When fear is useful
Fear is a useful emotion. Fear has a purpose. The purpose of fear is paying attention and taking action. Adrenaline sharpens the senses and prepares your body for strength and speed.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling fear. In fact, there is no courage without fear.
But Jesus does seem to have something to teach us about fear. Three times he said, “Have no fear of them,” “Do not fear those,” “Do not be afraid.” And once he said, “Fear the one.”
In other words, Jesus did not mock the fearful. Instead, Jesus described appropriate fear and inappropriate fear. Jesus was showing them.
The other day, I felt a spike of fear. Rest time at our house had just begun. Amos was taking a nap. Susannah was supposed to be resting quietly in her room. But she was angry, complaining about an injustice done to her by her little brother and parents. So she slammed her bedroom door shut.
I jumped. I felt a surge of adrenaline. A surging temptation to yell and deal roughly with Susannah. And in the next heartbeat came the calming questions. Am I right to be afraid? Does the fear I feel justify my bad behavior? Who’s problem is my fear? Where is this fear coming from? What do I want to do with my fear?
In my house growing up, a door slamming was a warning shot. Only my father was allowed to slam doors. And when he did, it triggered panic in me. A door slammed meant dad was in a rage. It meant the rest of us were in danger. Right and wrong couldn’t protect us. Love couldn’t protect us. And I certainly could not protect anyone. Best case scenario, maybe I could hide.
Jesus, my fear-guide
And probably, every time I hear a door slammed, all of this history held in my body and bones gets triggered. And the adrenaline floods me, whether I am in danger or not. And I will focus on the one who slammed the door, with an irrational fear…or with an irrational anger based on all those feelings of vulnerability.
Jesus is my guide for appropriate and inappropriate fear. So when Susannah slammed her door, I forced myself sit with my fear. I reminded myself, Susannah is a five-year-old child. I am a 37-year-old man. She has more reason to fear me, than I do to fear her. How do I want her to remember me? What kind of father do I want to be? In this moment, what does she need from me? What would love do?
Three calming doses of “do not be afraid,” and one warning dose of “be afraid” is what Jesus gave. And that sounds about right, in my experience. What I had to be afraid of was me, not Susannah.
Fear is a useful emotion. And Jesus the crucified living one teaches us what attention is right to pay and what action is right to take.
What you do with it?
Some people cannot admit even to themselves that they have any fear at all. And maybe they have always been the master. The one who is feared. And they do not recognize that their anger and denial are masks for fear. And some people—often the same people—act as if fear is the ultimate excuse and justification. “I am scared, therefore I have the right to…pull a trigger,” for example.
What happens when the people, who are actually the safest people, get scared of the most vulnerable people? What happens when the people, who are actually the wealthiest people, get scared that they won’t have enough? What happens when people with the most authority and earthly power—the fathers, the high office holders, the ones with badges—are afraid? What will they do with their fear?
What do you do when you’re afraid?
Jesus was talking to people who had every reason to be afraid.
There were specific people they were afraid of…but not people of another religion, not people of another nation, not people of another race.
The most dangerous were their own family members, who read the same scriptures and prayed to the same God.
The church Matthew was written for had been deeply wounded.
They let go of one kind of life, and took hold of the cross of Jesus. And that meant, they surrendered their respectability. Their prestige, perks, and privilege. They lost one life for Jesus’ sake, and gained a whole other one. They let go of one kind of family and embraced another. There were real consequences. But not just danger. With danger, so much more healing. Assurance, beyond their fear. Hope bigger than their loss.
In fact, it was healing and assurance and hope that motivated them. Not fear. As a motivator, fear is pretty weak. It’s nothing next to being loved.
Jesus promised that everything that’s covered up, will be uncovered. And every secret will become known. And this is a big clue. Consider everyone you have ever known who has acted with love in the face of danger. They are people who see something the rest of us don’t see. They hear something the rest of us can’t.
For her whole life, a friend of mine had a special relationship with her grandfather. He loved her, supported her. They spent a lot of time together. Until she told him, “Grandpa, I think God is calling me to be a pastor.” And he said, “No. God doesn’t want women to be pastors.” She was crushed. But she went to seminary anyway.
A man I know spent his early years preaching the urgent need for “family values.” One man, one woman, utterly focused on raising children and preserving the moral fabric of society. Until he faced the fact that he was gay. “I was like Jonah,” he said. “And the storm and the whale finally caught up to me.” He came out twice. First, revealing he was gay to his rural Pennsylvania family. Then, to his new gay and activist community, that he was Christian.
Any truly spiritual journey is a downward journey. A process of letting go. It’s called faith because we must trust that as we let go of what seems too precious and too necessary, we will receive true riches and what we and the world really need.
The cross uncovered this.
“And do not be afraid. Take heart. Trust me.” Jesus said. “You are worth more than many sparrows.”
And this is the heart of all letting go. All courage. All proper fear. Coming into contact with the hidden reality. That you and all people are worthy of love and belonging. That you and all creation matter deeply to God, the most high. All who fall for Jesus, will rise from death.
“Loose lips sink ships,” the wartime poster said. But Jesus encourages loose lips!
This is the light Jesus speaks to us in the darkness. This is the whisper Jesus wants us to shout from the rooftops.
The truth that sets us free…truly free. Including from the wrong fear.
What kind of peace
Reject the idea that Jesus came to keep the peace.
Because there is a way of helping the poor that earns respect. People give you rewards and accolades. And there’s a way of helping the poor that earns criticism and creates conflict.
There is a form of Christianity that makes you more appealing and more patriotic and more elect-able. And there is a form of Christianity that will get you called a troublemaker and a traitor.
It was a Brazilian archbishop who said: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
“It’s enough for the student to be like the teacher, the slave like the master.” The goal is not to be perfect like Jesus is perfect, but instead to pay attention to what Jesus pays attention to, to act as Jesus acts.
Doing this, is going to upset some people. And those people are going to respond poorly, dangerously.
Stay focused on Jesus.
Don’t worry about that, Jesus said, preaching on the mountain, “Rejoice and be glad, because your reward is great in heaven, because that’s the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
And in the next breath, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
Losing our saltiness is more to be feared than losing so much else we worry about.
I get nervous every time I preach. I’ve been doing this 11 years, and I still get nervous.
On the one hand, I shouldn’t be afraid. But on the other, I should be.
Because what you think of my preaching is one thing. What God thinks, is another.
So try not to worry about fear. Christ is with you.
Thanks be to God.
Saint Paul Lutheran Church
715 South Third Street
Clinton, IA 52732
(at the foot of the south bridge)