Sermon Dec. 13, 2015 – Fear Not! Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 1:26-38

Third Sunday of Advent
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

With continuous terrorist attacks and mass shootings taking place, not surprisingly, gun sales in the US are up. There are already more guns than people in the US. But even so, gun sales are soaring. A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times gave a local perspective. Typically, sales in December are up about 20% because of the Christmas season. Apparently, people don’t only give toy guns as Christmas presents. To me, to give a gun as a gift at Christmas is about as anti-Christmas as you can get but evidently plenty of people disagree. So, in addition to the usual holiday rush on guns, there has been an additional increase in sales this year. This year, sales are up more like 50%. And the sales are more and more to first time gun buyers. Thankfully, I guess, attendance at gun safety classes is also skyrocketing. When asked to account for the significant increases, gun shop owner Paul Digirolamo of Clearwater said, “The sentiment is fear. It’s more fear of terrorism than fear of losing their ability to purchase firearms.”

Doug Jackson, of Bill Jackson’s in Pinellas Park said, “We’ve had a lot of people coming in concerned because the police can’t be everywhere all the time.” [TBT 12/9/15, “Bay area gun shops see spike in sales”] Fear. Fear. And more fear.
We got an invitation at the church for an 8 hour class at St. Petersburg College on “Keeping Your Church and Ministry Safe In An Uncertain World.” The topics include: Domestic, Partner and Workplace Violence; Child Protection; Transportation Protection; Developing Safety and Security Policies; Recognizing High Risk areas; Legal, Insurance, and Liability Issues; Prepare for Emergencies, Natural Disasters, Medical Crises, Active Shooters and Extreme Violence; Mission Team Protection; Church Security Assessment; and Addressing the Aftermath. Again, fear, fear, fear.

Let’s remember that the church has existed in times of peril and violence since its very inception. The Jews living under Roman rule in the first century were fearful day in and day out. They were always afraid of Roman crackdowns and violence. Crucifixions were a regular occurrence. People were thrown in prison and mistreated for all kinds of things including debt. The society was understandably fearful. Humans have forever lived in fearful conditions.

But the issue really is how fear is perceived and used. Actually, people are safer today than in previous times. The crime rate is down. Killing is down. Disease and pestilence is down. There is more justice and empowerment than there have been in past times. People have more human rights than ever before. So, you would think, based on the evidence, that the fear level would be going down. But it is not. It is actually going up.

Fear is a very powerful tool. Fear makes money for lots of people, including weapons manufacturers and gun companies. And, even more importantly, fear makes is easier to control people.

There is a quote, questionably attributed to Julius Caesar, about using fear to gain power and support:

“Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind.

“And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry. Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader and gladly so.

“How do I know? For this is what I have done. And I am Caesar.”

Using fear to manipulate and control people is nothing new. And our government is as good at it as any. When people are afraid, they are much more likely to engage in violence as we see from the gun sales statistics.

Fear is also what is motivating war and terrorism. The Israeli – Palestinian conflict is fueled by fear. ISIS is motivated by fear. Fear of losing a way of life. Of being taken over by Western culture. Fear of losing power and control. Terrorists are afraid and so they lash out perpetrating death and destruction. Fear of losing access to desired land, water, oil, and other resources fuels war and violence.

Fear induces the fight or flight reaction. And, it appears in the world today that fight is outpacing flight in the face of fear.

Do people in the US want all these guns because of hate? Is it their hatred of someone that is leading them to purchase guns? No. Are they purchasing guns because they have a vendetta against someone? Not for the most part. Is it out of vengeance? Not really. Is it the desire to inflict pain and kill? Not in most cases. For the most part, the main motivation for the people buying the guns is fear.

Fear skews our view of reality. It leads us to behave in uncharacteristic ways. It makes us set rationality and morality aside. As the Caesar quote says, it narrows the mind. Fear poisons our humanity, our good will, and our compassion. We become afraid to help others. Afraid to be generous. Afraid to engage with other people. Fear isolates us. Fear can lead us to give up the very things we were afraid of losing and wanting to protect. It is extremely powerful and destructive.

And so we are reminded of the famous words, accurately attributed to President Franklin Roosevelt, president of the United States during World War 2: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

As people of faith, we know that fear can prevent us from living out our faith. It can stop us from being compassionate and generous. It can put the brakes on our impulse to help others and work for the common good. It can stop us from being honest and ethical, let alone good and helpful. We may be afraid for our safety, or our economic security, or our reputation, or our job. There can be all kinds of fears that lead us to be apathetic and not get involved, even if we don’t choose to do something violent or vengeful. But fear can definitely hold us back from acting on our faith and following Jesus.

Fear holds churches and pastors back all the time. They are afraid to make waves in the congregation. They are afraid to ruffle feathers and loose financial support. They are afraid of getting a bad reputation in the community. They’re afraid of getting in trouble with the wider church (though this is not much of an issue in the UCC with congregational polity and a national church that is usually more progressive than most of the congregations). Churches and pastors want to “keep the customer satisfied” and keep the pews and the coffers filled. They’re afraid of loosing members and money. So, the church is not always the bastion of courage and faith and trust that is should be.

Here we want to remember the beautiful story of the annunciation that we heard this morning for it has a message about fear and trust. The story tells of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary to inform her that she will be the mother of Jesus and he will be the long-awaited Messiah. We are meant to be surprised that this angel visitation is to someone who is a “nobody.” Mary is portrayed as someone poor from a small village, a person of low status. It would be natural to think that an important figure would be born to an important person, someone of high status, from a family with power and authority. But no, the angel comes to mere Mary. In the story, the angel greets Mary by name. Maybe this is to avoid any confusion, like, that the angel had the wrong person. Then the angel kicks off with, “Do not be afraid.” Or, “Fear not.” “You have found favor with God.” Evidently, the angel expects fear. At the presence of the angel? Or the message that may come? Maybe the angel knows what to anticipate from previous experiences with such visitations. Just a few verses before we are told of the angel visiting Zechariah, who is fearful of the angel and does not trust his words. Maybe the angel knows the pattern with Moses and the prophets resisting God’s call out of fear. So, the angel broaches Mary with, “Don’t be afraid.” And that alone should really put her on her guard!

This scene of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary is so well known in part due to the countless artists that have offered renderings of the scene. Perhaps in a bower. Or a bedroom. Or a garden. Or a portico. Or even while Mary is hanging out the wash. In most renditions Mary appears submissive. Passive. Agreeable. It seems too easy. In a version by John William Waterhouse painted 1914, Mary looks very concerned. One hand on her head, like, “Oh, my God.” The other at her heart. An extremely worried, hesitant, intense expression on her face. The angel is portrayed as a beautiful woman offering Mary a stem of lilies. A bad sign, but Mary wouldn’t know that, yet. Mary is not reaching out to take the lilies. It is as if she is presented with a perplexing dilemma and she is trying to figure out what to do. I wonder if the angel is offering the flowers before or after the message has been delivered. Is the angel trying to soften Mary’s defenses, disarm her before delivering the blow? Or has the angel already given the message and Mary is hesitating and so the angel is offering the flowers to entice her to say yes? We don’t know. But which ever it is, we know that Mary has reason to be wary. She is right to show surprise and hesitation. Even fear.

To me, this is a more helpful portrayal of Mary because I think that the call to live in the realm of God, to follow Jesus, should give us pause.

It can be a fearsome thing to be called by God. It can be fearsome to be part of God’s plans for justice and peace in the world. It can be fearsome to stand up to the powers that be. It can be fearsome to face the risks that come with embodying God’s divine love for the world. It can be fearsome to be confronted by the Holy and have your life turned around. Our faith calls us to put ourselves in the hands of divine love to do the work of redeeming creation. Our faith calls us to submit ourselves to the divine dream for the common good of all creation. Our faith calls us to follow, as Jesus did, often into difficult, uncomfortable, dark situations where God’s love is needed most. We are called to put ourselves at God’s disposal. This we have in common with Islam which literally means “submission.” Islam is about submitting to the will of God. That is what Jesus did and what our faith calls us to do. And that is what we see from Mary. And, yes, it is fearsome, to give up control, and to face the challenges to which we may be called. Mary was right to be afraid. The angel knowingly tries to dispel her fears. And she agrees to what the angel announces. Let it be.

Faith involves overcoming our fears because to live in fear is to strangle life. And our God is a god of life – flourishing, prolific, diverse, teeming life. And fear saps life. Deprives life. It makes us close in and close up. It drives out life and love. It drains joy. Fear takes over. It becomes a tyrant. It enslaves. Fear deprives us of freedom and life and well-being. It forces us to shut down and isolate and wither.

Love fosters life. Living for others gives meaning and purpose. Serving the common good is life giving. Engaging with others brings joy. Yes, faith may involve risks and challenges, but it is a way of life not death. It is also a fearsome thing to contemplate a world where people take matters into their own hands and look out only for their own good.

In this season of Advent, we have been talking about Wonder-Full peace. It seems that peace is becoming harder and harder to imagine. I’m afraid to look at the front page these days. What new horror will be announced? What sickening image will be imprinted on my psyche from the pages of the Tampa Bay Times? Is it time to get a gun? Of course not. That only feeds fear and fear leads to death, either of body or soul. To live in peace does not mean being able to protect yourself. It means living without fear.

The New Testament tells us that love casts out fear. God is about the love that enables us to overcome our fears. We see this in Mary. She submits to the love. And we see it in Jesus.

The enemy of peace is really not so much hatred as it is fear. Because fear takes control of us and drives out the love. We isolate and build walls instead of reaching out with compassion seeking understanding. Fear makes us clench our fists instead of opening them to shake hands and to give and receive. Divine love is about bringing us together, overcoming our differences, helping each other, and learning to live together in peace. That can’t happen when we let ourselves be overcome with fear.

Faith takes us out of the fear spiral. Love casts our fear. God enables us to surmount our fears so that we can trust and risk and engage. Mary overcame her fears and said yes.

On the bathroom mirror at our house are a variety of comics and clippings. One is a picture of Christopher Moltisanti of “The Sopranos” with this quote, “Fear knocked on the door. Faith answered. There was no one there.” May we welcome divine love into our lives so that we can live in peace and not fear. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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