Pentecost 17 B: Faith & Fear

A quick reminder, Dear Partner, about 4 upcoming events at LTSP that you won’t want to miss:
1) It’s not too late to register for this year’s free Ministry Resource Day this Thursday, Sept. 17.
2) On Tuesday Sept. 22nd we are celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the Urban Theological Institute with a lecture by the renowned Dr. James Forbes at 11:15 and a celebratory worship service at Enon Tabernacle Church that evening at 7:00. Both events are free and open to all.
3) Professor of Reformation History Emeritus Timothy Wengert offers a convocation lecture on Tuesday, October 6 on the post-Reformation relationship between Protestants and Roman Catholics entitled “From Conflict to Convergence.” Yet another free resource and event!
4) Finally, don’t forget about Preaching Days Oct. 19-21, with Tom Long and others for three days of presentations, workshops, worship, and renewal.
And now to the matter at hand….


Dear Partner in Preaching,

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.

I bring all 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.

As Micah Kiel points out in a wonderful commentary on this passage at Working Preacher, this isn’t the only time Mark contrasts faith and fear. After he stills the storm that had terrified his disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40). 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” (Mark 5:36). Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is, or at least that kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts, and drives to despair.

When I wrote on this passage three years ago, I wondered what the disciples might have asked if they had not been afraid, noted the value of asking good questions (even those that don’t have answers), and suggested you invite your parishioners to write down and share some of the questions they have about God and our faith. Many reported that was a really helpful exercise. This time around, I’d invite you to ask another question: what are you afraid of? Before asking it of your people, however, you’ll need to ask and answer it yourself.

So I’ll ask you, Dear Partner, 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 your congregation will shrink or die? Fear that you will not make budget? Concern that you don’t know why what you’re doing doesn’t seem to work like it used to? Or anxiety about what will come next? Perhaps it’s dread about what you will do with yourself in retirement or a more simple anxiousness about whether there will be conflict at the next meeting of your church council, vestry, or board of elders.

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.

Only after naming our own fears, I think, is it fair to ask our people what they may fear. (And, to be sure, they may overlap.) Fear about being alone, fear about losing a loved one or a relationship ending, anxieties about health or employment, concern for the future of one’s children or grandchildren, dread about the return of mental or physical illness, apprehension for the environment and the world we will leave behind? All these and more strip life of pleasure and joy and make it very difficult to be wise and faithful stewards of the present moment and resources with which God has entrusted us.

Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties is an invitation not to faith as intellectual assent – as if believing in God somehow prohibits fear – but rather to faith as movement, faith as taking a step forward (even a little step) in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises.

Note what follows the disciples’ 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.

So might we, Dear Partner, invite our people this week to be honest about some of their fears so that they are no longer dominated by them? Might we invite them to write down a single fear on one side of a 3×5 card and after a time of prayer write down one faithful action they might undertake this week on the other side? (It doesn’t even have to be directly related to their fear – acting in faith bolsters confidence all around.) Or might we host some time during or after the service to talk about some of the fears we harbor as individuals and as a community of faith and then go on to name the blessings, strengths, and assets with which God has blessed this community?

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 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 afaid! Perhaps this week is a good time to help our people practice the simultaneously courageous and ordinary acts of faith that are available to us every day and, in practicing them, find ourselves renewed in faith and confidence. As you prepare your sermons, Dear Partner, know that I am grateful for your courage in confronting your fears and announcing the faith-creating and fear-dispersing word of the Gospel. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,