Date: October 30, 2016
Scripture Lesson: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Sermon: The Fear Factor
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Are you scared yet? All the spooky decorations are up for Halloween. The ghosts, spiders, witches, and graveyards, complete with ax murderers, are out in full force threatening all their Halloween fright. Well, are you afraid yet? Part of the origins of Halloween include scoffing at death and bringing out all the scary stuff to disempower our fears around evil spirits, ghouls, and all the rest. We put on costumes and put out scary decorations to make a mockery of death and evil.
And if you are not spooked by Halloween, maybe the upcoming election has you quivering. Today candidates for every office seem to want to make us afraid and then promise that they will fix things. And you should certainly fear the opponent getting elected; whatever the office and whoever the opponent. So, fear seems to be driving the election. I get several emails every day that this race will be lost or that race will be lost, and these dire consequences will occur, if I don’t send in my donation today. Right
now. The future depends on it. . .
This same scare tactic is recommended for church finances. Want to increase your church’s financial giving? Create a crisis and they will give. Paint a dire scenario and the money will flow in. I have gone to church finance seminars that promote this strategy for increasing giving in the church. It’s hardly the approach we use here at LUCC as all who were part of the The BIG Event last week can attest.
Traditionally, churches have been big into the fear factor. After all, there’s hell. Burning in fiery torment for eternity. Try to outdo that! That has been one of the most powerful perpetrations of fear ever inflicted. Yes, the church is really good with fear.
One example is the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and specifically Salem, in 1692. Fourteen women, five men, and two dogs, yes, two dogs, were executed for witchcraft. The youngest person was 5 and the oldest almost 80. [Schiff, p. 3] Salem’s senior minister was related to no less than 20 of the accused. The testimony even included sightings of people riding on brooms. There were forced confessions. Those at the time tell us, “most would have chosen to have fallen into the hands of the barbarous enemy than. . . the hands of their brethren in the church fellowship.” [Schiff, p. 336] Over the course of nine months, the colony was gripped by fear. And silence. Diaries were blank for the months of the witch hunts. Very little was written. People who were inveterate record keepers left very few written documents pertaining to this intense period when they were besieged by fear.
Religion, politics, gender, governance, and adolescence mixed into a noxious cocktail. Families were torn apart. The colony was in a state of total disruption. As one observer put it, “political considerations had grossly disfigured moral ones.” [Schiff, p. 379] We certainly know what that looks like. It took years, generations, for the families and for the colony to recover. In the fall of 1992, three hundred years after the terror, there was a ceremony exonerating all those accused and executed in 1692.
How did this whole thing happen? How did people become so overcome with fear? And how did it happen among the Puritans of all people? Writer and historian Stacy Schiff tells us: “They were ardent, anxious, unbashful, incurably logical, not quite Americans, of as homogeneous a culture as has ever existed on this continent.” [Schiff, p. 6] How, in such a community, did such fear take hold and to such destructive ends? This was fear rearing its ugly head from within the community not even involving an outside threat such as Indians, Blacks, or the French. It was purely internal within small communities, people accused by known accusers, often from within the same family. Fear overcame logic. Logic was out the window. Nowhere to be found. There have been many speculations but there is no real, believable explanation for the magnitude of the hysteria in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. This scourge in our nation’s history remains largely inexplicable. It reminds us, hundreds of years later, that for all our technological, intellectual, and medical advances, we are still human beings capable of being radicalized by fear. We see it each and every day.
What hope can we have then? This morning we heard from Daniel, a fearful vision. Beasts. Horns. Evil kingdoms bent on devouring the whole Earth, trampling it down, and breaking it to pieces. You can’t get much scarier than that. Daniel is terrified. But he receives reassurance. All these terrible threats, yes. But the realm of God’s love and light will be eternal reality for the holy ones of the Most High. Those who trust God and remain faithful to God do not need to be afraid. For the ones who choose love over fear life can and will go on. God will prevail.
In the Christian testament, we are told that complete love casts out all fear. Fear and love do not coexist well. Love is a threat to fear. Jesus shows us a God of love; love for all people, love for all Creation. When love takes over, there is no room for fear. When our faith, devotion, and trust are placed in love, then fear has no power over us. We cannot be manipulated or badgered or hoodwinked by fear. We don’t fall for lies and threats because we know the power of Divine Love is greater than any evil humanity can devise. After the witch trials, Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony mended and healed. Families reconciled and carried on. Love eventually carried the day.
One of the most famous sentiments about fear was expressed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his first inaugural address, in 1933, the nation paralyzed by the Great Depression, Roosevelt announced at the beginning of the address: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Roosevelt recognized that fear is an incredibly powerful weapon of manipulation. Faith calls us to overcome fear with love – love for our neighbors, love for ourselves, love for our enemies, and love for the whole world. Grounded in love, inspired by love, motivated by love, there is no room left for fear.
Ghosts, goblins, witches, devils, evil creatures and villains all get their due at Halloween. They parade around threatening tricks if there are no treats. All of our fascination with evil and fear and death comes out to play on Halloween. This is a time to have fun and laugh at evil and death for we know that it is a sham; like all the lies that we are told to scare us, manipulate us, and intimidate us, it has no real power over us.
We have aligned ourselves with the God of Love, love which evaporates fear – dries it up and blows it away. We are committed to the way of Jesus who shows us that love is the most powerful force known to humanity and love, not fear, always has the final say. Amen.
The information about Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 comes from the book The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.