Faith and Fear
June 27/28, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every 3 years we have this reading in the lectionary. And every 3 years I relive the excitement and nervousness I felt 21 years ago. This was gospel for first time I preached. That was 1994.
And I can still feel the jitters as I think about it.
My red-letter Bible saved the day and gave me an idea for that sermon. Do you know what a red-letter Bible is? It’s one that renders the words of Jesus in red type. It’s much easier to find them that way.
But for me in that first sermon it was a great cheat sheet. My eyes went right to that sentence from Jesus when he’s speaking with Jairus, the synagogue official, whose daughter was just reported as having died. Jesus says, in red letters in my old Bible, “Do not fear, only believe.” Slam dunk sermon theme.
And that’s what’s on the cover of today’s bulletin, too. It’s a very famous pronouncement from Jesus, isn’t it? Do not fear, only believe. And it seems funny to me that the one word that’s in the smallest type on our cover is the one word that’s easy for Jesus to say—“ONLY.” ONLY believe.
As if it’s an easy thing to come to belief. Well, I think we all might agree that belief -- or trust, if you will, is hard to come to. And conversely, fear is hard to let go of.
Could it be that this is because to give up fear feels like giving up our own control of a situation? And to trust—or believe—is like jumping blind into a territory we cannot predict? It’s hard to trust because it means we give up control and let the agency for something come from Jesus—from God. It’s a huge step and many of us find it very, very hard.
I was struck this past week by how readily the members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston leapt into that void and put their trust in the words of Jesus—to forgive not only 7 times, but 70 times 7 times—or in other words to forgive over and over and over. To forgive a heinous act—which doesn’t mean, of course, that they’ll be forgetting it. But to forgive—which essentially means to wish the gunman God’s mercy. This releases any chains of bitterness they may have had, and it allows them to move on.
The headline on last Saturday’s New York Times took my breath away. It was a direct quote from the daughter of an elderly woman who was killed. Splayed out across the top of the paper was “I Will Never Be Able to Hold Her Again. But I Forgive You.”
I couldn’t believe that the Times would put this across the top of the paper. I bet they were as astounded by it as most of us were.
It’s an act of the will to forgive—especially when it comes so soon after such an atrocious crime. It’s an act of the will to believe / especially when so many of the voices we hear from others at home or on the internet or on the TV seem to paint believers as dopes or dupes. And it all comes because of God’s gift of grace, hammering at our hearts to open up. These things are begun and ended in God’s own heart: our capacity to forgive, our capacity to believe and to grow. It’s amazing grace.
And if that sounds a little familiar it’s because it was inspired by President Obama’s tour-de-force eulogy-slash-sermon at Emanuel’s pastor’s funeral this past Friday. And it’s so true. God’s the one behind our opening up and growing toward more trust. It’s not all up to us.
It never is.
But we can work at these things, and with God’s help we can grow in our capacity to be less fearful and more faith-full. How do we work at them? By exercising them. Just as we exercise our bodies to be stronger, we may also exercise our hearts to be more Christian in all respects. To hope more, forgive more, trust more, love more. It starts with little steps.
Think of someone it’s hard to get along with, or someone against whom we’re holding a grudge. How might we begin to go against our human tendencies to defend ourselves and vilify someone else? How about risking a smile or a handshake? How about trying to understand the other’s perspective and behavior? Honestly, by trying to understand at depth, we exercise our spiritual muscles for compassion, and we grow in our ability to trust and to be a Christian in the best sense of the word.
It takes a lot of time and sometimes a lot of years of practice to make progress. But it’s true, I believe, that God wants our willingness to be changed / over time, to grow bit by bit, and to get to the place where we, too, may be able to forgive more easily and to love with compassion more readily. God wants our willingness to trust him.
So may we learn from the parishioners at Emanuel AME. May we turn our wills in God’s direction, spurred on by Amazing Grace. May we practice our faith and deepen our trust and ask the Holy Spirit to help us let go of the worst of our fears.
And then, maybe one day, ONLY won’t be such a challenging little word.