“Embracing Fear With Total Confidence”


Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – June 25, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

I John 4:11-18; Matthew 10:24-31

 

    This morning we are going to discuss the role that fear plays in our lives.  Fear is a very valuable emotion because it often signals proceed with caution.  However, countless people are tormented by fear to the extent that their lives are controlled by it. Even though ninety-five percent of what we fear will never come close to happening, our fear has grown as a result of choosing it more often than other responses during our childhood.

    During our experience among our West Virginia church family, periodically our church would host the Berkeley County Clergy Association.  Following our meeting, coffee, tea and snacks were available.  While pastors were filling their plates, the priest from in town set his coffee cup on a crack between two tables that were not the same height.  His coffee spilled saturating the table cloth.  All was well because none of the spill had reached the carpet.

    For my colleague, all was not well.  For him, the spill was not a small mishap.  I watched his normal cheerful spirit wilt.  When the meeting was adjourning, he was still seated at the table. I sat down next to him.  He apologized again.  This was his third time for doing so.  I said, "Come on, Charlie.  What you demonstrated was a lesson for me.  When I set up tables, they need to be the same height."

    He responded:

I need to retire.  The coffee spill is part of a longer sequence of recent events. Last week, I backed into another car as I was pulling out of a parking space.  Before that, a colleague ask me if I would return a book that I borrowed months ago and I can't find it.  I also had forgotten an appointment that I had made two weeks ago. I had not checked my calendar that morning. Today, I spill my coffee.  This is an avalanche of signals giving me a message that the finish line of my career is within sight.

    It was clear to me that his fear of aging had gained a foothold in his life.  No matter how reassuring I was that his spirit was a very necessary presence for the members of his congregation, he could not let go of the thought that all these were signs that his life as a priest was coming to an end.   All of these events could happen to anyone of us but we would not think another thing about it if we were in our thirties.

    I told him to spend the rest of his week visiting his people, to begin work on a sermon based on our first Scripture lesson this morning, take two aspirin and call me on Monday morning.  He laughed and said, "You sound like my doctor." He must have done something to reverse his energy flow because when I left The Garden of Arden several years later, he was still the Monsignor of Martinsburg's Saint Joseph's Roman Catholic Church.

     There is another fear that is increasing among millions of people. However, this one is worth feeding.  It grows by educating ourselves about the nutritional value of what we eat. Most of us want to enjoy our senior years without needing to consume a banquet of pills every day. Our fear of dying way too soon advises us to proceed with caution.

          While countless people still look for the shortest checkout-line in our grocery stores, many shoppers today can be seen standing in the aisles as they read the contents of what they are about to buy. 

    More people are choosing to stay away from products containing high fructose corn syrup, the artificial sweetener Aspartame, trans fats, high sodium and sugar levels. They are being more selective in the oils they use. 

    Parents, looking after the health of their children, are leaving sugar-coated cereals on the shelf. The only people that are not cheering about this are the children who love their sugar-laced breakfasts that may make them a candidate for the onslaught of the symptoms of diabetes as they age.

    There can be no question that fear plays a purposeful role in our lives. However, like all our emotions, we cannot allow any of them to be in the driver's seat as we venture into our futures.      

    In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus was teaching his listeners to replace fear with total confidence.  He said, "Do not be afraid of people who can kill your body." Jesus knew that people can destroy the vehicle in which we live but they cannot hurt the driver.  There is no umbrella of protection from God that some Christians imagine.   Jesus went on to say, "If you want someone to be afraid of, fear God who has the power to destroy both your body and spirit in hell."  (Matthew 10:28)  This comment by Jesus is one that people have remembered. However, what Jesus was teaching meant just the opposite.

    God is not some fear-mongering dictator that punishes people for being human.  This is a mythology perpetuated by uninformed clergy that often use fear in their preaching.  Regardless of what we have been taught, God would never allow our eternal destiny to be defined by our faulty decision-making. Anyone that suggests otherwise needs to expand their understanding of God's love.     

    Jesus illustrated this by telling his listeners that one penny will purchase two sparrows. He went on to say that God's love of each of us is so thorough that God knows everything we have said and done while still remaining our cheerleader.  Jesus concluded, "So do not be afraid; you are worth much more to God than all the birds in the world." (Matthew 10:31)

    What Jesus was teaching his listeners is that God is the ultimate source of confidence when we trust what he was teaching. With that said, it is up to us to understand the wisdom that suggests "nothing ventured, nothing gained."  If we stay with the comfort and the security of our safe harbors what are we saying to ourselves?  The Apostle Paul taught, "Those who sow sparingly will reap sparingly." (2nd Corinthians 9:6) We must take huge risks sometimes to shatter the fears that try to define the horizons of our lives.

    Years ago one of my favorite activities was taking teenagers in our church family on excursions in the Shenandoah National Forest in Virginia. On one such occasion, we hired a company to lead us on an adventure of rock climbing and rappelling down the face of cliffs.  These activities were designed to help teens overcome their fears.

    One girl was so horrified by the thought of backing off a 100-foot cliff that she would not budge.  She was roped in and nothing could possibly happen to her. Her legs had turned to jelly as adrenalin surged through her body. I said, "You are going to do this whether you like it or not."  She screamed, "I hate you Dick Stetler! I hate you!"  I responded, "Your feelings about Dick Stetler will not prepare you for rappelling down this cliff. Get started!"

    As I rapidly approached her, she stepped off the cliff screaming.  She danced with her feet against the rocks of the cliff as she had been instructed to do.  She did it!  She did not die.  She reached the ground safely.

    I could not have allowed her to accept failure. She would have been the only one that did not follow through on facing her fear. She needed to do this for herself.  Around the campfire that night, she confided to everyone that rappelling off that cliff was one of the most powerful ground-breaking moments of her life.     

    We do not know what awaits on the other side of a barrier we have created by our fear until we open the door to a new experience and walk through it. The decision that people have to make is whether or not to stake their lives on a truth that Jesus was teaching.  What lives inside these vehicles is invulnerable!

    This thought brings us to words found in John's first letter.  He wrote,

God is love, and those who live with a loving spirit are united with God's spirit.  The two become one.  Our potential is identical to that of Jesus. There is nothing of which we ever need to be afraid of in this life.  Love, when perfected, enables us to face anything and anyone fearlessly.  (I John 4:16b-18) 

    This orientation toward life is what gives us the potential to live with total confidence.  However, choosing this is easier said than done.  There will come a time when the rubber needs to meet the road as we practice our confidence. We will come face to face with a circumstance where we either choose to remain terrified or we choose to smash through the barrier to achieve the confidence of knowing that we are as invulnerable as Jesus said we were.

    Confidence grows increasingly stronger the more we embrace our fear and take those early leaps of faith.  The more leaps we make, the firmer our foundation becomes.  As each fear in our path melts away, we will better understand our divinity. Confidence eventually becomes a learned response rather than remaining a goal we hope one day to achieve.

    When Jesus embraced his crucifixion, he could not have known that three years of his ministry was enough time to change the lives of billions of people all over the world during the twenty centuries that would pass between his experiences and ours. He could not have known that in the future, more books would be written about his three years of ministry than any other chapter in human history. 

    All that we need to do each day is to show up confidently, knowing that we have divinity inside of us that is stronger than any imaginary illusion we create that tries to seduce us with fear.  Jesus showed up at his crucifixion with forgiveness in his spirit and on his lips.  We have come equally equipped to do the same.  Let us stand forth every day and allow our divinity to become visible. Try it.  You will like the results.

 

CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

Loving and always faithful God, our experiences often teach us that life happens while we are busy making other plans.  We have learned that life-reversals can often become stepping-stones to our next adventure. We have learned that a significant loss has often led us through the doorway of a vital discovery.  You have called us to look at life as a journey to a promised-land without being afraid.  We thank you that life is filled with challenges that can enhance our confidence.  Thank you for the eyes of spirit that allow us to perceive your guidance without fear. 

Amen. 

     

PASTORAL PRAYER

Ever loving and faithful God, how conscious we are of our need to be reminded of who you created us to be. It is so good to experience worship, a time when our spirits can become more finely tuned to resonate more easily with your spirit.  It is then that we become instruments of your music that will help our world to sing.

As you have surrounded us with your love in countless forms, help us to recognize more easily that part of us that is always trying to redirect our spirit away from you. It is that part of us that makes us believe that we are bound by events that happened years ago. It is that part of us that makes us believe that we are victims of some experience over which we had no control. It is that part of us that tells us that some heartbreak will never heal. It is that part of us that tries to erode our confidence because of a mistake we made in our judgment.

Help us, O God, to allow such thoughts and attitudes to dissolve on the sands of your unconditional love.  As we learn to surrender the incorrect images of our identity, enable us to recognize that you have given us a body of light, one that radiates the timeless qualities of acceptance, compassion and kindness that you have instilled in us. Enable us to understand with more clarity our role in this world by accepting Jesus’ words, "You are the light of the world."  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ who taught us to say when we pray . . .