St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Trinity, June 14, 2020
“Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”
YOU SHAKE as the terror takes over, and your body reacts on its own. Breath comes rapid and shallow. Sweat beads your forehead. You’re cold as ice. You’re not sure you can use your arms or legs, or even speak: a thin scream may be all you’ll manage. The room spins, and sounds echo. Fear has taken you: the instinct for survival in the face of a deadly threat makes you a target of opportunity.
Fear is debilitating. In high stress, fear makes you far more likely to die than if you mastered the fear in order to think and act. The fear might be at simply coming on stage to speak to a crowd. A red and blue light bar flashes in your rear-view mirror. For many of my adult years, I’ve spotted ads titled Back to School, and my stomach got a knot in it. We fear the bathroom scales, a driving test, a new job, meeting the girl’s parents, making a soufflé, or just going into a church. Spiders and snakes get most people, a cougar’s screech echoing off the walls of a blind canyon pretty well gets everyone, or vultures circling overhead. We have fears, and some of them have very real causes.
One clothing brand is called No Fear, their name on every T-shirt they sell. A Christian T-shirt company came out with: Fear Not. There’s a difference, isn’t there? No Fear denies that fear may be useful, and if you are afraid, you’re a whoose. Just to prove you’re not, you must skateboard an empty pool, and flip in midair—did I mention not wearing a helmet? Skydiving, bungee jumping, wingsuit flying, or rock climbing attract thousands of thrill seekers who don’t feel alive unless they’re just about to die. ‘No Fear’ says I will laugh instead of running away, make myself a he-man, insensitive to pain or danger.
Fear Not is an assurance that comes from outside of us. Every angel who appears in Scripture says, Fear Not. Any sane person in the presence of a supernatural spirit is shocked, unsure of what comes next.
Once the angel did not say Fear Not. Balaam’s donkey shied away from an invisible angel, making Balaam mad. Then an angel and his flaming sword appeared. He warned him to say nothing God didn’t put in his mouth—or else. Do fear angels, if only to respect their power.
Being without any fear may seem useful. Some people never fear anything; they draw life from violence and chaos. They’re psychopaths. They may be valuable soldiers, but lacking a sense of danger is not reality. Courage is not a lack of fear: it is facing the fear and standing. Courage is far more valuable and heroic than lacking natural fear.
In extreme situations, stress in facing evil and violence takes control of your mind and body. You can’t slow a heart rate, lower blood pressure, refocus vision and hearing, or alter nerve responses. We must fight our reflexes to maintain the ability to act in our own defense. It’s useful to know you have one bridge to the primitive parts of your brain at such times: breathing. Stop panting and take slow deep breaths, hold them, and exhale, and your pulse will slow, vision and hearing will return, and so forth. You have power to face fear and conquer it.
Our nation has been gripped by fear in many ways this year. A failed impeachment, then a colossal flu supposed to rip through millions of American lives, worse than any disease ever. The economy would crash. A race war brewing, peace destroyed, cities ablaze. And the answer is to dismiss the police forces.
Breathe. It’s okay. It didn’t happen, not like that. Reasons for concern, yes, but we need to control unnecessary panic. The news loves fire and blood. It’s not all that’s happening.
The disciples of Jesus faced their fear. A little time after Pentecost, Peter and John used the Name of Jesus for healing the legs of a cripple at the Temple gate. That got them thrown in jail, then face to face with the same Sanhedrin that sentenced Jesus to death—the very scenario, in fact, where Peter feared so much he denied Christ. Now he’s back, just to tell them Jesus is alive. And he’s going to continue to preach in Jesus’ name, because it’s God’s will. Pretty brave stuff from the fisherman who had cried out, “Depart from me, Lord! I am a sinful man.”
Later the disciples gathered in their meeting room and prayed for God to give them boldness. “Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word… that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” Acts 4:24-30 They didn’t ask protection or safety. They wanted courage. What did God answer? “The place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.” v 31 Boldness is not refusing to see danger. Boldness is courage in the face of an enemy bent on your destruction.
How do you get boldness? You can pray for it, as they did. God is interested in such prayers, and will give you both courage and an opportunity to use it. Do you want to pray such a prayer?
Riding with cops is a study of courage in the face of danger. Cops run to the sound of guns. They hear of an armed robbery and switch something on in their heads that knows what to do, and a right foot floors the accelerator wherever they are. Bulletproof minds spring to action, and yet they don’t do stupid things: part of their training is staying alive. A large part of their success is courage to swiftly face and control a bad guy. Bad guys are all cowards, especially in the face of a uniformed police officer with a gun drawn, shouting: “Drop it!” The Tscht-tscht of racking a shotgun has the same effect.
But you’re not cops. Your fears are something like, “Will they like me?” or “How will we pay for this?” A Christian’s fear is often “How I can be true to God and still an acceptable person to my friends who make jokes about Jesus?” We’ve heard derision against believers, against churches, lumping fundamentalist wackos and pedophile priests together with the rest of us. We fear exposure. What if my friend hates me for inviting her to church? Social pressure, economic crises, COVID19, job loss, unruly kids: these are the monsters we face. Uniforms and guns are useless here. What can we do?
St. John to the rescue! “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” God showed His love by sending His Son. “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another… If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”
Now, here’s your Kevlar vest. God lives in you. God loves you. You live in God. Where is the danger? I love to tell about our friend in Sacramento, a bold black Baptist woman who ran programs for at-risk inner-city kids. Facing down a young gangster with his gun pointed at her, she put her hands on her hips, laughed, leaned back and said, “You can’t threaten me with heaven!” That’s what angels mean by “Fear Not!”
What’s the real danger we face? It’s in ourselves. At his first inauguration in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an Episcopalian, faced his nation in the Great Depression. How did he start his 1st term? With these words.
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” FDR 1st Inaugural
St. John says, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God… God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment.” 1 John 4
How much do you love? Can you truly say, “I love God”? Nobody knows how to do that. It isn’t something you do, it’s something you are, and that only comes from above. Ask for it. You need it to survive.
Can you honestly say, “I love people”? This isn’t common romance—it’s the true romance, the reason we are given these hearts. If you say, “Well, I love some people, but not all of them,” at least you’re honest. Some people are hard to love, to even tolerate. Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Mt 5:44
Fear Not. Courage faces danger, with fear under control, knowing what’s real, and facing it anyway. Love drives out fear, and is the better knowledge of what’s true, what’s lasting, what’s important, and where God is working. Go where He’s working and you’ll be fine. And God is working on love. Go in love and you will always have God with you. And if you have God with you, then Fear Not. Let love drive out fear, for the only thing we have to fear is fear. Fear not. Have courage. Seek love.