Ignoring a Commandment


A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Arthur M. Suggs

Preached On Sunday, January 12, 2014


Fear Comes in a Cardboard Tube

I concluded last Sunday’s sermon with a quote from John 1, “Perfect love casts out fear,” and talked about that a bit.  Following the service and throughout the week, a number of you told me some of your stories and experiences with fear, and so I would like to continue that conversation this morning.

My own interesting story about fear was a real gut-wrencher for me when it happened in 2002.  I was about ten miles north of San Francisco in San Anselmo and was working on my doctorate at San Francisco Theological Seminary.  It was a bright and beautiful Saturday in summer.  I had the day off, and I, along with some other students, had gone into town, and we were having lunch at an outdoor cafe.

For context, remember the summer of 2002, when 9/11 was still fresh in our minds.  President Bush had given his War on Terrorism speech, and there was a horrible anthrax scare in Washington D.C.  The Department of Homeland Security had been established, and it had decided on four colors to indicate the level of threat.  It was red at the time, meaning maximum threat.

As I said, I am with friends in the sidewalk section of an outdoor cafe, having lunch, minding our own business.  At mid-lunch, from our table on the sidewalk, I looked at the exterior wall of the restaurant beyond our table.  Nothing much there at all – just a sidewalk, a brick wall, and, leaning against it, a cardboard tube.

Looking at it, I thought, “What’s that, sitting there all by itself?”  Nobody nearby, no backpack or bicycle nearby, nothing except a cardboard tube leaning against the side of a public restaurant.  My mind, conditioned by threats, assumed the worst.  I had a horrible sinking feeling, so I said to the others at our table, “Look at that.  What do you think it is?”  Immediately, my friends quietly asked, “Is it a bomb or not?”

The people at the next table overheard us, looked at the tube, got up, and left suddenly.  They were noticed by the occupants of two other tables, who also got up and left quickly.  My friends and I were not sure what to do, but I still had that horrible sinking feeling.  I knew then why they call it terrorism.

While we were deciding what to do, along came a bicyclist, who swooped in, picked up the tube, and left.  We concluded it was probably only artwork.

A Snowflake Targets You

Fear.  In the pit of your stomach.  Whether it’s an intruder in your house or you’re scared about potentially losing your job or you have an appointment with your doctor and might be told something you don’t want to hear.  Fear.  And there’s actually a lot to be afraid of in our era.

Right now we have Al Qaeda, which certainly thinks ill of us and wants to harm as many of us as possible.  There’s global warming and weird weather.  The economy has been problematic at least since 2008.  The dysfunctional government that preceded 2008 continues to this day.  And we have accidents or disease.  Speaking of which, are you covered?  Are you sure?  And so we worry.

Then comes the Weather Channel, of all things.  We have a phenomenon called a polar vortex, which I’ve never even heard of before.  The Weather Channel’s symbol for a polar vortex is a snowflake in the shape of a target.  So it’s not like we’re going to get cold weather.  No, no, no.  This thing is aiming straight for you!  It’s aiming for the Midwest.  And for upstate New York.

No, this storm has you in its sights.  Really!?  A snowflake has a target?  And it’s you personally?

Leavening the Lump of Fear . . .

So in that context, here are some interesting quotes to leaven this lump a little:

  • “Fears are educated into us and can, if we wish, be educated out.”  – Karl Menninger, founder of the Menninger Clinic.
  • “The enemy is fear.  We think it’s hate, but it’s fear, because when we’re afraid, those feelings of hate and anger and disdain arise within us.”  – Mahatma Gandhi.
  • This one I love.  “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he’s often surprised to find that it comes off in his hand and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  • We pay attention to this because of who said it.  “Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  – Helen Keller.
  • From the Hindu scriptures, this one is suffused with theology.  It has the essence of how not to live a fearful life.  “Who sees all beings in his own self and his own self in all beings loses all fear.”    – From the Issa Upanishad.
  • From the Scriptures we have Isaiah 43, which concludes with “Do not fear.”
  • We also have Revelation 1, which concludes with “Do not fear.”
  • There are a bunch of other quotations as well, but to put them in an extended Scriptural context, we look in the Torah, where we have the 613 rules, or commandments.  In Hebrew they’re called the mitzvah.
  • Ten of them are very special.  They’re called the Ten Commandments.
  • And two of the mitzvah are really special, being ones that Jesus quoted to his followers:  “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
  • Scattered throughout both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, there are lots of other rules.

They’re not merely good advice, and they’re not just commandments either, but injunctions, rules, powerful suggestions.  For example, in Thessalonians Paul says, “Pray without ceasing.  Rejoice always.”

Jesus himself gave us some new injunctions that we generally forego.  They’re so hard to follow that we don’t stand much of a chance, so we forget about them and tuck them aside.  The two most disobeyed commandments, the two most ignored and forgotten commandments in the entire Scriptures are:  “Judge not” and “Fear not.”  Has anybody among you obeyed them?  Ever?  Nobody?

. . . And Irrational Phobias

There are of course phobias, which are generally irrational but not always.  Fear of heights?  Probably a good thing.  Arachnophobia?  Also probably a good thing.  It can be irrational if you have to jump up on the dining-room table to escape, but having a healthy respect for spiders is undoubtedly wise.

Fear of closed or open spaces?  Now it starts to get a little irrational:  Fear of public speaking clocks in at 97 percent of the population.  Fear of death clocks in at 95 percent of the population.  It makes you wonder about that 2 percent difference.  Apparently, they really would rather die.

Now it’s quiz time to see if you know this phobia:  It is the fear of being chased by a wolf around your kitchen table on a newly waxed floor, and you’re in your stocking feet.  Do you remember the Far Side cartoon?  Luposlipophobia.

But the Scriptures are very clear.  They almost never say, “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”  They do say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but the understanding of it is not so much fear but respect or reverence.

In Deuteronomy, as the children of Israel go through their wanderings into the Promised Land, you can read “Do not fear” six times.  In Isaiah, fifteen times.  In Joshua, as they actually enter the Promised Land, two more times, just for good measure.

In John 4:18, there is no fear in love.  Perfect love casts out fear.

Our Imperfect Perfect Love

The question for us is:  Why are we so afraid?  You know we are.  I think one thing can be concluded about our fears, and that is that they have not been cast out by perfect love that has been attained.  We have not reached a level of perfect love such that we can stop being afraid.

Our fears seem to be rooted in a faulty theology.  Let me give you an explanation.  Consider the following list of Biblical promises that are very hard to achieve and that are often lost in the struggle of living life:

  • The promise of eternal life that has been made over and over again.
  • Add to that the promise of providence that God will provide, will look out for you.
  • Add to that the propensity of grace to trump law over and over again in your dealings with God.
  • Add to that that God knows and cares.  God knows the fears we have, the issues we’re dealing with, and cares.  Remember the sparrows and the lilies of the field.
  • Add to that resurrection.  Not the Resurrection but resurrection-ness.  It’s not that death follows life, not that you live, go on a few diets, then die.  It’s that life follows death, over and over again.
  • Add to that the guidance of the angels and the gift of the holy spirit.
  • And add to that the final words of the Gospel of Matthew:  “And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

And yet we act.  We have the blood pressure and the antidepressants and the anxiety to prove it, as if we don’t believe a word of it.  “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he’s often surprised to find that it comes off in his hand and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”

Helen Keller was right:  “Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  Then consider the theology of that Hindu verse:  “Who sees all beings in his own self and his own self in all beings loses all fear.”  Thus, it follows that whoever considers the interconnectedness of the web of life is a person who loses all fear.

May I suggest that we begin by believing some of the ancient doctrines of resurrection, of providence:  That “Christ is with us, to the close of the age.”  That grace trumps the law.  That God cares for the sparrow and the lily of the field and even more for you.  That we might consider obeying the commandment:  Fear not.