A Sermon by Johannah Myers, Associate Director of Messy Church USA
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;
I John 4:18
There are certain things you can say to me that are guaranteed to have me doing exactly the opposite. Telling me to “calm down,” will not, in fact, help me calm down. To be honest, I’m pretty sure that telling anyone to “calm down” has never, in the history of the world, actually worked.
Right along with “calm down” come the equally useless phrases “don’t worry” and “chill” (or it’s companion, “relax, I’ve got this,” which is most often spoken by someone who rarely in fact has it…) – all phrases likely to have opposite effects. And of course, there’s the classic, “Don’t be afraid.”
Telling someone to not be afraid in the midst of a frightening situation seems about as useless as a back pocket on a t-shirt. Yet, it never seems to fail that as soon as we find someone in the Bible in times of disaster or at the start of a massive, impossible task, God shows up in one form or another and says, “don’t be afraid.”
The Israelites facing down Pharaoh’s army – don’t fear.
Daniel, facing off against lions or his buddies Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in a fiery furnace – don’t fear.
Mary, surprise, I’m an angel of the Lord and oh by the way, you’re gonna have a baby by the Holy Spirit – but yeah, don’t be afraid.
Storm on the sea, Jesus says, “Why are you scared?”
Jesus tells his friends they’re going to be persecuted and he’s not going to be around anymore the way they’re used to, but hey, don’t let your hearts be troubled.
There are some who say that there’s a Bible passage telling us to not fear or not worry for every day of the year. The instruction to “not fear” certainly appears more frequently than any other. As if somehow telling us to not be afraid will actually help!
Frankly, fear is a fundamental reaction – it’s wired into our bodies. Some fear is instinctive; it helps us stay alive figuring out if we need to fight or flee. We are made to experience fear – and who designed our bodies? Who knitted us together in our mother’s womb? Who knows every part of us, in our inward-most parts? So why is God going around telling us to “not be afraid?”
Lord knows, 2020 has given us plenty to fear.
Murder hornets? We’re wired to feel fear.
Massive dust storm? Fear response engaged.
A global pandemic, with daily reports of the rising, massive loss of life making even the simplest of tasks like buying groceries or coming to church dangerous? Our bodies are going to send out warning signals to every part of our body.
Protests? Political unrest, economic uncertainty? We’re wired to feel fear.
As the popular meme goes, let’s look outside and see what chapter of Revelation we’re on today.
The writer of 1 John wrote to a community wracked by division and excessive pride and it’s into this brokenness he writes, “perfect love drives out fear.” God is love and God’s love is revealed to us in the sacrificial love of Jesus. When we abide in God – rather than in our own fear – love is our only course.
But here’s what God knows better than anyone. Yes, instinctive fear is helpful, life-saving. We have an intrinsic fear of pain to keep us out of painful situations. But fear’s a funny little emotion. Because a good deal of our fears are not actually instinctive, but are taught – life experiences and even cultural norms can teach us to be afraid of certain things, even certain people. Fear gets even trickier because it’s also partly imagined. In the absence of something genuinely scary, our brains will begin to imagine the worst. We literally – without even realizing it – can make ourselves afraid in anticipation of something that may or may not happen.
So along with the instinctive fears of 2020 like murder hornets and a global pandemic, we can add in the “what if” fears. What if this never ends? What if life never returns to normal? What if we really don’t get to sing together for 18 months? What if the economy doesn’t recover?
Because fear affects all of our body, from head to toe, it’s no surprise that it greatly influences how we react. Fear leads to heightened anger or anxiety and so we’re angry without even knowing why. Fear causes us to lash out, to make enemies of neighbors and friends. We hoard resources. We are rarely creative when we’re afraid, meaning we’re less likely to find new, innovative solutions or even, apparently, manage good, critical thinking skills. When fear takes over, we are not at our best selves.
You’re scared. I’m scared, too. If ever there was a season that’s given us plenty to actually fear alongside enough imagined or anticipated fears to last a lifetime, 2020 has been that season. Lord knows, we’ve seen fear in action over the past months, wreaking havoc in its wake.
Into our fear, God says “Do not be afraid.” Not because God doesn’t recognize or understand why we are afraid, but because God knows that being afraid won’t leads us to live the abundant life God wants for us. Instead, God says “don’t be afraid” as an invitation to abide in something far better.
Like telling me to calm down will quickly have me doing the opposite, God’s is also calling us to do the opposite of being afraid.
What is the opposite of fear? Bravery? Courage? Maybe. But the root of the word “courage” is the Latin word “cor” – heart. In a recent sermon, Lutheran preacher Nadia Bolz-Weber suggested that we see in the life and example of Jesus that “maybe the opposite of fear isn’t bravery. Maybe the opposite of fear is love.”
The writer of 1 John wrote to a community wracked by division and excessive pride and it’s into this brokenness he writes, “perfect love drives out fear.” God is love and God’s love is revealed to us in the sacrificial love of Jesus. When we abide in God – rather than in our own fear – love is our only course. We’re right back where Pastor Michael left off last week – love God, love one another.
Have you noticed that when someone is scared, we call them “chicken?” Ironically, it’s a chicken – more specifically a mother hen – that Jesus compares himself to. And Jesus certainly wasn’t chicken! In times of danger, a mother hen will gather all her chicks under her wing, sheltering them from whatever danger persists. Her action does little to protect herself; indeed, farmers have found hens killed by fox or fire, whose chicks remain alive and well, safe in the shelter of their mother’s wings. Gives a whole new meaning to calling someone “chicken,” doesn’t it? Jesus, like a mother hen, didn’t act in fear; he acted in love and calls us to do the same.
In times of heightened fear, God pushes us to get to work, putting sacrificial love into action. Instead of fight or flight, God wants us to lean in, extravagantly serving our neighbors. God calls us to move beyond the “what ifs,” the anger, the “worst-case scenarios,” and to do the opposite – love.
I want to close this morning with the story of Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore, examples of what sacrificial love looks like in the midst of great fear.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, Robert and Kenneth, both medics with the 101st Airborne Division, were dropped behind enemy lines in France. While the 101st and the 82nd Airborne divisions, worked to secure the roads for the incoming waves of troops arriving along the Normandy beaches, the medics were to provide first aide to their comrades. They found the village church in Angoville-au-Plain and set up a first-aid station. The fighting was intense. While the battle raged, the medics administered first aid, going out into the battle to search for wounded, bringing them back to the church in a wheelbarrow.
Even when the Allies lost their tenuous hold on the area, Robert and Kenneth continued to work in little church, treating the wounded in their care. The Germans left the Americans alone to work because they realized quickly the men were offering medical care to anyone brought to them, no matter their uniform. They treated American soldiers, French villagers, and German soldiers, never discriminating between friend or foe. For three days, they worked tirelessly with hardly any supplies to save anyone who came in the door of the church. They only required that everyone leave their weapons outside the door.
At some point, a mortar shell hit the roof of the church. There’s still a crack in the stone floor where the shell fell – and remained, unexploded. After witnessing this hit – one that should have taken out the whole church but didn’t – 2 German soldiers came out of the bell tower where they’d been hiding and surrendered to Kenneth and Robert. The medics promptly put the men to work helping treat the wounded.
When the battle ended and the dust settled over Angoville-au-Plain, 80 lives had been saved, American, German, and French. Despite having received very little medical training before they deployed, Robert and Kenneth only lost three people.
I first heard the story of these brave medics in 2017, standing inside the little church which still has bloodstains on the pews. There’s a newer stained glass window that replaced one damaged in the war. It simply reads “greater love has no one than he lay down his life for his friend.”
2020 has been a most difficult year. We haven’t parachuted into flooded bogs and intense fighting – but we’ve had plenty to fear, real or anticipated. Into our fear, God says to each of us – to all of us – “Do not be afraid.” Now is not the time for fight or flight. Now is the time to buckle down and get to work putting sacrificial love into action at every opportunity – to be “chickens,” if you will, mother hens willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole. And in loving God and loving one another, love will cast out fear.
Sermon preached on July 5th, 2020 at Aldersgate United Methodist in Greenville, SC.
Thanks Johannah for sharing your words of courage with Messy Church USA. You can reach Johannah at Johannah@messychurchusa.org.