Fears and Tears

A sermon by Senior Minister John B. McCall, February 28, 2010

Genesis 15:1-7
Luke 13:31-35

It doesn’t make much sense to argue with God. You’re not going to win. Of course we know that, but when we argue with God it’s not like we’d thought it through very carefully ahead of time. It just happens. It’s a very popular pastime.

The Bible is filled with stories of people who argued with God. Adam and Eve, of course, thought they were more clever than their Creator; Jacob wrestled with his angel; Jonah tried to flee and hide when God called him to Nineveh. The whole tribe of Israel thought they could make a Golden Calf and get away with it. But I can’t think of a single place where God surrendered. That’s worth remembering

And this morning we read two lessons for the second Sunday in Lent that remind us that most of our pain and most of our anxiety are born of fear – fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of injury, fear of emotional distress, fear of losing control… and ultimately the fear that God won’t keep God’s promises. Most of the time we create our own pain because we won’t trust that God is within and throughout all of creation and that God’s spirit is a spirit of healing love.

In our reading from Genesis we look way back, long before human history was recorded, way back to the origins of the nation of Israel. Here we meet Abram – not yet named Abraham of the Covenant – but Abram and his wife Sarai who live in the North. God came to him and promised Abram that he would be the father of a great multitude of descendents who would live in covenant with God. Abram couldn’t believe it because he and Sarai were both very old and she’d never conceived a child. When Sarai heard this she laughed.

So God led Abram outside to get some fresh air, and to point out the stars in the heavens. “Don’t be afraid, Abram,” said God. “Look at the stars – you can’t begin to count them but I will give you more descendents than there are stars in the sky!” God promised Abram that he would possess the vast lands.

God kept the promise and Sarah gave birth to Isaac, which means that Abram and Sarai had a future. The people of Israel remember and tell this as a foundational story. And no matter how dire or dark or dangerous the situation, they remember that:
God has made the covenant;
God has made the promise.
God keeps the promise.

“Don’t be afraid,” God told him. God then called Abram “Abraham” meaning “father of multitudes” and Sarai became “Sarah” – new names signifying a new future. These are the stories of who we are and stories of what life is like for us and, indeed, for all of God’s children. This is the story of how anxious and fearful we become in the face of the reality that we can’t control the future.

Fear and anxiety creep in when we think everything is really up to us… that the future really is in our own hands. And that’s the root cause of our struggle: we create our own pain because we secretly think everything is in our control and we doubt that God will deliver as promised. When that creeps in we sink into a deep and primal place… full survival mode, like the Psalmist who simply said “I am hemmed in by my enemies front and rear.” (Psalm 139:5)

Now fear is normal. It’s rooted deep in our DNA, inherited from our ancestors who survived and procreated, because they were vigilant in avoiding the saber tooth tigers and other dangers that lurked around them. Fear made them alert and quick to defend their territory and tribe – so they could survive and procreate.

But fear eats us up, literally. It takes a terrible toll. And it doesn’t glorify God or serve God’s loving purposes. Quite the contrary, Fear disrupts what God desires and intends to do in creation. Fear competes with God’s holy purpose and corrupts otherwise well-intentioned people.

So we fight – our fear manifests as anger, insisting that the only future we may have is the one we design for ourselves:
• Just look at Washington, DC, where a politics of arrogance and derision pits the two sides of the aisle as enemies rather than as common servants of the people.
• In response to that some form a Tea Party movement to warn Washington power-players that revolution is always an option;
• Some defend the right to carry concealed weapons into Acadia and other national parks which so many deeply desire as a refuge and a place of great peace.
• Some tolerate torture in our name and then get irritated with those who dare to remind us of what’s really going on.

In this and so many other ways we’ve repeated the original sin: claiming that we can, and should, control our own destiny and can push God to the side. And in that we give up on the beauty of life and the tenderness of love and the blessings of community and the positive power of trusting in God’s promises.

It’s a rare and elusive joy to dwell in peace, in this moment, right here, right now. But it’s possible. God also calls us into the covenant and God says to us “don’t be afraid, you have a future, too.”

I struggle with those anxieties sometimes, wondering what the future will hold and whether God keeps promises. Andrea and I have been feeling some of that anxiety and worry – even a little fear – as we agreed it’s time for us to downsize – that the big old house where we’ve lived for nearly 20 years is more than we can handle. So it’s now officially for sale…But what if it doesn’t sell reasonably soon? What if we can’t find a condo fairly close by? What if the dollars don’t work out? What if, what if?

You know how it is, and you know the spiritual energy it takes always to be on tiptoe checking out the situation scanning in every direction for dangers or for enemies, like it’s all really up to me. Much of our motion is “e-motion” and it drains our strength, like getting out of bed after eight hours but realizing you’re not rested because of the emotional struggle that kept you from deep sleep.

But that’s not the full story. The Psalmist said: “we may cry bitter tears and toss all the night long, but joy comes in the morning!” God promises that all will be well, (eventually, finally, ultimately) because all things are swallowed up in a larger meaning and in God, we have a future.

The Gospel lesson tells us of Jesus standing on the hillside overlooking the capital city: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he wept, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Here was the battleground between the power of Caesar and his armies, the power of the Temple leaders and their hosts, and the power of God. Who held the future? What was to become of the nation of Israel? No wonder Jesus wept: he saw with profound sorrow that the people didn’t know how to find peace… he wept over the sinfulness, the sadness, the pain that people endured because they no longer trusted God’s covenant promise.

That’s the condition… as old as humankind.

What’s the way out? Well, the answer is just as old.

We move out of our fear and anxiety:
• by reconnecting to the true power in God,
• by re-establishing trust that God delivers on the promises and
• that we have a future that’s in God’s hands.

German Theologian Jürgen Moltmann said: “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him!” We’re not alone in our weeping at the sheer tragedy of it all; not alone in our laughing with the sheer joy of it all. God has promised to walk with us on all our journeys. And God delivers as promised.
• Powers and principalities and occupying armies will pass away.
• All that discourages us will pass away.
• All that is dead and buried will be transformed into new life.

We reclaim that trust by confronting the anxious thoughts about the future. When you make time to pray regularly, read the Word in scripture faithfully, and join in worship joyfully, there’s much less time for anxious worries. Because here, together, we remember God’s promises.

The church, this church, is the community of those who know the story and remind each other of its truth. When one of us forgets the song, others hum the tune and still others recite the verse, and together we remember the story.

I absolutely believe and trust that God keeps the promise, God keeps the covenant, and God holds the future.

Please remember this… And remind me the next time I get anxious, or afraid, or act as though I’m in control, OK?