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Changing the Face of Fear

Text: Matthew 10:28-33

The year was 1955. The place was Montgomery, Alabama. Down the street from the state capitol sat Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This black Baptist congregation was led by the erudite, brilliant, and wildly eccentric – Vernon Johns.

On this particular day, Johns and his daughter were doing what they did every week, long before social media, years before virtual church. Father and daughter were fussing around with the letters to use on the large bulletin board sitting in the front yard of the church. They finished posting the title of Sunday’s sermon, closed the glass door, watched and waited. The title of the sermon read: “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery.”

The sign reflected Johns’ righteous anger over a recent incident in Montgomery in which white police officers had stopped a black man for speeding. They took him out of the car and nearly beat him to death with a tire iron while several citizens – white and black – watched silently. As you might guess, it was not long before Johns found himself sitting in the office of a local judge. The judge asked Johns why he wanted to preach on such a controversial and incendiary subject, why he would not just stick to preaching the Bible. Johns replied: “Because everywhere I go in the South the Negro is forced to choose between his hide and his soul. Mostly, he chooses his hide. I’m going to tell him that his hide is not worth it.”

It is John’s successor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is remembered best for mobilizing the black community for a bus boycott in Montgomery. But, it was Vernon Johns who first kindled the black community’s imagination and courage in Montgomery. It was Johns who pushed them to question what they had always been taught to accept – be quiet, submissive, and do not resist white power. To a group of oppressed, manipulated, silenced, and terrorized people, Johns dared them to trust the Gospel promise: “Fear not.”

Those exact gospel words, “Fear not” are spoken by Jesus to his disciples in today’s story. And, they are not spoken lightly. With these words, Jesus does not promise a “happily-ever-after” life to starry-eyed disciples. He promises them the sword. He says, in effect: “If I am attacked for speaking God’s truth, why do you suppose you will not be?” “But, don’t fear those who seem invincible and appear to hold power over you,” says Jesus. “Your soul is in God’s hands and God’s hands alone, and God counts you of immeasurable value. Trust your God. That is how you find courage to face your fears.”

Well, this is not Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s. The person preaching this sermon and most who will hear it are not black. So, what does Jesus’ insistent imperative – “Fear Not” – mean for those of us preaching and listening to this sermon in our homes during this pregnant moment of America’s life?

In this summer of 2020, fear hovers around us as a relentless, invisible virus, as an indelible image of a knee on a neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, as a mobile economy in a time when it is dangerous to be mobile, as education systems rightly uncertain about classes in the fall, as churches unclear on when it will be safe to sit together in worship and sing. Fear is heavy right now; it surrounds us like the oppressive humidity of summer days in Virginia.

Jesus, though, is not talking about generic, invisible fear. The fear he addresses in this passage from Matthew is specific, as is his advice. Jesus tells his disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Vernon Johns knew these words of Jesus. In fact, I imagine these words of Jesus were seared into his soul when he posted a sermon title in public that no one was going to blithely ignore.

A few verses before our text for today Jesus says to his disciples, “Fear not, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” Not too many days later the religious right in Jerusalem would arrest Jesus, turn him over to Pilate, and demand his death. So, whatever sense we make of Jesus’ words, “Fear not,” they are not naïve words, as if we just trusted God enough then our lives would be just swell; we would never get the virus; we would never be arrested when we protested on the streets that Black Lives Matter.

Jesus was never naïve. He knew the ways of the world. He knew how hard it is to trust in God and to bet your life on that trust. So, Jesus never once advised his disciples, “Lay low. Keep out of the limelight. Keep your thoughts to yourselves. Zip it.” Instead, he tells them, “Fear not. Speak up! Don’t be afraid to follow me wherever that might lead and most likely, it is going to lead to some tough and even violent places.”

Somehow, on that miserably hot summer day in Montgomery, Alabama, Vernon Johns took Jesus’ words to heart as he stood before an Alabama judge and answered, “Everywhere I go in the South the Negro is forced to choose between his soul and his hide. Mostly, he chooses his hide. I want to tell him that his hide is not worth it.”

As someone whose life has been bathed in white privilege, I can only listen to Vernon Johns from a safe distance. I have not had to make the horrendous, soul-chilling, choices that my friends of color have had to make, especially my black friends in the South. I have not had to have “the talk” with my teenage son who is getting ready to head out for a run or my teenage daughter about to drive into town.

In this scene in his chambers, I am not the courageous Vernon Johns, the bold preacher willing to speak a Gospel truth in public. All too often, I have been the privileged and powerful judge who wants the keep the peace, who just wants everyone to get along. But as the protests over the past years, and especially the past weeks have reminded me, “No justice. No peace.”

Where in the world did Vernon Johns get the courage to say what had to be said at that historic moment, when for generations in similar situations nothing had been said for public hearing and for good reason? How did Johns find the courage to speak hard truth, Gospel truth, when he knew that it would create controversy and risk his own life and the life of his family?

According to Matthew’s Gospel, courage comes from the One who shouts from the cross and the empty tomb and across the centuries, “Fear not.” “Count your soul and your relationship with the living God of greater worth than your hide.” “Don’t come running to church to hide from a world gone mad, as if that broken world is not seated beside us.” “No, go running out of church to be the church, a community of faithful souls that refuses to equivocate when evil dares us to speak up, a community that refuses to do anything less than ‘do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility with God’.”

One day, long, long ago, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Eat those words. Swallow those words. Savor those words. For once digested, those words will give us the courage to confront the most ferocious face of fear.


The Rev. Vernon Johns

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