Items filtered by date: April 2017
30 April 2017

Luke 24:13-35

Into My Heart

April 30, 2017               Maple Grove UMC

 

Into my heart, into my heart,

Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

Come in today, come in to stay.

Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

 

          Today's gospel reading is about a journey. It’s presented as a journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  But hard as they’ve tried, scholars have never identified a place called ‘Emmaus.’  Which means, I think, that Luke is not reporting a literal journey, but a spiritual journey.  The journey to Emmaus is a journey from the head to the heart.                  

There’s a difference between hearing about the resurrection and experiencing it, a great difference between knowing about the resurrection and being changed by it. Before Jesus came and walked with them, the two disciples had already heard all about the resurrection.  The women had told them about angels who said Jesus was alive.  Other disciples had confirmed what the women described.  But this knowledge did not pull the two men out of their despair.  Resurrection comes not when the story is apprehended by the mind, but when it penetrates the heart.

          When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was in his mid-30s, he was already an ordained priest, he’d been a professor of New Testament, he’d served as a parish pastor and been a missionary to America. He knew more about the faith we ever will.  And yet he was restless, unhappy.  Until one evening in 1738 Wesley wrote in his journal, "I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”1 After years of preaching and teaching, the gospel had made its way from Wesley’s head to his heart.

 

          The two disciples had also heard the good news, but they too remained restless and unhappy. Not until they had walked with the risen Christ, not until he had opened the Scriptures to them, not until they had been at Table with him, did it sink in. Looking back, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us" while he was with us?  Burning hearts—that’s how you know that Jesus is real.  A burning heart--that’s how new life and hope are born.

          And yet we often guard our hearts for all we’re worth. Wesley kept Christ at arm’s length for 35 years.  It’s far easier for me to talk about Jesus than to place my own heart in his hands.  Don Ackerman attends Maple Grove with his young family.  He teaches ROTC at Capital University, and kind of like a chaplain he gathers ROTC students each week at his home for fellowship and Bible tudy.  "College students love Bible study," he told me."  But he went:  "Yeah, they're always up for studying the Bible with their minds.  What they don't want to do is engage their hearts.  They don't want to let God change their lives."  The longest journey in the world, they say, is the eighteen inches from the head to the heart. 

 

Yet even so those two disciples found themselves with burning hearts, the presence of Christ so real it couldn't be denied. We may guard against that, yet it's also what we most deeply long for.  And sometimes it happens--Christ comes crashing through and our hearts burn within us.  On the one hand, whenever this fire happens, it's always God's doing, not our own—we can't make it happen.  But on the other hand, there are ways of "stoking the fire."2 So if you, too, long to have a burning heart, to feel the life-changing presence of Christ, here are three ways of stoking the fire.

  1. Practice hospitality to strangers. The two disciples had arrived at their destination. This man they'd been traveling with was, they thought, a perfect stranger. And he seemed to have somewhere else to go. But to their credit, they said to this stranger, "Come on, stay with us. It's getting late." And so it was they came to eat with, to spend the evening with . . . none other than the risen Lord.

In this age of suspicion and fear, how reluctant we are to invite strangers in. How hard it is, after a certain age, to make new friends.  Yet what if the stranger we fear and suspect is none other than Jesus come to change our lives?  What if it takes a new friend to set our hearts on fire?  One way of stoking the fire is to practice hospitality.  You just never know which stranger may be Jesus.

  1. A second way of stoking the fire is to acknowledge your brokenness. When someone says, "How are you?", you're supposed to assume they don't really want to know. Right? You're supposed to smile and say, "Fine, thanks." But of course we're not fine, not always. So when Jesus met these two forlorn disciples and said, "How you doing?", they broke the rules. They told him how they were doing, at great length, all of it was sad. And their brokenness was Jesus' way in to their hearts. He was known to them, Luke says, not in toughness or strength, but in the breaking of bread. Our brokenness is Jesus' way into our hearts. Acknowledge it and he can heal it.

  2. One more: Jesus engages those two disciples in what we would call worship—he opens the Scriptures with them and joins them at Table in what amounts to Holy Communion. Word and Table—worship--are the ways we know come to know Christ. Oh, I'm painfully aware that worship doesn't always touch every heart. But one thing is for sure: wherever two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is there, and any road can be the Emmaus road, the road to an open heart.

There are words we say when we come to the Table:

"The Lord be with you," I say.

And you respond, "And also with you."

And then I say, "Lift up your hearts."

And you say, "We lift them up to the Lord."

So let's try it. Not only say it, but do it: My friends, lift up your hearts: We lift them up to the Lord. And again, My friends, lift up your hearts: We lift them up to the Lord.

 

If you long for the fire of Jesus, then you've got to take the journey from the head to the heart: practice hospitality to strangers, let him know your brokenness and pain, and lift up your heart.  I want to bring the screen down now, and suggest two other ways to stoke the fire of Christ.  Let's sing together the little prayer with which I started this sermon:  into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart Lord Jesus.  Come in today, come in to stay, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.  And then I want you to hear about a spiritual retreat, open to all, called The Walk to Emmaus.  Ready to sing?

 

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wesley, accessed 4/28/17.

2 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Heartfelt: Finding Our Way Back to God (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1993), 148-53.

 

16 April 2017

Matthew 28:1-10

Fear Not!

April 16, 2017     Easter Sunday     Maple Grove UMC

 

          Here are some words from today’s Gospel reading that you might not expect to be part of the Easter story:  Don’t be afraid.  I mean, if ever there was a time when you shouldn’t have to tell people not to be afraid, you’d think Easter morning would be that time.  But here’s the angel telling them, “Don’t be afraid.”  And five verses later, the risen Jesus himself appears to them, and he has to say it again: “Don’t be afraid.” 

          What does it mean that even an angel of good news, that even the risen Christ himself, have to tell people not to be afraid? Surely it says something about the depth, the persistence of fear in our lives.  Over the past several weeks at Maple Grove, we’ve been studying and pondering how to overcome fear with faith.  We heard Jesus tell us not to worry, to let each day’s trouble be enough for that day.  We heard the Bible insist that hospitality, not fear, guide our treatment of strangers and foreigners.  Perfect love, 1 John says, cast out fear—the goal is to be so filled with love that there’s just no room left in our hearts for fear.  And when afraid, we can always hang on to God, who’s got the whole world in his hands.  Yes, we have been learning, but so deep and persistent is our fear, that even in the presence of the risen Christ, the message has to be “Don’t be afraid!”

 

          I had a seminary professor who gave one entire lecture on things not to say to troubled souls.  I don’t remember them all, but one was, “Never say, ‘I know just how you feel.’”  No you don’t, he said.  You can be sympathetic, but don’t pretend your experience is the same as someone else’s.  Another was, “Don’t say, ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.’”  That may or may not be true, but it sure doesn’t help someone who feels overwhelmed.  And, he said, never ask someone, “What’s the worst that could happen?”  Because, he said, sometimes it does.

          What’s the worst that could happen? What if someone had asked that of the women who followed Jesus, a week before Easter?  I doubt they could even have imagined anything as bad as what actually happened.  Within days Jesus would be arrested, put on trial, brutally mocked, crucified and sealed in a tomb.  And for their part, the disciples would desert and deny him.  That’s the worst that could happen, and then some.

          Yet in spite of all of that, here’s the good news of the Easter story: On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life!

          On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. Now, this doesn’t mean that life goes back to just the way it was before the worst happened.  That’s not how it was for the disciples and the women who followed Jesus.  They had amazing new life, but not the same old life. 

          On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life.  It also doesn’t mean that this new life will be without stress or trouble.  In an article about the gospel for survivors of abuse and trauma, Shelly Rambo teaches that even after the resurrection, life can remain difficult.1 This also was true for the disciples and these women.  They would themselves face persecution and disbelief, the churches they founded would go through tension and division.  Life was new, but often difficult.  Maybe that's why, in verse 8, Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb quickly, he says, with "fear and great joy."  Not either fear or great joy, but somehow both at the same time.

On the one hand, too many redemption stories are all joy and no fear. "My life was rotten," goes this kind of testimony, "full of sin and sorrow.  Then I found Jesus, and ever since all my troubles are gone!"  Pardon me if that just doesn't ring true.  Don't get me wrong.  I have new life in Christ—thank God, I do.  I've also still got my share of troubles.  How about you?  Resurrection isn’t an end to troubles; it’s new life in the midst of troubles.

On the other hand, too many people's stories are all fear and no joy. Yeah, life may always be difficult.  But if Christ is risen—and he is!--then fear and negativity don’t have to control our behavior.  A new power has been unleashed in our lives—the power of love, the power of forgiveness, and trust in the goodness of God.  After all, on the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life.

 

Here's another piece of the story: Jesus didn't just tell the women not to be afraid, he also gave them something to do.  He said, "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee—I’ll meet them there."  Having something to do makes us feel less afraid, like we're part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  And the mission hasn't really changed since that first Easter.  The mission Jesus gave the women, the mission Jesus gives the church today, is to go and tell, to bear witness that on the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. 

But in some ways, I think those women had it easier than we do. All they had to say was, "Jesus is risen!" and everyone said, Really? He's alive again—that's amazing!  It was new news to them.  Try saying "Jesus is risen" to someone today--they'll probably yawn and mumble, "Uhh, yeah, I've heard that."  It's not that people haven't heard it before; you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who's never heard that Jesus rose from the dead.  It's that they've never really heard it, haven't seen how it matters to them.  They haven't made the connection between Jesus being risen from the dead and not having to live such fearful lives. 

And what is that connection? What might we go and tell people that would change their lives, the way what the women had to say changed the disciples' lives?

  • Well, we could go and tell people Easter means that God has power over death. Not that we won't die—we all die, even Jesus died. But God still has power over death. Back in 2008 I had three funerals during Holy Week, one of them for a 27 year-old man who was murdered and one for a baby that lived just two hours. The following week I had the funeral of a 40 year-old wife and mother of two, one of my best friends in all the world. Since I've been pastor of Maple Grove, I have officiated at 76 more funerals. Death is, in many cases, the worst that can happen. If I did not believe in my heart that God has power over death, I couldn't do all those funerals. I'd give up. Maybe you, too, know someone who is surrounded by sorrow and death, weighed down by a grief that will not shake. Well, maybe you could tell them our news. It won't give them their same old life back, of course, and it won't mean a new life without trouble. But it is quite a piece of good news—that in raising Jesus from the dead, God has power over death. On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. Fear not!

  • Or how about this: go tell people Easter means their story is never over. The women came that morning expecting only to tend to Jesus' body. They thought that with his death, his story, and their story with him, were over, that theirs had been a noble effort, but evil had won again. But their story was not over. In fact, he told them to go to Galilee to start a whole new chapter. Do you know anyone who thinks their story is over? When a spouse or child dies, it feels like your story is over. When you lose your job or don't get into the school you dreamed of, it feels like your story is over. When you have to move to a nursing home, or when friends turn again you, or things just change too much, it feels like your story is over. But Easter means that the story is never over. No, it won’t be the same old story you used to have. It may not be an easy story. But it isn't over. If God can raise Jesus from the dead, who knows what God can do for you? On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. So fear not!

  • One more: go and tell people that Jesus wants to meet up with his brothers. Did you hear that word, 'brothers,' in the story? The angel tells the women, "Go and tell his disciples." But Jesus says, "Go and tell my brothers . . ." Why is that important? Remember what just happened with the disciples. Despite Jesus pleading with them to stay awake in Gethsemane, they all fell asleep. Out of fear, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. And they all turned away and deserted him at the cross. Yet when he comes back, Jesus doesn't say, "Go and tell those dirty rats . . ." He doesn't say, "Go and tell those former friends of mine." He doesn't even say, "Go and tell my disciples . . ." He says, "Go and tell my brothers." As one writer has put it, Jesus didn't come back to judge anyone. He returned to gather his family.2

Do you know anyone who may feel guilty or like they’ve failed in some way? Do you know anyone who has trouble holding their head up or looking you in the eye?  Do you know anyone in desperate need of some family of one kind or another?  Well, go and tell them that in the Easter community, no one is turned away and all are more than welcome.  Because the risen Jesus comes back to gather his family.  On the other side of the worst that can happen—loneliness, failure, shame--God gives no life.  So fear not!

 

Never ask anyone, my professor warned, "What's the worst that can happen?" Because sometimes, he said, it does.  That's why I want so much for you to take this Easter message with you today:  On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives no life.  So fear not!

 

1 Shelly Rambo, “Spirit and Trauma,” Interpretation, 69/1 (January 2015), 7-19.

2 Frederick Niedner, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (March 11, 2008), 21.

 

15 April 2017

Matthew 26:36-46

Praying Through Fear

April 14, 2017      Good Friday         Maple Grove UMC

 

          I grew up in a church where the big stained glass window was ofure of Jesus praying in Gethsemane.  His body was gray, his face had an anguished expression, and to my child’s eyes it always appeared that a sharp rock was poking him in the side as he prayed.  You’d think I’d have grown accustomed to this Bible story.  But I have not.  It’s a shock every time I hear about Jesus in Gethsemane—about Jesus throwing himself on the ground, about him repeatedly pleading with God to avoid the cup of death, about his friends not being able to stay awake with him even one hour, how Matthew says that Jesus was grieved, even unto death.  It’s still a shock to me.  It’s kind of like seeing your parents being afraid for the first time.  You mean, even you get scared, Jesus?  Yeah, even I get scared.

 

          I want to share two ways the story of Jesus in Gethsemane can help us address our fearfulness.  One is this:  not even Jesus tried to face his fear alone.  He took with him to Gethsemane all of the disciples and asked them to sit nearby while he prayed.  And he took three of them—Peter, James and John—a little ways apart and asked them to stay near him, to stay awake, while he prayed.  I know that they all fell asleep.  But they were there.  Not even Jesus tried to face his fear alone.

          After our daughter Rachel was born, Carolyn had emergency surgery for internal bleeding.  The surgeon came out just for a moment and I asked him, “Doctor, is she going to be all right?”  And he said, “If she makes it through tonight, she’ll probably be okay.”  And then I just sat there in a waiting room, no one else around, for hours.  I tried to pray but I couldn’t really.  I’d never been so scared.  Finally, I knew what to do.  I called Laurie Clark.  I don’t know where she was or what she was doing.  Maybe she was already in bed.  But she came to Riverside Hospital, and sat with me, and prayed for us, and after a while I began to feel like I could face it. 

          Whatever it is that you are afraid of, you do not have to face it alone.  Not even Jesus tried to face his fears alone.

 

          Here is the other thing I want to say about how Jesus in Gethsemane can help us face our fears:  prayer is one of the ways God gets us through our fear.  You might even say that fear is the way God gets us through our fear.  Ann Lamott wrote:  “courage is fear that has said its prayers”1 One kind of prayer is asking God for things, telling God what we want and need.  Jesus did that: “Father,” he prayed, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”  Surely we all do that:  God, heal my mother’s cancer; God, keep my son sober; God, keep our family together. 

          But there is another kind of prayer—simply asking God to be with us if we don’t get what we want, praying for strength to do whatever we have to do.  Jesus prayed this prayer too: “yet not what I want, [God,]but what you want.”  This can be seen as submitting one’s will to God’s, and maybe it is—I know some people struggle with that idea.  But for sure, it is praying that the relationship with God go on, that God will continue to be our loving Father, even if the worst happens.  And that prayer is always granted.

          In our Lenten study book, Rabbi Kushner says:  “When I pray, I don’t think of myself as asking God to intervene and change things.  I pray because invoking God’s presence helps me to feel less alone.”  Martin Buber said, “When we pray, we don’t ask God for anything.  We ask God for God.”2 We don’t often get around what we’re afraid of; Jesus didn’t.  By we can get through what we’re afraid of--and we don’t have to do it alone, and we do it by praying.

          In one sense at the end of the story of Jesus in Gethsemane, nothing has changed:  Jesus is still going to die.  But in another sense, everything has changed:  Jesus is now prepared to die.  He had prayed his way through his fears. 

 

          Not even Jesus had to face his fears alone.

          And even Jesus had to pray his way through his fear.

          I expect those things apply to us as well.

 

 

1Ann Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 239.

2 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Book

09 April 2017

John 12:12-15 / Psalm 46 / Psalm 27

When Afraid, Hold on to God

April 9, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

Here's what that first Palm Sunday was: a crowd of people, banding together to prepare for the week to come.  They didn't know it yet, but Jesus would soon be arrested and put on trial and hung on a cross to die.  They themselves would soon desert and deny him.  And the scripture John shares for Palm Sunday is this, from Zechariah: 

Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion;

See, your king is coming.

 

Actually, the "do not be afraid" part is not in Zechariah, at least not the version we have today. Perhaps John added that, knowing it's what the disciples needed to hear, given all they were about to go through.

And here's what Palm Sunday is today: a crowd of people, banded together to prepare for the week to come.  And though, unlike the disciples, we do know how Holy Week will unfold, there is much that we don't know about this coming week, or any week—how that doctor's appointment will turn out, whether a loved one will stay sober, whether people will support us or turn against us.  And so we band together to prepare, we form a parade and wave palm branches, And we hear the scripture: "Do not be afraid!  See, your king is coming."

This banding together is so important. As hard as that next week was for the disciples, just think how it would have been if they hadn't had each other.  They did make it through that week, through Jesus' suffering and death and through their own failure, and together they became his powerful witnesses for Christ.  Scott Bader-Saye says that we "tend to lack courage just to the extent that we lack community.  As a community we can often bear risks together that we might be reticent to face alone."1 We all need someone to parade with, whether that's a literal or a metaphorical parade.  So here we are, the community of Christ, banding together to prepare for what lies ahead and to hear the message of the gospel:  "Do not be afraid."

 

At the end of his Palm Sunday story, John adds this: "At first his disciples did not understand all this.  Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him."  That's the way life is, isn't it?  As things are happening, it's hard to know what's going on—what you should and shouldn't do, what everything means, where God is in all of it.  Only later can we sometimes begin to piece all that together.  Which means that for the disciples on Palm Sunday, following Jesus required—here's a big word—TRUST.  They didn’t know where he would take them; they had to trust.  And for us today, courage and faith in this troubled word require—here's that big word again—TRUST.  Of course, it's one thing to trust Jesus on Palm Sunday when the crowds are cheering, the palm branches are waving and Jesus is right here.  It's another thing to trust him when the soldiers have come, and quite another when he's hanging on the cross.  The same is true for us.  It's one thing to trust God when there's money in the bank and everybody's healthy.  It's another thing to trust God when health fails and quite another when people you love fail and desert you.  I guess that's why they call it trust.

 

When it comes to trust, one of my go-to scriptures is Psalm 46, which we read together. I often read it for people as they prepare for surgery.  I share it at funerals.  I read it to myself when I'm afraid, and read it, and read it.  Psalm 46 expresses confidence and trust in the midst of various circumstances:  trouble (verse 1), change and natural disasters (verse 2), chaos (3) political upheaval (6) and even war (9).  Those may not be the only things there are to be afraid of.  But if we can have trust in the face of trouble, change, disaster, chaos, politics and war—we can probably have trust in almost any situation.

In the book we've been studying together this Lent, Rabbi Kushner names several other life situations where trust is hard to come by, but therefore all the more important:

  • Talking about a treatment plan with the oncologist

  • A congregation facing misfortune or division

  • Walking into your very first AA meeting

  • Your first day on a new job or at a new school.2

How do you find trust in God at times like that, when you need it most?  Well, turning to scripture, and especially to the psalms, is one great way to start.  Rabbi Kushner tells the story that on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, when Arab nations threatened to overrun Israel, one rabbi told his students, "This is a time of great danger.  Don't just sit there doing nothing.  Recite psams."3

In Psalm 27, the other psalm we read together this morning, the psalmist says three times in the first three verses that he is not afraid. I suspect the truth is that he was afraid, but was working on not being afraid.4 We tell ourselves, I am not afraid, not because it's already true; but in order to make it true.

In his commentary on Psalms, James Mays teaches that in ancient Israel Psalm 46 would have been sung responsively. A leader would have sung parts of the psalm, but the whole community would have sung together that "The Lord of hosts is with us!"  And again, a leader would have begun, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble," but the whole community would insist, "Therefore we will not fear!"  This psalm, in other words, is worship; it's liturgy by which worshipers learn to entrust our lives to the love and protection of God.5

So here today the liturgist said, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." And we responded "Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change."  What I’m wondering is--was that really true, what we said?  That we will not fear.  Well, maybe not yet.  But keep saying it; give it time.  Worship is the way we learn to trust in God.

Here's something else James Mays says in his commentary, this time about Psalm 27: "Trust is nurtured and strengthened by the exercise and discipline of religion."  In other words, worship and singing together and daily devotions and praying for one another are the ways we learn to overcome fear with faith.  Trust in God, he says, "transforms mere anxiety [in]to prayer."  Let’s just keep saying it, so we can believe it more and more.

Rabbi Kushner says that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day in the Jewish year.7 It's a day for the faithful to articulate their most heartfelt hopes for the upcoming year and at the same time to acknowledge their deepest fears about what may be lurking in the future.  And Jews prepare for this Day of Atonement by adding a psalm to their daily morning and evening prayers—Psalm 27.  For forty days before Yom Kippur and for ten days after they recite twice a day,

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Now, is that really true for Jews preparing for Yom Kippur, that they’re not afraid? Well, maybe not, but they've got a hundred times to say it.  And if it doesn't quite become true this year, they'll say it again next year.  Trust is not something you have once and for all; it is something you learn, something you make true by liturgy, by repetition, by the discipline of turning anxiety into prayer.

 

Psalm 46 says, "Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult." It goes on, "God is in the midst[, in the center,] of the city; it shall not be moved."  In the midst of change and shaking, in the midst of roaring and trembling, there is something in the center that does not change, something solid to hold on to.  We call that something "God."   When afraid, you can hold on to God.

Overcoming fear with faith is about holding on to the God who does not change or tremble. Overcoming fear with faith comes from holding on to the God who’s got you and me, who’s got the whole world in his hands.  On your way out today, we're going to give you something literally to hold on to, something to remind you of the God who is at the center of it all, strong and able.  When everything else shakes and comes apart, you can hang on to God.

 

1 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 65.

2 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 162-65.

3 Kushner, 16.

4  See Kushner, 162.

5 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 183.

6 Mays, 13

 

02 April 2017

1 John 4:16b-21

Love Casts Out Fear

April 2, 2017             Maple Grove UMC

 

Here's how the great preacher William Sloan Coffin put it: "I am sure the Bible is right: the opposite of love,” he said, is not hate but fear."1

And here's how 1 John puts it: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear."  I believe that with all my heart.  That said, I want to acknowledge that there is a relationship between fear and love.  Scott Bader-Saye points out that there is a sense in which love is actually born of fear.  We love something and therefore fear losing it.  And the more we love, the more we have to lose, and therefore the more we are subject to fear.  But this does not mean that fear is love.  Rather, Bader-Saye concludes, "fear is the shadow side of love."2

 

Fear is at the root of our worst behavior; fear is what can divide and separate us from one another. "You know what jealousy is, don't you?" asks Fred Craddock.  "It is fear of the loss of love.  Why are people greedy and . . . get as much as they can?  It is a fear, a fear of insecurity.  Why do children cheat at school?  A fear of failure.  Why does anybody tell a life?  A fear of punishment."3 We could go on.  Why do people drink?  Fear of feeling painful feelings.  Why do we criticize people whose ideas are different from ours?  Fear that we're not as right as we like to think.  And why do we reject and push others away?  Fear of being rejected and pushed away ourselves.  Fear is at the root of what we call sin; fear causes so much of our worst and most destructive behavior. 

Fear is also a deeply spiritual problem. “Fear,” writes James Martin, “is dangerous because it turns us away from God.”4 We’ll talk more about this next Sunday.  If we don’t have a fundamental trust that God will hold us and love us come what may, then we are always unsettled, tempted to see a threat in every situation and to take every matter into our own hands. 

Over the years, when I have failed to love well, it's usually fear that's been in the way. You know, I may look confident up here, on a good Sunday.  But a lot of times I fear that if people knew what I’m really like, they might not want to have anything to do with me.  And that fear is not unfounded.  So sometimes I keep people at a distance—to make sure they can't see what I'm really like.  The trouble is, across all that distance, it's pretty hard to love and be loved.  Fear gets in the way.

And there's a part of me that's afraid I haven't measured up, haven’t proven myself. And if I can't accomplish enough to feel good about myself, then I'm tempted to try to make myself feel better by bringing someone else down—by criticizing someone, trying to show someone up.  But it turns out that for some reason other people don't like that very well.  They don't find it loving.  Go figure.  Fear gets in the way.

 

If you read 1 John, it’s clear that it was written to a church under threat, going through a crisis. Heresy, oppression and division are some of the things they were experiencing.5 Given how stressed and frightened that church must have been, Will Willimon points out, it is all the more impressive that 1 John urged them not, ‘Be on guard!’ or ‘Defend yourselves!’ but rather [simply], Love!”6 Love one another; love the way God loves.  The answer to division and distress is not to strike back, not even to protect yourself, but to love all the more.  You’ll remember that Jesus commanded us to love not just those who agree with us, and not just those who are can disagree without being disagreeable.  We are commanded to love even those who act like enemies to us.  That may not be the answer we’re looking for, but it’s the only answer Jesus has.

 

There is no fear in love, 1 John says, but perfect love casts out fear. Let me think with you about what that means.

  • One thing that means is that if there is fear in a relationship, something other than love is going. It doesn’t mean there isn’t any love in the relationship; but if there’s fear, love isn’t all that’s going on. If you’re afraid of someone, it’s not love, no matter what he says or how much he apologizes. And if every single thing you do as a parent is to protect your child from harm rather than to help them grow or give them joy, then you’re parenting not out of love but out of anxiety. The same is true of our relationship with God. The “fear of the Lord” means being in awe of God, not being afraid of God--there is no fear in love. If you find yourself fearful in a relationship, stop and ask yourself what’s going on there that isn’t love.

  • Love is not a form of grasping or of holding on ever tighter, but a form of letting go. In The Phantom Menace, one of the Star Wars movies, Anakin Skywalker is being examined by the Jedi Council:

    Yoda: How feel you?

    Anakin: Cold, sir.

    Yoda: Afraid are you?

    Anakin: No, sir.

    Yoda: See through you we can.

    Mace Windu: Be mindful of your feelings.

    Ki-Adi-Mundi: Your thoughts dwell on your mother.

    Anakin: I miss her.

    Yoda: Afraid to lose her I think, hmm?

    Anakin: What has that got to do with anything?

    Yoda: Everything! Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”7 When there is fear in our love, one teacher says, we “find ourselves unable to rejoice in the presence of what we love, because we are too afraid of losing it.”8 There is no fear in love, the Bible says, but perfect love casts out fear. The answer is not to strike back, not to defend ourselves or to hang on ever tighter to what we’ve got, but to love, to let go.

  • John Wesley taught the doctrine of “Christian Perfection.” To this day, United Methodist clergy are asked at our ordination if we’re “going on to perfection.” And we are meant to answer, “Yes, by the grace of God.” (Some of us have a very long ways to go!) By this he did not mean that Christians could be free from error or weakness or temptation. Nor did he mean perfection in the sense that no further improvement is possible. What he meant was that a Christian’s heart could become so filled with Christ’s love that increasingly there’s no room for anything else—no room for pride or resentment, no room for selfishness or impatience. When it comes to fear, the goal is not so much to combat our fear, as to so increase in love that fear just fades away. May I say that again: the goal is not so much to combat our fear, as to so increase in love that fear just fades away.

  • As a pastor, I’m privileged to have sacred conversations with people at critical times in their lives: when they’re getting married, when they’ve lost a loved one, when they’ve had a near-death experience. And never once in any of these conversations has anyone looked back at their life and said, “You know, Pastor, I just wish I’d been more scared.” No one has ever looked ahead and said, “You know, Pastor, from now on I want fear to run my life.” Oh, there’s an appropriate caution in life, of course. ‘Foolhardy’ was not what 1 John had in mind. But yes, love is risky. Yes, love for those who mistreat us is hard. Yes, love leaves us open to being hurt and taken advantage of. And yes, love is what makes life matter. To be filled with love is the only way to get beyond fear.

              Sam Wells tells a legend about John the Evangelist, who by tradition is the author of John’s Gospel, the book of Revelation, and the three letters of John. One of his followers came and spoke to him, “Master, why is it that you always write about love? Why don’t you ever write about anything else?” St. John paused for a long time, waiting for *his disciple to work out the answer for himself. Finally he answered the question. “Because,” he said, “in the end, there isn’t anything else. There is only love.”9

              If there is only love, there is no place for panic, no space for anxiety, no room for fear. I want to love like that! Don’t you?

     

1 William Sloan Coffin, Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 27.

2 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 40.  See also 39-40, 58.

3 Fred B. Craddock, "Faith and Fear," The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 34.

4James Martin, “From Fear to Calm: Spiritual Direction on Stormy Waters,” The Christian Century (April 16, 2014), 33.

5See D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 18-21.

6 William H. Willimon, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 11.

7 Quoted in Bader-Saye, 47.

8 Bader-Saye, 58.

9Samuel Wells, Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 30.

 

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