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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Say Goodbye to Fear (1 John 4:18-19)


18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love because God first loved us.

 

Early in her ministry, a young Methodist pastor noticed one day that a new family had moved into a neighborhood not far from her church. So she dropped by late one afternoon.  She noticed that one car was parked in the carport.  She had rung the door bell only once when she heard a deep, bass growl that sounded like the rolling of thunder coming from the back of the carport.

 

About 20 feet away in a crouched position was a huge German Shepherd.  She began backing slowly away from that door, in the direction of her car, all the while speaking words of pastoral comfort to the dog.

 

It must have been a Baptist dog; never has anyone in their life seen a dog have such a problem with a Methodist preacher.

 

She wasn't worth much good at work the rest of that day. Fear had stolen her energy. She called her friend, the local Baptist preacher, and told him about this new family that had moved in, and that she was pretty sure they were Baptists.

 

Fear had stolen her energy.  Today, I’d like you to consider what fear has stolen from you.  As a person of faith, how will you make room for God’s love restore what fear has taken?

 

We are wrapping up our May series of messages today, on “Share the Love.”  Over the last month, we’ve been looking at how we can live a warm-hearted faith.

 

We began with the basics, namely that God is Love.  Say that with me: “God is Love.”  Period!  God is Love, Love is God’s reigning attribute, our faith begins with God’s Love.

 

It all begins with God’s love. In case we ever forget this basic, essential fact of our faith, 1 John makes it crystal clear.  God is the source and the definition of love. God is love. God loves as the sun shines: love expresses who God is.  God’s love is a truth more basic and reliable than the ground on which we walk, or the air we breathe.

 

God’s love is not some abstract concept. It is passion expressed in action. God made love real and present by sending Jesus to live among us and to give himself for us. God continues to show us love through Jesus’ life-giving presence among us.

 

The more fully and completely we know God, the more the immense reality of God’s love dawns on us. When we open ourselves to the warmth and light of God’s presence, we find that even our deepest, darkest secrets and the ugliest parts of ourselves are not beyond God’s reach. Nothing in us is so broken or so filthy that God is unwilling or unable to touch it. God embraces us as we are, loves us as we are, and works in us to make us clean and whole and new. Upheld, surrounded, enfolded by such love, who could be afraid of anything or anyone?

 

Turns out there’s an awful lot of stuff in this world to be afraid of.  For example, you may have ablutophobia, which is the fear of bathing.  It should not be confused with the refusal or unwillingness to bathe, which is common among students at App State.  Chirophobia – the fear of hands.  Geniophobia, the fear of chins, which should never be confused with genophobia, which is the fear or sex, or genuphobia, which is the fear of knees.  There’s metrophobia, the fear of poetry; and pediophobia, the fear of dolls.  The list goes on and on, all the way to zeusophobia, which is the fear of God.

 

There’s a lot to be afraid of, and a lot of people who have figured out how to manipulate our fears.  Politicians, cable news networks, and syndicate radio especially have teamed up in an unholy trinity that runs on and spews out fear.

 

I’ve learned, maybe you have as well, that when someone tries to scare me, they are trying to get something from me.  When someone threatens me and tries to scare me, they want me to do something that may or may not be in my best interest, but will always be in theirs.  They may be trying to scare me in order to get my vote, or my money, or my attention, or my support of whatever fear-based idea they are peddling.  Watch for it and see that it’s true – the next time someone tries to scare you or worry you, especially if they’re a politician or on cable news, they want something from you.  They aren’t in it for you, they’re trying to use you.  Don’t let them do it.  Don’t fall for it.  Don’t be a pawn in someone else’s game.

 

Fear can often be used to divide us based on the things that make us different.  We have a natural curiosity about the differences between people, but fear exploits those differences.  We begin to see difference in and of itself as cause to be fearful, we become afraid of anyone and anything we perceive to be different.  Difference turns into division.  We divide ourselves away from poor people, or gay people.  Maybe brown people or foreign people, nevermind that Jesus was, himself, a brown foreign person. 

 

Yoda said, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.”  Fear and anger and hate cause us to build walls of separation, to exclude some to protect ourselves.  A 20-foot wall is better than a 10-foot wall, we reason, because it can keep out more of the bad.  But no sooner is it built than we wish we had constructed a 30-foot wall.  Turns out no wall is high enough, no bomb big enough, no border secure enough, no law restrictive enough to protect us from fear, because fear isn’t out there, it’s in here.

 

The solution to this fear?  Love, of course.  Dionne Warwick said (though I personally prefer Burt Bacharat’s version) that “What the world needs now is Love, sweet love.”

 

We’re not just talking about any old love, but the perfect, full, complete love of God, the perfect love which casts out fear.  The church should be a welcome and refreshing alternative to an ethic of fear.  Our whole way of thinking and being is based in the simple, timeless good news that God is Love, and seeks to perfect us in love such that we love as fully and completely as God loves.

 

Indeed, the Scripture we’ve read today reminds us that perfect love drives out fear – and low and behold, the church of Jesus is based in, founded upon, saturated in, living out that love in ways large and small.  And so, the church should be a powerful force in expelling fear, arguably the most powerful force, and yet, we often find this is not the case.  Great corners and influential voices within the church are leading the charge advancing an ethic of fear that sounds more akin to the message of cable news and politicians than it does to the love-soaked Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Throughout history, many fear-based campaigns that spilled over into suffering and oppression were led by Christians, with the blessing of the Church, and we still see it happening, today.

 

Friends, the Church is a supposed to represent something different.  One of the descriptors of the early church was “the called-out ones,” meaning the followers of Jesus are singled out, to live differently than the world around them.  To be a different kind of community that stands in contrast to the harsh realities of business-as-usual in the world around them.  Jesus called the church to be salt and light in the world – seasoning and illuminating the dysfunction of things with something better, something of God, something motivated by love rather than fear.

 

Even so, as you look across the landscape of Christianity, you’ll see fear at play.  The most popular strategies for inviting people into the Christian faith use fear as a motivator, as pamphlets and preachers alike ask, “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven or to hell?”  These tactics introduce us to a big, bad, scary Go, ready to pounce and punish on not so much as a moments’ notice: fear-mongering and scare tactics wrapped up in religious language –hardly a faithful motivator.

 

No one should have cause to be afraid or scared of God.  When Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10, Psalm 111:10), it’s talking about having a healthy respect and reverence for God.  Maybe we had parents or grandparents or teachers or whomever who had a look or a way of talking to us that was said to “put the fear of God in you.”  They scared us all right, perhaps even to shape up and amend our behavior, somehow, but in reality, they put the fear of themselves into us, not the fear of God.

 

I’m sometimes asked why I don’t preach about hell more often.  Because I’m not a fire insurance salesman.  Because I was ordained a minister of the Gospel, which is good news for all.  Because the world can be scary enough without the church making it even scarier.  Because I refuse to use fear to manipulate people’s emotions or motivate them to action.  Because the Gospel is a great story of a God who is Love, who loves us more than we can imagine, not the story of a monster from whose punishment we need to be rescued.  Because our task is to witness to God’s love, to invite people to receive and grow and share in that love.  Because the fear of hell would only introduce people to a God who is a strict disciplinarian, rather than the God who is Love.

 

We need not be frightened of God, because God is Love.  And if God is love, and if perfect love casts out fear, it is infinitely better for us to use love to introduce people to God than to use fear.  So, we love our neighbors into God’s family, into the kingdom of God, into heaven, rather than scare them out of hell.  If we’ve got to lean one way or the other, we’ll err on the side of love and grace rather than of judgment and fear.  When your friends and family ask why you go to a Methodist Church, or what is wrong with your preacher that he doesn’t preach about hell more often, you just look them in the eye and tell them proudly that you’re part of a church that would rather love the hell out of people rather than scare the hell out of them.

 

Perfect love drives out fear.  We are people of faith, followers of Jesus, filled with the Spirit, we are seeking to pattern our lives after the love of God, to live and love like Jesus, to be so filled with his love that there isn’t room for anything else.

 

I want everyone to close their eyes and picture a house.  That house represents your soul, your heart, the essence and core of your being.  Now, it’s a rented house.  It doesn’t belong to you.  The house belongs to God.  You are allowed to use it and benefit from it and take care of it as God has entrusted it to you, but ultimately, it’s not your house, it’s God’s house.

 

You have an unauthorized roommate living with you in this house that belongs to God, and the roommate’s name is Fear.  Fear doesn’t pay rent, and breaks things and messes things up in the house.  Fear keeps you up at night, and robs you constantly – stealing your time, your emotional energy, and even the cash out of your wallet.

 

The owner of the house isn’t any more pleased about it than you are.  And so, the owner sends a new roommate, whose name is Love.  Later that afternoon, Fear comes back to the house to find his belongings on the curb, the locks changed, and an eviction notice on the front door, announcing that Fear is no longer welcome.  Love has moved into Fear’s room, and where there is Love, there is no longer room for Fear.

 

Fear tries to get back in, but you meet fear at the door and say you’re much happier living with Love.  You didn’t realize how happy until you gave it a try, but now you have, and this is better.  Given the choice between Love and Fear, you’ll choose Love.

 

Friends, today is a great day to say goodbye to fear. And not only fear, but all of fear’s nasty little friends, too.  It’s a great day to say adios to anger.  Sayonara, selfishness.  Giddy-up, gossip. Hasta la vista, hate.  Hey divisiveness, don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.  Peace out, prejudice.

 

Perfect love drives out fear.  Perfect love says to fear, “Turn around now, you’re not welcome anymore.”  Perfect love drives out fear.  It drives it far out into the middle of nowhere, opens the door and says, “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more.”

 

Let the world run be run by fear and his friends.  Here in the church, we’ll do it different.

 

Friends, we are children of God.  We are the church.  The body of Christ.  The beloved, called-out community, defined and driven by God’s unconditional love for all.  Perfect love drives out fear, and God’s perfect love drives us.

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