Sunday, May 1, 2016
If someone were to ask you what you are afraid of, what might be your response? Do any of you have any irrational fears, like a fear of heights, claustrophobia, fear of spiders? I have one: I am terrified of pigeons. I think they are disgusting. I am physically repulsed by just looking at them. I think my parents let me watch Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds when I was too little. Whenever I’ve been to a city like New York or Paris, I try to carry an umbrella or wear a jacket with a hood even if it’s not the least bit raining to protect my head from the pigeons. Nothing’s really ever happened to me with pigeons, but the thought that something terrible COULD happen is what bothers me.
The back story to the gospel from John that we heard this morning is that this conversation between Jesus and the disciples is taking place during the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the night before Jesus will go to the cross and die. He has just told the disciples again about what is going to happen to him. And this is the terrifying clincher for the disciples: Jesus tells them that after his resurrection, he will not remain on Earth forever but will ascend into heaven to go back to the Father. The disciples become pretty anxious about this. You have to admit, this is a lot for the disciples to swallow, a lot for us, too, to trust and believe. You can imagine what this conversation might’ve been like: “OK, let me get this straight, Jesus. The Roman government is going to come and arrest you, in just a few hours. And you’re just going to let them take you, and do God knows what to you. In fact, you’re going to let them kill you. And somehow, you think that even when they kill you, it’ll all be OK, because God’s going to raise you from the dead after awhile. We’ll all be together again just like we are tonight. But not for long, then you’ll leave us again? And you think we can do all the work that you’ve been doing, healing the sick, preaching good news to the poor, casting out demons, without YOU?”
The disciples are afraid. Even though Jesus has reassured them that God will always be with them, they’re afraid of being alone, and they’re afraid of carrying out the work Jesus has given them to do. Where do they even start? In the Church year, we’re getting ready to celebrate Pentecost, the sending of the Holy Spirit as God’s continued presence with us. In between Easter and Pentecost, though, is Jesus’ ascension into heaven, where those first followers of Jesus had to trust again that Jesus’ words were true, to move past their fears of being alone, fears of inadequacy to believe that God was still with them in the form of the Holy Spirit. And what’s more, they had to trust that the Holy Spirit as God’s power and presence with them would allow them to continue the work Jesus was doing – bringing good news to people in desperate situations, bringing healing and wholeness to all kinds of people with physical and spiritual needs.
The more and more I read scripture, the more I’m convinced that we’re really not that different at all from the people in the Bible. If we’re going to be truly honest with each other and with ourselves, all of us are afraid of something. All of us have trouble trusting and believing in Jesus’ words at times. And most of us, at one time or another, have had the dreadful thought that perhaps we really are just alone down here on Earth…that there is no God, or that God doesn’t care about us and has abandoned us to fend for ourselves in this often cruel and messy world. Finally, even those moments when God graces us with an overwhelming sense of God’s presence with us, I think at least some if not most of us wonder how we can possibly live up to the calling Jesus has placed on our lives: to continue the ministry that Jesus began two thousand plus years ago.
I know this is where some of you are at because you have told me! You have told me that you struggle to know what words to say when you pray, that you struggle to keep a regular prayer life at all. You have told me that you get uncomfortable when we venture out to do service in our community…to talk with someone who’s in prison, or share a scripture reading with someone in a nursing home. Speaking of things we’re afraid of, there are some of you out there I bet who are AFRAID of even going into a nursing home or hospital! Afraid of public speaking! Afraid of going into certain neighborhoods in our city! So, how are we supposed to carry out the ministry that Jesus calls us to: to feed the hungry, heal the sick, bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and so on if we are afraid of all of those things?!
Sometimes I think that people look at pastors like we’re somehow closer to God and expect that unlike you, we are not afraid to do all of these things Jesus calls us to do. I hope it is good news for me to tell you honestly today that it’s not true. We are afraid, too! I enjoy preaching, but I wouldn’t say I love public speaking or like to be up in front of everybody all of the time. It took a three month chaplaincy training at the Nebraska Medical Center, going to the hospital five days a week for me to get used to entering a sick or dying person’s room (and it’s still difficult, by the way!). And sometimes the future of this church and fears about what might happen keeps me up at night.
We might be tempted when we hear Jesus’ words, “do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid,” to stuff our feelings of fear and anxiety down and put on a brave face. Christians ought not doubt. Christians ought not fear. Christians ought not worry, right? It strikes me, though, that when we speak our fears out loud, suddenly those things don’t seem as scary anymore. For example, Rich knows I hate pigeons, and when he’s with me in a pigeon-laden area, I feel less afraid – he’s with me to fend off the pigeons, and he’s NOT afraid of pigeons. Telling you about that particular fear helps me see how silly I am! When we tell others what we’re afraid of, we might find that we’re not alone in our fear – or that someone else can get us through those fears. When we tell God straight out what we’re afraid of, even though God already knows our fears, that reminds us that we are not alone! God the Holy Spirit is right there alongside us, and God’s Spirit is not afraid of anything! Jesus himself in the garden named his fears aloud to God the Father and went to the cross for us confident in God’s power to defeat death. God gives us the confidence, comfort, and courage we need to face our fears head on so that we can continue Christ’s work here on Earth. Part of the reason God created the church is to bring believers together in community so that they could go out together without fear.
Today in our prayers of intercession I’m going to leave some space and time for you to speak your fears aloud. If you’re not ready to do that yet, take a pen or pencil and jot them down during that time and put them in the offering plate. Name your fears aloud to God. Don’t be ashamed about it. Don’t pretend God doesn’t know about them, because that’s just silly. Then take another piece of paper and write these words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” God is with you. Amen.