Facing Fear

(Sermon for August 8, 2010 || Proper 14, Year C, RCL || Luke 12:32-40)

The Bene Gesserit test Paul Atreides at the beginning of Dune. (1984)

Many years ago in a dusty volume, I read an old Bene Gesserit litany against fear, and this prayer has stuck with me every since. “I must not fear,” says the litany. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Now that dusty volume was Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best selling science-fiction novel of all time, but the words of the litany ring true nonetheless. “I must not fear… Fear is the little-death… I will face my fear.”

From the time we are young children, our parents echo these words and tell us to face our fears. Perhaps you were afraid of the dark. So you mother let you sleep with the lights on for a while. Then she turned the lights off and left the bedside lamp on. A few days later, she turned off the bedside lamp and plugged a nightlight into the wall near the door. Pretty soon, you didn’t even need the nightlight. Your mother helped you face your fear of the dark, and you overcame it.

Or perhaps you were afraid of the monsters under your bed. There they were: always lurking, rumbling, slurping, ready to pounce – until you summoned up enough courage to dangle your head over the side of the bed and chase the monsters away. You faced your fear, and you overcame it.

We look back on these childhood fears and chuckle at how intangible worries grew into monstrous fears. The shadow of your own feet under the covers cast a winged creature on the wall, and the creature moved the more you shook. Under your bed, a pair of shoes and a couple of tennis balls made the ears and eyes of a monster peering up through the floorboards. The fears were nothing really. Our imaginations ran away with us, that’s all.

At least, this is how we adults dismiss those childhood fears. We dismiss them as fanciful or as attention-seeking or as the fruits of overactive imaginations. But hidden within this easy dismissal is also a tacit dismissal of our parents’ advice. “Face your fear,” they said, and we did, and everything got better.

But those were our intangible, childhood fears. That advice couldn’t possibly work on our concrete, grown-up fears. Our fears are too immediate, too relentless, too real. Of course, we forget that this is exactly how our childhood fears felt, as well. Perhaps our parents’ advice, the same advice that I learned reading science fiction, really might work in our lives today. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to take our parents’ advice. He asks them to face their fears.

But before we get to that, we first need to address where fear comes from. The root of fear is deprivation. We fear when something has the potential to become scarce. We fear when we perceive that there is not enough of a certain something. Supply and demand economic theory is based squarely on this reality. The root of fear is deprivation. You can trace all fears to this specific cause, even though specific fears may appear quite differently. Fears manifest themselves one way or another depending on the nature of the deprivation. If you are afraid of the dark, you fear a scarcity of light. If you are afraid of contracting a terminal illness, you fear being deprived of a long, healthy life. If you are afraid of how you will live when you retire, you fear that you will not have enough income to sustain your manner of living.

You can trace all fears to specific deprivations, and by confronting the sources of scarcity, you can face your fears. Jesus identifies the disciples’ source of fear when he says to them, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.” Jesus assures them that their fears are baseless because their accumulation of stuff will not help them enter the kingdom of God. This assurance runs counter to the fashionable reasoning of the day, which stated that the more stuff you owned, the more blessed you were. “God obviously favors that person,” ran this line of thinking. “Just look at all the stuff he has.” Not too much different from today, I’m sad to say.

But Jesus changed the rules. Remember last week’s Gospel? Jesus told us the parable of the rich fool. His land produced more than his barns could hold, so he decided to tear down those barns and build larger ones. The more stuff the rich man had, the more secure and comfortable he would feel, he told himself. Surely, this man would have been considered blessed in his society. But he died the very night he planned to erect larger storehouses, and he surely couldn’t take his barn-loads of stuff with him. The rich man’s folly shows the misguided lengths to which people will go to ward off deprivation, the root cause of fear.

But Jesus shows his disciples another way to face their fear. Rather than accumulating stuff, give it away, he says. Face deprivation by depriving yourself of the things you think you can’t live without. And you’ll discover pretty quickly that you can, in fact, live without those things.

I’m sure that you’ve heard this interpretation before, perhaps so many times that you tune it out now. And if you’re like me, you really aren’t any closer to facing the root of fear than you were the last time you heard someone talk about this. I know for myself that I used to be able to fit all my possessions in a 1992 Mazda Protégé. When I moved to Massachusetts, I needed every square inch of a 14-foot U-Haul. With more stuff comes more fear of loss, more fear of that stuff not being enough.

And the more fear that we have, the more we deprive ourselves of fear’s antidote. That antidote is trust. When we were children, we faced our fears because we trusted our parents’ advice. We believed that they would not lead us astray, and they didn’t. The darkness did not frighten us to death. The monsters did not pounce.

So how come we have so much trouble trusting in God? How come fear tends to trump trust more often than not? I think the answer is this. Trust takes energy. While fear creeps along, keeping us from action, trust derives from the kind of sustained relationship, which establishes and nourishes fidelity. God always keeps God’s promises. God is always trustworthy. The trouble is we have to trust that God is trustworthy. We have to practice the faith that God has given us in order to maintain our ability to trust in God.

And fear constantly diverts this ability. But when we practice trust, when we believe that God’s keeps God’s promises, we can face our fears, we can keep at bay the gnawing dread of deprivation. Our grown-up fears may be concrete and relentless. But I am convinced that they are no match for the power of trusting in God.

This week, I ask you to take some time to be silent and to turn your thoughts inward. What do you fear? What kind of deprivation is at the root of that fear? And how will practicing trusting God help you face that fear? In your reflection, remember this good news. When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” he is not just giving a command. He is giving a promise that when we face our fears, we will not be alone. When we face our fears, they will pass through us, and when they are gone, only God, holding us in the palm of God’s hand, will remain.

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