1 Church Street
East Harwich, MA 02645
June 20, 2021
A sermon by Rev. Judy Thomas
Fear – we’ve all known it. My strong assumption is we all know it – present tense.
Did you know that October 12, 2021 is International Face Your Fears Day? I kid you not. It was founded 14 years ago by a public speaker named Steve Hughes.
A blurb through Google told me that there are many on-line sources and books that can help you. I wondered if it mentioned the Bible.
A quick scroll down a very LONG list gave me the answer – No.
A couple months ago I asked a group I was leading what their fears were. The list included about ten or so things and among the group there was a lot of concurrence. How many of these would you resonate with?
- Failing health, aging, especially if cognitive decline is part of the picture.
- Fear of failure and meeting people’s expectations. (That was from younger folk.)
- Fear for the safety and welfare of loved ones.
- Fear about the declining and threats to democracy.
- Economic security.
- An African-American woman mentioned fears about losing voting rights, the threat to Black lives from racial profiling and inequities in health care.
- And one woman, reminding me of our daughters fears of spiders, said – snakes!
Of course, I had to Google something about fear and quotes. The first article that came up was “17 Inspiring Quotes to help you face your fears.” Under that it said “Anxiety can stop you in your tracks and hold you back. It’s not easy to face your fears and push through them, but it’s essential.” But to my amazement — Not one quote from the Bible though there was one from Marilyn Monroe.
The quote I liked best was #11 by Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist: “Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now, we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously.” Marvelously? Well, maybe “marvelously” for our age!
Another article said “135 quotes that will make you more courageous.” I didn’t take time to read them.
If I’d asked for biblical quotes, I’m sure I would have seen some. And I did see Adam Hamilton has a 2018 book called Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Time. All this is to say fear is very common. If we have no fears, it makes me wonder if we’re alive!
In this morning’s scripture, the disciples have just been through the worst experience of their lives. The One they have followed, learned from, and loved dearly, has been arrested, beaten, and murdered on a cross. They had gone from the joy of the triumphal entry in to Jerusalem to the depths of despair in one week’s time. (During the pandemic I wonder how many have gone through similar feelings.)
Fear. Fear it seems had kept them from running to the tomb to see if they might encounter Jesus there. Yes, Peter and the beloved disciple had run to confirm that the tomb was empty early in the morning, but they didn’t hang around. They returned home to a locked room. Fear and anxiety as my Google search stated stopped them dead in their tracks. Fear can immobilize the best of us.
This room with ten of the disciples (remember Thomas was absent and Judas, the betrayer was gone) was filled with fear. John says it was for fear of the Jews, but if I had to guess, I’d say there was more than one fear involved. Probably fear of the Romans too. And what happens to us now? Who are we without our fearless leader?
Uncertainty. That room was filled with uncertainty. Then Mary came a second time, still in the morning, now in the light, to tell them she had seen the risen Lord; that he had spoken to her. Could they believe Mary? Not clear. Would you have believed Mary?
You’ve probably been in a fear-filled room some time. Fear is catching.
As far as we know, since scripture doesn’t say, they stayed in that fear-filled, locked room all day.
Thank God, that’s not where the story ends. The God who can-not leave us alone, comes in the person of the risen Christ in the evening with darkness falling. Darkness with all its implications, especially in the Gospel of John. Times of darkness which we all know. Darkness, darkness — remember that — does not keep the Living Word of God out. Locked doors cannot keep Christ out. Fear, uncertainty and doubt cannot keep Christ out.
Jesus comes, wounds and all, to say “Peace be with you.”
Before Jesus leaves, he does three important things. He reminds them again that he offers them peace. But, if I was one of them, anticipating that Jesus might leave, I can feel the fear creeping back into my being. Jesus reminds them of peace, peace he leaves with them – like a gift placed on a table, like a gift placed in their hearts and minds.
The second thing he does is commission them. Do they have to wonder anymore what they are to do? Do they have to remain immobilized, uncertain of what comes next? No. Jesus says “as the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” OMG! Fear again? Maybe. I don’t think they’d lose all their fear of the Jewish leaders and Romans just like that. We rarely lose our fears – just like that. So, Jesus does a third, crucial thing. He says “receive the Holy Spirit.” He breathed on them, just as God the creator breathed life into the first humans, Jesus breathed the power of the Holy Spirit onto them.
With that, I imagine courage and confidence began, maybe with some hesitancy. Because in a week’s time, they will be back in that locked room, this time with Thomas. Maybe learning to deal with fear is a process; maybe it takes time.
Earlier I named some fears friends had shared. Another group I queried added a few more:
- This virus or a mutant, or another virus.
- The survival of the denomination, their church, and then for us in particular, what about this little church on a slight hill in Harwich? Conferences around the country report church closings every year. Last week Karl spoke of three churches in Maine disaffiliating.
What are we to do with all these quite legitimate fears?
Most of us will do something; we won’t be “frozen with fear” and so we need to think about what we can choose to do. One of my Google experts said that the expression of our fears is socially constructed – which means – that we have a tendency to follow the example of others.
Well, that could be good – or NOT so good. John Wesley might say: Do no harm when it comes to your fears. Yet every political season we see politicians on both sides exploiting our fears. Why? It works, Adam Hamilton says in the book I mentioned. We have to choose well for ourselves and for the common good when it comes to how to handle our fears.
I don’t have all the answers, but I think this resurrection story offers us some good suggestions. I think the creed we spoke earlier has some answers. [see UMC Hymnal #883]
Those first disciples – once the reality of Jesus’ living present was clear, let their fears give way to courage. They undoubtedly encountered fear again, we all do, but I imagine they recalled that moment and realized again and again that they live and work and have their being in the presence of the living God. They are not alone.
To walk the road of life while being in ministry with one another, and to have God walk that road with them and us is to increase our courage, our strength, our confidence and our hope. Late Bishop Rueben Job writes: “This does not mean that we will be spared discouragement, disease, or death itself. It does mean that we will never be alone. It means that we will be given strength to meet the demands of our daily lives.
One day at a time. It means that we will know the joy and the [peace] of living in the presence of God in every circumstance of life.”
We need to constantly remind ourselves, maybe daily. A different kind of daily bread.
Community is another part of the answer. The eleven disciples were there together the night of the second encounter. There were other disciples like Mary Magdalene, like Cleopas, like Mary and Martha of Bethany, like the mother of James and John. Together they formed the very beginnings of what would become the church. When we are in the community, like the church, we support each other. We encourage, listen, offer advice – give hugs when we can. We pray together for each other, for our concerns, and bit by bit feelings of peace start to form in our minds.
Prayer is also part of the answer. Prayer is the perfect place to name our fears – as the “Name your fear day” I mentioned a few minutes ago.
Back in the 80s, the associate pastor at the church we attended was talking to me about – I don’t remember what – but it must have had to do with a fear of mine but one that never happened, or I WOULD remember it, said, “Judy, name your fear.”
Naming our fear, whether in prayer or with a good friend, deprives that fear of its power. The worst thing that we can imagine happening practically never happens. Think about that. How many of your worst fears actually happened? Something, Some One, helped you get past that situation because here you are. We need to discuss our fears with our loved ones; we need to not shut them out for a shared fear is less fearful.
Another answer from the story – Jesus gave the disciples a mission. He gave them a purpose – he sent them, in John, it’s to forgive. In Matthew, it’s to make disciples, in Luke, to be witnesses.
Fearing something? – get involved in something. Get out of yourself and into something else, about something or someone else. Wrap yourself up in some cause – big or little. Work in our thrift shop, bake cookies, drive someone to the doctor, join an organization and work for its cause. Be a witness to the love of God in your love for others. In your business you’ll find your fear decreasing.
Finally, remember that Holy Spirit breathed on the disciples. It’s still being breathed on Christ’s disciples. The power of the Holy Spirit goes with you. Every day, every moment. God equips us for the work we have to do.
Let me return to our Buddhist friend Thich Nhat Hanh. Remember he said: “If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now, we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive . . .” That is so similar to what my NY colleague Jim Stinson, who was Conference Consultant in Older Adult Ministries, said. Writing in the Conference newspaper on his 76th birthday three years ago, he reminded readers of a Jesus message in the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” Jim said, in ministering to and with older adults – that’s all of us – a big task is to enable them/us to move from worrying about what might be to thoughts of sufficiency, to awareness that God will strengthen them/us to live each day as fully as possible if they let the past be gone and the future become the present in which God has always been found.
In complete honesty, Jim finishes with, “How to do so? No easy answer,” but I do believe that this story of the first and earliest disciples, those men and women, provide us with a guide and show us the way. Thanks be to God for some answers.