Lives Without Fear
Rev. Dr. Bill J. Leonard
and Church History Professor
Wake Forest University Divinity School
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
(This sermon is also available in audio)
hear the reading of the word of God from Genesis, the 28th chapter,
the 16th verse and following:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
against a fear is simply to insure that one will one day
be conquered by it. Fears must be faced."
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."
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?
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."
think that is all I wanted to say to you today. Let's
not let anybody, an angel from heaven, or anybody, tell us
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."
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.
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.
The Rev. Dr. Bill J. Leonard
Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN as part of the
Lenten Preaching Series.