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April 2, 2001

Nobody Lives Without Fear

The Rev. Dr. Bill J. Leonard
Dean and Church History Professor
Wake Forest University Divinity School
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
(This sermon is also available in audio)

Please hear the reading of the word of God from Genesis, the 28th chapter, the 16th verse and following:

When Jacob woke from his sleep, he said, "Truly, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it." He was awestruck and said, "How awesome is this place. This is none other than the House of God. It is the gateway of heaven." Early in the morning when Jacob awoke, he took the stone on which his head had rested and set it up as a sacred pillar, pouring oil over it, and he named that place Bethel. This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God. May we pray:

We gather around your word one more time, oh, God, glad to be in this good place, glad to be together, and glad to be with you through Christ our Lord, Amen.

I was scared—sixteen years old and scared. Jesus Christ was going to return at any moment, and I was scared. It was the last night of church camp, and the preacher had practically promised that Jesus would return by morning, and in the mildewed darkness of the dormitory—I can smell it yet—I was scared. Scared Jesus might not show up after all, which meant we'd been hyped up by another preacher trying one more time to squeeze salvation into our post-pubescent little hearts. After all those tears and all that rededication, Jesus had better show up.

I was scared he wouldn't, but I was also scared he just might return after all. Scared he would appear with a shout, and a list of all of my sixteen-year-old sins would roll across the sky like credits at a Texas drive-in movie. Scared he would return before I graduated from high school, and I would have taken plane geometry for nothing. My teacher kept saying, "The theorems will all dawn on you one day." Well, perhaps yet as we speak. That night I lay there in the dark, waiting on Jesus—scared to leave this world and scared to stay; scared God would find me and scared God wouldn't.

Well, I am still waiting on Jesus, and I am still scared. Oh, my fears have become a little more sophisticated, and my coping mechanisms a little more complex, but the world remains a scary place, if for no other reason because of hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes and cancer…all those things that can turn daydreams instantly into nightmares. I am struck by how much of human life is an occasion for fear and what the Gospel says about all that. There are of course degrees of fear—a spectrum that runs all the way from occasional apprehension to imminent dread to bone-chilling terror.

The biblical writers use numerous words to reflect the many fears that affect the human condition. We translate them variously: to be troubled, to be terrified, to tremble, to be afraid, to fear, and to reverence. "Though the world seems formed in love," Herman Melville wrote, "the invisible's fears are formed in fright." In the tormented Captain Ahab, Melville explored the terror of that inner-sphere that exists in every one of us. "The basis of all things is to be afraid," William Faulkner wrote, and God knows he found fears aplenty in the Southern species of everybody.

Biblical writers, philosophers, literaries—they're all right. Nobody lives without fear. No life is fully immune from the variety of fears that afflict and affect us all. Life is too unpredictable to remain stoic in every crisis. At any moment it can take that unexpected turn and leave us high and dry in some undeserved crisis or ill-begotten wilderness. What scares you? Being lost? Being found? Being found out? Leaving home? Staying put? There is no life without fear; no faith, either, for that matter. So perhaps on the way to Golgotha, we might take a look at what scares us, and what in God's name we dare do about it.

The Bible has a lot to say about fear, perhaps because it's full of stories about people scared of God, scared of themselves and scared of each other. Fear is there almost from the beginning. Adam said, "I heard the sound of Thee in the garden. I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself." Sarah was afraid when she realized that she had laughed in God's face at the thought of pregnancy in her post-menopausal body. The children of Israel stayed "sore afraid," the King James Bible says, of almost everything: Egypt, the wilderness, even Canaan. They even created their own golden calf to provide some fourteen-carat courage in the wilderness, and then were forced to drink it down like bad medicine on the morning after the night before.

And don't forget Jacob out there in the dark, scared Esau might find him and take revenge; scared the God of Abraham and Isaac would find him and roll his sins across the Palestinian sky. They made quite a list: cheated brother, lied-to father, used mother. The name "Jacob" means heel and he turned out to be one. Maybe Jacob was afraid God would find him out there alone and the sins would catch up with him at last. Or perhaps when the sun went down, Jacob got scared God couldn't find him alone in the dark when the jackals howled and the moon went behind a cloud. Maybe God wouldn't or couldn't find anybody that far from ethics and from home. But God does find Jacob, and visits him with outlandish promises and unrequited love. I would have fried the little sucker out there in the desert for all he'd done. Instead, God tells him he is chosen, of all things, and then Jacob got really scared.

He was afraid, the text declares, and he said, "This is a totally awesome place." Jacob talked a little punk when he got scared. "This is none other than the House of God—Bethel, the gate of heaven." The place where God is known is sometimes a scary place because it is God's place—unprogrammed, unpredictable. A place where God may call us to move outside the preconceived notions and safe boundaries, beginning again on the way to God knows where. Just when we think God can't show up or we hope God won't, the Spirit finds us. With a word we least expect and do not deserve, and sometimes we get scared.

A few years back I was teaching undergraduates, which are great fun to teach. I was asked to teach New Testament Introduction. I remember saying to a friend, "I've taught Church History forever; I don't know anything worth teaching about the New Testament. I love it and read it and preach from it, but I can't teach it." My friend, who has taught undergraduate for years, said, "Don't worry. You don't have to know anything to teach freshmen." So I taught the class using this wonderful textbook that had a paragraph in it about biblical authority. A student came to see me and said, "Uh, you can't use this book anymore. This paragraph is going to steal students' faith." I said, "A paragraph can steal your faith? If a paragraph can steal it, there wasn't much there, anyway." Then I said, "Don't worry about it; I know it's liberal, but hey, it's got pictures." He said, "Fine," and we were good.

We get scared of texts—Bible and otherwise that come our way. Perhaps it was time we were all scared by God again. Oh, not the way many of us used to be scared or tried to scare each other in God's name; not the vicious, smug God who could hardly wait for us to make a mistake, who took pleasure in punishment, a pulpit caricature for purposes of intimidation. Rather, we might be afraid of the God who is not like any other—the God that neither our best intentions nor our worst manipulations can control. The God who cannot be forced to do anything by majority vote; the God who does not have to be proven by performing tawdry, little magic tricks to convince people to believe. That God is frightening. We can't be safe around that presence, not the way we want to be safe and in control. And then there is Jesus. In him, this powerful, unpredictable God took the form of a servant and humbled himself and became obedient to death.

Annie Dillard says, "So once in Israel love became incarnate, stood at the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid." Jesus was a little scary, wasn't he? Herod was scared he would lose some of the kingdom and the power and the glory he had worked so hard to secure. He was afraid he would lose it to a little baby in Bethlehem; best to kill all the babies and keep the constituency in line in that region.

The disciples were scared they would get the worst seats in the kingdom, you know, down at the end of the table by a Gentile or a crippled person or a prostitute or perhaps, worst of all, somebody from Oklahoma. Even John the Baptizer, if not scared, was very worried. After the baptism John winds up in prison, and he sends Jesus the word, "Are you really the one or should we wait for somebody else? What if you are not the lamb of God and I have missed the real Messiah?" Jesus sends word, "Tell John what you observe—the blind see, the deaf hear, the poor get the good news." The scariest and the most scared people have received the word of God. There is the Gospel of it, in prison or in pain, cut off from everything but fear itself, God.

The Gospel could not keep John out of prison or worse, nor could it keep fear from finding its way into the strangest of the prophets. It will not keep fear from us either. James Baldwin said it with his characteristically earthy way, "Don't try to defend yourselves against fear—that is, think you can live above them or outsmart them. To defend one's self against a fear is simply to insure that one will one day be conquered by it. Fears must be faced."

Let's turn from the ministry of fear denial, toward discipleship as a way of living with fear and finding ways to deal with it. The scripture not only admonishes the people of God to fear not, it confesses with the Psalmist, "When I am afraid, I will trust in you."

It's easy to get scared in the church when the money runs out and the creditors run in, and the sickness and death find their way even to the sacred space. But more likely it is scarier out there in the world. What can the Gospel possibly mean to those who live in Bosnia or Belfast, Ramalla or Jerusalem this very day? How can we live in places like that and not be scared? What about the urban folks afraid to open the door and go out on the streets, or those who live alone in the anonymity of the American metropolis? What can we do about the fears that won't go away?

Martin Luther King, Jr. once recalled a day in Philadelphia, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement when he just gave up. "I wouldn't say I was afraid. I yielded to the possibility of death. When Ralph Abernathy started to pray we closed our eyes, and I just knew they were going to drop on us. Ralph said he prayed with his eyes open."

I think that is all I wanted to say to you today. Let's not let anybody, an angel from heaven, or anybody, tell us that even Jesus can take away all the fear all at once all the time. Sometimes, like Martin Luther King, we get strength and we stand unafraid in the face of trouble. But sometimes, like Ralph Abernathy, you are so scared that you pray with your eyes wide open. Maybe with luck or grace we will discover what Paul wrote audaciously: "Hard-pressed on every side, we are never hemmed in. Bewildered, we are never at our wit's end. Struck down, we are not left to die."

Wherever we go we carry death with us—the death that Jesus died—that in this body also life may reveal itself, the life that Jesus lived. We're all scared, you and I, scared God will show up and scared God won't. Scared we can't do ministry and scared we can't do anything else; scared life will do a job on us and scared we won't be able to handle it. Like Paul, we have plenty to be frightened of, but there is life in us—the life that Jesus lived. What of Jesus and the cross? "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Was he scared, too? Then, there is hope.

May we pray:

Send us out from this place, oh God, facing our fears with You. Now go in peace, and as you are going, know this: By the grace of God you were brought into this world. By the mercy of God you have been sustained to this very moment. And by the love of God fully revealed in Jesus the Christ, you are being redeemed now and forevermore. Amen.


Copyright ©2001 The Rev. Dr. Bill J. Leonard
Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN as part of the Lenten Preaching Series.



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