Sunday, January 1, 1994

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Exodus 14:5-14
Luke 14:13-32

Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

If we take the Lord's words literally, as a command, they seem to ask the impossible.

When we are afraid, we are afraid, and seem to have no power to take that feeling and

discard it or change it. Rather, we seem to have a considerable range of choices in the

way we handle it. It can be said by everyone who ought to know that courage is not the

absence of fear but the facing of it. I want this morning to look at what it is that we

are to face, and at the fact that our text suggests that there can be such a thing as a

life without fear.

To begin with, if we were to add up all our fears, the little ones and the big ones, I

suspect most of us could come up with quite a list. There are fears of not being able to

pay the bills, of the disapproval of others, of failure, of success, of driving in bad

weather, of disability, and of death. There can be fears for the wellbeing of those we

love and fears of disappointing them. There can be fears of pain, of doctors or dentists,

fears of ridicule, rejection, flying, water, math, dogs, snakes, women, or men.

These fears can be more or less appropriate. There are certainly people and things in this

world that will hurt us if we do not take care. To be totally without fear may well result

in a dangerous carelessness. There are also, in the lives of most of us, what we might

call irrational fears, fears of things that are highly unlikely, fears of events that are

not really all that painful. Probably all of us have dreaded something, have had to face

it, and have found out that it wasn't so bad after all. We wind up then feeling rather

foolish, having ruined a whole span of time by suffering the products of our own


If we have faced what we feared, though, this would seem to demonstrate that some part of

us was not controlled by the fear. It can happen that fear can so overpower us that we are

paralyzed, helpless. People have died because of this, or because fear led to panic.

Perhaps we can interpret the Lord's "Fear not" or "Do not be afraid" as intending to

awaken us to that part of ourselves that can stand outside the fear and hold it in some

perspective. Simply to say "I am afraid" is to find some little platform outside the fear,

some part of us that is not engulfed in it.

Some of the most insidious and destructive fears are actually the ones of which we are not

conscious. We had a speaker at the School last year talking about domestic violence, and

at one point she came very close to identifying fear as a major component of the impulse

to abusive behavior. In fact, it is so clear that fear does prompt violence that we may

wonder whether there is any violent behavior that does not in some measure stem from fear.

If I am feeling wholly secure, I am almost by definition at peace.

To digress for a moment, this raises questions about our instinctive tendency to counter

violence with violence. On the one hand, there certainly seem to be instances when we are

kept on the straight and narrow by the fact that one fear outweighs another. In crudest

form, for example, people have been impelled to theft by the fear of poverty, and have

been restrained from theft by a stronger fear of imprisonment. More subtly, when we feel

threatened by someone else we may feel impulses to lash out verbally, and may be

restrained by a stronger fear of rejection or even physical violence. Our theology is

quite pragmatic in stating that fear of punishment is particularly necessary in the early

stages of our spiritual growth.

Yet to the extent that fear itself prompts violence, this cannot be a successful long-term

strategy, and our theology clearly points beyond it. If we do try to live according to the

Lord's will, even though we begin to do so out of fear, we gradually receive a love of

doing the Lord's will. We become considerate of inconsiderate people, for example, not

because we are afraid they will make life miserable for us if we treat them in kind but

because we sense the pain that prompts them to behave as they do. We see the wall of

alienation they are building around themselves and can imagine, to some extent, how dreary

life must be within that wall.

I am reminded of the fable I read in my childhood. The wind was arguing with the sun as to

who was the stronger when they saw a man walking along, wearing a heavy coat. They agreed

that whoever could get the man's coat off would be proven the stronger. The wind tried to

blow it off, but the harder it blew, the more tightly the man held it on. Then the sun, of

course, just got warmer and warmer until the man took the coat off of his own accord.

To return to our main theme, though, I would suggest that there is no difference in

principle between constructive ways to deal with the fears of others and constructive ways

to deal with our own fears. In our two Scripture readings, we have individuals addressing

others--Moses counseling the Israelites not to fear Pharaoh's pursuing army, and Jesus

advising the multitude not to be afraid. According to our theology, these stories can be

taken as images of processes that go on within ourselves. There can be in us a voice of

Moses or a voice of Jesus.

The Biblical situations highlight somewhat different aspects of fear. In the Exodus story,

the people see themselves as trapped between a powerful army and an impassable sea. Their

fear is the fear of immediate death, and the impression is that they are on the verge of

panic. When Moses tells them not to be afraid, he also tells them to "stand still and see

the Lord's salvation." This is a little like the whimsical Zen Buddhist maxim to

compulsive doers: "Don't just do something; stand there."

This image may speak to us particularly when we find ourselves on the edge of losing

control. There is that feeling that we have to act even though we have no idea of how to

act, no plan, no instinct even of what might actually work. It is the feeling that may

have us throwing water on burning gasoline or slamming on the brakes when the car starts

to skid or verbally tearing into someone who has touched one of our sore spots.

Then the advice to "Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord" reminds us that there

is a larger perspective. It does not deny the problem, it just shouts "Think!" at us. We

do not have to "stand still" for long, and sometimes there is not much time to spare.

When the car is skidding, we cannot look up proper procedures in the owner's manual. What

we can do is turn on our observation, so to speak, and give our reflexes a chance to

respond to what is happening to the car rather than to our fears of what might happen.

There is, believe it or not, a kind of mental stillness in this. When we do manage to turn

on our "observer," that is, it is as though things are happening in slow motion. The fact

is that we are speeding up; the impression is that everything outside is slowing down. In

contrast, when we are caught in panic, everything seems to be happening at once. Time

seems to be collapsing on itself, when the fact is that we are slowing down. In the one

case, we are enhancing our ability to respond; in the other case, we are handcuffing


We can take our Old Testament reading, then, as addressing us particularly when fear

prompts panic. It is an image especially of being trapped, and we might call it to mind

whenever we feel cornered by circumstances.

The New Testament image speaks to a different concern. It begins with the parable of the

rich man who took great care to provide for a future that was actually not going to

happen. Jesus goes on to advise a life without anxiety about the future, noting that birds

and flowers manage to do very well indeed without toiling at it.

There are some mixed signals here that should caution us against taking the image too

literally. On the one hand, the rich man seems to be overplanning, trying too hard to

control things, but on the other, what he decides to do is to relax and have a good time,

to stop working and just "eat, drink, and be merry." At the same time that we are advised

not to "seek" food and drink, we are told that our heavenly father knows we need food and


If we push at these ambiguities, though, we find a consistent core. It is not so much a

case of wrong actions as of wrong reasons for acting. There is nothing wrong with eating,

drinking, being merry, or looking out for our next meal. The mistake is in thinking that

we are not secure unless we are in control, and the voice that says this loudest is the

voice of fear.

One of my favorite definitions from our theology is the definition in The New Jerusalem

and Its Heavenly Doctrine of charity as "acting with prudence to the end that good may

result." This counsels us not simply to do what feels right at the moment, but to consider

what the effects of our actions are likely to be. But if this is not to result in a kind

of slavery to the future, it must be coupled to an awareness of the fact that we are not

in control of the results of our actions. All we can do is our best, and to do our best,

we must focus ourselves in the present.

This is not so paradoxical as it might sound. If you're setting out to build a set of

shelves, for example, or to make a dress, you need a general plan. You have to know what

to do first, second, and third, so to speak. But within that plan, when you are drilling a

hole you had better focus in on the placement and direction of the bit. When you are

cutting the cloth, you had better focus in on the edge of the scissors and the line on the

pattern. In either case, if your mind wanders off toward the next step, you are likely to

find yourself with a problem.

The Lord's primary concern, though, is not with our physical skills. It is not with the

way we handle things such as wood and cloth but with the way we treat each other.

Machines can drill perfectly straight holes time after time and can cut layers of cloth

with extraordinary precision, but they cannot imagine how a human being feels. This means

that they cannot respond to us on the level of our own deepest needs.

It is here, in the area of our deepest needs, that we find our deepest fears. It is here

that a need to be in control is most disastrous, leading to all kinds of abuse of power.

We may be afraid of inadequacy, afraid that people will not like us if they see what lies

beneath the surface, afraid of ridicule or rejection--it turns out that what we are most

afraid of is not the power of others at all. Fundamentally, it is not a fear of anything

or anyone outside ourselves. It is a fear that we ourselves are unacceptable.

This is the fear that the Lord is addressing in our reading from Luke. The images involve

eating and drinking and storing food in barns, but the remedy speaks to a wholly different

level. "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the

kingdom." As long as we try to find security in our own virtue or acceptability or

lovableness or intelligence or skill or in anything that is our own, we will be prey to

fear. Deep down inside, we know ourselves too well to trust ourselves completely.

Complete security comes when we discover what is completely trustworthy--"our Father's

good pleasure." Our creator knows us far better than we know ourselves, and every iota of

that knowledge is devoted to our joy and peace. How much harm we do to ourselves and each

other when we are driven, consciously or unconsciously by our fears! How foolish are those

fears when the whole effort of the infinite divine is to bless us!


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