By The Rev. Sherry Deets
2 Pentecost – June 22, 2014
Lucy, the psychiatrist of Peanuts fame, sits waiting in her booth. Frieda comes seeking help. “My problem is that I’m afraid of kindergarten. I don’t even know why! I try to reason it out, but I can’t … I’m just afraid … I think about it all the time … I’m really afraid….” Lucy responds, as only Lucy does, “You’re no different from anyone else. Five cents, please.” Sensitivity never was her primary quality. But, you know, Lucy nailed the issue. Frieda is you and I. We all have fears, some real, some imaginary, yet real to us; some healthy, some unhealthy; some known to us, others unknown to us. But have them, we do!
Did you know that the physical, bodily symptoms of fear and excitement are identical. That is, you would not be able to tell the difference between fear and excitement by checking breathing, heart rate, release of sugar into the blood, or any of the other activities of the sympathetic nervous system that prepares us for “fight or flight” responses to threat. There simply is no difference.
Yet we experience a profound difference between these two states. When we are nervous, let’s say about the prospect of playing in a soccer match, we would move with less confidence and be more likely to miss-hit passes or shots on goal. But if we were excited, everything seems to come more easily. Think about when John Brooks, making his World Cup debut on the U.S. soccer team, headed in the go-ahead goal with just four minutes left in regulation play. He must have been excited, rather than nervous, about this opportunity.
And yet if there is, physiologically, no difference between these two states, that means that our interpretation of our condition makes all the difference. Reading our sweaty palms and increased heart rate when meeting someone for the first time — or climbing into the pulpit on Sunday morning! — as signs of excitement or fear dramatically effects how we approach the situation in question.
All of this bears, I believe, on our gospel reading today, as it is a gospel reading that talks a lot about fear. Jesus has commissioned his twelve disciples and is about to send them out on a mission of their own, a mission during which they exercise both great authority and the need to demonstrate profound trust. For while they will have the power to cast out demons and heal the sick, they are to take no money or extra provisions but rather depend upon the grace of God as shown in the hospitality of others.
As part of what seems almost like a pre-game “pep talk” , Jesus levels with the disciples about some of the challenges they will face, challenges including rejection and slander and persecution and perhaps even death. It’s in this context that he says several things about fear that are worth attention.
First, fear is, in many ways, the antithesis of faith. Not surprisingly, in seeking to encourage his disciples Jesus employs the characteristic hallmark of good news throughout Scripture. Anytime, in fact, someone — whether prophet, priest, or angel — begins a message with the words “Do not fear” you know that good news is about to come. And so after warning them of coming persecutions — just as their teacher Jesus faced opposition, so will they — he encourages them with an injunction not to fear.
Second, courage is rooted in God’s promise. As it turns out, this isn’t just a pep-talk. Jesus reminds them not to fear because while their opponents may be able to hurt them physically, they can do them no spiritual harm. God, however, is the one who has power over both body and spirit, and God has promised to guard and protect them and bring them to eternal life. The God who created and tends every living thing, values them more than anything.
Third, fear of conflict may be one of the most debilitating of all fears. While I have always struggled with Jesus’ somewhat (I hope!) hyperbolic sayings about parents and children being at enmity with each other, it strikes me that this difficult passage gets to the heart of one of the most paralyzing characteristics of many faith communities. We can get so afraid of conflict — whether within our immediate families or the larger family of faith — that our witness is muted, our convictions surrendered, and any forward movement greatly limited for fear of upsetting the apple cart. Noting that Matthew’s original context likely included people who were rejected by their family and friends because of their faith — hence the import of these words of encouragement from Jesus — I think we often allow our hopes, plans, and mission to be held hostage by those who threaten conflict when things don’t go their way. In these situations, Jesus invites us to remember that there are worse things than conflict and that, indeed, the call to follow Christ and take up his cross will in fact have costs, including at times conflict.
Recall that much about how we respond to challenges in life depends upon our interpretation. Are the hardships we face things to fear or opportunities to exercise our faith? Is a brewing conflict with a dysfunctional colleague or difficult friend something to be avoided at all costs or an opportunity for setting boundaries, affirming healthier patterns of behavior, and nurturing personal and corporate growth? Challenges are not sent from God, but rather remind us that if God can use something as awful as the cross to work redemption, then God can and will work through our hardships for the sake of life.
So, Jesus says, repeatedly, have no fear, do not fear, do not be afraid. God loves you with an everlasting love. Amen.
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