Sermon, Parish Eucharist Sunday 24th February 2019
THE FEAR FACTOR II
Reading: Luke 8.22-25
I’m going to talk this morning about a subject that appears more in bible than you may think. That subject is fear. I’m not so much thinking here of the awful- gut wrenching type of fear that you feel in very dangerous situations, such as when you are being charged by a rampaging bull. I’m more concerned with the low-level, more insidious form of fear, the fear we all have of falling-short, of not being good enough. It’s the fear of failure and the punishment that attends it.
It seems to me there are two aspects to this kind of fear. There’s the moral aspect where we know we’ve done wrong and, thanks to our fallen nature, we continue to do wrong.
We can all think of things we’ve said and done that have caused hurt and damage and which sadly no amount of remorse or apology can ever truly put right. Such things hang like millstones round our necks.
Then there’s what I call the social kind fear. This is a different kind of falling short.
Rather than falling short of God’s standards and expectations we fall short of the world’s.
We fall short by not being beautiful enough, fit enough, rich enough, successful enough, or maybe popular enough. This fear of failure and its effects also hangs like a millstone round our necks. However much we claim to disavow such false values it’s very hard to escape them.
And of course what we fear in falling short either morally or socially is punishment.
Fear of moral failure can lead us to assume that we actively deserve any misfortune that comes our way. Or it may convince us that when death comes we’ll be counted as one of the goats and not one of God’s sheep. By contrast fear of social failure is more likely to carry with it the punishment of shame, of public humiliation, of being a “loser”.
This kind of low-level, insidious fear constrains and imprisons us. It forces us to look inward rather than outwards, obsessing about our weakness and shortcomings. It makes us pinched and fretful rather than confident, creative and courageous. As such it is the great enemy of faith.
Today’s gospel story sees the disciples understandably terrified by a storm. After Jesus calms it he asks “where is your faith?” Jesus is inviting them, encouraging them, to see themselves as held by God in all circumstances. Having faith is NOT about believing everything is going to be just as we want it; it’s about believing that we are held by God in all circumstances. J was understandably fearful to the point of desperation on the night before the crucifixion but his faith in being held by his Father enabled him to embrace his destiny.
The first letter of John expresses this thought in the famous words:
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment”
No parable Jesus ever told illustrates this better than that of the Prodigal Son. You will remember the story. A young, impetuous man demands his inheritance of his father and proceeds to squander it on all kinds of dissolute living, ending up destitute before coming home with his tail between his legs. What then happens? His father leaps for joy at the return of his silly son and organises a banquet in his honour to celebrate his return. The crucial point here is that he’s not just forgiven but fully restored to his rightful place in the family, regardless of what he has done. That, truly, is the love of God.
Believing that nothing – not even our failings - can separate us from the love of God is the real challenge of our faith. I would suggest to you that it’s a much greater challenge than those abstruse, unanswerable questions about God’s existence or the workings of the Holy Trinity, for this involves us believing that whatever we think of ourselves we are loved, held, and endlessly forgiven by God.
This truly is a faith worth having and it’s a faith that I pray young Luke Bradley will one day make his own, for it’s not the negative kind of faith that allegedly saves us from the flames of hell but the positive faith of Jesus Christ that frees us to live abundant, free, creative and loving lives.
And if such faith seems remote from us, an impossibility, as it surely does to us all at times, then we can surely we find comfort in the words spoken by the man who brought his sick child to J for healing:
“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”.