Jul 2nd: Why So Much Fear?, with Rev. Barry Heath.
A Part of the Series:
Why So Much Fear? with Rev. Barry Heath. Series: One Thing A Spacious Christianity, First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Oregon. Scripture: 1 John 4: 7-12, 18-21 (CEB).
This week our guest pastor Barry Heath asks, does fear of others who are different prevent love from winning? Might we follow Jesus’ example by seeking out and welcoming others to overcome fear and build a community that reflects God’s inclusive love?
Hello, my name is Barry Heath and I am a retired pastor who has been attending First Presbyterian Church for some time. During the summer, there will be a number of us visiting pastors who are privileged to share a message with you during this time, and I’m glad to be here today. Welcome to this chance to be together.
Steven koskie, who’s the lead pastor of our church often says that love wins. And if love isn’t winning, then the story isn’t over yet. And that always makes me curious. My troublemaking mind wants to know why isn’t love winning? Like many of you, I would guess I’m frustrated by the constant barrage of bad news of violence of neighbor against neighbor class against class. I’m bewildered by the homeless crisis of how in the richest country in the world, everyone doesn’t have health care why people are going to bed hungry at night, and why in this country of ours, we have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, especially among people of color. And in recent times, I have been curious and bewildered by the increase in things like book bans, restricting of the civil rights of certain groups in our society, like the LGBTQ plus community, and the rise again of anti semitism and white supremacy. Why I wonder, if love wins? Why isn’t love winning? And frankly, I need a different answer. Besides, the story isn’t over yet. There has got to be some reason why love isn’t winning. And there has got to be something we can do about it. These are the questions that have been turning over and over again, in my mind, and perhaps in some of your minds as well. And they need an answer. So when Steven invited me to preach today, it was a challenge to me to find some answers. Now, I know the solutions to many of the problems and crises that I’ve mentioned, are complex, and not easy. But I am convinced that the main cause of many of these problems and realities of our society today is fear.
And if we don’t recognize and come to grips with this aspect of our modern society, we will never see love winning. Our Biblical faith tells us as much for the opposite of love, and Scripture is not hate, but his fear. And the basic fear in the Bible is being powerless. Here are just some examples. From the creation story, where the first humans were tempted to be like God and have power and knowledge like God, and they feared being just powerless children of God. They wanted the power of being their own gods instead, to the Israelites who lost faith in their god your way to be the political power to combat the power of Babylon. And so their fear led them to all kinds of acts of injustice to the poor and strangers in their midst, trying to exert power over those they could dominate, since they had no power against their political enemies, and to the new religion that grew out of Jesus teaching that started after his death and whose followers excluded Gentiles from being a part of this new faith. Inclusion of these outcasts threatened the purity of the power of the Jewish believers. So their fear led to the exclusion of the Gentiles. The whole of the Bible teaches us that fear is the underlying cause of why God’s creation has never lived up to its purpose, and God’s created intent for God’s people. And the most basic fears since the beginning of creation is being powerless, and today’s world and our society and societies around the globe, there is this is still true. If love is going to win, we had better learn a new way of being in the world than living in fear.
So what is fear? Let’s first take a look at what it’s all about. The science of our brains tells us that we are hardwired to fear. in prehistoric times our ancestors learned that there were forces and animals that were a threat to our very way of life. And the brain responded to these threats in two ways, either fight or flight. And so in our modern times, we learn to protect ourselves from people or situations. We fear, our modern approach to fight or flight is to separate ourselves from those we fear. We do this by judging them, disparaging them and restricting their rights. Now, let me be clear, our fight or flight responses still helpful to us in certain situations. Anyone who has it who is in or has escaped from an abusive relationship knows the value of the flight response to fear. And the fight response has a place when an evil like Hitler shows up on our world stage. But most of us, this primal fear response has also enabled us to build walls and boundaries around ourselves to keep the others from whom we fear, because they are different than ourselves. They act differently. They believe differently. They look differently. They are the others. And we fear we are losing our power to protect ourselves from them. And so we live in gated communities, we have housing laws to keep the poor separate from us. Around the world, nations fear the multitudes of migrants, who seek a better life in richer countries, because we fear their multitudes and needs, will threaten our way of life. And we banned books, because we don’t want to learn. And we certainly want to protect our children from learning about people who are different than ourselves. Today, when we experience fear, it is often because we feel a threat to our power, to maintain our certain way of life, and our response, that’s to withdraw as far as we can into the comfort of our living with people who are like ourselves, whose beliefs are like our own, who look and act like us, and who are just as afraid as we are, of the different others, whom we don’t understand, and who we think threatened our way of life.
It’s time to learn a new way to respond to our fears. William Willman, Duke University professor and United Methodist Bishop, has written a recent book called fear of the other, no fear in love, in which he proposes a radical perspective on Christian faith where he says, Christian faith teaches us that we are the others. You see, Jesus whole mission was to reconcile us to God, why did we need reconciliation? Well, because we had separated ourselves from God, we had become the other to God, and God had become the other to us. By our human nature, we had chosen not to be the children of God, but to be masters and mistresses of our own lives, and thus become foreigners and strangers to God.
By our denial of our created CHILDREN OF GOD identity, we not only separated ourselves from God, but we easily separated ourselves from our neighbors. Because if we are not part of an inclusive community of the children of God, then we can easily separate ourselves from parts of the community, whom we now see as the others. And these others, they can’t be our siblings or our neighbors, they are strangers, the ones who are different, and not a part of our community. So there’s no longer one community of God’s created children. For in our denial of our own status of being children of God. We have separated God’s one community, into us and them. Jesus taught us to return to God and our true identity as one created community of God’s children. He called us to be reconciled to God and to each other. Jesus sought to re educate us about who and whose we are, to show us through His life, death and resurrection, that God who is the ultimate other to us, comes to us not as judge or as one who condemns us, and therefore separates us even further from God, but comes to us a mercy and grace to inclusion, not separation, and cause us to act this same way toward all of God’s people, especially those who We think of as the other so ironic, isn’t it? That because we have made gone the other, because of our fear of being just children of God and not powerful gods ourselves, that we have separated ourselves from the parts of the creation that we now judged to be the others. And in so doing, we have missed opportunities to find God, the ultimate other, who may be most revealed in the others from whom we separate ourselves. Think about that for a moment. If God is Most completely known in the diversity of creation, then when we exclude parts of that creation, out of our fear of them, we have excluded the wholeness and the holiness of God.
Dear friends, let us love each other because love is from God. And everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us. God has sent His only Son into the world, so that we can live through him. This is love. It is not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other, for no one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God remains in us and His love is made perfect in us. So how do we manage our fears, so that we can acknowledge the appropriate survival kind of fear and reject the inappropriate fear that we use to keep us isolated and separate from other children of God? And by so doing, keep us separate from God as well.
We love because God first loved us. If anyone says I love God and hates a brother or sister, that person is a liar. Because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen, can’t love God, who can’t be seen. This commandment we have from God. Those who claim to love ought to love their brother and sister also.
This church uniquely and profoundly professes a mission of being a place of spacious Christianity, which means we welcome all who seek to love God and Jesus, and who wish to be both included in the community of God’s people, and to serve the risen Christ in being with us, co re creators of that which God made in the beginning, to reflect as best we possibly can to be the community of the children of God, where there is no us and them. Again, in his book, fear of the other Willemijn challenges the church to do more than just being a place of welcome.
The challenge is for the church, to seek out the other as God in Jesus seeks us out. Do you remember the parable Jesus taught of the man who gave a banquet and invited his friends to come read this as he invited people like himself, but none of them came? They all made excuses. So the host sent his servants out into the streets and alleyways to invite all of those into his house and dinner table. Who were the others, the vagrants, the homeless, the strangers, the undesirables, the different ones. The lesson for the church is we are to seek out the others. Why not because they need Yes, but because we need them, if we are going to understand what being the community of God is to be like, if the diversity of God’s children is not here in the church, then how are we to know what that community is to be like? Perfect love says, First John casts out fear. As we seek out and welcome the other, we must confront our fear of them. Why are we afraid if God loves us as the other and seeks us out? Can we not pray to this God to help us with our fears, to know how this God loves us, who are others to God, so that we can love others as God loves us, and include them in our community, and more.
We even must ask the others, to include us in their community. And we can do this, we can be this kind of church, this kind of community, this kind of body of Christ, the larger church and this particular church, have made wonderful efforts in being this kind of community. But our work is not done. Our society that is so far from being this vision and reality of the community that God created, needs us to be the other to society’s norm.
We must first acknowledge our sin of exclusion and isolation that comes from our fears of the other, and with God’s help and strength, become even more than we are now to become God’s chosen ambassadors of Christ in the world, so that when the world looks at us, they see a community that truly reflects the whole children of God and not just a portion of like minded and look alike children.