Transcribed from the sermon preached December 21, 2014
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Luke 1:26-38
Isis, terrorism, Ebola, immigration, demonstrations, family criticism, unusual people, animals with big sharp teeth, public speaking, you name it; there are many, many things that we might be afraid of. Fear is not weakness; it is how people respond to something that might pose danger.
But fear is a lower feeling, an animal instinct that kicks in often automatically. Our dog Sassy showed a variety of fearful reactions. Somehow she had a sixth sense to figure out that we were about to give her a bath. She would go in the opposite direction and hide with a “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” Look. Now this is a learned fear, with some instinct built in. She had had the horrible experience of a bath before, and was on the lookout for signs that it might happen again. Now someone will have to explain to me why she was perfectly willing to get sopping wet biting sprinklers, or taking a bath in a mud puddle, but didn’t want a bath with soap. Sometimes, like when the boys would fight, she would not like it; she was worried about them and she would give a big tough “knock it off right now bark.” Sometimes another dog would approach, and being intimidated by her size, they would jump and yap at her. This would scare her initially, and she would jump back for a second, but then jump forward with a big mean shoulder and jaw expanding “are you sure you want to mess with me bark.” Sometimes she would see something strange, like a dead seal on the beach, or a lobster and she would approach tentatively, perplexed, with her tail down, sniffing her way around, pondering what kind of creature this might be. If while she was examining the seal, the boys made a sudden move she would jump back in fear, and then get amped up and start barking a tough but fearful bark, like she was calling in reinforcements.
Michael comes to Mary and she goes into the perplexed and pondering kind of fear. But the angel says don’t be afraid. You have found favor with God. Sometimes things we are afraid of are good. So it is important not to allow our initial fearful reaction to dictate our action.
Fear and anxiety in groups is even worse. It creates a feedback loop where one fearful person feeds off another. I think our nation has had this kind of fearful reaction since 9/11. We jumped back in fear and then jumped forward with the big mean shoulder and jaw expansions. But we also sent the patriotic, territorial bark around the block, so that law enforcement agencies started picking up military equipment to defend against possible terrorist attacks.
Now the problem with having this new equipment is the desire to use it to show one and one’s country is not afraid but tough. But there just aren’t many terrorists to use it against. The fear and fearful reaction to terrorism is much greater than the actual problem. We know that the enthusiasm whipped up in Europe to mount the crusades, which had to travel long distances to meet the Muslim enemies, resulted in pogroms against the local outsiders, the Jews. Rumors of ritual murder, of desecrations, of dirtiness and greed were projected onto Jews as justification for mistreating them. So too, the fear of terrorism has created a fearful reaction against people who are other, against immigrants and poor African Americans. Then, as our fearful reaction leads us to discrimination, we then have to work up negative stereotypes to justify the treatment. It is the fear negative feedback loop.
Since fear is often an automatic, animal reaction to the unusual or different, it is important that we do not react without thinking. We need the reasoning part of our brain to stop and recognize, “I am perplexed and I feel afraid.” Then we take time to ponder. What sort of greeting is this? It may be that God has sent a messenger, an angel? It may be that God has plans for us, that we are to grow and give birth to God in human form. We don’t want our purpose and God given trajectory to be changed by every strange or frightening thing that comes our way.
Rabbi Edwin Freidman, a family systems therapist, says that if we are caught up in trying to relieve the fear and anxiety of others, it will usually get worse. But if people have a sense of purpose, a reason to confront fear and move through anxiety, they will gain strength and our anxiety and that of others around us will decrease. Staying focused on the positive goal will decrease the power and importance of the negative and scary. Rather than let our fear or the fear of others dictate our behavior, we use reason to assess our fear, and the thing we are afraid of, with respect to our goal, so that we can consciously decide how God would have us respond.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. This young woman becomes a pretty tough lady quick. In the next scene we see is scattering of the proud, bringing down the powerful from the thrones, lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things.
God does not stay hidden and separate from us, but comes in particular human flesh, showing that our material, physical bodies matter here and now. As Christians, like Mary, we have the purpose of giving birth to Christ, to resisting reactionary violence and stereotyping in the name of love. Whether with people from another country or race, or in relationship at work or in our family, we want our calling from God to remain preeminent. Some of those things we are afraid of are good for us, like a cleansing bath. Some of those strange things that we haven’t figured out are messages from God. Sometimes a tough road leads to great things, to the birth of love, grace and peace and new life.