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The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear

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“The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear”
Numbers 14: 7 – 9; Hindu Teaching from Swami Vivekanada
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
February 4, 2018

This morning I would like to explore the topic of “fear”. I am going to ask a series of questions about fear. I invite you to respond honestly. “Fear no” you are among friends.

  1. Raise your hand if you are afraid of spiders. About 25% of people are afraid of spiders.
  2. How many are afraid of heights? About 32% of people are afraid of heights.
  3. Raise your hand if you are afraid of snakes. About 40% of people are afraid of snakes.
  4. How many are afraid of going to the dentist? About 75% of adults experience some degree of dental fear ranging from mild to severe.
  5. How many are afraid of clowns? One study showed that 91% of Americans are afraid of clowns – that is more people are afraid of clowns than climate change or terrorism.
  6. The #1 fear, however, shown consistently across studies is…public speaking / stage fright.

I understand the fear of public speaking. Yes, I know this is a large part of what I do for a living, but I fear it. I get butterflies in my stomach, still after 20 plus years of doing this, my hands get a bit clammy, my heart races, my mouth gets dry, my muscles tense up. In fact, I begin feeling fear or anxiety from about Wednesday, when I start to put some serious thought into Sunday’s sermon. So, from Wednesday – Sunday, I live with increased anxiety.

My most common reoccurring nightmare is centered on preaching. Church begins at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. I look at my watch in my nightmare. It is 11:15 / 11:30. I come running into the Sanctuary. You all are looking at me like, “Where the heck have you been?” I begin to preach, but then, realize that I have not prepared a sermon for the service. I begin to adlib – talking in circles – making no sense. You begin to look at your watches wondering how much longer you have to put up with this incompetent  imbecile. I look down. Fortunately, I am not naked (which by the way is the most common nightmare – 35% of people dream about being naked in public). No, I am not naked, but I am a disheveled mess. You finally grow annoyed with me – walk out in the middle of my sermon, laughing at me with one another as you walk out. When I came running in the sanctuary, it was full. By the time I am finished preaching there are about 5 of you left. This is a reoccurring nightmare I have.   Of course, this nightmare represents a fear of failure — fear of failing you, fear of not living up to my call as a preacher and teacher of the gospel, fear of embarrassing myself, fear of humiliation.

We all live with fear. Google fear and you will find over 600 million websites in under 1 second. We are all afraid of something. And indeed, some fears are healthy. Fear has played a legitimate, even vital role in human society. Without this elemental alarm system, our ancestors would not have survived. Healthy fear is a gift that has the power to save our lives.

Unhealthy or excessive fear, however, can imprison, poison and paralyze us. The Ebola crisis of 2014 is a case in point. A survey taken in the fall of that year found that 43% of Americans were afraid that they or a member of their immediate family could contract Ebola. At that time, there were only four confirmed cases of the disease in all of the United States. Politicians began to push fear buttons. What if the Islamic State begins to use Ebola as a biological weapon? Several congresspersons demanded that we close the border with Mexico to keep Ebola out – despite the fact that Ebola did not exist in Central or Latin America (Kinnamon, Michael, The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear, p. 18).

More recently, we have heard from politicians that undocumented immigrants bring in gangs, violence and drugs. Build a wall, they say. But literature actually shows that these immigrants commit fewer crimes on average than native born Americans. Cities with larger immigrant numbers have fewer crimes (Kubris, Charis, “Fact Check: Immigration Doesn’t Bring Crime into U.S. Data Says,” Nation, February 3, 2017). I am not just speaking of one political party. I think fear mongering takes place across the political spectrum.

Our fear not only distorts the facts, but it blinds us to the positive things that are happening around us. For example, in the last 25 years:

*More than a billion fewer people live in conditions of extreme poverty.

*More than two billion gained access to improved drinking water.

*The percentage of undernourished people in developing countries was cut nearly in half.

In the last decade globally:

*HIV fell by one-third and mortality rates from malaria decreased by 25%.

Yet, a recent survey of Americans found that 66% think that those in the world living in absolute poverty has doubled in the past two decades (Kinnamon, p.25).

This is the safest time in history to be alive. Though we are fixated on threats, humans have never been better off.  For 99% of our species existence, the average lifespan was 30 years old. Now there are fewer wars, fewer acts of violence, fewer diseases, and though there are more of us, people eat better than ever before. The world has never been more peaceful. “We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time…It seems that the less we have to fear, the more we fear.” (Gardiner)

As one person said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes. Most of which never happened.” So, what do we do with this increased, excessive anxiety, this heightened, saturated state of fear which is often out of proportion to the actual fear we face? All of the major world religions warn about the dangers of excessive fear. I believe that when we are true to the central convictions of our faith traditions, whatever the faith tradition be – Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity –  we can find courage and hope in times of fear.

  • In the Hindu tradition, we hear these words, “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Fear is death, fear is hell.”
  • The Buddha says this, “The past no longer is, the future is not yet here; there is only one moment in which life is available, and that is the present moment.” This doesn’t mean that we are not to make plans, but there is no use being afraid about the future. We can remember the past, but there is no use living in fear because of what has been. Live in the present, in the now.
  • From the Islam tradition, these words, “Know that the friends of God have no fear.”
  • In our own Christian tradition, we hear the words over and over, “Do not be afraid.” Usually spoken by angels in the Bible. I do not believe that it is angels that are particularly scary, but the calming of our fears is necessary in order to hear God’s good message of love. That is, fear can cause us to miss the astonishing, hopeful things God is doing in our world. Ironically, there are 365 “Do not be afraids” in the Bible…one for every day of the year. Jesus, too, reminds us, “Do not worry about anything. Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” And from the Apostle Paul, “Do not have anxiety about anything. But in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, make your request known to God and the God of peace will be with you.”
  • Then, from the Jewish tradition, we hear today’s story from the book of Numbers. It goes likes this:

Two years after leaving Egypt, the Israelites had made their way to Kadesh Barnea, just a mile south of Canaan. They were ready to take possession of the Promise Land. Moses sent twelves spies into the Promise Land. They returned with a glowing report — the fruit was large and luscious and the land “flowed with milk and honey.” They could hardly believe what was before them.  It was a dream come true!

 

But, there were obstacles in the land — the people were powerful, the cities fortified and there were even giants.  The Israelites, in comparison, saw themselves as grasshoppers!

 

Ten of the twelve spies said, “No can do.” They lived with great fear.   Obstacles?  Too big and too steep!  Walls?  Insurmountable!  Giants?  Forget about it. Some argued that they should go back to Egypt and return to a life of slavery.

 

Now let me ask — if you have heard any of the following names please raise your hand?  Shammua, Shaphat, Igal, Palti, Geul, Gaddiel, Ammiel, Suther, Nahbi.  Do any of these names sound familiar?  Probably not to most of us.  But will you raise your hands if you’ve ever heard of these names?  Joshua?  Caleb?  I think that we all probably know people by the names of Joshua and Caleb.

 

Joshua and Caleb were the two spies that said we can do it! Joshua and Caleb remembered all that God had done for them — they remembered how the waters of the Red Sea had been divided; they remembered how they were given water and manna in the desert; they remembered how God led them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  Obstacles?  No problem.  Walls?  No problem.  Giants?  No problem.

 

In the end, the Israelites did not go back to slavery in Egypt. But they camped in the desert around Kadesh Barnea for the next 38 years! Can you imagine, for 38 years they remained paralyzed by fear just a mile from the Promised Land. So many of us live our entire lives paralyzed by fear, just a mile from the Promised Land.

 

Thirty eight years later, after Moses had died, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan river into the Promise Land. And what led the way? The Ark of the Covenant, representing the presence of God. The message is clear. With the presence of God before us, the love of Spirit behind us, the vision of the Divine above us, the support of the Holy below us, and the power of divinity within us, the Promise Land is ours’! I am not speaking of geography here but that God-given sense of purpose that won’t let you go. Let’s not spend the next 38 years, paralyzed by fear, one mile from Canaan.

 

Do not have anxiety about anything – that is do not be imprisoned by excessive fear – do not have anxiety about anything – whether it be something as benign as public speaking or clowns – or something as weighty as disease or terrorism – do not be paralyzed by anything – but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your request know to God and the God of peace will be with you.

 

As we come to this table, Jesus knew that his disciples would need courage for the journey ahead so he took break, blessed it, broke it…