Sunday, September 11, 2005

9/11 - Beyond Fight or Flight: a Faith Response to Fear

Genesis 11:1-9; Isaiah 43:1-5a; Matthew 14:22-33

In scripture, in song, in a dozen different ways this morning,
God has been trying to tell us, “Don’t be afraid.”
But we’re in good company.
Look in the Bible for stories about the greatest heroes—
the strongest, most courageous, most take-charge risk-takers—
and you’ll hear God telling them over and over.
“Don’t be afraid. Fear not.”
Calm down. Stop shaking in your boots.
It’s going to be okay.

Of course, in every single case they had good reason to be afraid.
They’re in a small boat on a raging sea, about to die.
Or they’re caught between a sea and Pharaoh’s army.
Or they see a dead man walking.
Or a burning bush that talks.
Or they’re told to leave their home and family, without a destination.
Or a glowing human-like figure shows up in their room at night,
and tells a 90-year-old couple they’re pregnant,
or tells the same thing to a teenage girl living at home.
Our strong, brave biblical heroes had good reason to be afraid.
But God said, I’ll have none of that!
Don’t be afraid!
Do not fear.

...Why...shouldn’t we fear?
Why shouldn’t we—when faced with a terrifying situation
where life and death hangs in the balance?
Is there something wrong with showing a natural human response?
A response that’s instinctive?
A response that often saves our lives?

When fear seizes us,
and makes us step back from the edge of a cliff,
or run away from a mad dog,
or take cover when bullets fly,
that’s obviously a life-giving fear.
Thank God for instinct—that fight or flight instinct.

But that’s not the kind of fear God is concerned about.
God warns us about fear
that drives us away from others,
that prevents us from going where God is calling us,
that causes us to assume a posture of isolation and self-protection,
rather than openness and hospitality.
That kind of fear sucks life out of us.
It robs us of the full and abundant life God desires for us.

And we are—all of us—highly susceptible
to being seized by that kind of fear as well.

Four years ago today, our country was attacked by terrorists.
We can all still remember exactly where we were,
when the news came.
It gripped us.
We were afraid,
because we knew of people—even loved ones—
who might have been in those buildings or those planes.
We were afraid,
because we didn’t know where it was going to stop,
whether this was the beginning of the end.
Those fears were well-founded.
As a country, we were, in fact, under attack.

But in the four years since then, fear taken root and grown.
Fear now has a stronghold
in our society, our culture, our personal lives.
The role that fear plays in our lives is more pervasive,
more insidious, more dangerous than we want to admit.
We have become a culture
that lives out of its fear,
that makes significant decisions—seemingly rational decisions—
out of a fear response.
And it is sucking life out of us as a people.
I have to believe that God has something to say about that.

And now, we’re reeling from another massive disaster.
Hurricane Katrina has not only destroyed hundreds of lives,
and created tens of thousands of homeless refugees,
it has made our collective fear even worse.
There has been mass panic.
There have been extreme acts of self-preservation.
We’ve seen some of the worst of human behavior,
but we’ve also seen some of the greatest
human love, compassion, and generosity.

During these last several years,
of terrorism, war, tsunami, and hurricanes,
we have come to realize our fragile vulnerability.
It is entirely possible, we now realize,
for a whole community to be wiped out,
for thousands to die,
at the hands of terrorists,
or by the force of nature.
No one, ultimately, is really protected.
Now today, as a nation, we feel more fearful and less secure,
than we ever have in our history.
And I have to believe that God has something to say about that.

“Do not fear. Do not be afraid.”
Why would God say that to people who have good reason to fear?

A simple answer might be,
Well, God wants us to have faith.
God wants us to believe his promises,
that God will be with us in times of trouble.
God wants us to express religious devotion.
To be afraid is to not trust God.
I think there’s some truth to that answer.
God does seek from us a personal response of faith and trust.
God is pleased by our acts of personal devotion,
of worship, of prayer, of faith.

But I think there’s much more to it than that.
God cares deeply about what happens to his people, as a people,
when they start living out of their fears,
when they start making fear-based decisions,
when they start trying to create security for themselves.

If you think of a Bible story to illustrate this,
the first one that comes to mind probably is not the Tower of Babel.
That’s the story in Genesis 11 that Chelsea just read.
We know the story well.
It’s about a proud people who thumbed their noses at God.
Who wanted to be greater than God,
so they tried to build a tower taller than God.
So God punished them by confusing their languages,
so they couldn’t understand each other,
and they had to give up the project,
and scatter over the earth.
That’s one way to read it.

I read it a little differently.
I think this is a story of people living out of their fears,
a people who tried to create a state of complete security.
We usually imagine everyone on earth together in one place
living peacefully after the Great Flood,
and only after the Tower incident,
God scattered them abroad.
When I read chapter 10 of Genesis, I’m not so sure that’s the story.
It says the descendants of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth,
went all over the place after the flood.
Some settled in the coastlands, some in the hills,
some built major cities.
Several times in ch. 10 it says they spread abroad,
with their own languages (plural), families, and nations.

So what are we to make of chapter 11,
when it begins by saying the “whole earth” had one language,
and settled in one place, the plain of Shinar?
I take “whole earth” to be figurative, as it often is in the Bible,
meaning vast, and far-reaching.
I understand this to be a story of a powerful, major people-group.
A group who wanted to solidify their power.
Wanted to guarantee their own security.
Wanted to make sure all the other nations bowed to their will.
This was the making of the world’s first superpower.
It was a society founded on fear.
They were afraid of being scattered.
Afraid of losing their consolidated power.
Afraid of losing their identity.
Remember v. 4?
“Let us make a name for ourselves;
otherwise we shall be scattered.”
That’s a people living out of their fears.
And to do so, they have to isolate themselves from others.
They have to pull back into themselves.
They have to build physical, emotional, and cultural barriers.
That’s what the Tower was all about.
Consolidate. Protect. Isolate.
Create distance between THEM and US.
They wanted to conquer their fears
by creating a society that others needed to fear.

And God did have something to say about that.
God was highly displeased.
And God took an action that brought them back
to where he wanted them to begin with.
Scattered. Filling the earth.
Living in community,
even with other cultures and language groups.
Breaking down barriers.
Refusing to be enslaved by fear of the unknown other.

I think the Tower of Babel story is still being played out today.
As a society, and as individuals,
we’re just as likely to respond to our fears by instinct.
Not out of thoughtful reflection,
and certainly not out of a sense of what God wants of us.
“Fight or flight” could serve me well,
if I’m confronted with an urgent life-threatening situation.
But most of the fearful situations I encounter in life,
are not ones that require an instinctive response.
They require reflective responses.
They require faith-filled responses.
And the response of faith,
is not a response of human isolation, of separation,
of consolidating power, of protecting self-interest.
The response of faith
moves us toward the other.
And thus, moves us toward God.
It’s a response of love.
That’s why Paul could write,
“There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.”
The reason fear and love are incompatible,
is because love draws us out of ourselves and toward the other.
Fears draws us into ourselves, and away from the other.
Love casts out fear.

How might life in these United States be different today,
if after the attacks of 9-11,
we hadn’t let our national fear instinct take over?
What if we hadn’t immediately declared all-out war,
sealed every border,
been suspicious of every Muslim and Arab immigrant,
blamed Afghanistan and Iraq,
imposed our will on the rest of the world,
and declared, “You’re either for us, or against us.”

How might things be different today,
if our nation had tried to be more creative and thoughtful.
What if we had collectively taken immediate national action
to live in our world with greater compassion for the other,
to show to other nations our highest regard
and respect for their sovereignty,
to give real aid to all those being oppressed,
even if some of our allies were the oppressors?
How might things have been different
if we had moved toward the global other,
instead of setting ourselves off from other nations and peoples?

Are we less fearful now, and more secure,
because we launched a massive military assault on terror?
Are we safer now that we have shown our muscle to the world,
angered friends and allies,
and infuriated Muslims everywhere?

It might sound this way, but I’m not trying to be a political scientist,
doing foreign policy analysis this morning—that’s not my field.
I’m trying to be a pastor, doing theology.
I’m trying to read my Bible carefully.
And I think what the Bible has to say about fear,
and the kind of response to fear that God desires,
is not just for individuals, but for people-groups.
When God says, “Don’t be afraid,”
he’s not speaking to just one person.
I think God is saying to families, to churches,
to communities, and to nations,
“Remember the Tower of Babel.”
Don’t think you can create your own security.
If you feel threatened, walk toward that which threatens you,
don’t run away.
Trust me to protect you.
Trust me to lead you to the truth.
If you don’t understand a stranger,
walk toward that unknown other.
And I will walk with you.
When you are secure in me and my will,
when you are living in my kingdom,
you need not be afraid.
I am with you.
Open yourself to that which you fear.
Don’t wrap yourself into a cocoon.
Don’t try to protect what belongs to me anyway.

That’s what I hear the God of scriptures saying to God’s people.

Unfortunately, it’s not guaranteed we will never be injured
by that which threatens us.
And here is where we need to revisit the words of Isaiah 43,
which Elizabeth read to us,
and which we sang, along with Laura.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.”

I don’t know how many of you,
when you heard that scripture and that song this morning,
thought of the displaced people of New Orleans.
On the face of it, those words simply weren’t true.
The waters did, in fact, overwhelm them.
Many people did drown.
They were not only afraid, they were terrified, and rightly so.
Many of them died in a state of terror.

So where was God when that was going on?
Well, I’ll tell you.
God wasn’t sitting in a La-Z-Boy in a warm dry house,
watching I was.
The scripture we just read says exactly where God was,
when the flood waters swept through
Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters...I will be with you.”
It might not make sense to us, but it’s the Gospel truth.
God suffers with us.
God shares our space of suffering.
Imagine a poor elderly woman caught in a house with rising waters,
who had no way of breaking through to the roof,
God was right there in the water with her.
The rescue may not have been immediate.
A physical rescue may not have come at all.
But with God sharing her space of suffering,
she wasn’t alone.
With God at her side,
the harm she befell was not ultimate harm.

We have the same promise of God for the fears we face each day.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
When you walk through fire...the flame shall not consume you.

Do not be afraid.
Do not live out of your fears.
Live into them, and God will be with you, will protect you.

I don’t know what life circumstance
is creating the greatest fear for you right now.
Whether it’s health concerns, or grief,
or loss of employment, or painful family relationships.
Maybe you can identify with Abraham or Moses or Mary,
who God asked to do some fearful things.
We all have fears that we live with.
Will we flee or fight? Put up barriers of self-protection?
In some cases, that may well be the right thing to do.
Or is God calling us to walk toward those fears,
to face the rising waters, because God is with us,
and will not fail us?

And as we think about ourselves as a faith community,
we can probably all identify fears that we deal with together.
Fears of losing our identity
in a world that doesn’t always value what we value.
Fears of losing our way as we try to be faithful.
Fears of being pulled apart, of failing to maintain unity.
These fears also need to be offered
to the God who is with us.

Will you stand with me for prayer?
Pray either on behalf of your personal fears,
or the fears of the community.
As a way of entering physically into this prayer,
I invite you first to wrap your arms around yourself,
hold tightly and firmly,
and bow your head.

God, we confess to you that we are afraid of many things.
On various fronts, we feel under attack,
there are things life throws at us that we can’t handle.
We want to protect ourselves.
We want to withdraw from the source of our fears.
We want to pull back, to separate,
to find another place where there is peace.
[now slowly and gradually relax your arms, loosen your grip]
God, you come to us saying, “Do not be afraid.”
You promised us that you will be with us in our fears.
We want to trust you.
We want to respond in faith.
[now extend your arms, palms forward, heads raised]
So Lord, here we are.
We have come in simple trust that your word is good.
You are, in fact, with us when the waters rise.
Give us, Lord, the courage each day
to face the source of our fears,
with you at our side.
Grant us grace to live in this posture
of openness, of hospitality,
of yieldedness to your will and your way.
And we will give you thanks.
In the name of Jesus, our Savior,
whose love for us is eternal.

—Phil Kniss, September 11, 2005

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