Text of the sermon preached on Proper 20B (September 20, 2015) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8
I don’t know about you, but over the years some of my worst actions and decisions have been motivated by fear. Do you know what I mean? Fear has this way of leading you to misperceive both threats and opportunities, of prompting impulsive and sometimes irrational behavior, and of narrowing your vision so it’s difficult to see possibilities. Which is why it’s hard to be wise, prudent, or compassionate when you are afraid.
Now, you may be sitting there asking yourself, “Why is Rev. Katie bringing this up today? What does this have to do with anything?”
I bring all of this up because I think this week’s reading is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith. Notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his impending crucifixion because they are afraid. And the next thing you know — they’re talking about securing their place in the coming kingdom. Fear does that. It both paralyzes you and drives you to look out only for yourself.
This isn’t the only time in the Gospel of Mark that faith and fear are contrasted. After Jesus stills the storm that had terrified his disciples, he asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And as he restores Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father — who had just been told that his daughter was dead — “Do not fear, only believe”. Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is, or at least the kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts, and drives to despair.
So my question for you today is — What are you afraid of?
What fears pursue you during the day and haunt you at night? What worries weigh you down so that it’s difficult to move forward in faith? Is it the fear that as a congregation we will shrink and die? Anxiety about health or employment? Fear about being alone? Perhaps it’s dread about what you will do with yourself in retirement? Fear of losing a loved one or a relationship ending? Or maybe it’s a more simple anxiousness about the world moving too quickly around you and an apprehension for the environment and the world we will leave behind? All of these and more strip away from life pleasure and joy and make it very difficult to be wise and faithful stewards of the present moment and the resources with which God has entrusted us.
These fears have a way of sneaking into our very being and robbing us of the abundant life Jesus came both to announce and to share.
Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties is an invitation not to faith as an intellectual assent — as if believing in God somehow prohibits fear — but rather to faith as movement, faith as taking a step forward (even the tiniest of steps) in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises.
Note that what follows the disciple’s fear and Jesus’ probing question that only exposes the depth of their anxiety — Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children.
These are small things when you think about it. Serving others, opening yourself to another’s need, being honest about your own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child, welcoming a stranger. But they are available to each and all of us every single day. And each time we make even the smallest of these gestures in faith — that is, find the strength and courage to reach out to another in compassion even when we are afraid — we will find our fear lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear and death do not have the last word.
Now, I want you to be honest with yourself. We all have fears. I want you to think of one of your fears and we are going to work on no longer being dominated by them. I want you to take a minute and to think of one of your fears. Keep that fear in your mind. Now think of one faithful action that you might undertake this week. It doesn’t have to be directly related to your fear — acting in faith bolsters confidence all around. I want you to be aware of that fear this week and to do your faithful action.
During the next couple of months we are going to begin having House Meetings. I would like to encourage everyone to sign up to attend one today after the service. The sign up sheets are in the Parish Hall. These House Meetings are an opportunity for us to gather in smaller groups and to have conversations about what our fears as a community might be. To have conversations about faithful actions that we can take up as a community. And what our dreams and goals are for St. Cornelius. And we’ll
end with breaking bread together and sharing in the eucharist. We can work together as a community to bolster our faith by serving others, opening ourselves to another’s need, by being honest about our own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child as Jesus tells us to do, by welcoming a stranger. These small gestures of faith are available to us each and every day. And as a community we can encourage each other to make these small gestures in faith. And in making these, we will find our fear is lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear and death do not have the last word.
Fear you see, ultimately blinds us to God’s action all around us, and as we call attention to God’s presence and movement among us and invite each other to join in God’s work through even the smallest of steps, we realize that the God who once created out of nothing, made light from darkness, and raised Jesus from the dead is still at work, not dispelling all our fears, but keeping us from being overwhelmed by them and helping us to move forward in faith.
The signature words of the Gospel of Mark from the time of the prophets to the divine messenger’s words at the end of Mark’s account are still good words for us to hear and to heed: Do not be afraid!