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Changing the Face of Fear

Text: Matthew 10:24-33

The year was 1955. The place was Montgomery, Alabama. Just down the street from the state capitol sat Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This black Baptist congregation was led by the erudite, brilliant, eccentric, and native Virginian – Vernon Johns. On this particular day, Johns and his daughter were doing what they did every week. They were fussing around with large letters to post on the bulletin board outside the church. After the title of the sermon was posted, they closed the glass door, and watched as cars almost immediately slowed to a near stop as they passed by.

         The title read: “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery.” The sign reflected Johns’ disgust at a recent incident in which white police officers had stopped a black man for speeding and proceeded nearly to beat him to death with a tire iron while several black citizens stood by silently and watched.

         As you might guess, it was not long before Johns found himself addressing a local judge. The judge asked Johns why he would post such a controversial and incendiary message. 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.”

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

         Those exact gospel words are spoken by Jesus to his disciples in today’s story. And, they are not spoken lightly. When Jesus speaks these words, he is not promising a “happily-ever-after” life to his starry-eyed disciples. To the contrary, he is promising 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 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 in such a God and you will find courage to face your greatest fears.”

         But what does Jesus’ insistent imperative – “Fear Not” – mean for those of us who live a far cry from religious persecution? In my own life, at least, I am not experiencing religious persecution but that does not make me immune from fear. In fact, everywhere I look, fear looms like a dark sky that is about to explode, all kinds of fears. But the fear Jesus is talking about in Matthew’s Gospel is not a generic fear, it is quite specific, as is his advice. They fear what it will cost them to follow Jesus. And, they are not wrong.

         Jesus tells his disciples: “Don’t fear telling others that you follow me.” “Don’t be afraid to make different choices than others do around you.” “Don’t be afraid to tell your friends that the book club that you are going to is actually a Bible study.” “Don’t be afraid to tell your child or grandchild’s soccer coach that you and your family have another commitment on Sunday mornings.” “Don’t be afraid to bow your head in thanksgiving to God in a public place before you enjoy a meal.” “Don’t be afraid to give extravagantly to those in need, when others tell you to hold onto that money for a rainy day.” “Don’t be afraid to march for justice and protest for equal rights when justice is being denied.”

Christians may not suffer from overt religious persecution in America today, but we do suffer from something that can be even more deadly: profound apathy. I spend almost no time in fear over how the church is being persecuted today and how I am being stopped from practicing my faith. I do spend considerable time worrying that most people I know are not anti-church. For most, the church is not even on their radar. As I prepare to retire, in my weaker spiritual moments, I fear for the future not of Cove, but the future of the church faced by a sea of apathy.

  Maybe Jesus’ first-century words to his disciples are not as distant to us as they first seem. In his first pastorate, Rick Lischer, former professor preaching at Duke, tells of the visit of a famous faith healer to his small, Midwestern town. Lischer tried to stop a young woman, Amy, who suffered from paralysis, from also suffering at the hands of this religious show-woman. Hard as he tried, Amy would hear none of it and off she went to seek life outside her wheelchair.

When she returned home, still in the wheelchair, Lischer expected to encounter deep depression, but he found just the opposite. He writes, “I had worried that going for the cure would leave her disillusioned and bitter, as if a child with cerebral palsy is brimming with illusions in the first place. But then you never go broke risking everything on God. The act of trusting is itself a replenishing activity, like loving or farming or writing. You can’t hold back your best for another occasion. If you give of yourself fully, there will always be more to give. Trusting makes for greater trust, not disillusionment or timidity. Amy taught me that” (Open Secrets, p. 162).

A few verses before Jesus says, “Fear not,” he warns his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” Not too many days later the religious right would arrest him, turn him over to Pilate, and demand his death. So, whatever sense we make of Jesus’ words, “Fear not,” we cannot reduce them to a simple-minded naivete, as if we just trusted God enough then we would always spring up out of our wheelchairs or keep the job we love that is going away or save the marriage that is far beyond salvaging or hold onto the home with a mortgage that is now upside down.

Jesus knew the ways of the world. He knew how hard it is to trust in God in the face of very real fears. Even so, he never once advised his disciples, “Get even. Cut corners. Keep your thoughts to yourselves. Hold onto your money and look out for your own best interests.” Instead, he tells them, “Fear not. Don’t be afraid to follow me wherever that might lead.” Somehow, on that miserably hot summer day in Montgomery, Alabama, Vernon Johns took Jesus’ words to heart as he stood before the 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.”

Where did Johns get the courage to say what had to be said and to do what he knew would create controversy and personal risk? Where did Amy get the courage to seek out healing, even though healing may not come? They got that courage from the One who shouts across the centuries from the cross and the empty tomb, “Fear not.” “Count your soul and your relationship with the living God of greater worth than your hide.” “You never go broke risking everything on God.” “Don’t come running to church to escape an evil world as if that evil world is not seated right here with us.” “Come running to feast at this table and then walk boldly into God’s world to feed the body and feed the soul with a diet that gives life and to speak truth that will set you and everyone who hears you free.” In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says it well, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”

One day, long, long ago, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” If you do not eat anything else today, eat those words. For to all who savor and swallow those words, who risk trusting in the One who spoke those words, will find the courage to confront even the most ferocious face of fear.

So, in this particular moment in time when you and I are facing dark and desperate fears within and fears buzzing around us, I say, let’s eat!


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