Crossing Out Fear

Jeremiah by Michelangelo_Buonarroti_027A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 20:7-13Psalm 69: 8-11, (12-17), 18-20Romans 6:1b-11, and Matthew 10:24-39

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The other day I saw a little girl who was wearing a headband made up of Guatemalan “worry dolls.” You may have seen these little figures—they’re tiny, usually less than an inch tall, and often they come 5 or 6 little figures in one small box or bag. The idea is that before going to bed at night, you tell a worry or fear to each of the little dolls, then put them back in their place. Then you’ll be able to sleep better.

I looked at the little girl with the headband and I wondered what she might possibly have to worry about? What would she be telling her worry dolls?

But then, I guess we have worries and fears, no matter what age. A child might worry about a pet, or a friend, or a parent or grandparent. A teenager worries about what other people think, about grades and appearance, about keeping up with expectations and progressing toward the future. And adults have new fears and worries every day—if it’s not increasing rent, debt, or turmoil at work, it might be issues around aging, or taking care of a relative, or any number of things. We notice how economic trends are often based on fear, and we know all too well how politics can be motivated around fear.  We live in fearful times, but when we look at the record of faith, other people, too have wrestled with fear.

The reading we heard from Jeremiah was filled with fear, though it doesn’t come right out and use that word. Jeremiah feels like he’s been made a fool of. He feels like God has set him up and left him looking like an idiot. He’s hurt and he’s angry at God, but he’s also deeply, deeply, deeply in love with God. He fears that God might have turned away. He fears that people will get the best of him, that what people say at their most cynical, might actually be true. They whisper the worst: “Terror is all around! Let’s get him while he’s down, he’s been criticizing us and saying it’s from God. But God is ignoring him and has left him all alone.”  Jeremiah worries this might be true.

In this section of scripture, I think we have a long period of time condensed. This complicated love triangle between Jeremiah and God and the people was probably played out over a much longer time. Built up over a long time, Jeremiah’s fears don’t go away immediately. They don’t simply vanish with a few wise words from a friend, the latest book, the perfect prayer, or even the most elaborate religious ritual.

Instead, fear is slowly eroded by faith, by faith that might even feel like blind trust, at times.  Fear fades sometimes through putting one’s trust outside oneself—in others, and in one’s higher power (whether that be some notion of God, or a sense of community, or perhaps even just in one friend upon whom one can really trust.)

Jeremiah eventually moves through his fear to a faith that can feel the strength of God.  And so he sings; he praises; he feels the deliverance and salvation of God.

In today’s Gospel Jesus warns the disciples about the times ahead when they will feel like Jeremiah—when they’ll feel misunderstood and forgotten, passed over even by God. Just as Jeremiah was rejected by his people, the disciples of Jesus are going to come into conflict.  Sometimes that conflict will be with strangers, and sometimes it will be with family and loved ones.

Here, Jesus is not offering justification for arguing with family.  He’s not trying to makes us feel better about disagreements or fights among family where there needs to be confession and forgiveness.  And he’s not encouraging us to make problems or to use religion to belittle or to distance. But Jesus is suggesting that sometimes in relationships, in families, in churches, in denominations, in religious communions— taking up one’s cross can lead into conflict. But Jesus shows us how “taking up our cross” – when it is a cross of love and self-sacrifice – helps move through fear.

It’s often pointed out that the cross has both a vertical and horizontal axis. The vertical one connects us with God. It reminds us that sometimes when the fear sets in, the way to deal with it comes from deep within, as God reinforces some secret reserve within us that we perhaps didn’t even know we had. We can carry fear straight to God and allow God to work on it.

But then there’s also the horizontal axis of the cross, the stretching out, the reaching out. That involves the Body of Christ, the church, one another. The part of the cross that stretches out involves all of those who God sends our way. We become the Body of Christ for one another through simple acts of kindness and remembrance (like sending a note, or agreeing to pray for someone) or through more dramatic ways of showing solidarity, friendship and love.

The cross stretches through the life of this parish. People call each other. People care for each other.  People look out for each other. When people are afraid of tangible things than can be addressed, we connect with Health Advocates for Older People, or Search and Care, or another community organization that helps us confront fear by breaking it down into small problems to be addressed and solved.

The storms and tornadoes over the last few days reminded me of a story from a few years ago.  You may recall the tragedy of a tornado ripping through a Boy Scout camp in Iowa.  Four boys were killed when a chimney they were hiding under collapsed in the storm, but all the other kids made it through.  Their story recounts how as the storms and winds were picking up around the camp, the scouts went about their preparations, just like they had practiced. There had to have been almost unimaginable fear. I’m sure they were terrified. But several of the boys did what they could to lessen the fears of others. One 14-year-old, Zack Jessen, yelled for his friends to duck under the table. He covered the head of another boy with his own body, and those boys were saved.

Fear is funny that way—when we share it, when we share in it, it lessens. It doesn’t always go away completely. And sometimes bad things still happen. But holding the hand of another, praying together, serving together—is love—the kind of love that “casts out all fear.”

Overcoming fear is a big part of the spirit of this last Sunday in June, when close to 2 million people will be watching, marching, and participating in numerous ways in this year’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride parade.  Many of the people marching are doing so only after spending years overcoming their fear.  Many of those watching will still be negotiating fear—fear of being fired for being gay, fear of losing friends, fear of losing family, fear of violence.  Many people of faith will also be in the parade today as a reminder and invitation that God’s love can cast out all fear. As the well-known meal program with the so-appropriate name reminds us, “God’s love delivers.”  It delivers every time.

Sometimes when we are afraid, the only thing we can do is to say our prayers, sort of duck for cover, and wait on God to show himself. We live into that vertical dimension of the cross. But at other times, we live into the horizontal direction. We can lean on each other, we can call on each other, and we can be the Body of Christ to one another. We can be like the disciples were to one another—to share support and strength and nurture and love.

Thanks be to God that, in the words of 1 John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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