1 John 4, Romans 8
October 19, 2014
As I was waking up one morning last week, I was listening to an interview on BBC radio with Frederick Taylor who wrote a history of the Berlin Wall. It was actually the morning of October 9 because it turns out, October 9, 1999 was a crucial day in the history of East Berlin and the Berlin Wall. I put something on Facebook about it.
Earlier in the summer of 1989 a weekly Monday night gathering had begun at a Lutheran Church in East Berlin where people were beginning to organize for greater freedom in East Germany. The crowds got bigger and bigger each Monday, and the authorities were getting more and more irritated. Everybody sensed that October 9 was going to be some kind of watershed moment. The folk gathering at the church were prepared for a government crackdown, the government was expecting some kind of attempt at an overthrow of the government. Lots of people stayed in their homes that night because they were expecting trouble, so there weren’t nearly as many people at the church as there had been on the previous Monday nights.
The folk who were at the church decided to have a prayer service and then they lit candles and marched through the city. And nothing happened. When writing the book, the author asked one of the government officials why the Army backed off that night. She told the author that they were prepared for everything, except they hadn’t prepared for candles and prayers. The author went on to tell the interviewer that October 9, 1999 was the night the people of East Germany lost their fear. In the next weeks the crowds marching through the streets with their candles and prayers got bigger and bigger. Finally, they marched right past the stunned soldiers and started tearing down the Berlin Wall.
So that got me thinking pretty quickly about what things would be like if we lost our fear in this country. We have become such a fear based society. That is nothing new for us. In his famous first inaugural speech in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt told the people of the United States that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” There is a long history of politicians manipulating peoples’ fears in this country including things like the red scare after the Russian revolution and the McCarthy years which were a prelude to the Cold War when we were supposed to be afraid of everything. Here is the well known quote famous lines from a commentary by Edward R. Murrow. “The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep into our own history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular.This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthty’s methods to keep silent. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.”
Once politicians and the media could no longer use the Cold War to stir up our fears, they turned to terrorism. It’s amazing how quickly we surrendered our civil liberties in our country after 9/11. In the debate between liberty and security we have chosen our security. Fear has won again. And fear causes you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Just look at the perpetual war we now have going in the Arab world. Lots of people knew that there was no justification for starting the war in Iraq, that has led to such disastrous consequences. The emperor had no clothes but, like everybody in that story except that one kid, we were too afraid to say anything. And that’s just the way emperors like it.
Just the past few days I read some commentary in the New York Times that said the overarching theme for Republican Campaign for the 2014 elections is “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Be afraid of terrorism, be afraid of ebola, be afraid of same sex marriage, be afraid of tax increases, be afraid of regulations that would curb climate disaster, be afraid of Hillary Clinton, be so afraid that you have no choice but to vote for us. And the democrats response is basically be afraid of Republicans. But you can’t build a country on fear. And these same people who insist this is a Christian country seem to be the ones who appeal so quickly to fear.
A couple of weeks ago there was a seminar that Al Carroll helped plan and organize about conflict transformation with Iraq as a case study. Professor Mahalliti put forth an audacious proposal suggesting that our foreign policy should not be based on what’s best for the national interests, but on making friends. What if we gave up fear for friends in our international relations? Making friends instead of making enemies seems to be not only more productive, but much more in line with what those who claim as a Christian nation would want to endorse.
. Bruce Springsteen sings a song where there is a line about a man having tattoos on the top of his fingers, right below the knuckles. On one hand it says love and on the other fear. You see, hate is not the opposite of love, fear is. And truth be told, most of us I think, live in that land between love and fear. I think the writer of the First Letter of John is on to a universal truth. And it’s not just nations and politicians. It’s us. And it’s perfect love that casts out fear. That’s also a universal truth.
So I am not what one might call an anxious person. I am not what I heard referred to the other day as a catastrophic thinker. Maybe me talking about getting over our fear is a bit presumptuous. But, in my defense, this passage about perfect love casting out fear does speak to me. I may not be anxious, but there is plenty I worry about. And it may seem trivial, but it’s real to me. I think about things like what if nobody likes this sermon, or what if somebody gets upset with me because of something I said, or something I didn’t say? If someone visits church and doesn’t come back, I assume it has something, if not everything, to do with me. What happens if we don’t meet the budget next year, or this electrical work ends up costing way more than we imagined? What if I don’t offer someone what they really need at the time they need it most? What was that funny look on that person’s face after church today, or that pause on the phone? Why didn’t they respond to that email? Our Executive Minister, Alan Newton, is coming in a couple of weeks. What if that is the day lots of us are gone or decide just not to come? What’s he going to think about me if that happens, think about my ministry? (Please be here. And if you wanted to invite a bunch of your friends to church, that would be a good time to bring them with you). So my fears may not be world class fears, but they do exist. I’m not assuming this passage about perfect love casting out fear is directed to others, and not me.
I’m also aware that I don’t struggle with fears on the same level as others do. It’s easy to say let love cast out your fear if you don’t have any trouble loving yourself. I don’t experience that personally, but for most of her life, I and so many others worked so hard at helping our daughter Sarah try to love herself just a little bit. But she could never do it. So I have seen how hard this can be. And I hope I am not throwing out some simplistic answers here.
Here is what I think I know. When we lose our fear we can trust love. But it’s hard to lose our fear alone. We need each other to lose our fear. We can stand tall with and because of each other. Fear is contagious, but so is fearlessness.
What if, together, we kept remembering day in and day out that God loves us. That’s the whole point of why Jesus came to us, to show us that love. And what if we remembered every day that there are people who love us. And what if we focused on those who love us and we love rather than those who don’t or might not love us? What if that love began to crowd out, at least, some of the fear?
I guarantee that everyone in this room is loved. By God and, if nobody else, loved by others in this room. But I also bet there are plenty of others who love each of us as well.
And think about all the people you love. There is plenty of love to draw on both what you give and receive when those voices of fear, within and without, are trying to cast out love. When fear is at the door, don’t cower but stand tall. God and the people who love you and that you love have your back.
If you can’t love yourself, trust the love of God and the love of others for you. It may not sound doable or really helpful, but what’s it going to hurt to try? And if just a tiny bit of the fear gets cast out for just a little bit of time, it seems to me to be better than nothing.
Rob Voyle, who was Bible study leader at Peace Camp in 2011, talked about perfect love casting out our fear. I remember him talking about how for so much of our lives we are waiting for disaster around the corner. You know that feeling of what can go wrong, will go wrong, and it’s just about to happen. The person you don’t want to see, the email you don’t want to receive, the bank statement you don’t want delivered, the doctor’s appointment you don’t want to go to, the test you don’t want to get back, the conversation you don’t want to have, the boss or board member you want to avoid. Those kind of things do seem like they are right around the corner and we can run into them at any time. But Rob said what if we start expecting Jesus around the corner, rather than the things we are afraid of. And even if those things really are right around the corner Jesus is, too.
One of the other things I remember so clearly Rob Voyle saying is to ask ourselves what we want, more life or less death. The love that Jesus showed us, the love that casts out fear is about more life. He doesn’t want us to settle for less death, even though, sometimes that is the best you can get. But don’t settle for less death if you don’t have to.
Some of you have heard me tell this story that I want to close with. Back in the days when we were still a part of the American Baptist Churches of Ohio I was the point guy for the Ohio Baptist Peace Fellowship. We would have a display table every year at the Annual Meeting and there was one very memorable encounter at that table. This man got very angry with me and said that we were not only wrong-headed in working for peace, but that if we had peace in this world then Jesus couldn’t come back. I don’t quite get it, but it is something lots of people believe. They have this whole end times thing going that says the world has to get worse and worse and when it gets bad enough Jesus will come and rescue his followers.
The man finally settled down and we actually got into a good conversation. Here is what he said that continues to move me. “Christians are not supposed to be afraid,” he said, “but everybody in my church is afraid. What you could really do for me is come to my church and speak to our fears. But I know my pastor would never let that happen.”
He knew the way to deal with our fears and more deeply experience God’s love is with each other. He also knew there is lots that keeps that from happening. If I speak to anybody’s fears, all I can do is talk about love.
You’ve got candles. We are going to light them and pray. What walls do you want to tear down?
Do you remember this from the Apostle Paul? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through The One who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.