September 19, 2021
Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
“Faith and Fear”
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Based on the theme, “Faith Works”
Coral Isles Church
September 19, 2021
MARK 9:30- 37 NRSV
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
What are you most afraid of? A long time ago I heard that public polls said people rated public speaking ahead of dying. I found a recent – 2014 poll – that confirmed this. It didn’t list dying specifically but the first way of dying that I could identify was drowning and that was fourth. Good think I can swim and also talk in public. Just not at the same time. My favorite theologian, Jimmy Buffett, has a song that goes, “no aliens, psychopaths or MTV hosts scares me like vampires, mummies and the Holy Ghost.” So there’s that.
As we have explored different facets of faith and the ways that I believe Scripture shows us that “faith works” this morning I want to look at the relationship between faith and fear. Some would say the two are opposites. Some might point out that older translations of the Bible speak of “the fear of the Lord,” as a sign of faith. More recent ones tend to understand and translate that word more accurately as a kind of “awe” rather than a fear. But given some of the actions attributed to God in the Bible, fear might not be a bad translation in every case.
Our Scripture lesson this morning ties the fear of death with faith in some ways. Jesus again tells the disciples he will be betrayed and killed – and again promises he will rise again after 3 days. This shook up the disciples. Mark reports “they did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him.” So was their fear a lack of faith? Fear can certainly challenge us to have faith in God’s promises and God’s love. How can we move from fear to greater faith?
Notice that the Scripture immediately pivots from this discussion about death and fear to a discussion about who is the greatest disciple. Pretty typical of the disciples really. They almost always confused. Jesus would say go to the left and they would immediately turn right. Jesus answers the question of who is greatest by giving them two measures: the one who willingly serves others and the one who welcomes a child welcomes Jesus and “the one who sent” him. So what does that have to do with faith and fear?
Rev. David Lose, [ davidlose.net, Sept. 14, 2015 ], writes, “I think this week’s reading is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith. Notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his impending crucifixion because they are afraid. And the next thing you know they’re talking about securing their place in the coming kingdom. Fear does that. It both paralyzes you and drives you to look out only for yourself."
Rev. Lose notes that, “Mark contrasts faith and fear” on several occasions. “After Jesus stills the storm that terrified his disciples, he asks them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’(4:40). And as he restores Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father (who had just been told that his daughter was dead), ‘Do not fear, only believe’ (5:36).” Rev. Lose suggests that indeed, “Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is, or at least that kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts, and drives to despair.” A long time ago someone told me something I thought very profound. He said, “fear stands for False Evidence Appearing Real.” In other words fear claims power it doesn’t really have.
Rev. Lose points out that many of our fears, such as, “Fear about being alone, fear about losing a loved one or a relationship ending, anxieties about health or employment, concern for the future of one’s children or grandchildren, dread about the return of mental or physical illness, apprehension for the environment and the world we will leave behind …. [ can ] strip life of pleasure and joy and make it very difficult to be wise and faithful stewards of the present moment and resources with which God has entrusted us.”
Then he says, “Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children.”
In another essay, Rev. Lose wrote, “In the first-century world, as you know, children were of no [value]. Oh, of course, their parents loved them, but they had no rights, no influence, no standing. They were utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless.” I would point out that things haven’t changed. Children have no rights, no power, and adults [mostly men] argue about whether women should give birth to them, whether schools that educate them should teach them actual history, and then they jail them for the most insignificant crimes, especially if they are youth of color. Kinda like we do with adults of color.
“So how could caring for a child count as greatness? It’s crazy. Or is it? Think about it for a minute: What if Jesus is right? I mean, what if we imagined that greatness wasn’t about power and wealth and fame and all the rest, but instead we measured greatness by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others. What kind of world would we live in? Can you imagine if people were regularly trying to out-do each other in their deeds of kindness and service? If there were nationally broadcast competitions to see who was willing to be last so that others could go first? If there were reality TV shows that followed people around as they tried to help as many people as possible? What kind of world would we live in? I don’t know about you, but I think it would be a pretty great world [David Lose, davidlose.net, Sept. 17, 2018].
Of course, we live in a world that continually ignores this path. Seems everyone has caught the “Muhammed Ali bug” insisting that “I am the greatest,” and that this is actually a Christian value. So, Jesus’ point is obviously “counter-cultural.” You all know that. That’s why you are here. You want to be encouraged not to give in to the fear that as invested as you are in serving, loving, and following the example of Jesus Christ, it seems the world around us is doubling down every day if not every hour on the “Crazy Fear” slot in the roulette wheel of life. So is Jesus’ way really about a faith that works, a loser’s path to Loserville?
And that is the problem. As long as we define life in terms of winning and losing, and especially the way so many people today define it, we will live either timidly or we will become obnoxiously self-promoting. Last week I passed a gentleman in the Winn-Dixie with a t-shirt [ and no mask on ] that read: “My rights aren’t limited by your feelings.” Wow. The ramifications of that left me stunned. So 673,000 deaths due to COVID is about my feelings? The reality that hospitals are too full with COVID cases that they cannot serve people with other emergencies is about my feelings? Ok. Shrug. Yea. It’s all about your rights. I have these inner conversations in situations like this. But I manage to check my anger and walk away. SMH.
Where was I? Oh, if it is all about winning and losing we might do a little here or there to serve if it’s good for business. We might love a little here or there, carefully. But it will be hard to give our lives to it. It will be hard to be “all in.” It might even be impossible to really step out there for serving and loving the most vulnerable and least powerful among us. But that’s where faith steps in. That’s where faith steps up.
If we look around there are incredible examples of young people and old people stepping up to do what is right, and good, what serves others instead of the old values of greed, selfishness, and hatred. Rev. Cameron Trimble reminds us that there are great examples in our past of people who stepped out there in faith. In a recent devotional [ Rev. Cameron Trimble, Piloting Faith, Sept. 9. 2021 ] she wrote:
“Hebrews 11:1 says, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ Our world is roiling with movements of people longing to be seen, heard, and treated with respect. Every one of us holds this as our deepest need after the need for food and shelter. Our desire to belong to one another in peaceful community is embedded deeply within the soul of each of us as a Sacred being. As scriptures teach us, we are each other’s keepers.
“The challenge is that in so many of our systems, we feel silenced, invisible, and disrespected.” She suggests that faith invites us to respond to this by taking on “the struggle for others - for the common good. We understand that our struggles are interconnected, our pain and joy shared as One.
In 2012 late Congressman John Lewis published a book called Across That Bridge: A Vision for a Change in the Future of America… [about] his experience in the 1960’s. He writes, ‘They threw everything at us in the 60s in an attempt to deny the validity of our reality. They called us Communists and hippies, outside agitators and troublemakers. They infiltrated us and investigated us. They floated false rumors and negative propaganda. They ran us down with horses and bludgeoned us with Billy clubs and baseball bats. They jailed us, they beat us, they bombed us, and sprayed us with teargas and fire hoses. They even assassinated a president, a candidate, and a King. President John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. were three symbols of hope. They were three men, three leaders who were sensitive to the truth.
‘Those two brothers began their term as President and Attorney General without a real understanding of the problems of race in the South. But through the protest and the demonstrations they came to understand how deeply we suffered. They began to hear the mandate to address the very hypocrisy Dr. King spoke about. These men grew. They changed because of what they experienced, and that is all you can ask of another person. Don’t close your eyes because you’re afraid of what you will see. Be honest in your assessment. Transformation and revelation require an adjustment from what we know to what we know can be.”
Rev. Trimble adds, “Congressman Lewis‘s words speak to all of us, reminding us of the ongoing struggle to build the beloved community. We mustn’t give up on each other. We also mustn’t accept any less than justice and equity for all.”
And it is interesting that the cover of the United Church of Christ desk calendar for this year has on it the verse from Luke 12:32 where Jesus tells his disciples and us – “Do not live in fear, little flock, it has pleased your Creator to give you the kingdom.” I need to reflect on that and ponder that as I often find myself lately feeling that there are negative forces that are seizing the earthly kingdoms by wicked methods with evil intent toward the powerless, the impoverished, and anyone they deem different from them.
Don’t think I’m being naïve, or that Jesus didn’t recognize the reality and power of evil and injustice. He was crucified by these things. He spoke openly about them the Gospel tells us. But here’s the thing: faith does not prevent us from experiencing fear. It does not guarantee we will live free from fear. Faith gives us the courage to do the things that are right in the face of the things that cause fear to rise up in us. Some of these are intensely personal: vampires, mummies, public speaking or even the Holy Ghost. Some of those things are systemic, larger than our personal lives – and we can’t and shouldn’t ignore them: hurricanes and pandemics, threats from the Empire and of false Religion. But - we often inflate the power of these things in our imaginations and this leads to fear or increases our fear. But the way faith works is it allows us to focus the source of our power from the Living God: God’s saving, resurrection love.
This living God has revealed the resurrection as the antidote to the power of fear and even death. God’s power to be with us and to transform us allows us to let go of the fears and even face them down. It allows us to redefine life and purpose and values. This is how faith works – it redefines our reality and gives us the power to choose whether to give in to selfish fears that either tempt us to inflate our greatness or offers us the strength to work at loving, serving and changing the world around us for good, and for God.
Faith does not guarantee immediate success or a fear-free life. It gives us strength to push forward to do what we know Christ calls us to do. We can face our fear if we have the faith to trust that the power of a just and loving God are also working with us. The call to faith is more than an E-ticket to a personal paradise free from fear or a responsibility to others. It is an invitation to face our fears and know that we will find greatness in welcoming the most vulnerable, loving those who are hated, serving those who need and living the resurrection now.
It is this simple. We pray it every Sunday. “On earth, as it is in heaven.” AMEN.