Fear Factor (sermon 9/20/15)

ahmed mohamed

Watch video of this sermon here:


They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”   – Mark 9:30-27


I’m sure you’ve all seen the story about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year old Muslim-American high school student from Irving, Texas, who used his expertise and passion for electronics to make a digital clock, and took it to school to show his teacher – who completely freaked out and turned him into the school administration saying the clock looked like a bomb. Then the police were called and they handcuffed and arrested him for supposedly making a “hoax bomb.” And even though the police eventually dropped the charges due to the huge public outcry, never once in this whole ridiculous story has the school or the police ever apologized for their overreaction – causing thinking people all around the world to just scratch their heads and wonder if Irving, or Texas, or America, is full of crazy people.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist – which, ironically enough, Ahmed may actually become – to understand that this crazy overreaction was the result of irrational fear, arising out of Ahmed’s name, religion, and the color of his skin. Fear is one of our most basic, reptilian-brain reactions. It’s at the root of virtually every negative thing we do, and every good thing we leave undone. And it’s got a lot to do with what’s going on in today’s gospel text.

We’ve all heard this story many times. We’ve heard the “last shall be first” and “welcome the little children” messages in any number of sermons. But while they can stand on their own as independent thoughts, Jesus is using them here with a very specific purpose. As we heard last week, Jesus had been predicting his arrest and execution, and it wasn’t sitting well with the disciples. It meant that this whole movement they were part of was about to change dramatically. Jesus, the founder and leader of this movement, was soon to be out of the picture, and that caused uncertainty, anxiety, and fear in their hearts. At first, the fear paralyzed them into inaction – they couldn’t bring themselves to ask Jesus for details of what he was talking about. But then that same fear led them to get into a power struggle, arguing about who was the greatest among them – who was the heir-apparent in the movement, who’d take over when Jesus was gone and who’d have power and authority not just in the by-and-by, and also the here-and-now. Their fear, their anxiety, over this looming power vacuum was causing them to think they could resolve things by being the position of power and control, so they could call the shots.

That fear at the root of their actions was what Jesus was speaking to when he said what he did to his disciples. Fear had paralyzed them from doing good, and was goading them to do wrong. Jesus pointed out to them that the solution to their fears didn’t lie in power or position or control. He was telling them that their fear was causing them to miss what God wanted them to focus on. They were missing out on living the abundant, loving, just, compassionate life that God had designed them for and called them to. Instead of focusing on fear, Jesus called on them to focus on faith.

A lot of times, we think that the opposite of faith is doubt. I don’t think that’s really true. Doubt is actually a necessary component of faith; otherwise it wouldn’t be faith at all, it would be certainty. The opposite of faith actually seems to be fear. And faith isn’t just intellectual assent of something. It isn’t just belief. As the preacher David Lose once pointed out, faith is actually movement. Faith is taking a step, even a small step forward to living more like Christ, in the face of doubt and fear. Dr. King meant the same thing when he famously said “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” Faith is movement in the face of feelings that would keep you from moving. Faith is deepened and fear is overcome, in the doing.

Pretty much whatever sin or shortcoming you can think of, fear, in some way or another, is at the root of it. Fear within each of us keeps us imprisoned in a mentality of anxiety and scarcity. It keeps us from living that abundant life that Christ opens the door to for us. So today, when we think about the fear of those disciples and Jesus’ words that spoke to those fears – What are your fears? Are they related to health, family, work, finances?

I fear what the future might bring for me. I fear insecurity and instability in my life, and I fear whether I’ll ever be able to set roots down again and restart a normal life. I fear for the future of my parents as they’re getting older, and I fear for my own health as I age. I fear for my daughters, that they might have to endure some of the terrible things I’ve had to go through in my own life. I fear that some day when I least expect it, someone’s going to come up behind me in a restaurant and sucker-punch me, or worse, just because I happened to be holding George’s hand. I fear over whether I’ll be able to have some financial security in my retirement. Those are some of my fears. Some of the things that make me wake up in a cold sweat and feeling like a steel band is tightening across my chest. That keep me from experiencing and living and enjoying that life that God wants for me.

I share those fears with you because here, in this is the place if nowhere else, we need to be open and honest with each other as God’s people. We need to speak the truth, and hear in truth. And I share those fears with you because it wouldn’t be fair of me to ask you to name your fears, even if only to yourselves, in your own minds, if I didn’t do the same thing. So now I ask you to think about exactly that: What, exactly, are the fears in your life? What’s holding you back? What’s leading you down the wrong path? What is it that wakes you up in the middle of the night?

Seriously think about that, and actually put those fears into words, to yourself, because one of the odd things about fear is that just giving it a name, and putting it in concrete words and acknowledging it, automatically takes a lot of its power away. Here’s another little exercise that I stole from David Lose. I’ve done this same sort of thing in other settings, too, and now I guess it’s your turn. When you came in today, you got a 3×5 index card. Take that card, and maybe right now, or maybe some time later today, write down on one side a fear in your life. And then, on the other side, write down some small step of faith that you can make this week – it might be something very small, and it doesn’t even have to be directly related to the particular fear you wrote down. Then carry that card with you, in your pocket, your wallet, your purse. Commit to doing that one step of faith this week. If you get it done, great! Then think of another one and write it down, and keep carrying the card until you get it done, too. The point behind the exercise is that by starting small, taking small steps, we can strengthen our faith to the point where our faith can overcome our fears. It doesn’t mean that the fear disappears, but we’ll have faithful ways to deal with it, to respond to it, to overcome its negative power and control over our lives. Eventually, by repeating that same process of facing our fears, naming them, and taking more and more steps of faith, we’ll be able to overcome even the really big fears and anxieties in our lives. We’ll be able to deal with times of uncertainty or anxiety. We’ll discover that that abundant, peaceful, joyful life that we want, and that God wants for us, is really right here in front of us. And with God’s help, each of us will be able to step out in faith, even if it’s just a little one at first, and grow and strengthen over time as we take more and more steps up the staircase.

We can do that. We can do it! It really isn’t rocket science. Really, we have to do it. Because if we don’t – if we allow our fear and anxiety to overpower us, to take control over our thoughts and actions, then we’ll all just be a problem waiting to happen. We’ll always be just one moment of anxiety away from doing something wrong or hurtful or stupid, taking us further away from the direction God is leading us. In our own lives, in our churches, in our society in general, that’s the ticking time bomb we should really be worried about.

Thanks be to God.

Doors and Walls (sermon 5/11/14)

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Listen to this sermon here:

John 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.


There’s a great poem by Robert Frost called “Mending Wall;” maybe you’ve run across it at some point. In the poem, Frost describes walking along the stone wall that separates his field from his neighbor’s one Spring, him on one side and the neighbor on the other, and as they walk, they pick up and reset the stones that had come loose and fallen out of the wall in one way or another over the Winter. And as they’re going through this annual ritual, it dawns on Frost to wonder why they even need the wall at all. Maybe it would make sense, he says to the neighbor, if they had livestock that they needed to keep fenced in, but they don’t. Their land is all in trees, and it wasn’t like his apple trees are going to wander over and bother his neighbor’s evergreens. In spite of all of Frost’s reasoning, the only answer his neighbor offers up is to repeat the old line, “good fences make good neighbors.” But Frost is feeling a little ornery, and he keeps pushing through that answer and asks *why*that’s true, or if it’s even true at all – and he points out that even nature seems to dislike walls and tries to dismantle them, as they can see at the end of every Winter freeze cycle.

At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, every wall does have two sides, an inside and an outside, and along with that, they can be put up to make it clear that you’re being kept out of someplace you want to get into – maybe a football stadium, or some trendy nightspot. Or, they can be put up to keep you in someplace you want to get out of – like the old Berlin Wall, or even a boring business meeting, maybe.

Today’s gospel passage is about walls too, and especially about the door through a wall. It’s actually part of a longer conversation that Jesus is having, and in the very next snip of this conversation beyond what we heard today, he talks about being the Good Shepherd, who leads all of us, his sheep. But before he says that, he says what we heard here that he’s actually the gate, or the door, that we, the sheep, will flow through out into the freedom and what he calls the abundant life, which is waiting for us just outside the walls that have us penned up and confined.

It’s a pretty important distinction that Jesus makes here as he paints this word picture, in terms of how we understand our faith. We aren’t on the outside of a wall that he’s going to lead us through, into some smaller, more exclusive place. He says that we’re penned up on the inside of a wall, and he’s leading us out into the abundance, the wideness and openness of the outside that God wants for us. It isn’t like getting into the country club; it’s more like a prison break.

Some of the stones in this prison wall that Jesus wants to be the door out of are things that we have little or no control of – being the victim of poverty, disease, discrimination. And some of those stones, those obstacles to God’s abundant life, can be emotions – feeling unloved, unlovable, unworthy of God wanting anything good for someone like us. But then again, a lot of those stones are put in place by our own hands. We try to redefine abundant life as simply having more stuff, and we prioritize our lives accordingly. So some of the stones in our walls can be things like bigger houses. Nicer cars. Fancier clothes. Newer technology. Heftier bank accounts. PBS did a documentary once, tracking how over the course of the past century, advertising for consumer goods shifted from talking about the quality or features of the actual product, and moved toward claiming that just having the product would bring you a better life. That it would bring you the kind of personal fulfillment and inner contentment that in the past, people had sought out and found in religious faith, or involvement in charitable work, or similar things.

That documentary was right, and we all fall for it, all the time. Really, just turn on the television. It seems like half the ads we see are just depictions of fit, trim, happy people who never seem to have to do anything to earn a living, but somehow they’re still dressed in the hippest clothes, have all the latest tech gadgets, and live in a McMansion, but they’re almost never there because they’re always out running a marathon or working out at the health club, or eating in the trendiest restaurant. The point of the commercial is that this is the real definition of a full, meaningful, abundant life, and these people have it – and they have it because they use this company’s product – and usually, until they splash the brand name on the screen for the last two seconds of the commercial, we don’t even know what they’re selling!…but we’re pretty sure we want it.

They aren’t selling a product; they’re selling a state of mind. They’re selling a kind of fullness of life that in the end, they really can’t deliver. Culturally, the abundant life became a commodity that we can supposedly get on amazon with a credit card and a mouse click.
To buy into that message – that redirection, that redefinition of abundant life away from the way God defines it, and trying to achieve it in our own way, is to have been misled by the thieves and bandits that Jesus talks about in this passage. They jump over the wall that’s already keeping us from the wide open spaces and abundance that’s waiting for us on the other side, and then they hand us the stones and mix the mortar to make the wall even higher.

The great news for us is that no matter how high that wall gets, and no matter whether someone else set the stones or we did it ourselves, Jesus is still the door through it all. And he isn’t talking about leading us out into that life sometime later, when we die. Yes, there’s something even greater waiting for us in the future, but through Christ – by understanding God by looking to Christ, and putting what we see into action in the way we prioritize things and live our lives – we can know that amazing, liberating, good life – the *real* abundant life – right here, right now.

Before Jesus is the Good Shepherd, he’s the Good Door, and when we go through that door, out into the fullness of God’s kingdom, we see how much bigger and more expansive this thing really is, compared to just our own personal experience of it. Out in the openness beyond the wall, our faith and our very understanding of God, starts to be changed, deepened, by all the other sheep that Jesus has led out there along with us, all of them created in the very image of God as much as us. The poor grandmother from China. The HIV-positive child from Honduras. The unconventional Pope from Rome. The gay Evangelical from Wichita. The grieving widow from Ramallah. These Confirmands, who are going through this door today, too.

Of course, human nature being what it is, it seems like no sooner do we go through this door, leaving our walls behind us, than we start looking around for stones to start building walls all over again, to separate ourselves into clusters of people like us from those who aren’t, as if God actually cares. Walls to line out rich from poor. Urban from rural. White from Black from Asian. Liberal from conservative; Mainline from Evangelical. Presbyterian from Methodist from Lutheran from Baptist from Catholic. Out of discomfort, or maybe worry about how the experiences of all these other sheep in Jesus’ flock might change our own preconceptions about God, we start to build walls to separate the apple trees from the pine trees, when they’re really all God’s trees.

Robert Frost’s neighbor said that good fences make good neighbors. I suppose that maybe, sometimes, they might make good neighbors. But I know they don’t usually make good Christians. And I’m pretty sure that’s why Jesus calls himself the door through a wall, and says “Follow me, all of you – forget about the walls and come on out here to the other side, where God wants you, and where the life is truly good!”

Thanks be to God.


Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’