“Fear and Love”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 3, 2015 The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

1 John 4:7-21

 

There are so many people named John in the Bible. There’s John the brother of James, son of Zebedee. There’s John the Baptist. There’s John Mark, son of one of the many Marys. There’s John the Evangelist, author of the fourth gospel. There’s John the Revelator, author of the book of Revelation. There’s John the Elder, author of three letters, including the one from which today’s reading was taken.

But if all those gentlemen named John aren’t enough for you, or if the meandering sentences of today’s reading leave you scratching your head, then take it from John Lennon, who said it this way: “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.”

Let me say it again. “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.” Or, in the words of today’s reading: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

I think John Lennon and John the Elder would agree: Fear is a powerful thing. If you live in this world, you cannot help but know that. You cannot help but have felt what fear feels like when it floods through your body—felt the plummeting pit in your stomach when you hear frightening news, felt the icy clenching of your heart when something threatens you or someone you love, felt the world contracting around you when you think you really might not make it.

Fear is a powerful thing. If you live in this world, you cannot help but know that. Fear divides us from one another. It makes us reactive rather than proactive. It makes us put up walls, barriers, defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from threats, real or imaginary. It makes us assume the worst—the worst motives, the worst outcomes, the worst explanations. It makes our hearts suspicious. It makes our trigger fingers itchy. It robs us of our capacity to imagine, to empathize, to hope.

Fear is a powerful thing. If you live in this world, you cannot help but know that. You cannot help but have seen what fear looks like as it plays out in the lives of our communities. We have seen what fear looks like in the faces of people whose lives fell down around them in last week’s earthquake, who lost loved ones in the rubble and know full well it could have been them. We have seen what fear looks like in the faces of couples whose marriages have been made a matter for public debate, who fear that their families will not receive the rights and recognitions of the state. We have seen what fear looks like in the faces of the mothers of African-American sons, mothers who fear that their children will be the next ones killed without cause.

In my recent trip to Israel/Palestine, I saw the effects of chronic, widespread fear in so many places. Even though I felt very safe there, I could see the face of that ubiquitous fear in the checkpoints, the segregation policies, the separation wall of concrete and barbed wire being built through the West Bank, the ever-expanding military arsenals. I could hear it in the voices of Jewish Israelis who are afraid to visit Arab Israeli neighborhoods, let alone to cross into the Occupied Territories. I could hear it in the voices of Palestinians who face a three-hour wait at the checkpoint each way just to go to work, who never know when their water or electricity will be shut off, who feel that the only way for their children to have a better life is for them to emigrate, even if it means never seeing their homeland again.

Fear is a powerful thing. There’s a reason that one of the most often-used phrases in the Bible is this: “Do not fear.” To Abraham, out in the wilderness: “Do not be afraid.” To Isaac, run out of town again: “Do not be afraid.” To Joshua, leading the Israelites into the Promised Land: “Do not fear or be dismayed.” To the prophet Isaiah, speaking to his exiled people: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.”

To Mary, receiving a startling visit from the angel Gabriel: “Fear not.” To Joseph, wondering what on earth he was going to do: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” To the shepherds, witnessing angels in the heavens: “Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy.” To the disciples of Jesus: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” To the women at the empty tomb: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.”

Fear not, do not be afraid—this is a message we humans seem to need to hear over and over again… because if you live in this world, you can’t help knowing the power of fear.

But if John the Elder, the author of the letter from which today’s reading is taken, is to be believed—and I believe that he is—then there is another force that takes the immense power of fear and reduces it to dust. There is another force that is mighty enough to transform terror into joy. That force comes from God.

It is worth noting that John the Elder does not say, “God is security,” or, “God is power,” or, “God is control,” or, “God is protection,” or “God is prosperity,” or, “God is order,” or even, “God is goodness.” John the Elder says, “God is love.”

“God is love.” It’s a simple phrase, one that has been printed on bumper stickers and inscribed on prayer cards, cross-stitched onto samplers and carved into monuments, tattooed onto forearms and painted onto church signs. But this simple phrase has revolutionary implications. This is not about love as a feeling, a warm and fuzzy emotion that warms your heart. This is about love as an action verb, love with its work clothes on, the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice itself for the good of another.

I witnessed this kind of love in a man we met in Israel, Kamal. Kamal was five years old when he and his family and all their friends and neighbors were expelled from their village of Bir’am by the Israeli army. He was nine years old when the Israeli air force bombed their now-empty houses into smithereens. The ruins still stand there, weeds growing amidst the rubble, while the families who would love to rebuild their homes are prohibited from doing so.

Kamal has spent nearly his entire life living as a refugee, betrayed by the government that is supposed to protect and provide for him. He has every reason to be afraid, every reason to let that fear get inside of him and turn into anger, bitterness, a desire for retribution. But he has not done so. His heart is filled, not with anger, but with compassion; not with retribution, but with mercy; not with fear, but with love. He is an ordained priest who has spent more than half a century caring for his community, teaching students of religion, and building relationships of trust and understanding with people of other religious backgrounds. He is gentle and soft-spoken, wise and trustworthy.

When I asked him how he could possibly live the way he does, given the way his story has unfolded, he said this: “Yes, I have been angry. But I trust in the love of Jesus, which is not only for me, but for all my brothers and sisters. I try to follow him, so that everything I do, I do it with love.” Kamal’s life is a testament to the power of the “perfect love [that] casts out fear.” He is walking proof of the power of Christ’s love.

 

The question, beloved friends, is this: What makes you afraid? What divides you from the people around you? What divides you from your own best self? What divides you from God? Where do you find yourself putting up walls, barriers, defense mechanisms to protect yourself from threats, real or imaginary? When do you find yourself assuming the worst? And how will you turn instead to love?

When you feel that plummeting pit in your stomach, that icy clenching of your heart, the world contracting around you, what will you do? When your heart feels suspicious and your trigger finger gets itchy, what will you do? When your capacity to imagine, to empathize, to hope dries up inside you, what will you do?

And perhaps more importantly, what will God do? What is God already doing in you to cast out fear, to overcome it with love?

Because here’s the thing. John the Elder was so clear on this point. Love is not something we achieve on our own. It is not something we generate out of nothing. It is not something we earn, not something we contrive, not something we do for ourselves. Love comes from God, because love is the very nature of God. God is love.

When we know this—when we really know that we are loved, know it not only in our minds, but deep down in our bellies—then we will find ourselves able to love the person in front of us, no matter how unlovable. We will find that we cannot help but love our sisters and brothers. We love because God first loved us, because God sought us out before we breathed our first breath, because Christ pours out living water upon us at the font, because he feeds us with his living presence at the table, because the Spirit speaks to us and warms us from within.

Can you imagine what your life would be like if you truly lived out of this truth? Can you imagine what our world would be like if we all met those around us with this kind of love?

 

Fear is a powerful thing. If you live in this world, you cannot help but know that. But there is another force that takes the immense power of fear and reduces it to dust. There is another force that is mighty enough to transform terror into joy. That force comes from God. That force is love.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him… In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us… Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Let’s get to it.