Title: There is no Fear in Love
Text: 1 John 4:7-21
Date: November 14, 2010
Place: San Antonio Mennonite Church
Author: Rachel Epp Miller
Last Sunday we shared about things that cause us to fear in our lives. We named our fears and hung them out for all to see in hopes that if we, together, would name our fears and pray for one another, our fears might lose some of their power. I found it a meaningful exercise – not just to name my fears and get them out in the open in order for me to feel better, but to also recognize that this is part of our calling as church – to shine light in the darkness, to name the fearful places in our lives and infuse those places with God’s love so that we can together be a loving, non-anxious presence in a very fearful and anxious world.
This morning we continue on this theme of fear by widening our reflections to look out and around us – to name the fears that we sense and feel in our culture, in our society, in our global community and discern together how we, as people of faith might respond.
We hardly have to look further than the evening news or conversation around the water cooler at work to get a sense of the fears that bind us. We fear the current economic climate that has left many people without jobs, with home foreclosures, and depleted retirement accounts; we are fearful of crime—in our neighborhoods and city; we fear for the education of our children in public schools that lack adequate funding; we fear the effects of a depleted ozone and polluted air and water; we fear the stranger—the immigrant (with papers or without) who we perceive as a threat to jobs and government resources; we fear Democrats; we fear Republicans; the list can go on and on.
I don’t think we can talk about the culture of fear in this country without referring back to 9/11. It has been said that when the planes hit the World Trade towers, the world stopped turning for a moment and nothing has ever been the same. There is no denying the pain and loss brought on by this violent attack. Nearly 3,000 people died that day on the planes or in the towers. Many rescue workers continue to suffer the side-effects of having worked in the rubble for months, permanently damaging their lungs. In addition to the tragic loss of life, the terror of 9/11 was so acutely felt because we were under the illusion that somehow here in the United States, protected by the largest military power in history, we were untouchable by the type of violence that is daily present in so many other countries of our world. What was so terrifying about 9/11 is that it happened here, to us, when the people of New York City were busy going about their daily business—and couldn’t that also mean it could happen in our shopping malls or theaters or schools or workplaces? What was so terrifying was that it brought a new level of violence and loss to our shores that we had never had to experience, at least not for a long time. It was a horrific event, but no more horrific, no more devastating than what is daily happening in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Sudan, and any number of places at this moment.
In the hours, days, weeks following the September 11 attacks, this country was faced with huge decisions about how we would respond, how we would go on living in the face of a newly-understood vulnerability. The best and the worst responses quickly emerged. Hundreds of volunteers descended on New York City, committed to looking through the rubble for survivors and for the dead, at great cost to themselves. Prayer vigils were held across the country as people looked to a higher power for a sense of connectedness, meaning and security. Funds were created to assist those who were widowed or orphaned or injured in the attacks. This country—and friends beyond these borders—came together in amazing ways in the aftermath of this violence and loss.
But at the same time as pulling together as a nation, we were also bombarded with fearful messages. In the days following the attacks, hate crimes against Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslim) rose dramatically. Racial profiling in airports and at border crossings became the norm. And only hours after the attacks, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was giving rapid orders for his aids to look for evidence of Iraqi involvement in the events of that morning. Out of the vulnerability and fear of that day, a level of patriotism emerged that allowed for military strikes on Afghanistan and then, quickly after, dropping bombs on Baghdad despite their lack of involvement in 9/11.
This was over 9 years ago. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center, our country has gone to war in Afghanistan and in Iraq and it is hard to see the end of what has been started. Fear is what fuels war. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld –all they had to do was convince the American people that Suddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction, that there was ongoing threat of more attacks such as 9/11 so long as Osama bin Laden was on the loose, that the war on terror would bring an end to terrorist threats, that torture under other names was acceptable for the greater good. Fear continues as the fuel of these wars. And just in the past weeks, the American public has learned new things about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the Wikileaks documents. We have learned of 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths in Iraq, bringing the civilian death toll close to 70,000—well over half of all deaths in this war. Fear fuels war and the limiting of truthful information maintains it. This is the climate we continue to live in. While it has become more acceptable to be critical of the war in Iraq, as a country, we continue to carry the same fears that took us there.
I read a story this week that perhaps sheds some light on how fear works to skew our focus and distort the facts. The story is about two young boys out on the farm whose mother asked them to chase a chicken snake out of the henhouse. They looked everywhere for that snake, but couldn’t find it. The more they looked, the bigger the snake got in their imaginations and they become more and more afraid. Finally, they stood up on their tiptoes to look on the top nesting shelf and came nose to nose with the snake. They fell all over themselves and each other running out of the chicken house, terrified. “Don’t you know a chicken snake won’t hurt you?” their mamma asked. “Yes, ma’am,” one of the boys answered, “but there are some things that will scare you so bad you’ll hurt yourself.”
The more fearful we become as individuals and as a society, the more likely we’ll be to hurt ourselves and to hurt others. It seems this is what is playing out in our psyches, in our international policy, in our sense of identity in this country. Our fear is our unraveling.
So, how do we respond? How do we see beyond the bad news spiral of violence and fear that defines so much of our existence, so much of our political and social landscape? Well, I think we start by realizing that fear is not a new challenge to the people of God. There are over 300 references to fear in our Bibles. God’s people have faced fear since they hid from God in the Garden of Eden. And God’s message is clear throughout scripture – that a life dominated by fear is not the life that God has created us for. In fact, God’s command to “fear not” is the most frequently repeated command that God has spoken.
In the midst of a fearful and anxious world, I see at least 3 things we are called to as followers of Jesus Christ. Many more could be named, but these are the thoughts that rose to the surface for me this week:
First, our work in the face of fear is to come to peace with vulnerability. We worship a God who decided to love the world by entering into the messiness, the fear, the uncertainty in order to transform it. In the midst of an insecure and volatile world, Jesus came and lived among us. He preached good news, he healed the sick, he challenged the authorities, he refused to use violence and he lost his life. We are called to the same vulnerability that Jesus embraced and modeled for us. The fear that our world faces is rooted in a sense of insecurity and the desire for greater security. As Christians, we need to balance the human desire for security with an honest recognition that we will never eliminate all vulnerability from our lives, that risk-taking is an essential part of discipleship, that Jesus never offered us the kind of security that the world so desperately strives for. And so we can, like the Oscar Romeros, the Dorothy Days, the Martin Luther Kings, the thousands of ordinary radicals around the world—we can, like them come to peace with vulnerability and step out in faith to proclaim that our security, our hope is in the God who loved the world enough to enter into it, the God who brings life out of death.
Second, our work in the face of fear is to remember our story, to remember God’s story. Fear has a way of taking our focus and shifting it exclusively to whatever it is that we’re afraid of. As Christians, our focus is on God’s story – and how we find ourselves within it. This focus can be nurtured daily and is certainly nurtured as we gather together weekly in worship. By focusing on God’s story, we become critical of the messages around us – when politicians demonize one another or media outlets use fear tactics to get us to stay tuned for the 10:00 news, we check these messages against the story of Jesus’ life and teachings, the story of the prophets, the story of God’s presence and creative power. When we hear others telling stories or jokes of a racist, sexist, or homophobic nature, we remember the story to which we belong and we lovingly speak truth into the fearful lies. We are people with a story to share – a story of good news that we can share daily in our words, in our actions, in our relationships.
Third, our work in the face of fear is to love the world around us. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Fear can be so debilitating. It can paralyze us from action. If we are to be a people with an alternative message than that of our culture of fear, we must look to the source of love who promises to perfect love in our lives. God is the one who strengthens us to love extravagantly when the messages around us call us to be cautious. Rather than building privacy fences, we need to meet and engage our neighbors; rather than staying home where we feel safe from the danger of an uncertain world, where we can find comfort in our own cynicism, we need to go out to the park and have picnics and play volleyball and embrace the joy and hope that are deeply part of life. Rather than existing in our own exclusive circles, we need to learn to know our Muslim neighbors, understand their way of life as we seek to deepen ours; we need to learn to know the stories of immigrants who have come to this country to find hope and opportunity and safety for their families, we need to move freely and compassionately amongst the places where people struggle to let go of fear and find ways to share the Spirit’s empowerment with others.
Perhaps you have additional ideas or would name other emphases for how we are to respond with faith in a fearful world. Think about these and share them during our sharing time, commit to them in the week ahead. Our scripture reading this morning speaks of Love – the love that God has for us and the love we therefore also are able to share with others. It’s the kind of love that leads God to give all that God is for us. It’s the kind of love that binds us to one another and even to the stranger, even to the enemy. It’s the kind of love that overpowers fear (1 John 4:7-21).
As we move into a time of reflection, I invite you to think about one way that you, with faith, will confront fear this week. Perhaps it’s through praying for God’s love to fill you each day; perhaps it’s through confronting the untruths that you hear around the water cooler; perhaps it’s by emerging yourself deeper into God’s story through bible study. It could be any number of things. Think about one thing that you can commit to this coming week and then I invite you to come forward and take a paint brush and make a mark on the paper. This mark can represent your commitment, it can represent the fear that you continue to face in your own life, it can represent the hope you feel as a person of faith. At the end of this ritual, we will have made a mark together as a community of faith—all together, committed to naming and facing our fears and the fears around us with the abundant love that God provides. May we each be reminded, day by day, that God’s promise to us, God’s presence and light in our world, cannot be overcome by any fearful darkness.