As many of you know, I traveled to Haiti a few weeks ago with a group from Centenary. About a week before we left, I was telling a friend about the trip. He asked me about the kind of work we were doing and how long we would be gone. Then he surprised me with this question:
“Are you worried about Ebola?”
I had to ask him to repeat the question because I actually didn’t understand him. Was I worried about Ebola? No. No, I wasn’t. The Ebola outbreak is in West Africa, and Haiti is in the Caribbean. Even with my terrible head for geography, I knew those were pretty far apart.
I tell this not to make fun of my friend but to highlight the level of fear our country is experiencing in the wake of the Ebola outbreak across the Atlantic. The fact is that the likelihood of an outbreak of Ebola in America is extremely low.
The fear around Ebola that has gripped our nation represents one of the many ways in which we fear the wrong things. In his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Scott Bader-Saye breaks down two components of how we assess danger and how we sometimes get it wrong. [Note: I am indebted to Bader-Saye for many of the ideas in this sermon.]
Every perceived danger has two qualities: imminence and actual threat—the questions when assessing danger are, how immediate is this, and how much is it actually likely to harm me or those I love?
When it comes to Ebola, the threat is very real—the disease has a mortality rate of 90%. But unless you are treating Ebola patients in Africa, the imminence of this danger is practically zero.
Sometimes, though, a perceived danger is imminent but no real threat. Bader-Saye uses the example of same-sex marriage, which just became legal in North Carolina but is still not permitted in The United Methodist Church. Bader-Saye observes the fear that often surrounds these debates—namely, that to permit same-sex couples to marry would damage the institution of marriage. As higher courts strike down bans on same-sex marriage around the country, the imminence of this perceived threat is very high.
But whatever your opinion on same-sex marriage, the argument that it poses an actual threat is counterintuitive. Bader-Saye points out that it just doesn’t make sense to say that allowing gays to enter into faithful, lifelong covenants represents a threat to faithful, lifelong covenants. The theological and societal implications of the legalization of same-sex marriage bears thoughtful consideration, but fear is simply the wrong response.
I was reminded of another perceived but neither imminent nor real danger as I stood in line for early voting on Monday. (Side note: early voting runs through this Saturday, and election day is next Tuesday, November 4. Go exercise your civic duty!) As I waited my turn, I saw signs reminding voters that photo IDs will be required to vote in 2016.
The legislation that put this requirement in place is intended to suppress voter fraud, although data shows that voter fraud really isn’t an issue. This law will make voting difficult or impossible for thousands of North Carolinians, mostly poor and minorities. Similar laws that just went into affect in Texas are preventing an estimated 600,000 registered voters from participating in elections this fall. Our fear of a potential threat has led us to cut thousands of people out of the democratic process.
Of course, sometimes we fear the wrong things because they are simply more sensational. Ebola is a horrific disease and elicits a visceral reaction; same-sex marriage is a hot-button issue in our country today; and voter fraud could weaken our confidence in a political system that is already on shaky ground. But often the real threats are not so exciting. In 2013, heart disease and cancer cause over 50% of the deaths in America. And as we fret over a disease that has killed one person in this country, doctors remind us that the flu kills 30,000 people a year.
Now, I’m not saying we should redirect our fearful feeding frenzy from Ebola to heart disease. But Scott Bader-Saye warns that misplaced fear can harm Christian witness. Although we are right to instill caution in our children when meeting strangers, to teach them never to talk to strangers is to make it impossible for them to meet anyone new; and when we extend this “stranger danger” rhetoric to whole communities, neighborhoods break down and hospitality disappears. Fear of the other, of those who are different, can lead to even unintentional and subconscious racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and more—none of which are part of the vision of God’s kingdom that we see in Scripture.
Fear often causes us to confuse what is safe for what is good. Bader-Saye talks about this in relation to parenting. “Safe parenting,” he says, is different from “good parenting.” Certainly keeping your kids safe is an important part of being a parent, but when caring for a child is more about their bodily security than about love, something is amiss.
Admittedly, I do not have children, so I may have to come back and footnote this sermon in a few years, but bear with me for a moment. It’s like in the animated film Finding Nemo. Marlin is a clownfish whose son, Nemo, goes missing. In his epic journey to find Nemo, Marlin meets Dory, a fish who has short-term memory problems but sometimes flashes of wisdom. Marlin is distraught over Nemo’s predicament and over what he perceives as his failure of a father, and he says to Dory, “I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.”
Dory looks at him curiously and says, “Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.” Marlin is confused. “What?” “Well,” says Dory, “You can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.”
I recently heard a story on NPR about a man who started a camp specifically geared at letting kids do dangerous things. Gever Tulley got the idea after he and some friends had a conversation about their own childhoods. Their parents used to shoo them out the back door and let them wander in the woods for hours. It didn’t matter what they did as long as they were back in time for dinner.
Once this group of adults finished reminiscing, however, they quickly agreed that they had barely survived childhood and that this wasn’t appropriate for children these days. Tulley wasn’t so sure, and so he started the Tinkering School. Here, kids are encouraged to use power tools, pocket knives, and saws. Ironically, instead of being dangerous, these activities become empowering. Tulley says that trusting kids with this kind of thing makes them take more responsibility for themselves. What’s more, a child who knows how to use a drill properly is less like to hurt someone with it.
When my paternal grandmother was young, her brother drowned. This led her, understandably, to a deep fear of water. But her fear led her as a parent to create more danger for her children rather than less. In order to keep her children from meeting the same fate as her uncle, she never allowed them near water. As a result, my dad nearly drowned as a teenager, breaking a few ribs in his rescuer as he flailed about. My grandmother’s fear pushed her from the good instinct to protect to the hazardous one to overprotect.
When fear governs our lives and our actions, we lose our capacity for creativity, for hospitality, for problem-solving, and for authentic witness. We are called to take risks out of love, to ask not “What is safe?” but “What is good?”
My Halloween costume and Colin’s are of historical figures who refused to compromise what was good for what was safe. Saint Francis wasn’t just an animal lover; he was a radical peacemaker. In 1219, during the Crusades, Francis walked across enemy lines with no weapons or armor to meet with the sultan. His dear friend Clare started an order related to his Franciscan one. In 1241, when Saracens attacked their town of Assisi, she took the consecrated host and knelt before them, and they fled.
Such acts of vulnerability are not strategies to dissuade attackers—their high failure rate is evident in the list of those who have been martyred over the centuries. Instead, they are the embodiment of what Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12:9, that “power is made perfect in weakness.” Scott Bader-Saye says, “The path out of fear is not power but trust, not strength but vulnerability before God.”
Although we are called away from misdirected or excessive fear, we should not deceive ourselves and think we can eliminate fear entirely. Ambrose Redmoon said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” Being brave does not mean being without fear, it means being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.
Being totally without fear is not actually a good thing. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas said there were 3 reasons one might have a total absence of fear: “lack of love,” “dullness of understanding,” or “pride of the soul.” We are without fear only when we love nothing enough to fear its loss, when we do not comprehend the real dangers of this mad world, or when we are delusional enough to believe that nothing could ever harm us.
Bader-Saye calls fear “the shadow side of love.” He says that if we pay attention to what we are afraid of, it can tell us a lot about what we love. Sometimes this will show us that our loves are ordered wrongly—that we love money or possessions or status too much. But often, our deepest fears are connected to the people we love most.
Bader-Saye says this: “Because love and loss are natural, so is fear. Fear is born of love, but it is also born of the knowledge that all loves are subject to decay, and death spares no one. To love is to plant seeds of sorrow. And yet, the recognition of our limitation can produce not only lament but also gratitude. For if fear is born of love, then fear can also awaken us to loves that we have taken for granted, overlooked, or forgotten. Sometimes it is when our loves are most threatened that we see them most clearly.”
We have all had experiences where the threat of loss sharpens our awareness of what and whom we love. A family member’s illness makes our love of them more palpable; a close call in a car accident can shake us out of taking a relationship for granted. Our fears, rightly ordered, can reveal to us the depth of the love, compassion, and empathy we might not experience to the fullest extent on a day-to-day basis.
There is one fear that the Bible actually commands that we have: the fear of God. This is a tricky phrase for us to think about today. We should not fear God in the same way that we might fear injury or illness or death. To cower before God in fear of retribution is to forget his mercy, love, and grace.
But we cannot simply write off or sugarcoat the many biblical references to fear of God. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis says this: “The [biblical] writers are speaking first of all about our proper gut response to God… Fear is the unmistakable feeling in our bodies, in our stomachs and our scalp, when we run up hard against the power of God.”
We are talking about the God who created the universe, who has been working out the history of salvation through people and communities for millennia, the God who lifts up the downtrodden and brings down the wicked. We are talking about an all-powerful, all-knowing deity who is in us and with us and yet also totally other than us.
Our Scripture for tonight says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Who can destroy both soul and body in hell? God can. Whether God will is another question, but when we approach omnipotence, we must take seriously the judgment and justice of God.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from C. S. Lewis’ series The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan is the Christ figure in these books, and when one of the children in the story learns that he is a lion, she wants to know—“Is he quite safe?” The response is this: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
God is not safe; but God is good. We fear God not in that we are afraid of God but in that we realize we are not God. We fear God not as a servant fears a brutal master but as a child fears a loving but just parent. We come before God, not in security and safety, but in trust and vulnerability, knowing that the God who is revealed to us is one of love.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me. God’s love and care for each one of us is greater than any threat we could encounter. “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” May your fears, whether real or imagined, be relieved by the assurance of God’s grace and love. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell