Sunday, June 10, 2012

Too Afraid to Love

Too Afraid to Love
A sermon delivered by Peter T. Atkinson
June 10, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:9-21 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

 By way of introduction I’d like to say a few words about the reading before I begin the sermon. I’ve decided to preach on the following text the next few weeks because it is such a dense text, and it is of the highest importance. It is labeled in my Harper’s Study Bible as the Marks of a Christian, in other words, this is a description of just what a Christian is supposed to look like, but I wonder if someone was given this description would they be able to pick most of us Christians out of a lineup. If I were to hold up a mirror to myself I don’t think I fit this description. I know I’d like to, but I certainly fall short, and I don’t think I’m the only one, and this week I want to take a stab at why that is. But here is the passage, Romans 12:9-21.

9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

There are probably a bunch of things that cause us to fall short of this description, but I’m going to posit this morning that the cause is fear, which is interesting because for years we used fear to try to convert people to become Christians. Look back through the almost 2000 years of Christianity. Once Christianity became the religion dominating the west, fear became the typical means of conversion. There were Inquisitions, Crusades, Witch Hunts, Indulgences, “when the coin in the coffer rings the soul from hell springs” and the ever famous Fire and Brimstone preaching. The most famous American example perhaps is Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where he proclaims that:
“The Bow of God’s Wrath is bent, and the Arrow made ready on the String, and Justice bends the Arrow at your Heart, and strains the Bow, and it is nothing but the mere Pleasure of God, and that of an Angry God, without any Promise or Obligation at all, that keeps the Arrow one Moment from being made drunk with your Blood. . .

O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: ‘Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and Bottomless Pit, full of the God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed by Sin; you hang by a slender thread, with the Flames of Divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no Interest in any Mediator, you have no interest in  nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one Moment. . .”[1]

But the church doesn’t sound much like that anymore, at least not the Presbyterian Church. Would you sit in a service that put forth such a message? I know I would not pass a preaching and worship class, preaching something like that. Because hopefully we have learned that fear does not produce the type of “genuine love” to which Paul’s words refer. Instead it creates a response dominated by panic and desperation. It calls us to Christ as a chance to protect ourselves from eternal torment, us trying to control our destiny with no sense of God’s love. Emotion rules when fear is the trigger, and rational thought is left behind. The result is a religion that tries to control people, not the religion that sets people free.
Fear is a powerful force. Have you ever been paralyzed by fear of anything? Dr. Bob, my mentor during my time in Hampton, preached a sermon on "How to listen to a sermon" making the statement that a preacher stands at the pulpit with a mirror on his/her face first. That is definitely the case because much in this world frightens me. I’m afraid of snakes. We had a snake slither across our front walk up to our house this week, and I can't walk out the front door without doing a complete survey of the ground from the door to my truck before I step out of the house. Then while I’m walking to the truck my eyes are glued to the ground, and anytime something moves, I lose my breath, and jump. It’s not a rational response. I’m also afraid of heights. For six years I was the offensive coordinator of the Christchurch Varsity football team. I called plays from the sideline for my first two seasons. The defensive coach was up in the tower, but I never felt like I was getting a good enough view of the field, so that third season I went up into some of the highest, rickety, windy, wooden structures ever to be constructed by the Athletic Boosters at some of Virginia’s Private Schools. At least I did for three games. I became so dizzy by the height that I couldn’t function. I worried about being caught up in the excitement of the game and jump around and fall off. I remember at Hampton Roads Academy, I was up in their tower, there was a railing around so that was safe, but right behind where I was to stand there was a hole, the very same hole through which I had climbed the some 40 feet straight up the wooden beams. I just knew that we would score a touch down and I would forget where I was, jump in the air, land behind where I was standing, and fall through that hole and I would kill myself on the fall, hitting every beam on the way down, except for the beam that was already fallen off due to its rusty nails. The chances of me actually falling were slim. I was actually pretty I safe. I knew that rationally, but tell that to my pounding heart and my increasingly dizzying senses. Fear is quite a force.
But little fears like that aren’t necessarily what keep us from living up to what a Christian should be. No we all have other fears, more subtle, more powerful. We are fearful about our health, our future, our life, our finances, and our children. All of these things dominate our thoughts constantly because many of them seem so uncontrollable and overwhelming. It is difficult for us to hear words from Christ whispering, “consider the lilies of the field,” or “Or His Eye is on the Sparrow.” We can’t hear God’s still small voice saying, “Fear Not, for I am with you, I know every star in the sky and my thoughts of you are more than the grains of sand on the beach.” We don’t hear it because the voice of fear is louder, and it is simulcast 24 hours a day via satellite, digitally brought to you by, “You’re in good hands with All State” directly to your living room, kitchen, bedroom, and even in the bathroom at the Buffalo Wild Wings, any time you would like it, available to you without having to get off your couch, just push the ON button on your remote and be bombarded.
Stay tuned, on News 3 at 11, learn how to protect yourself from Identity Theft, every 3 seconds someone’s identity is stolen.
Heart Disease is the number one killer of all adult males in this country, tune in at 6 for the top 10 foods you can eat to reduce your risk of heart attack.
Planning on going on a trip? Tune into Fox and Friends for tips to make your flight safer, cheaper, and your security waiting time shorter.
Gas prices are going to reach all time highs over the holiday weekend, tune into CNN for live energy crisis updates.
There is a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas moving toward the East Coast and could be here by midnight tune in to Fox Nightly news at 10 for the latest track of the storm.
The 7-11 on the circle in Gordonsville was robbed at gunpoint, the police are looking for two suspects who are thought to be young men between the ages of 18-25.
Terror on the roadways fatal accidents are happening twice as often as last summer. Some blame gas prices, others blame low seatbelt fines, others blame former President Bush, who really is to blame, only on The View.
Kids are being left behind in schools, taxes may be raised or maybe we should lower standards.
Flip Flops linked to rising number of skin cancer cases.
Violence on the rise in Iraq, stay the course or pull out now.
Just in from the Department of Homeland Security, the terrorist alert awareness level raised from yellow to orange.
Take control of what your kids are exposed to on the net, predators are lurking everywhere.
Protect your kids from schoolyard theft, do not bring anything valuable to school, if you think its neat, others will too and take it from you, this from the National Center for Crime Prevention.
Is your child normal? How can you be sure? Special Report Monday, live from inside your local public school.
This world is getting hotter and hotter, and filling up with more and more of our waste. There are more hurricanes every year. Floods like the world has never seen have devastated the mid west. War over energy is looming, is it the Cold War all over again, or could it be World War III. The bow of Islamic Extremism points its WMD’s at our very existence with nothing keeping them from pulling the trigger, but the outcome of this next election. Nuclear holocaust, race war, energy crisis, global warming. The world is coming to an end, the apocalypse is now. None of your thoughts, none of your instincts, none of your prayers, none of anything coming from you can save yourself, only our information can save you. Tune in next week for the end of the world update.
The sermon of the First Secular Church of Television News sounds an awful lot like Jonathan Edwards, using fear to create an emotional response. And let us not forget the anthem chorus of commercials. This segment has been brought to you commercial free from Geico Insurance, protect yourself and save 15%, so smart even a caveman can do it. No longer Blessed Assurance Jesus is mine, it is now Blessed Insurance Geico is mine, that English Lizard gives me peace of mind. Saving you money, pay us in case, your life gets risky, we’ll keep you safe.”  Fear is a powerful controlling force and the world knows it!
We would never in today’s world go to a church that tries to control us by scaring us, but we tune in to the news everyday. What can we do? Should we just not watch T.V. news? It’s not like they are making up these problems. They do exist in the world. They are our real fears. We feared long before TV. How can we as Christians overcome?
We could just ignore the problems of the world, living by blind faith that God will protect us from what we fear. Believing in an idea of what God is and what God does, bending God to our will instead of submitting. It reminds me of the joke about the preacher in the flood. The waters were rising and the preacher was sitting on his porch as the waters rose. A man in a rowboat came up and said, “Preacher, come get in this rowboat, you haven’t got much time, the water’s rising in a hurry,” but the preacher said, “no thanks don’t worry about me. If I need any help the Lord’ll take care of me.” Some time passes and the Preacher is on the second floor the water has risen flooding up to the second floor window. A second rowboat comes up, said, “Preacher come get in this boat, the waters almost covering your house, you haven’t a chance come get in this boat.” Again the preacher said, “No you don’t understand, I’ve got faith if I need any help the Lord’ll take care of me.” A little while again, the preacher is up on the roof, a man in a helicopter flies over lets out a rope ladder says, “Preacher come climb the rope get in this helicopter, the water’s high and you don’t have much time.” The preacher says, “No if I need any help the Lord’ll take care of me.” A couple minutes later, he died and is up in heaven at the pearly gates, sees St. Peter who says, “Hey what are you doing here? It ain’t time for you. What happened?” Preacher said, “I don’t know everyone came by, and I said if I need any help the Lord’ll take care of me.” St. Peter said, “Well hell, we sent two rowboats and a helicopter, what did you want?”
No, as Christians we are called to live in the world but not to be of the world. Living in the world means that these fears are real, but being not of the world means that we strive to be closer to God than we are to the world. It means that we strive to hear God’s voice amidst the noise of fear pointing us in the other direction. It means that when the world says fear our neighbor, we choose instead to love our neighbor. Easier said than done for sure.
When we look in the New Testament, I have said many times that the characters, who most reflect us are the disciples, and throughout the Gospels they never quite get it do they? They seem to be especially dense in the Gospel of Mark. The Calming of the storm story from that Gospel comes to mind. A storm comes and they are afraid. Jesus is sleeping, but with them on the boat. And they are afraid because even though they are with Jesus, a part of his ministry, capable of doing marvelous healings, witness to countless miracles they don’t quite understand. They wake him and say, “Teacher do you not see that we are in danger?” Jesus says, “Peace, Be Still” and the storm is calmed, they are in awe and wonder who is this who can calm the sea. Though close to God in proximity, they are far from God in their hearts and minds, at least at this point. As the Gospel progresses they doubt and fear many more times, but the fact that we today know about Jesus is a testament to their eventual faith. They finally understood what it meant to be close to God.
Being close to God means that you can watch the news. You should watch the news, but without letting that fear separate us from God. It doesn’t mean that you should never buy insurance. It means that you bring God into that decision through prayer. It doesn’t mean that you have no fear and doubt. It means instead that you can work through your doubt, work through your fears all with God’s help, fostering a relationship with the loving God, who holds the future in the palm of his hand. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.
In a world surrounded by danger, we can only get through our fear through building a strong relationship with God, and then and only then can we begin to live up to the marks of a Christian as described by Paul in his letter to the Romans. We won’t be too afraid of our neighbor to love them. Amen.

I would like for all of us to read Romans 12:9-21 this week, in preparation for next week’s sermon. Look at what it says, hold it up as a mirror before us, and think about what our individual stumbling blocks are to seeing the marks of a Christian living on our faces and in our lives. 

[1] Jonathan Edwards. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Enfield, 1741.