Be Not Afraid
BE NOT AFRAID
The only story we have of Jesus’ childhood is about him teaching the teachers at the temple. I think this is profound because it reveals the importance of one of the classic spiritual disciplines that Richard Foster talks about in his book Celebration of Discipline. That is the discipline of study.
Richard Foster says this about study. “ Many Christians remain in bondage to fears and anxieties simply because they do not avail themselves of the Discipline of study. They may be faithful in church attendance and earnest in fulfilling their religious duties, and still they are not changed. I am not here speaking only of those who are going through mere religious forms, but of those who are genuinely seeking to worship and obey Jesus Christ as Lord and Master. They may sing with gusto, pray in the Spirit, live as obediently as they know, even receive divine visions and revelations, and yet the tenor of their lives remains unchanged. Why? Because they have never taken up one of the central ways God uses to change us: study. Jesus made it unmistakably clear that the knowledge of the truth will set us free. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Good feelings will not free us. Ecstatic experiences will not free us. Getting “high on Jesus” will not free us. Without knowledge of the truth, we will not be free.” (Foster,63)
In today’s text we see a summary of the very first thing Jesus taught. And it can be summed up as this.
Be not afraid.
There is a lot of fear in this passage. It is not a fantastic story but it is a universal story. It is a story that every parent fears, that being losing your child. And while such a plot served for a bunch of funny antics in the Home Alone movies, I know many parent’s hearts are struck with fear and dread at the thought of losing a child or having a child abducted. You may not know this, but Tammie, our church secretary, almost had one of her children abducted. They caught the person before she could take Tammie’s child out of the mall she was in, but it is something she still deals with. Unfortunate things do happen in this world. But what Jesus is trying to teach us is how to react to unfortunate and evil circumstances.
One would think that Mary is right when she says to her son, “Son why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And indeed, one of the Ten Commandments is to obey your parents. But Jesus replies by saying, “ Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus is questioning his earthly mother’s priorities and teaching her not to worry because our heavenly Father provides for us. Mary has received Revelations from Angels and Prophets about her son. But still she has to ponder and study her Son’s word. From the age of twelve he taught not to be afraid for we have a Father in heaven who provides for the righteous and the unrighteous. He knows every hair on our head. And we are of far more value than the sparrow to him. Jesus had an unquestioning belief in the provision of his heavenly Father.
“Why are you afraid? In the Gospel of Mark Chapter 4 we are told the story of the Disciples getting caught in a vicious storm on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples are in fear for their lives but Jesus is asleep on the boat. The disciples wake Jesus up and ask, “ Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus awoke, and rebuked the waves saying, “ Peace! Be still!” The scriptures say the wind ceased and there was a great calm. And Jesus asked his disciples, “ why are you so afraid? Have you so little faith?”
Be not afraid! That is the first thing Jesus teaches as a 12 year old boy. His words are both reassuring and mystifying. We look at our lives, our world, and we wonder if Jesus is looking at the same situations we are.
NPR reporter Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel talk about the dynamics of fear in their NPR show Invisibilla in the episode entitled Fearless . The episode opens with the story of Roger Hart. Roger Hart is an environmental psychologist who in the 1970’s began to record children playing to understand what Alix Spielgel describes as, “one of the most central, sacred activities of human childhood….The production of fart noises.”
Yes Dr. Hart did get paid to record kids in the 1970’s making fart noises but that wasn’t his only objective. He wanted to explore how human children played. Such research had been done on monkeys but it had never been done on human children up to that point. So Hart went to a small town in Vermont. And he recorded children from the age of 3 to 12 for a period of two and a half years. He had the kids draw literal maps of all the places they were allowed to go. Back then four and five year olds where allowed to travel through the woods unsupervised. And by the age of 10 they had the run of the town.
Thirty five years later Hart went back to the same town to find that the freedom of kids was greatly restricted. Parents did not let them travel nearly as far alone. In fact they were rarely ever allowed to be alone. They did so because they felt their town was more dangerous. But according to official statistics of the town this was simply not true. The town was basically the same, physically, demographically, economically, the town had not changed. The parents had changed. Because they were more afraid. Fear is not just an emotion. If you let it take hold of you it can become your reality.
On the flip side courage is not the absence of fear. It is living life with a renewed mind. It is walking through the world with the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of man. Living a fearless life, literally, a life without fear can have serious consequences as well.
Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California. In the 90’s a woman came to him. Spiegel and Miller call her SM to protect her identity. She has the condition where she literally cannot feel fear. This happened because her amygdala, where fear is based in the brain, calcified by the time she was a teenager. This is an incredibly rare condition. Only about 400 people on the face of the earth have it so you don’t have to be afraid of developing this condition. SM could feel all other emotions except fear. And that is why they had to protect her identity. Because being fearless can be dangerous. Because she has no fear SM sees the entire world as benign and wishing her well.
This has led to some bad situations. SM has been held at knife point twice, gunpoint twice, and her first husband nearly beat her to death. Once when she was held at knife point she threatened to come back and haunt the man because she was without fear, and the man let her go. Though she has no emotional reaction to threats SM can use logic to understand that threats, like stepping in front of a car, is a bad idea. She knows cars can hurt her but she is not afraid of cars or anything else because she in incapable of feeling fear.
Because SM has no fear more bad things happen to her. But because she has no fear she does not perceive these things as threatening or bad. She is not scared by these things because she sees them differently. SM told the reporters that despite the bad things that happened to her because she lacked fear nine out of ten days she is happy. She is happy not because bad things didn’t happen to her. She is happy because she lives without fear.
The Lord counsels us to be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. We should lock our doors at night, not because we are afraid that at any moment someone could break in and do us harm, but because it is a generally a good idea to lock our doors. There are evil and wicked people in this world. We can have a level of security from them. Killing some of them in war is a necessity. But how much should we sacrifice for security?
FDR once said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. But as I was looking over his record I realized that he was a hypocrite. These words came out of the mouth of the man who issued an executive order interning thousands of Japanese residences and citizens, robbing them of their liberty and property. Though it is impossible to prove a negative, perhaps there were Japanese residence and citizens loyal to the Emperor at the time. Perhaps they were planning attacks. There was no way we could know who they were. But by interning thousands of Japanese Americans perhaps there is a small chance we prevented attacks and that is why there were no attacks. Was that worth the freedom of the innocent? Was not most of that based on fear? We have much fear today. Especially around the global refugee crisis which is the largest since World War II.
Perhaps the best historical analogy I could find for the refugee crisis of our times was the refugee crisis of World War II. Today we speak of Judeo Christian values. But those of you who are old enough to remember know back then most people thought Jews could not assimilate into our culture and were not part of our culture. The Washington Post records Gallup and other survey polls of public opinion of the Jewish refugee crisis at the outbreak of World War II. In July 1938 fewer than 5% of respondents thought the U.S should boost refugee quotas to respond to the refugee crisis in Europe. Two thirds of respondents agreed to the proposition that, “we should try to keep them out.” Another question from January 20, 1939 asked if the US should let in 10,000 refugee children, most of them Jewish, into the country. 61% said no. 30% said yes. And 9% said they had no opinion. Another Washington Post article reports that at the outset of World War II nearly a half a million Jewish Asylum seekers were turned away by authorities in Europe and the United State. The article sums up the numbers of Jews that were accepted by Western powers;
Perhaps the most famous instance of this was the journey of the St. Louis in 1942. The St. Louis was a ship carrying 937 mainly Jewish asylum seekers from Germany. They were denied entry into the port of Miami. They returned to Europe. Nearly a quarter of the passengers died in the Holocaust. The justification for not receiving asylum seekers then is the same as not receiving refugees now. The fear of spies, saboteurs, infiltrators, and terrorists. Hindsight shows fear, hate, racism, and implicit cultural bias were factors in the US Government’s decision to bar Jews and intern the Japanese but that was not acknowledged or said at the time. 75 years later there is no evidence that any refugees or asylum seekers from World War II were actually spies or saboteurs.
But let us say for a moment that there were saboteurs on the St. Louis in 1942. The boat was sent back to Europe. The passengers were never screened because they were not allowed into the country so we don’t know for sure. Does stopping them from attacking us justifying letting the NAZI’s slaughter 243 people on that boat? Over half a million Jewish refugees were turned away by the West. How many died in the Holocaust?
One of the fundamental teachings of the Bible is that God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:32, Romans 2:11). God does not see faces. He sees the heart. He calls us to take care of the fatherless, the widow, the sojourner, an ancient word for refugee, because his people were once refugees in Egypt. He calls us to be Good Samaritans, to have compassion on those who we would naturally hate or be afraid of. This command is regardless of religion and in spite of religion. Because God doesn’t see our religion. He sees what is in our heart. He judges us as individuals. That doesn’t mean we assume everyone has benign intentions. We must take precautions. I have done a lot of research on the modern refugee crisis. I think the risk is small compared to the number of lives this country could save. I can provide you with a summary of my research if you would like to read it.
That doesn’t mean there are not problems with Islamic teachings or that ISIS theology can’t be derived from the Quran or other Islamic material. It doesn’t mean Islamic nations are open nations that treat people fairly. It doesn’t mean that the church doesn’t suffer in the Islamic world. The church has suffered and continues to suffer. You may remember in May ISIS slaughtered 28 Christian pilgrims as they traveled to a monastery. They tried to force the pilgrims to recant their faith. But they did not. And they were slaughtered by the side of the road. Though most Muslims are not that extreme the majority of Muslim nations do have blasphemy laws. You cannot convert from Islam to another religion. You cannot speak poorly of the Prophet Mohammed for fear of persecution. My mentor was a missionary and college professor in Pakistan. These laws are widely used to subjugate and persecute Christians and other minority religions there. Yet, we forget Americans did the same thing for most of our history. The pilgrims came to our country for religious freedom but they did not accept the religious freedom of others. There were the Salem Witch Trials. Recently, people openly protest about the building of mosques in this country. You can’t support religious freedom for Christians only. That’s not religious freedom. That is just freedom for your religion.
As you may remember several weeks ago a man who attended alt right rally in Portland Oregon, a state that was originally founded as a whites only state, slaughtered two Good Samaritans on a Portland train. Namkai-Meche, 23 and Ricky Best 53 were the two men that died that day on that Portland train. 21 year old Michael Fleetcher was seriously wounded. As he lay bleeding to death on a stretcher Namkai-Meche was quoted as saying, “tell everyone on this train I love them”
These men were trying to stop 35 year old Jeremy Christian from harassing two African American teenagers, one of which was wearing a hijab. In his arraignment Jeremey shouted death to America’s enemies and ,” You call it terrorism I call it patriotism.” It is occurred to me those are the same words that ISIS uses about its actions just directed at them. Martyr is in the Greek means witness. The difference between martyr and a witness is this. A martyr sheds his or her blood so others may live. An extremist sheds his or her blood so others may day. The solution to our problems is not a revolution that burns everything down. It is a revolution of love. It is as revolution of understanding. Those men made a difference on that train that day because they were not afraid. Those Christians in the desert made a difference because they were not afraid. Jesus taught about judging people as individuals. He taught about caring for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the refugee. Even the Good Samaritan added a man who most likely hated him because of his religion. He aided him at the risk of his own life.
Alix Spiegel, one of the NPR reporters on Invisibilla voices the paradox we find ourselves in in our daily lives and in our nation today. “It seems like such an odd bargain. If you have no fear, more terrible things will happen to you, but you don’t personally experience them as terrible. If you have a lot of fear, fewer bad things are likely to happen, but it’s very probable that your life is more painful to you. So is it better to be fearful or fearless? Which side of the continuum do you choose?”
This is the side Jesus chose. He broke one of the Ten Commandments because there was a higher commandment his Heavenly Father had given him. If this was Jesus’ first lesson we best learn it well. We best take to heart his command.
Be Not Afraid.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.