Sermon Series on Fear and Faith Ends

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Date:  October 23, 2016

Title:  “Casting Out Fears”

Preaching:  The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard

Scripture:  1 John 4:12-13, 16-20

            When I am not working, or walking my dog, or cleaning my house, or balancing my checkbook (yeah, like I do that!)… I like to work in textile arts.  I paint silk scarves and wall hangings; I mono-print on cotton; I sometimes even haul out the sewing machine and make a few placemats, or table runners, even the occasional jacket or vest.  Because art – viewing it, contemplating it, and creating it – feeds my soul.  But it hasn’t always been that way for me

I remember when all this artistry got started. I had taken one very brief class on acrylic painting and was having great fun with color and texture, when I wandered into a holiday market in Eugene and began browsing from one booth to another.  I came upon a series of acrylic paintings of whimsical scenes and geometrically based creatures.  There were horses with triangle heads and oval bodies, trees with square trunks and trapezoidal leaves.  There were mountains and streams that played with straight lines and clouds that formed out of circles.

Standing before those paintings, I was enchanted by their color and their energy and I heard myself say “I could paint that!”  Now, unbeknownst to me, the artist was standing right behind me!  And rather than take offense, rather than set me straight by detailing the hours it took to produce her art or the skill required to do it “just so”…she clearly heard me say “I could paint that”…and simply replied, “Yes, you could… so what is stopping you?”

         What is stopping you?  That is the question of the day today.  What is stopping you from painting your own masterpiece?  What is stopping you from writing your own great American novel, or running your own marathon?  What is stopping you from traveling to that distant landscape you’ve always wanted to visit, or from climbing a mountain, or finally learning to ski?  What is stopping you from speaking a new language, making a new friend, or deepening your own relationship with God?  What is stopping you?  Probably, it is fear.

And while fear can keep us from jumping off the high dive before we learn to swim, it can also become a debilitating force which keeps us from making any moves at any time.

In the third “Harry Potter” book – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is introduced to his first “boggart”.  Now a boggart is a shape-shifting creature that takes the form of whatever a person fears the most.  I wonder – what would it be for you?  What shape would it take if this mythical creature were to manifest right here in the form of your biggest fear?  Well, it turns out that Harry’s boggart takes the shape of a dementor, a creature with the power to steal a person’s hope.  Discovering this about his brightest student, Professor Lupin says to Harry, “Well, I’m impressed… this suggests that what you fear most of all is – fear.  Very wise, Harry, very wise.”

I am reminded of President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous words, The only thing we have to fear is fear itself… and this echoing sentiment from Eleanor Roosevelt who said:  You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which  you really stop and look fear in the face… You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

         If the Roosevelts were right, then Harry Potter instinctively understood what we all  must acknowledge as well – that there is something hope-stealing and soul-crushing about fear.  Nadia Bolz Weber puts it this way:

            I’ve been wondering this week why fear is such a big deal.  Why does God say to not have this one feeling?  The Bible doesn’t say “be not resentful” or “be not stupid”.  I would love it if “Be not stupid” was a thing God says to us over and over but, no… it’s “Be not afraid”.  Why?  I’m pretty sure it isn’t just one more thing for us to feel bad about – like add not being fearful to the list of things I need to change about myself – like, floss more, watch less TV, eat more kale and be less afraid. When God says over and over “Be not afraid” it’s because fear just isn’t good for our hearts. 

         Fear is not good for your heart or for mine.  It is hard to be loving, it is impossible to be joyful, it is unlikely we will be generous when we are consumed by our fears.  When we imagine our fear is more real than what is really happening in the moment, we give in to the lies of the “boggarts” of our imaginations.  Again, in Bolz-Weber’s words:

Fear takes things away while convincing us that it is actually protecting us.  The only time fear isn’t a liar is when you are actually about to be attacked by a bear or asked to do the chicken dance at a wedding or some other imminent threat.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus tells us that caution and timidity are dangerous ways to live, and self-preservation might just be the most reckless behavior of all.  Fortunately, God does more than simply tell us to “Be not afraid”; God shows us how to get beyond our fears.  The author of 1 John sums it up in one word:  Love.  It is love – specifically, God’s love fulfilled in us – that drives out fear and frees us from its hold on us.  When God’s love flows through us and into the world, amazing things happen. And we discover that there need not be anything stopping us after all.

There is a lot of fear surrounding us in The United Methodist Church these days.  We’ve all heard the talk about schism, the notion that perhaps our denomination has run its course and that we are doomed to divide.  Some people will tell you their biggest fear is that we will stay together without opening up space for our differences, continuing to fake a unity we no longer feel.  For others the biggest fear is that we will split apart, losing the effectiveness we can have when we work together across the globe, doing things like raising over $70 million dollars to eradicate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.

At General Conference this year the decision was made that we needed to empower a special commission to look at our unity and our differences and to propose a new way of being United Methodist to a specially called General Conference in a couple of years.  It is my honor to tell you that I have been asked to serve on this commission.  I will be one of about 30 persons from all over the world who will pray and study, discuss and discern a way forward for us all.

And while I have some hope for the work of the commission, I also must admit to a fair amount of fear.  My biggest fear is not about schism or unity per se.  My fear is that we will come together to do this work with more fear in our hearts than love.  And that we will continue to be consumed by fears, rather than empowered by the Spirit to drive out our fears.

There is a village in France called Le Chambon where an entire community discovered the power of love casting out fear.  During World War II, when the Nazis occupied France, this small village in the mountains decided to put their faith into action.  Together they sheltered and hid over a thousand Jewish children, saving them from certain death in the Nazi concentration camps.  Remarkably, nobody developed a cohesive plan for this and nobody talked about it, even to one another in the village.  They simply knew it had to be done.

The people of Le Chambon surely had ample reasons to fear.  If only one of the villagers had spilled the beans – if even one of them had let fear stop them, the story would have ended in heartache and violence and death.  But they understood that the point of faith is not safety and security so much as it is love.  The point of faith is the kind of love which has the power to cast out fear.  It is the kind of love which means in the end, that there is nothing stopping any of us from becoming the people of God we are meant to become.  It is God’s love.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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