“Responding in Love, Not Fear”
13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (I John 4:13-21, NRSV)
I was an anxious child. Reflecting back on my childhood, I wonder if my love of basketball was due partially to this fact. I worked out my fear and anxiety running up and down the court; my mind laser focused on putting points on the board. I suppose I’m a natural born worrier. My mom is notorious for her worrying spouts, still even today. Stories of my paternal grandmother are legendary in this department. I suppose I received my fear honestly, so they say.
If my mother wasn’t home by exactly 5:15 in the afternoons, I was fearful there had been a terrible accident. I would pace by the front door until she was home safely. Tests and exams had my stomach in knots for weeks leading up to test day. I was fearful when I wasn’t included in the cool group sleepovers at school. And I was fearful when I didn’t stand up for those being excluded, when I knew it was the right thing to do. I didn’t speak of these and other fears much. Music, sports and church were my therapy of choice.
As a young child who was raised in the Church, I often turned to my faith in search of peace. I enjoyed Sunday school, children’s choir and other church activities. Having something larger than myself to connect to, gave me a sense of serenity; although I didn’t exactly understand it fully. While my Christian faith served as a balm for my anxious soul, it often too at times provoked my deepest fears.
As a young elementary student, revival preachers reminded me that if I was not “right with God”, that hell would certainly be my destiny. At the end of most worship services, I watched my friends come forward to the chancel to be baptized. Being baptized, in the Baptist tradition, along with a prayer called the “sinners prayer” is the path to knowing one’s salvation with God is secured. I remember lying in my bed some nights, begging God to give me the courage to be baptized. I didn’t want to go to hell, but walking the center aisle at church in front of all those people seemed scarier to me than eternal damnation as a seven year old. In my early teenage years a popular movement entitled True Love Waits, swept through the south like wild fire. As a direct backlash against the women’s movement and equality movements of the 70’s and 80s’, the True Love Waits movement instilled fear into millions of young teenagers. This movement taught us to loathe our bodies and to be fearful and shameful in all things pertaining to sexuality. The movement focused on lifting up and encouraging the spiritual nature of our existence and condemning the physical in all aspects. For it was only the health of our souls that God cared about, we were taught to believe. In college, as our world witnessed more internationals and refugees entering our country, with their differing views of God, the Church responded with a swift attempt to convert the “ heathens” and the “unsaved”. I participated in mission trips in college, where students would weep for children of refugees, for they wanted them so desperately to ascribe to our way of understanding God. They were truly fearful that these children would end up in the wrong place in the afterlife.
In my final years of college, Southern Baptists believed that women in America were too liberated – too worldly. At their annual convention, they responded by reaffirming publicly the Baptist Faith and Message that declared for women to be submissive to men and for women to remain silent in the church. I sat in my dorm room many nights, fearful and hopeless, knowing God was calling me to Christian ministry.
I consider myself a recovering Southern Baptist. Even today, I am working through fears and untruths that sunk down into the fibers of my being for so long. When religion responds with fear, people are damaged and the world at large suffers. When we respond with fear, there is no room left for love.
For generations, large religious groups have notoriously responded with fear, rather than in a spirit of love. In a recent article in The Atlantic, written by John Fea, he recounts generations of religious fear – based responses to societal issues throughout history. He writes, “A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people…Our history of …fear might also include a chapter on the early 19th-century Protestants who feared the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants to American shores. They translated their panic into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat that such “popery” posed to their Christian nation….A history of …fear might also note that Catholics made up just one front in the battle for a Protestant America. “Infidels” made up the other front. At the turn of the 19th century, evangelicals went to war against unbelievers, deists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other assorted heretics who threatened the Godly character of the republic.”
Fea continues, “Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, agonized that unless he and his team of evangelical Federalists curbed the influence of the followers of Thomas Paine, the United States would end up like the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm [in your faith] … I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”” When “godless” Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States in 1800, frightened New England evangelicals thought the Virginian’s henchmen would soon be arriving in their towns and homes on a mission to take away their Bibles….The aggressive moral rhetoric and publishing campaigns of Northern opponents of slavery threatened the white Southern evangelical way of life and prompted fears of a race war. In response, some of the South’s best evangelical minds went to work constructing a complex biblical and theological defense of slavery…Fundamentalists, committed to the otherworldly teachings of the Holiness or “Higher Life” movement, chose to separate from the world rather than engage it.”
Fear cripples us. Love restores us. Fear keeps us hostage and builds walls to keep others out. Love invites others in and sees the beauty in all of humanity. Fear smothers our spirit and leaves us void of possibility. Love elevates our soul and spurs us on to new understandings, ideas and opportunity. Fear restrains us from the abundant life God’s calls us to. Love propels us into the God’s goodness and grace. Eugene Peterson’s version of today’s scripture from 1 John says it this way:
“We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God. God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry…There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first. If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.” (The Message)
When I was in elementary school, our Sunday school teacher told us that the Bible states 365 times throughout “Do not fear”. “That’s one for every day of the year”, I remember her saying emphatically. I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but I know that as followers of God, we are called to cast out our fear and to put on love. This is the call of Jesus. This is the way, the truth and the life. If we claim to be followers of the Prince of Peace, then we must start responding to this world with love. We must start responding to our neighbors with love. We must start responding to those whom we don’t understand or those who seem somehow “other” with love. We must respond with every single morsel of kindness, dignity and decency that we can muster within ourselves. Fear leads to death. Love will lead us to life.
Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi wrote the following about fear. “[Fear] is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always ... so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”
God is calling us to push aside our fear so that we might have life. Life in abundance not just for us - but for all of God’s children. We must enter courageously into the beauty God holds for us on the other side of our fears. There is life there. There is peace there. The health of our world hinges on this moment in our history. It is time to respond in love.
The late Maya Angelou captures our dance with fear and love in an inspiring poem based on her personal experiences. Her words beautifully illustrate our own unique attempts to loosen the grips of fear in our lives. She writes,
“We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.”
Let us go now, into our world, Family of Faith. Might we cast out the fears that bind us and may we persist in God’s ways of perfect love. May it be so, family of faith. AMEN.
We give you thanks for the beauty found around us and within us. We thank you for the crystal clear waters that refresh us on hot days. We thank you for the laughter of children and for heartwarming conversations with old friends. We thank you for summer vacations. For time to be with family, for times of renewal and refreshment. We are grateful that you are a God who cares about every detail of our lives.
We thank you O God for the miracle that you are always with us. We give thanks that you know our every anxious thought, our fears and our deepest joys.
We pray for the condition of our world this morning. We pray that where there is violence, we would find a peaceful solution. We pray that where there is hunger and thirst, we would find resources to quench and to satisfy. We pray for all those in our world longing for peace. Might we be swift to love and hesitant to fear.
We pray for our church family.
We seek to be faithful as we live out our lives. Draw us closer to you. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.
(Adapted from Refreshing Rains of the Living Word by Lavon Baylor)
 “Touched by an Angel” http://www.poetrysoup.com/famous/ poems/ best/maya_angelou