Sermon for November 19, 2017: The opposite of fear (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Several years ago my husband and I were driving Oakland and came upon someone pulled up by the side of the road because of what appeared to be a flat tire. I immediately told him to pull over so that we could help. He was more cautious, worrying that the scenario could be some kind of a trap designed to lure us out of our car so we could be robbed or hurt. This was not an unreasonable idea on his part as there had been news stories at the time about that kind of thing happening. Nonetheless, I insisted we stop, prompting Gary to remark, “Someday you are going to get yourself killed.”
It was not the first time he had offered this opinion. From continuing to work inside a state prison facility during both my pregnancies to stepping in between yelling parents and their cowering children, I am known in my household for being what some people might call “fearless” – and what others might call, “fool hardy.” In a society in which action is generally valued over meditation and physical courage is considered part of our national identity, behavior such as mine is often applauded – even when it shouldn’t be. A little fear is often a healthy thing: it causes us to think before speaking or acting based on impulse rather than intelligence – to “look” as my mother would say, “before you leap.” The question is how we know when we exhibiting sensible caution and when we are just plain chicken.
Sometimes, as we now know from brain studies, we don’t have a choice about being afraid. Much has been made about “the fight or flight response,” wherein our bodies react by shutting down thinking and beefing up physical reaction time in response to a perceived threat. While this biological process was helpful and perhaps necessary during humanity’s early years, however, scientists are now wondering whether it is actually detrimental in a day and age in which we are deluged by rapid and constant communications, many of which occur in short and sometimes incomprehensible sound bites. Scientists are suggesting that there is so much coming at us so quickly that we are in a state of heightened emotion too often to manage. A 2017 American Psychological Association survey found, for example, that more than half of Americans surveyed reported that just following the news causes them stress.
Perhaps that’s why it’s not hard to sympathize with the Israelites living in post-exile Judah who got some bad news of their own from the prophet Zephaniah. “The great day of the Lord is near…that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom,” he tells them. Zephaniah’s is actually just one of several prophetic calls for human annihilation found among the Hebrew prophets. This is not surprising, given that scripture is full of examples of human beings repudiating God, doing evil, and practically begging for destruction. God’s chosen are often violent and warlike, spending much of their time in prayer asking God to rain destruction on their enemies rather than forgiveness for their sins. In that sense, Zephaniah’s prophecy merely gives them a taste of their own medicine. Through it, God tells them that they themselves are just as worthy of the punishments they so diligently pray for others to receive. We are not so different. I don’t know about you, but I often catch myself praying for God to influence the opinions and actions of other people – instead of asking for forgiveness and assistance in improving my own thoughts and behaviors. Zephaniah’s terrifying litany of potential destruction is a powerful reminder to the Israelites – and to us – that all human beings are unworthy of God’s mercy and grace, that we are in as much moral and spiritual danger as those we think of as our enemies. There is, the prophet reminds us, reason to be afraid.
But there is much more reason to hope – not in ourselves and our own abilities and power, but on God’s mercy and love. “You, beloved, are not in darkness,” Paul tells the Thessalonians. You have everything you need to be ready on the day of the Lord. But we mustn’t become complacent. According to Jennifer McBride, “We Christians who live today within various manifestations of Western privilege may do well to heed Paul’s admonition directed toward those who are captivated by the propaganda of the Roman Empire – toward those of us who settle into comfort or power and from that stagnant position live as if all is peaceful and secure.” A little fear is a healthy thing.
But too much fear is not. Too much fear is heresy. That is the lesson that the third servant in today’s gospel learns, much to his despair. Contrary to what you may have heard in numerous stewardship sermons, Matthew’s parable is not about money. Bad investment strategy is not what dooms the third servant. It is fear. All three of the servants in the parable are given much – one talent was worth more than 15 years of an average person’s salary. They have no instructions about what they should do with the immense wealth with which they have been entrusted. They are instead provided with the opportunity to show what they can do with it –and what the third servant does with it is nothing, because the third servant is afraid.
That’s because he is focused on what he has, rather than what might be done with it. And he makes assumptions about the one who has given it to him. He assumes that his master will not be generous, that the lord’s primary desire is to possess, to have. It turns out he is wrong. It turns out that what matters is not what we have that is important, but whether we are willing to risk what we have in the name of the God who gives us everything we possess. “The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything.” Matthew’s parable is not about money at all. It’s about faith, because it is through faith that we find the courage to step beyond our worldly ideas of what is valuable and step into the beautiful and terrifying uncertainty that is God. Just like the Jews of Zephaniah’s time returned from exile to a Jerusalem they did not recognize, just like the Thessalonians who feared that Jesus’s promises had been false, we are reminded that God is our only true refuge, our only eternal dwelling place – and that every risk we take is simply a new opportunity to depend on God.
It is that knowledge that “sustains and upbuilds [us] …in whatever circumstance [we] find [ourselves]”– because the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear is faith. We need not depend on our own impulses – characterological, biological or otherwise- to help us decide what to do when we feel anxious, afraid, or threatened. We need not “bury [our] goodness, time, love, treasure, and talent” in the dark ground of fear. We need only remember that God is with us – no matter what we have, no matter where we are, no matter what we do – and that means that no risk is too great if it is in the service of God. “For all those who have the spirit of God, who have faith, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, no faith, only fear, even what they have will be taken away. Do not fear then my sisters and brothers, much has been given you; believe and live in the spirit of God’s abundance. AMEN.
American Psychological Association (November 1, 2017), “Stress in America,” http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/11/lowest-point.aspx.
Jennifer M. McBride, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 306.
John M. Buchanan, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 312.
John E. Cole, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 306.
Lindsay P. Armstrong, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 311.