“Fear Cannot Win”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United of Christ
March 17, 2019
When I was twenty five years old and a brand new Associate Pastor at a church in Concord New Hampshire, I was invited to speak at the annual Thanksgiving service. I say “invited,” but really it was one of those things where they get the new guy to do what the rest of the clergy don’t really want to do, which is to preach an extra sermon in an already busy and short week.
Anyway, I felt honored. The service was being held at the local Episcopal church, which was a large cathedral with a beautiful stone floor. When I arrived at the church, the priest informed me that the service would be broadcast on television. And… I freaked out.
I didn’t show my freak out. I acted as cool as cool can be. But to say that I was afraid is an extreme understatement. The TV camera was right in the middle of the aisle, pointing forward like an accusing finger. Instead of the pulpit, I was told to use a music stand, which was on the floor, at the head of the aisle. So, there’s the huge TV camera. There’s the music stand. And there I am, shaking like a leaf.
Before the service, the pastor had said, Watch that music stand, Pete. The top comes off easily. If you need to raise it up, just be gentle. But I wasn’t really listening. I was too nervous and afraid to hear anything except the beating of my own heart.
So, the time for preaching comes around and I walk to the front and center of the church, the heals of my shoes ringing on the stone floor. The pews are full. The camera is rolling. People all over the state of New Hampshire are watching from their living rooms. I place the pages of my sermon on the music stand (which, of course, is too low). I nervously and awkwardly try to raise it up, and the top part flies off into the air, does a double flip, and crashes with incredibly echoing loudness onto the stone floor, the pages of my sermon flittering and scattering everywhere. All caught in living color and with the most up to date sound technology.
Fear is a powerful force. A distracting force. A humbling force. And it’s only funny sometimes, and only when we have some distance from it.
The dark is, of course, the most common fear we share as human beings, and that is because the dark, by definition, creates an unknown space. And the unknown is, as we all know, the scariest thing of all.
In the three decades that I’ve been a pastor, and as a son and brother and father and husband and friend, it hasn’t been cancer, it hasn’t been heart disease or MS, it hasn’t been any of those terrible illnesses that have struck fear in the heart of my parishioners and my loved ones. It’s been the unknown illness, the lack of a diagnosis, the absence of answers from the doctor that have been the hardest on the people I’ve served and loved.
When I was about five years old, my brother and I got lost when my family was having a picnic. I felt so completely safe with my big brother that I thought it was all a fun adventure. But my brother cried and cried because he wasn’t sure we were going to get out of the woods safely.
It’s the unknown that is so incredibly scary.
Will our children make it though those tumultuous teenage and young adult years? Will they make it through college? Will they become addicted to alcohol or opioids? Will they, as my mom used to say, wind up in a ditch? Will they become undone by anxiety or depression? Will they find true friends? Will they find someone to love? Will they find meaningful work?
Being a parent is scary when our kids are little and vulnerable. What we didn’t know then is that it gets even worse when our kids grow up and we have absolutely no control over their lives.
And there are other things to be afraid of.
Will our marriage survive the traumas and challenges that happen to all committed couples? When we know in our heart that it’s time to end a relationship, will we be able to summon the courage to make that call? Will everyone hate us for doing so or will they support us? Probably some of both. Will we come out the other end in one piece? Yes, but, it’s unknown territory. And that’s scary as hell.
All of us who are married or in committed relationships had to make a decision at some point. Is this the person? Men tend to have a harder time committing, but it’s not easy for anyone. Will my heart be safe with him? With her?
When it’s time to leave a job that just doesn’t feel right any more, will we find another, better one, one that pays the bills and doesn’t degrade our souls and that makes us feel useful and satisfied at the end of the day? Yes, we usually will find that new and better job, but it’s scary to make that leap, to say goodbye to the devil we know and to trust some new, unknown group of people with our everyday life and livelihood.
We have all heard about the shooting at the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that happened this past week. Fifty people dead. Fifty more seriously wounded. The accused shooter is a hateful white supremacist and there are more of those guys out there. The dead and wounded were simply spending time at their place of worship to pray and listen for wisdom and connect with God — just like you and I are doing right here, right now.
In the wake of those shootings, the prime minister of New Zealand is calling for stricter gun laws. She, along with many others in her country and across the world, are afraid that easy access to guns, especially when it comes to people who have shown themselves to be unstable or violent, will lead to more mass shootings. That seems like a legitimate fear to me. Why should our kids have to worry about their lives when they go to school in the morning?
Those who want fewer restrictions on guns are also afraid, afraid perhaps of having their right to protect themselves curtailed or taken away. I have a hard time understanding those who won’t support basic, common-sense gun laws, like background checks. But there are people in my family and people whom like and love who feel that way, so, even though I disagree with them vehemently, I’m trying to understand them. Is it about fear? I think it probably is.
In the psalm we read today, the author writes, Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
Sometimes, in the scariest of our struggles, it’s self-assurance that we really need. If we feel confident that we can endure or overcome or move through our troubles to a better place, then fear will not have power over us, will not debilitate us.
And that higher power, that divine Spirit that we often call God, can give us that confidence. It’s a matter of faith, or we might say, trust. If we trust God, we can move through anything and know that we will be OK on the other end. That we can even walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil.
The psalmist, at the end of today’s reading, speaks of waiting. We’re terrible at waiting, aren’t we? We’re impatient. We want resolution as soon as possible! We want the waiting to end. We want answers now!
And yet, in this season of Lent, patience is one of the disciplines we ask one another to embrace. Waiting for Jesus to share more wisdom. Waiting for the Spirit to move us toward a greater maturity of faith. Waiting for relief and joy as we experience frustration and sadness. Waiting for transformation and resurrection as we experience challenge and loss.
One of the best things about being in a spiritual community like ours is that we do our waiting together. We have each other’s backs! When we are together, we don’t have to allow fear to overcome us or to dictate our decisions.
We don’t have to let fear win. We can’t let it win.
When fear wins, we escape into tribes, become terrified of outsiders, and use our resources not to help others, but to insulate ourselves.
When fear wins, we create a world of bullet proof vests, handguns, and tax dollars spent on nuclear weapons. When fear wins, how can we commit to anything or take any risks? How can we be generous if we’re afraid there isn’t enough for us?
Everybody feels afraid sometimes. Even Jesus experienced fear. But fear cannot win. Think about your own fears. Don’t let them win.
Faith must win!
Faith in the abundance God provides and will provide. An abundance of hope. An abundance of love. An abundance of everything we need to live our lives fully and joyfully and generously.