Confronting Fear

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on August 13, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 10:5-15 + Matthew 14:22-33

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Pray with me this morning, church:

Speak to us this morning, God.
By your Spirit, speak to us, in spite of me.
Let your Gospel take root in our hearts,
And may it begin to completely transform our lives.
Amen.

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As my plane landed in Houston on Thursday, as we were taxing to our gate, the fight attendant came on overhead as they often do. And she thanked us for, “Choosing Southwest Airlines to hurtle us through the air at 600 miles per hour tens of thousands of feet above the surface of the earth in a 75-ton aluminum tube………oh, and by the way, welcome to Houston.”

I let that sit with me for a minute… She was right, of course. What the heck was I thinking?
People aren’t made for flying, at least without some help. And yet we do. Every day over 2 million people take to the skies.
We put a lot of trust in those 75-ton tubes of aluminum.

In the same way, we put a lot of trust in the hunks of steel and aluminum that we go floating in, cruising over the depths of the world’s oceans. People aren’t made for floating on top of water, at least without some help.

Hurtling thousands of feet above the earth… Perilously perched atop the depths of the sea… Pretty frightening stuff.

There’s a lot in our world that we should rationally be afraid of. Natural phenomena and weather patterns, in my opinion, are chief among them. They’re just so unpredictable.
So it’s no wonder the disciples were terrified when a storm popped up while they were out to sea. By the way, the Greek there translates as about half a mile out to sea, so not exactly close to safety.

And then Jesus has the audacity to tell them, “Do not be afraid.”
Yeah, right. Easy for Jesus to say, he gets to walk on top of the water.

Fear is paralyzing. Fear prevents us from engaging and interacting in certain ways and with certain people. Fear causes us to behave irrationally.
Fear…is the root of hatred and evil.

We’re suspicious of things that we’re afraid of. We might not understand them. We treat things and people as less than when we’re afraid of them.
Fear, in and of itself, isn’t sinful. But it’s a short walk from being fearful to acting with hatred, bigotry, violence, and evil.
Because when you’re suspicious of someone and you treat them as less than, you begin to believe, internalize, and display all sorts of sinful and evil things…like you’re the better race, the better gender, the better sexuality, the better religious belief, the better nationality, the better political party…insert any other determining and dividing factor here… And more than just believing that you’re better, when that sin starts to grow, you start to believe that there’s a preferred gender, race, sexuality, nationality, religion, political party…and that all others are wrong.

Yes, it is true that we have a long way to go to heal some of the deep wounds between us, and there are inroads to be made on all sides, but let’s be absolutely clear, there was only one group of people in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend who were telling people who didn’t look like them that they didn’t belong, beating them, hurling slurs and objects at them, and driving cars at them. There was only one group of people in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend using torches, slogans, and insignia, that many of us may have thought were buried to the dark pits of history, from decades ago, using them to incite fear into the hearts and minds of anyone who doesn’t think like them.

Sometimes fear is rational. For example, when someone believes that your life, that who you are as a beloved child of God, exactly who God created you to be, is any less valuable than any other life.
Sometimes fear is quite irrational. For example, fear that comes from suspicion of someone because they’re different. The irrational fear that manifests itself as hatred, racism, white supremacy, bigotry, and violence.
The irrational fear that causes some to feel more upset that I just said “white supremacy,” rather than because a 32-year old woman was murdered.
That fear is sinful. And it is evil.sunrise cross

So, what to do, church?
What are we, called as followers and disciples of the one who rejects violence…who rejects the oppression and marginalization of people…who consistently aligns his ministry with the poor, the outcast, the despised, the hated, the afflicted, the racial minority, the gender minority, the orphaned, the widowed, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned—the less-thans…the one in whom, as St. Paul tells us in Romans this morning, there is no distinction, no Jewish believer or Gentile believer, no male or female, no superior race, no preferred sexuality, no better-than, no distinction, no hierarchy…what are we supposed to do in a time such as this?

You know, I had a great sermon planned out about trusting in the midst of rough waves and where we place our trust…but sometimes certain events demand a rewrite.

But maybe all is not lost.
Maybe we can still begin to learn to trust in the midst of fear.

I had a great line about Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid” earlier this year. Maybe you remember it from the beginning of February.
It goes like this: God does not say don’t be afraid because there’s nothing to be afraid of. God says do not fear, but rather trust that in all things God is with you. That God is with you in the midst of your fears and worries.
God says do not fear, because in the death and resurrection of Christ, God has taken away and freed you from the power of sin and death. God has overcome death and is actively at work redeeming the world, and does so through you, so you are free to live out your identity as children of God. To speak God’s peace and God’s justice to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
In that way, then, I think “Do not be afraid” are some of the most comforting words I could hear.

They’re also some of the most challenging. Because they mean that rather than living a life of fear, I actually have to trust—I have to have faith—that God’s going to do what God says God’s going to do. That God does work for the good of God’s people. That God is at work actively redeeming the world and making it holy. That God is working to bring about God’s kingdom—God’s vision for the world—the reign of God where righteousness, justice, equity, and peace are the laws we live by, the slogans we chant, and the causes we march for.

“Do not be afraid” is a challenge and a comfort because while it calls me to live in spite of my fears, it also gives me hope and helps me to trust…to have faith…that I can live beyond those fears.

In our Gospel this morning Jesus calls Peter out of the boat into the raging storm and perilous waves, and Jesus is there to catch Peter, and to hold him when his fears overtake him. And then while Jesus does calm the waves in our Gospel this morning, first he climbs in the boat with his disciples.
Church, Jesus is with us in our fears; God is with us, in our fears and calling us beyond our fears, calling us to live in spite of our fears.
Jesus is calling us out of our places of relative safety, out into a world where storms and waves rage, to confront some things that are absolutely tough, but so necessary.
And Jesus is there to hold us in the midst of those storms, getting into the boat with us, and calming those storms.
And that is indeed good news, because when we trust that that’s true, we can live boldly into the future God is calling us into, daring greatly to embrace those things that might have felt out of reach or impossible or far too idealistic.

When we have faith, however much or little, that God is with us in the midst of our fears, we can begin to live beyond our fears, into lives full of possibility and promise.

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These Are The Facts

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 5, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Isaiah 58:1-12 + Psalm 112:1-10 + 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 + Matthew 5:13-20

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Please pray with me this morning:

Holy God,
You tell us the truth about ourselves.
That we are salt. That we are light. And you call us to live like it.
Remind us of these truths, these facts, when we are fearful.
And especially when we aren’t feeling particularly flavorful or luminous.
Amen.

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A few years ago I was making the solo 14-hour drive from Chicago to Arlington, TX. I was doing it solo because I had a meeting with my candidacy committee and Tiffany had to work, so I set off on my own. I left Chicago about 5:30 in the morning, grabbed my Starbucks iced coffee with 4 shots of espresso, and away I went. I turned on NPR as I do quite often, and I just kept going. I got about halfway down Illinois before I had to switch radio stations, and then I found the central Illinois NPR station, then the southern Illinois NPR station, and then the St. Louis area NPR station, and at that point it really just became a game. I made it almost to Joplin, Missouri before I was no longer able to find a public radio station.

I went almost 9 hours and nearly 900 miles of just listening to news and facts and commentary.
That’s another reason I was driving alone, because there’s no way Tiffany would have let me do that if she were in the car…

I consume information.
I listen to public radio, I read blogs, and articles, and headlines, and updates.
I am data junkie.

But to what end? What does my consumption of information do for me?
I certainly consider myself well informed. I purposefully seek out perspectives that are different than mine. But ultimately, what have I gained?

Knowledge without purpose isn’t useful. Our knowledge needs direction.
Consider us this morning, church. I mean, for the most part, we have a lot of information about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and God. We know a lot of stuff.
But knowledge for knowledge’s sake is just that…information, data…

But what if we amassed information and knowledge for the sake of the actual, physical, life-or-death difference it might make on the life of another?

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that knowledge about God cannot exist simply as knowledge. Knowledge about God—or more simply, theology—is the knowledge of God’s very presence in the world. To know about God is to notice the ways God is moving and active in our world.
It’s not enough, then, to know about God. As disciples, we have to live into, we have to be the activity of God in the world.
It’s not just that we are salt and light, Jesus calls us to be salt and light.
Jesus calls us to live out our identity as salt and light.

To let our righteousness, or more accurately translated justice, exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
That type of justice is an embodied justice, it’s actualized.
Like Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Church, it’s one thing to sit in here for an hour on a Sunday morning and nod our heads in agreement because everything I’m saying and everything we’re praying and singing sounds really good and really, wouldn’t that be lovely…but it is a wholly different thing to take these words to heart, and not just to take them to heart, but to let them seep into our very bones, the very fibers of our being, and have these words bind up our lives so that we can’t not go out and do the very things that the Gospel is calling us to do.

Knowledge without purpose, without action, perpetuates the way things are.
Knowledge without action allows us to see injustice in the world, but justify our inaction because it doesn’t square exactly with our worldview, or the problem is just too big, or there are too many problems, or “I’m just one person, so what difference could I really possibly make…”
Friends, it is a myth and a lie that injustices in the world are mutually exclusive. Yes, our world is rife with injustice. Yes, our world looks very different than the vision of the peaceable kingdom that God envisions for God’s world. But dear people, this is an opportunity, not a prohibitive excuse!
Because these are the facts: You are salt. You are light.
And as claimed, and called, and beloved children of God, we must start living like it. Because it is truly a matter of life or death.

Knowledge without purpose allows us to continue in the dominant narratives of fear that we tell ourselves.

I fully believe that, fundamentally, it is fear that prevents us from truly living as God calls us to live, as salt and as light.
And so I wonder, church, what are you afraid of? What do you fear?

How you answer that question probably depends on your demographic or your social location.
For example, if you’re a 30-something like me, you might fear that you’ll never be able to pay off the mountains of student debt you might have.
Or if you’re a little older, you might fear the increased number of visits to the doctor, or the myriad of specialists you now have to make appointments with.
If you identify as LGBTQ, you might be fearful of being able to be your fullest self, for fear that some people might not accept those parts of you.
If you have a daughter, or son, or family member, or loved one serving in the military, you might fear the prospect of them being put in harm’s way, or worse, returning from their service only to be so deeply emotionally and mentally affected that they’re just not the same again, only to find a system not set up to give them the support that they need and deserve.
If you have family or loved ones overseas, you might fear for their safety. You might legitimately be afraid of going to visit them, for fear of not being able to return home.
These aren’t politics, church, this is real.
Just this weekend, a hate-filled note was left at the house of someone in the Riverstone community, just down the road. This also happened in Sienna Plantation. And near the Galleria.
This is not who we are.
These are all real, actual fears that many of you sitting here this morning have.
These are all real, actual fears that many of your siblings in Christ have.

barbed_wire_in_the_sky

Friends, don’t hear me saying that fear isn’t real, or that fear isn’t warranted. God does not say don’t be afraid because there’s nothing to be afraid of. God says do not fear, but rather trust that in all things God is with you. That God is with you in the midst of your fears and worries.
God says do not fear, because in the death and resurrection of Christ, God has taken away and freed you from the power of sin and death. God has overcome death and is actively at work redeeming the world, and does so through you, so you are free to live out your identity as children of God. To speak God’s peace and God’s justice to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
Rather than practicing self-serving fasts, like the prophet in Isaiah says. Rather than quarreling and fighting and going back and forth on facebook.

Because “This is the fast that I choose,” says the Lord, “To loose the bonds of injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your own house, to clothe the naked, to give to those who ask of you
Then your light will shine forth like the noonday! Then your light shines in the darkness!”
Then…you are being light.

You are free to be Christ…to be the very embodiment of God…to be Love…to your neighbors who are fearful. Who need to be wrapped in the loving warmth of God.
You are free to be salt and light to a world that needs to be flavored and illumined.
Don’t let your fear prevent you from living out the truth of who God calls you to be.
God says be salt and be light anyway, in spite of your fear.
Because by doing so, maybe…maybe…we can begin to overcome our fears.

If I’m honest, sometimes my continuous consumption of information makes me feel overwhelmed and causes fear to rise up inside me. And it’s not easy to see God in the midst of those times. But when I take time to pause, and breathe deeply, and really look for God, often a small flicker of light, a glimmer of hope, catches my eye.
It happened to me two weeks ago, when I was feeling particularly discouraged and fearful. And just then an unread email caught my attention. It was from a then-unknown friend at The Islamic Institute here in Houston. One of my predecessors had reached out to them and begun conversations about finding opportunities for partnership between our congregation and any number of Islamic faith communities in our area.
He and I have only just started exchanging emails, but I am so, so hopeful for the future directions of these conversations. I hope we can build bridges of peace in our corner of the world, rather than digging deeper trenches of division.

What do people see when they see you? Do they see salt that has lost its taste, or light that has been snuffed out under a basket?
Church, we are salt. We flavor the world we inhabit. Let that flavor be good and wonderful and pleasing to God.
We are light. Light that shines forth from us wherever we go. I hope that what people see from us is beautiful and Christlike. That people see Christ in us, and give glory and praise to God in heaven.

These are the facts, Church:
We are a city on a hill. We are the salt of the earth. And we are the light of the world.
Christ has freed us to live it.