Reverend Mel Baars
May 19, 2013
University Presbyterian Church
It is no secret that a preacher’s greatest audience is often herself. This has proved very true for me this week as I have prepared for Pentecost. There are so many possible themes which emerge in these verses from diversity and the gifts of the multi-lingual to being open to the movement of the spirit, how loving God looks like keeping God’s commandments, and what its like to be driven by fear.
As I read these familiar scriptures this week, I couldn’t stop fixating on fear. Everywhere I turned, fear seemed to jump out from the page which must say something about me I am sure. In the Acts passage, the people’s fear isn’t explicit. It isn’t named outright but instead displayed through how they respond to this otherworldly event. But, put yourselves in their shoes. Out of nowhere a sound like a rush of a violent wind has bulldozed through a local home, and the people inside have begun to speak in so many tongues that the entire crowd, no matter their native language, understands what is being said. They are amazed and confused. And though the text doesn’t say it, I think they are also afraid. In a desperate attempt to make sense of this thing which doesn’t make any sense at all, they blame this occurrence on wine and drunkenness. Because there really is no good explanation for what is happening, their fear drives them to draw unfair conclusions about the disciples. Fear gives rise to injustice. But isn’t this how it goes too often, even now, even with us?
The gospel passage also exudes whispers of fear. Today’s portion of the text begins with Philip asking Jesus to show him “the Father.” It’s not enough that Philip has witnessed Jesus in action, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind. But, he wants something more in order to be satisfied. Because, as we know, memory is tricky and fleeting. As much as he might believe in the midst of Jesus’ miracles, during the high times, in those times between, his trust becomes shaky. His fears poke holes in his faith and inevitably he begins to sink. This cycle of belief, fear, and doubt is nearly impossible to break and Philip knows this. He recognizes his weaknesses which is why he makes his request in the first place. He is looking for some kind of “fear proof” evidence which will guarantee sustained faith. This is what he needs to be satisfied. This is what he thinks he needs to conqueror his fears.
Like most human emotion, fear is complicated. On one hand, it is helpful, particularly when trying to teach a child the potential consequences of running blindly into traffic or touching a hot stove. On the other hand, though, too much fear can cause paralysis. It can push people toward inhumanity. It can propel otherwise decent people to make horrific choices in which innocent victims are caught in its crossfire. We need healthy fear to navigate our lives safely but fear, like fire, is difficult to manage. With just a little extra fuel, it can grow so much and so quickly that it becomes unmanageable. It can spin out of control without much warning, leaving but ash in its path.
Of course, the spectrum of fear doesn’t always have to mean obvious casualties. I think our scripture passages are two great examples of how stealthily fear can take away from the quality of our life and of our faith. I can easily use myself as an example. There are times when I get so focused on my fears that I hardly have any other room in my life for living life well. There are seasons when it seems fear and worry become so encompassing that it is like I have another full time job which would entitle me health benefits and a 401K. I throw worry in there because worry stems from fear. And, at least according to my Apple dictionary, worry is “a state of anxiety and uncertainty over actual or potential problems.” Fear leads to worry and worry causes a state of anxiety and before we know it we are drowning.
I read about a cartoon which depicted a patient paying a visit to his psychiatrist. In the cartoon he is laying on the couch, describing all of his fears to the psychiatrist. “Doctor,” he began, “I’m worried about the energy crisis, inflation, the sequester and balancing the budget, on-going conflicts in Afghanistan, Israel, Libya, Syria, political unrest in Africa, our diplomatic relations with China, whether or not my teenager is going to become dependent on drugs and alcohol or if my eighth grader will bring up her grades enough to make it into high school on track. I am worried my job, my health, my retirement plan, chemical weapons, bird flu, …” and his list went on and on and on. In the final frame the psychiatrist responded, “Shut up and move over,” after which he proceeded to get on the couch with the patient. Even hearing this list, I feel my anxiety rising.
A few months ago, when my fear management was particularly poor, I made an appointment to see a military family life counselor, which is a counseling resource that all service members can access for free in order to building coping and resiliency skills. I sat down and I explained why I was there. Like the man in the cartoon, I had a lengthy list of worries. I had just found out that the Army was sending me to the Canadian border, most likely to deploy back to Afghanistan. I had been having some strange, inexplicable health issues which were not clearing up with the medicine my doctors prescribed. I was in a relationship which was going well but which was also in question due to my impending move to almost Canada. What was going to happen to me, my health, my future work and relationship? With each unknown factor, my fear for the future grew.
Seeing the cross on my uniform and recognizing that I am a chaplain, she reminded me that all I needed to do was pray. Wasn’t I praying, she asked me. Yes, I answered, mainly because I didn’t want to disappoint her. And, I had prayed a few times about all of it but, if I am honest, not really the kind of praying that makes a difference. Happy with her diagnosis, she quoted some applicable scripture and sent me on my way. It’s funny now looking back. At the time I was very dissatisfied with her advice. Of course, I knew that I should be praying. I could have told myself that. I was looking for some other, more concrete, easier to obtain coping strategies. Reading Jesus’ words in John, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” While her advice didn’t seem very helpful to me then, now I wonder how many times will I have to hear Jesus’ words of peace and promise, before I will take them to heart, before I will truly believe them.
Philip bargains with Jesus just like we do. Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied. O God, just help my mother get better, and I will do whatever you want. Just help me get this job, and I will be generous with those who are in need. O Lord, give me a sign that you are who you claim to be, just help me know my future, that I am going to be okay, and then I will have my peace. All the while, right beneath our noses, God continues to work and heal and bring about life instead of death
On Pentecost we remember that the Holy Spirit dwells among us despite how often we forget this to be true. From creation, throughout our many exiles, in the lowliness of a stable, and even from the murkiness of our unknown futures, the spirit of God beckons to each of us, giving us the strength to continue on our journeys, restoring our faith during seasons of fear, reminding us that we never face our fears alone.
Some years ago, when I was in elementary school, a new brand called No Fear became popular, mostly among the boys in my class. This label was on everything from t-shirts to skateboard, and quickly because familiar. I remember wondering whether or not No Fear was actually possible. It’s one thing to act fearless or to profess fearlessness, but it’s another thing entirely to live without it. I was sure, even the toughest boys in my class, had their fearful moments. If only it was as easy as wearing a t-shirt.
Desmond Tutu once said this, "All of us experience fear, but when we confront and acknowledge it, we are able to turn it into courage. Being courageous does not mean never being scared; it means acting as you know you must even though you are undeniably afraid."
Living without fear isn’t really what matters. Instead, faithfulness looks like dealing with our fears, recognizing when we are driven by fear rather than led by the spirit. It means responding with love even when our gut instinct is urging us to fight or flight. And, maybe my counselor was on to something, even though her delivery in the midst of my crisis could have used some improvement. Jesus has promised us good life, leaving us with these words, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” There is much about the future that we don’t know. Even more that we can’t understand. Yet, the Holy Spirit dwells among us, even here, even now. Because we know this to be true, may we also know God’s peace. Amen