Less than two weeks ago the Pope released a new book about the childhood of Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t read it. But, you may have heard that the contents of the book have provoked a bit of controversy. For example, the Pope points out that the Gospels make no mention of the presence of barnyard animals at Jesus’ birth, and that the scriptures say that the angels speak rather than sing. Further, the Pope explains that December 25th was most certainly not the date of Jesus’ birth. None of this is new information. One tabloid newspaper decided to run with the headline, "Killjoy Pope crushes Christmas Nativity Traditions." That seems more than a little unfair.
Beneath this manufactured controversy, there is a deeper question that has to do with what sacred texts are and how they’re supposed to be read. I don’t read the Bible in order to become informed about what happened thousands of years ago. The point of reading scripture is not to find out about things that took place in the past. For me, the point of reading scripture is to become a bit more thoughtful about the human condition.
As Unitarian Universalists we have an exceedingly broad definition of what constitutes our scriptures and holy texts. This past week we were visited by a comparative religion class from a Catholic girl’s high school that was taking a field trip to learn about worship practices in different religious traditions. They stopped here and I spoke with them about what our worship services are like. One girl asked whether we had a sacred text. I had each of the students open up to the back of our hymnals where, in the span of just two pages, they could find readings from a contemporary female poet, an Inuit shaman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, a Catholic liberation theologian, a Bengali author, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, and a guy whose named I confessed to them did not even recognize. (I looked him up later and discovered that he was a British nature writer from the nineteenth century.) Ours is a very broad understanding of scripture, indeed. We turn to many sources to inform our understanding of human experience and the human condition. In just a minute I’m going to get around to talking about fear, but I think this broad understanding of scripture says something about a lack of fear on our part. We are not afraid to imagine that the holy might speak in many different lands, in many different tongues, in ways that are alien to us.
I want to tell you about how I chose the subject of my sermon this morning. Each year when the calendar turns to December, I always find myself rereading and revisiting the accounts of Jesus’ birth as told in the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Luke. Each time I reread those stories, I’m always struck by the repetitive appearances of angels, and by the fact that each time an angel appears in the Gospels, the first words spoken by the angel – or sung by the angel, because we don’t have to be scriptural literalists – are always the same. Spoken or sung, the first words are always, “Be not afraid.” I always find these words to be somewhat striking. For one thing, I think it is an interesting thing for an angel to say. And, for another thing, the spoken words of the angels always remind me that we live in a world where fear exists. They say something about the human condition.
So now you have an idea of how the brain of a minister, or at least of this minister, works. Only, I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. A few days ago I was having a conversation with an esteemed minister in our movement. We were talking and she suggested that I should preach a sermon on the subject of fear. What a coincidence, I replied, explaining to her that it was the theme for my service this morning. She shared with me that she once did an entire sermon series on fear in the month of December. And did I know, she asked, that whenever an angel appears in the Bible the angel’s first words are always… “Be not afraid,” I said, finishing her sentence. It’s like there was this uncanny, freaky, Vulcan mind-meld going on between us.
Fear, as we all know, is present our society today. Incidences of senseless and random violence in public places lead some to a certain degree of nervousness or a heightened vigilance. Economic confidence continues to be shaky and people experience economic insecurity. From arsenic in rice to mercury in fish to concerns about the genetically modified foods, there is fear about what we put into our bodies. Our fears have to do with weather and climate, with privacy and identity, with health and wellness. For some in our society, shifting racial demographics are seen as a threat and as cause for alarm. In the past four years our nation has seen a troubling increase in the activity and number of hate groups, a fact that is appropriately frightening to people of color as well as anyone who cares about racial justice. To these fears we might add our own personal ones that lurk in the dark recesses of our imagination. That fear is so abundant might strike us as perplexing if we would only take a wider view and realize that we live at a time and in a place that is extraordinarily safe in comparison to most of recorded human history.
Yesterday was World AIDS Day and earlier in our service we heard from a member of the congregation who spoke powerfully and passionately about observing this day. In addition to his words, I might observe just how linked HIV/AIDS has been with fear and how important dealing with fear is when it comes to combating the spread of HIV. Those of us who remember the eighties and early nineties may remember what a scary time it was, especially for those of us who happened to come of age during those years. We’re aware in the fight against HIV/AIDS that this disease is not just physical, but there has also been a social stigma to address, and I think it can absolutely be said that fear has played an enormous role in stigmatization and discrimination. I don’t claim any public health expertise, but I would have to believe that addressing fear and denial, which is a form of fear, are probably an important part of public health strategies.
In his book Freedom from Fear the late Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church offers a typology of fear:
Fear, when it is located in the body, is called fright. It is instinctive fear that causes a fight or flight response within the body.
Fear, when it is located in the intellect, manifests itself as worry. It is “produced by our worst imaginings.” Worry is a thinking form of fear.
Fear can be located in our conscience. When our conscience is troubled by fear, the result is guilt.
In our emotions, fear shows itself as insecurity; it is “prompted by feelings of inadequacy.”
Finally, fear can be localized in our souls. Such fear takes the form of dread, an existential “fear generated by life’s fundamental uncertainty.” “Dread,” writes Forrest Church, is “a particularly crippling form on anxiety driven by the desire to control things that lie beyond our control… [Dread] takes our entire future – which really does lie beyond our control – and casts a pall over it. The epitome of negative thinking, dread paints such a bleak picture that any attempt to shine a light on the subject seems in vain.”
Fear, Church continues, darkens the future and ruins the present. He writes, “Even if safety should become our primary objective in life, to keep ourselves safe is impossible… To be free of acceptable risk is not life’s goal, but its enemy. By inviting non-being to the party years before one’s own death day, fear protects us not from death but from life.”
Fear protects us not from death but from life. One of my professors used to bring his family’s golden retriever with him to the office, the gentlest and dopiest creature I’ve ever met. In conversation one day I learned that some days his dog went to work with his wife, a psychologist whose practice specialized in helping people to overcome their phobias. Her patients were people whose lives had become paralyzed by fear. A fear of dogs meant not being able to walk around the neighborhood. A fear of flying meant separation from loved ones. Other kinds of fear led her patients to obsessive-compulsive behavior, depression, isolation, loneliness, and lack of success in romantic relationships, work, and other life pursuits. “Fear protects us not from death, but from life.”
In Forrest Church’s book, he talks about courage as the key to facing fear. He talks about cultivating the courage to act, the courage to love, and the courage to be. These forms of courage do not insulate us against pain, loss, or struggle. They do not guarantee a life that is easy or a life that is always pleasant. However, these forms of courage move us in the direction of being able to make our own lives worth living. With the courage to act, “the story of our life will be something we are eager to develop, not something we are apprehensive to watch unfold.” The courage to love involves making ourselves vulnerable, but it turns out that this is a necessary risk. “To avoid the risk of love is to cower from life’s only perfect promise.” And, the courage to be involves having the maturity to live in the face of uncertainty and to accept that most things are beyond our control.
In my conversation with my esteemed colleague she said something that I think is incredibly wise. Great blessings spark fear, she said. And this is the meditation I’d like to conclude with.
In the Gospels, whenever an angel appears, whether the angel appears months before Jesus’ birth or days after Jesus’ death, the angel always speaks the same message, “Be not afraid.” And then the angel announces a wonderful blessing. It is not that after the angel arrives everything turns out perfectly or becomes easy. Rather, the angel announces a way forward that is deeply meaningful, filled with awe and wonder and the possibility of joy. When the angel says, “Don’t be afraid. Chill out. Relax. Don’t panic,” I don’t think it is in reference to the fright of seeing of angel. It is more of a way of saying, “There is a blessing before you that will require love and courage from you.”
Great blessings spark fear. Has this ever been your experience? You get the job and then you wonder, “Am I really up to it?” You start a project and you think not what if this fails, but what if this succeeds? What then? You receive love and you worry that love will demand more from you than you could possibly imagine. Has a blessing ever made you afraid? Has the threat of blessing ever made you shiver? What fears have blessings awakened? I write these words in awareness that this fall for me – having become a father and having moved with the church into this new church home – has included blessings and the fear awakened by great blessings.
Life is before you. Be not afraid. May you face it with the courage to be and the courage to love.