Written version of the sermon delivered to Walland UMC on Sunday, June 25, 2017:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, oh Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.
Last week, I talked to you about Seeing Red; about really digging deep into the Gospels to the point where you literally know and carry them out as easily and subconsciously as you draw breath. This week, I want to warn you about something that will prevent you from being able to do that. I want to warn you about “fear” because “fear” will stop you dead in your tracks.
How can fear stop us? Stanley Saunders, Associate Professor of New Testament at Columbia Seminary, wrote the following as the introduction to his commentary on our passage from Matthew this morning:
“Fear: Is there any more pervasive or powerful force in human experience? From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us, certainly to fear the stranger, sometimes to fear even those who are closest to us. Political leaders have long recognized the power of fear in ensuring our conformity to the structures of this world, even when doing so does not serve our best interests. Fear is the driving force behind vast segments of our economy, as well as, increasingly, our political priorities.”
Now remember, unlike what we currently experience today in the United States, Christ lived during a time when “politics” and “government” significantly impacted the church.
Caesar, like Pharaoh, determined and declared what the “state” or “national” religion of the empire would be, and then declared himself to be the high-priest, king and earthly manifestation of whatever Roman god he’d chosen, the worship of which was required of every person within the bounds of his empire. To fail to bow to Caesar or pledge allegiance to him on demand – something the Jews couldn’t do without breaking the first commandment God gave Moses – was a huge risk, almost always ending in punishment that included beatings, life imprisonment and even death.
For the followers of Christ, that death sentence was even more of a sure thing; they were literally living, traveling, taking meals with the Son of God and King of all kings and, in addition to Caesar, they faced an additional threat from the Jewish high-priests, who could and would have them flogged in the synagogues, and then arrested and thrown into a Roman prison.
In our passage from Matthew, it’s clear that Jesus knows how fear of such things could and probably would cause the disciples to fail. No matter how brave they’d been so far, courageously leaving the security of their homes and families to follow him, they often feared. In doing his bidding this time – going out with absolutely nothing, not even shoes on their feet – they were destined to be on a collision course with the powers of the earthly world.
So, as Jesus prepared them for their mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he was point blank honest and blunt about the threats they would face: arrests and beatings, opposition even from family members, hatred and persecution.
And, yet, he told them, “So, do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known … Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul … Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows …”
In other words, Jesus was saying to them, ‘don’t let fear get the better of you and don’t let anything – not even fear for your life – keep you from your goal, your mission … your work in my name.’
The Gaither Vocal Band recorded a song a few years ago, and the chorus starts like this …
Sometimes it takes a mountain
Sometimes a troubled sea
Sometimes it takes a desert
To get a hold of me
We’ve all had our mountains, our troubled seas and/or our deserts that we’ve had to face from time to time. Mountains built of terminal or chronic illness, death and grief, seas tossed and torn by trouble in our marriages, jobs or businesses, deserts where, like Haggar and Ishmael, we had no resources and no hope.
And, like the Gaither song goes on to say, we’ve most likely cried out …
Forgive me, Jesus
I thought I could control
Whatever life would throw my way
But this I will admit
Has brought me to my knees
I need you Lord and I’m not ashamed to say
We cry out the moment we break away from trying to control whatever put us on that mountain, sea or desert long enough to fall to our knees, give it to God and pray for His help.
In retrospect, it is that moment of breaking away that takes us to a breakthrough where, even though the outcome might not have been specifically what we asked of Him, we recognize that God, in His faithfulness, heard our cries and met our needs. Usually, hopefully … even if down the road a bit … we recognize that the outcome He gave us was for the better and for our good.
It’s then that, if we are wise, we again give thanks and praise and give ourselves to God all over again admitting to God that:
Your Love is so much stronger
Then whatever troubles me
Sometimes it takes a mountain
To trust you and believe
Our mountain has been conquered, sea calmed, water in and a way out of the desert has been provided. All is well with our souls and it’s safe travels and smooth sailing from this point forward with no problems or setbacks, right?
No, not right. Not even close to right, amen?
So what gives? Surely we learned our lesson. God of the mountain, sea and desert rescued us in our darkest hour and set us down on solid ground. He helped us stand up on two feet, in His word, we matured from the lesson we learned, and we put our nose to the grindstone of life and soldiered on.
And yet, we invariably wake up one day to find ourselves like a butterfly with one leg tethered by a single, sticky, unbreakable thread of a spider’s web, beating our wings for all we’re worth … hovering in a frozen, frantic mid-air flight.
If we were to – again – break away from what it is that’s holding us in place, we’d find out the name of that thread is “change” … and we fear change as much or more than anything else we face. Even though “change” is something we should be able to deal with, change shouldn’t be any big deal … the fear of it is … and that fear lurks and waits for us down here in the Valley between the mountains, deserts and troubled seas.
The truth is, we all fear change, and because we fear change, we nail ourselves to the wrong crosses, put bars on the windows, nail the doors shut, and strap ourselves into our chairs. We get a strangle grip on what we already know, what we feel safe with, what keeps us warm and comfortable, what we’ve always done, the way it used to be, and We. Refuse. To. Let. Go. … the whole time, beating our wings just as hard as we can and wondering why we can’t break free and fly!
It’s our refusal to let go of our fear, to acknowledge and consider, possibly even accept and embrace change … our self-inflicted, self-manufactured fear of change … that holds us back, holds us down, and stops us from fully living and breathing and carrying out the Gospels in our own lives.
In our personal lives, fear of change can keep us from accommodating the needs of those who we’re in relationship with because we’re clinging to what makes us feel comfortable, safe and satisfied, diminishing their needs for the protection of our own until … eventually … we find ourselves back on troubled seas.
When we let the fear of change keep us from making personal sacrifices by giving up what we like and want in order to lay up stores for the future, we lead ourselves back into the desert with no resource or hope.
And beware: we can put ourselves right back on some mountain because of fear of change. Consider the diabetic who’s told that he has to change his diet, but that means giving up his favorite foods. Consider the smoker who doesn’t quit because it “helps me calm down or stay awake”. Consider the addiction or depression that goes untreated because of the victim or the victim’s friends and families are in denial or enabling.
What about all of us here as the church? Fear of change as individuals or groups of individuals can impact how we live and breathe and carry out the Gospels as the church in our communities, our nation, and in the world
Benjamin Cory, a prominent Christian author, blogger, speaker, cultural anthropologist, and public theologian, just started a new series of articles on the Christian church in America, and Mr. Cory believes the church is in trouble. He believes the reason statistics show that our churches are stagnant or in decline is because we’ve been lying to ourselves for so long, we not only believe the lies, we’re raising a whole new generation to believe the lies, too. The first lie he addresses is one he believes to be one of the most deadly: “Church is something you do on Sunday.”
I’d like to amend that to say that the lie we’ve all believed is, “Church is something you do on Sunday and/or the building you do it in.” Because the truth is that “Church” is neither. What we’re here doing this morning isn’t “church”. What we’re doing this morning is participating in a corporate worship service, corporate meaning group. And this building that we’re doing it in isn’t a “church”. As beautiful as it is, it’s just a building. YOU, me, us – we are the church; All of us and each of us.
That means the same fear of change you hold as individuals will influence the decisions you make on behalf of the church about how you as the church influence and impact the community, the state, the nation and the world.
As “the church” both individually and collectively, we have a responsibility to serve God and Christ in all we do. When we fear even the slightest change in what we’ve always done, what we know, what we’ve been told to think, the “position” we’ve always taken, when we fail to be the hands and feet of Christ and stand in the gap for anyone who gets thrown into that column labeled “other” …
I rewrote this part of my message a dozen times. I had a whole list of the “others” that we, through our own fear of change, toss into the not just stormy seas, but raging oceans; not just mountains, but jagged granite peaks; not just any desert but the biggest, hottest, most barren most inhospitable desert there is.
I finally took the list out for two reasons: One – I can’t read through the list out loud without becoming too emotional to go on, and Two – that, even though I’ve taken a pledge to say the names in that column and to stand up and speak out for them, I gave in to a fear of change: That if I did speak the names of those in the other column, some of you might be offended. I let my fear of change win and will be silent on their names.
I am, however, not going to be silent on one name – the name of the change we fear that causes us to fail to stand in the gap for all those in the column labeled “other”. The name of that change is “us”. You. Me. Us. We would have to break free from everything we’ve ever been told, read, heard, or believed about those in the “other” column. We would have to recognize and accept that they are fully equal to us in value, in the right to human dignity, in the right to exist, to worship and to enjoy a decent quality of life and equal treatment under the law. We would have to accept that they too were created in Imago Dei, God’s own nature and image, and that God has a plan for each of them just like he has for us …
That’s a hard change. It means weighing your fears and the decisions you make because of those fears against the second greatest commandment, Christ’s commandment – Love one another as I have loved you – Jesus loved everyone, even those who didn’t love him back; and Wesley’s three simple rules – Do no harm, do good, love God. If it harms anyone – anyone, it’s no good. If it’s no good, you can’t do good. If you can’t do good, you’re not loving God the way God wants us to love Him.
It means – and this is the hardest part of the change – it means that we have to break free of the hate, the fear, the doubt that has been handed down to us from generation to generation, that’s handed out by politicians and pundits and theocrats, and we have to say, “The hate stops HERE and will be healed in me!” Otherwise, “What is not healed is handed down”, and the cycle of fear begins again, and we are guilty of making the mountains, stirring the troubled seas, and withholding water in the desert.
Bringing it back here to Walland United Methodist Church, you’re about to experience change. You’re getting a new pastor and new pastors tend to change things up a little … okay, sometimes a lot.
The order of worship is probably going to change. He might have different ideas about the music used during worship. He could have different expectations for the work your committees do, sometimes even a different idea for where you as a church should be headed.
I would probably rock you to your foundations. As a faith leader, I would want to be sure that the church and I are reaching out to the community, offering space for other churches, groups and events that may need it, extending invitations to our activities, and going out those doors.
The early church wasn’t as much about corporate worship as it was about community; helping one another, walking together through all life’s ups and downs. I don’t know about you, but that community idea is the only “way things were” that I want to hold on to.
After all, Christ didn’t spend his time closeted away in a building ministering only in a way that kept the faithful parishioners all snug and comfy. He took his adult ministry literally into the streets, out into the country, on hillsides, by the sea, wherever he was is where he ministered. And that’s where I believe, as a faith leader, I should be leading the church – out the doors and out into the community.
That same definition of the church as “community” needs to apply to the state, the nation and the world. We should be embracing and extending ourselves into them … not as judge, jury, and prosecutioners of what the world will or won’t do, not of councilmen, legislators, governors and presidents that make and enforce what the world will or won’t do, but as disciples, ambassadors, and laborers for Christ. No parties. No sides. No labels. Remember: Christ said, “I didn’t come to judge the world, but to save it.”
Before I finish up here, there is one more change that we fear, especially as the church. That change is the introduction of new ideas and new ways of interpreting things, especially scripture.
Very often when someone suggests a different interpretation of the scripture, we clutch our bibles tightly to our chests and scream, “NOOOOOO!!!” That’s not what my New International Version English translation Bible published for the first time as the complete Old and New Testaments clear back in 1978 says!
Did you know the Bible has been translated into English more than 450 times, that it’s been translated into a total of 635 languages other than English, that it’s been close to 2,000 years since the original texts of the New Testament were written, and well over 2,000 years since the last original texts of the Old Testament were written? But this New International Version bible published as a complete bible for the first time in … 1978 … THIS is right GOD’S literal word … word for word.
Folks, you cannot sit down and read this book like you read a novel, or even a text book. That’s why I said last week that you need to study the gospels over and over until you can literally breathe them. STUDY … not “read”.
Don’t fear that kind of change, folks. Embrace it and let it drive you deeper into the Gospels and closer to the Word who is Christ. Look deep, and then look deeper still.
In closing, remember: The God of the Mountain is the God of the Valley, too. He is ever present, ever faithful. His love was, is, and ever shall be bigger than any trouble you might face, any change you might fear. Don’t just break away and breakthrough. Strive to break free so you can truly, completely, live, breathe and carry out the Gospels.
Let us pray:
God, we thank You for the mountains, seas and deserts You’ve already carried us over, across and through, breaking us away from what held us there, and bringing us to the breakthrough that holds us close to You.
We know that You are bigger than any trouble or challenge we may face, and we ask that You help us to break free from fear and open our minds and hearts to whatever changes we have yet to face.
We pray your spirit descends onto us and opens our hearts and minds so that we may fully hear You in Pastor Benson’s interpretation of Your word. We pray Pastor Benson be filled with your spirit.
And all God’s children said, amen!
As you go from here, remember this:
God is God, God is Great and God is Good. Whether you’re on a mountain, a troubled sea, in the desert or just down here in the Valley, He is bigger than any trouble you face.
God’s heart was revealed to us when He sent us His son, and He wrote His love for us in red on a hill called Calvary.
As you prepare to welcome Rev. Benson, God has already given you all that you need to open yourself to his teaching, and to face and conquer the fears that keep you from breaking free so you can reach out in loving care and kindness to others, so that you can be the Church, and so that you can extend yourselves out into your community.
Go into God’s world bringing the good news of redemption and hope. Give to others what you receive in Christ.
In Jesus’ Name, go in peace and may the God of Peace go with you always.