instead, my question was how can I eat less today in order to maintain good health because overeating is such a temptation?

Would my faith survive the loss of blessing?  How much of our faith is tied to our station in life?  If I were to experience just a portion of what Job experienced, would my faith survive?  It’s easy to believe when life is going well, but what happens when it is not?  If I were to lose my health, my job, my home, my freedom, what would happen to my faith?

It is hard to watch the news reports of the refugees flooding through Europe.  They are people whose lives have been uprooted in ways that we cannot imagine, and very few have experienced anything that comes close to such difficulty.  Imagine what it would be like to flee from your home with only what you can carry.

Many of us saw the heart-wrenching picture of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach near Istanbul, Turkey.  He and his family boarded a small rubber raft for the perilous journey to Greece and then beyond find a better life.  When that boat capsized, he and his brother and mother drowned.  Imagine the grief of the husband and father.  Over 11 million people have now been displaced by the war in Syria.  11 million.  Let that number sink in for a moment.

All of us pray that we would never have to face such difficulties, but we must remember that the purpose of prayer is not to pry something out of God, but to bring us to the acceptance of his will.  Prayer is not a magical formula.  Many of our prayers are lists of what we would like God to do.  If we make prayer into a formula for what we want, we set people up to be disappointed with God.  Prayer “works” when it brings us to an acceptance of God’s will.  Remember that the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was that God’s will be done (Matthew 26:39 – And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”)

Fear is a very real presence in our lives, but it does not have to be the controlling presence in our lives.  The good news of the gospel is that perfect love will conquer fear.  If your future looks uncertain, there is always a future, even after life on this earth is complete.  God always makes provision, somehow, and God holds the future – and us – in his hands.

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