SERMON Easter 6C 5/26/19 St Monica’s Episcopal Church
Fear and An Anxious World
A few years ago, a friend gave me a framed picture that today, sits on a shelf in my office. The caption on the picture says, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” For me, those words mean, “having the faith to face and move through my own fears, means I must rely solely on a power greater than my own.” I look at this picture every day and it reminds me that anxiety can literally control our everyday existence. Fear is a natural part of life, but thanks be to God we are not left alone to face our fears, or to live with the outcomes our fears can create.
An article in Psychology Today reports, “Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger; and it has strong roots in human evolution.”(6) In our earlier existence, we managed to avoid being eaten by saber toothed tigers or other wild beasts, because of our “fight of flight” response brought on by fear. The articles also said, “in the modern world, individuals often fear situations where the stakes are much lower, but their body and brain still treat the threat as lethal.” In other words, modern humans still see non-life threatening issues as life threatening and thus, we may react in ways that are illogical. We may decide to fight the perceived fear (or the person creating it), or we may even take flight, or “avoid challenges that could benefit (us) in the long run.” (6) We are an anxious nation today, and I am concerned how many of us live in perpetual fear, fear that can stifle our creativity, our openness to intimacy, and the inevitable ways fear will cause us to treat one another. Jesus offers a third path to freedom from fear.
I imagine Our Lord knew that we his church will always be capable of living in fear, and he knew that his church would face many grave terrors, as she carried out her mission over the centuries. When you bring a message of radical joy to this world, you have to expect challenges, but Jesus said, as we heard in today’s gospel,” Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Despite the fears and anxiety each of us face in our lives today, we have an abundant source of peace that passes all understanding, but many of us fail to tap into it.
Conflict and Jesus’ Promises
When I served on the bishop’s staff, a couple of times I was sent in to help with some incredibly surprising conflicted parish situations. I saw first hand how fear and anxiety, and the inability to openly, lovingly, and calmly speak to one another about our differences, can end up tearing a community apart. Little things usually were the early catalysts for the kinds of troubles that led to strife and infighting. I always wondered what would have happened in those situations, if the people had been willing to seek the guidance and presence of God’s Spirit throughout the conflict, or even to actually talked to each other about their fears, concerns, mistakes, or misunderstandings. You know, that kind thing Jesus told us about loving one another?
Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving God seems to be the easy command for many of us to follow, but loving neighbor (even today) seems to be our struggle. Differing political opinions have become the dividing wedge of very fabric of our great union, so we should not be surprised to see conflict ultimately divide churches. Conflict happens, disagreements happen, misunderstandings happen, and these things have the potential to move communities to new levels of effective ministry. However, an unhealthy approach to those challenges we face, results in our abandoning the “loving neighbor” Jesus speaks about.
How we deal with one another, how we engage together in the mutual work of love becomes the icon through which, the world hears and sees the gospel enacted. Theologian Gregory Jones, in an article he wrote stated, “The peace Jesus brings is not the superficial avoidance of conflict; rather it is the peace embodied by communities that deal constructively with conflict through the power of the Spirit.” (2) Jesus’ promise of “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” is not mere sentimentality, but it is a promise of hope into which we all can live. Fear, anxiety, and conflict are real, and they can be paralyzing or freeing, and Jesus promises a helper in the midst of these struggles, fear, and anxiety.
Jesus said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Greek word for Advocate is παράκλητος, which means, “one summoned and called to one’s side (to one’s aid); or a helper, aider, assistant. Jesus promises that although his earthly resurrected bodily presence would be no longer visible until his return, we were not to be left alone.
In other words, when fear and anxiety raises its ugly head, “Imagine the Spirit in this other role, as one who cares for the church in the interim between Jesus’ departure and return, as one who comforts, teaches, reminds us.”(3) God does not abandon us to our own devices, but we must be willing to invite the Spirit to lead us.
Theologian Gregory Jones asserts, “We need to be written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 21:10, 27). That is likely to happen only insofar as we are active in communities that take time for the Spirit’s guidance about how we might become holy in faithful discipleship.”(2) In other words, if seek the guidance of the Advocate who will show us the way, if we seek God’s way, if we lean on the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit for all we do, we will never lose sight of our purpose; and God’s mission enacted through us.
Our mission statement at St. Monica’s is simple, easy to remember, and rock solid. “Engaging, equipping and empowering one another to live our baptismal promises.” In other words, the core purpose of St. Monica’s is to engage, or to attract others to become involved and participate in the life of this community. Our purpose is to equip, or supply the necessary resources and prepare someone for life in this community. Our purpose is to empower, or share leadership and make someone stronger and more confident to live in this community. We are to be about the work of Engaging, equipping, and empowering God’s people to actually live out the promises we have taken, which are:
To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
To persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself
To strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being
We do not need to form a new committee or task force to develop some fancy, catchy, new vision or mission statement, we need to embrace the vision God has already given us. This is our vision and our purpose, but we cannot do these things as mere rugged individuals with our own agendas, doing our own thing, and hoping everyone else will see it our way. It is only when we as a community are vitalized by the Holy Spirit of God, and unified in common mission that we will be able to fulfill our purpose.
At the ordination of a priest, on the Day of Pentecost, and during other solemn occasions in the church, it is appropriate to sing a beautiful hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, or “Come Creator Spirit.” Incredibly powerful words are found in two of these verses :
“Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come, from thy bright heav’nly throne; come, take possession of our souls, and make them all thine own.” “Far from us drive our deadly foe; true peace unto us bring; and through all perils lead us safe beneath thy sacred wing.”
We are not alone in this mission of God’s love and so, we must call upon God’s Spirit to take possession of our souls. We cannot let fear and anxiety become the stumbling blocks that keep us from God’s mission in the world. We must not allow unhealthy conflict to constrain our unity in common mission. We must be willing to do the hard work of honest, open, loving dialogue even when we disagree, or when we unintentionally hurt one another, or when we are struggling in our own anxiety and fear.
Jesus promises us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” For us to faithfully live into that promise, even when our fear and anxiety move us to seek our own self-preserving agendas and actions, when conflict happens (and it will) we need the Holy Spirit to guide and show us the way. We cannot do this work of love alone and so, in those moments when we are afraid, uncertain, and frustrated; in those moments when we hurt one another unintentionally, or we are confused, or we feel lost all we need to do is love one another. If courage really is fear that has said its prayers, then let our prayer be, “Come Creator Spirit Come.”
(1) Guthrie, Suzanne. “The Turn in the Path.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 15, May 2001, p. 13.
(2) Jones, L.Gregory. “Taking Time for the Spirit.” The Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 15, Apr. 1992, p. 451.
(3) Somerville, James Green. “Who Will Take Care of Us.” The Christian Century, vol. 115, no. 14, May 1998, p. 471.
(4) Welker, Michael. “The Holy Spirit.” Theology Today, vol. 46, no. 1, Apr. 1989, pp. 5–20