Fearless Faith: Change is Hard, But It’s All We Have.
I’m not sure how I could make it through life
without having some good friends.
People who are your people, you know.
The ones who you can be honest with, open with
who you can tell what actually happened when you messed up at work
yes, even pastors do that
those whom can look you in the eye and tell you you’re acting a fool
or, on the other hand, that maybe you’re not
and you might actually have your head screwed on right
and maybe you should stick with it, the other voices notwithstanding.
Times without friends are difficult times,
and having close friends is an important factor, scientists tell us,
in our long-term physical and emotional wellbeing.
If we’re lucky, our friends are good people
helping us get through life with strength and with faith and with hope.
I was thinking this week about this reality,
about my closest friends and how important they are to me.
Maybe the unique thing about my particular circle of friends
is how late in life they came to me.
I’ve had friends all my life, don’t get me wrong.
I can look at pictures of childhood birthday parties and
point out the best friends of my younger days
Chris and Topher and Jenny.
I think back about high-school, and college, and even seminary
I look at facebook photo albums of what those people are doing today
and I remember the good people who were my people then
but who now have drifted away,
due to time, or circumstance.
Sometimes life does this.
If you’re the sort of person who has been seamlessly close with your best friend
from elementary school, I marvel at that sort of gift.
For my part, I wonder how Greg is doing these days,
divorced and remarried now, I hear,
with a daughter, living on the East Coast
I’ve not spoken with him in 15 years.
or what about Ray,
who finally moved away from Saint Louis and now lives somewhere
in Pennsylvania, I think.
I see them from time to time on social media
but not others, those who have all-but disappeared
and there are some who have passed away.
And I miss them, these friends, these good people
even as I thank God for the times we were close
where they helped me and I helped them navigate life better.
I’m not sure how I could make it through life
without having some good friends.
They are a gift of God, good friends, your people.
Its possible that my current friends are going to be with me for the long haul.
I hope so. God willing.
I found out that one of them, one of my good friends
has been doing some thinking of her own about
the topics we’ve been working through in this sermons series.
We’re calling it “Fearless Faith,”
even though that’s a bit of a misnomer.
We started with a little story from the Gospels about Jesus travelling with his disciples
his people, his close friends, at this point
and they were on a boat, and it was stormy, with rough seas
and his friends were white with fear and Jesus was asleep in back
and they wake him and he rebukes the wind and the waves
everything is ok again
and Jesus asks them why they are afraid…
Why do you fear?
Be not afraid.
Some version of that appears some eighty times in the bible,
not just from the mouth of Jesus, but also in the Hebrew Scriptures,
and in other parts of the New Testament.
So it seems rather important that we attend to it
and explore some of the causes of our fear
and what faith might lead us to do about them, or in spite of them.
We’ve been exploring the BIG PICTURE fears in our life
like what happens when we open our hearts to loving others
or fears about whether we’re going to be ok,
in this life or in the eternal life to come
or looking at our natural desire to control everything in our lives
when we know that we don’t really have control
that we can’t do it all.
To each of these, we hear Jesus speaking to us:
Why are you afraid? as God invites us to trust in God’s care
to believe that we are going to be ok
that no matter what happens
in life or in death,
whether we live, or whether we die
we belong to God
we are the Lord’s.
But we know, throughout all of this
that our fears never really go away. Right?
There is no such thing as a Fearless Faith, a life without fear.
Maybe it would be more true, more honest,
to say that what we are after is a way to live MORE FEARLESSLY
to allow other emotions and thoughts to guide us
a way to live more healthy, more happy, more whole lives
even with our fears, our anxieties, our worries.
So one of my people, also a Presbyterian pastor, reminded me of this, just this week,
when she was reflecting on a recent visit to Kansas City.
It turns out she’s been reflecting on many of the same things we have.
Here’s what she said:
Recently I was talking with my therapist about fear.
Something we discuss on a semi-regular basis.
She reminded me, for the seventy-zillionth time,
that whether irrational or rational,
I can’t get rid of my fears.
I can’t will them to go away.
Especially at 4:00am,
which is when we’ve been spending the most time together recently.
I can’t ignore them,
I can’t put them away,
I can’t overcome them with logic and rationality.
Rather, what I need to learn to do better
is when any particular fear comes out,
to sit down and have tea with it.
Oooff. She says, as she realizes the weight of what that means….
Steven Pinker teaches at Harvard University,
doing research on Psychology and Linguistics.
Pinker published a book a few years ago called
The Better Angels of our Nature.
In the book, Pinker meticulously documented a steady decline in violence
over the past several centuries,
not just months or years or decades, but centuries
a development he suggests “may be the most significant
and least appreciated development
in the history of our species.”
This is true over a host of metrics, things we can test and measure
warfare and rates of interpersonal violent crime in our communities and so forth.
This may seem counter-intuitive.
Certainly, when you ponder the events that weigh heavily these days
whether we want to lift up Orlando
or Bastile-Day in Nice
a hostage standoff in Dhaka, Bangladesh
or various events in Paris or Brussels or Istanbul
or for that matter San Bernardino
or the anniversary our nation marks this morning.
And those are just the terror attacks,
to say nothing about the flaring racial tensions
and concerns with police relations and their safety
and the way political discourse in a major election year
seems to be fanning these anxieties.
And so Pinker has been asked about the events of the past several years,
and more recently, of the past 12 months or so,
and whether they break away from what he’s demonstrated.
Here’s what he said:
News is a misleading way to understand the world.
It’s always about events that happened
and not about things that didn’t happen.
So when there’s a police officer that has not been shot up
or city that has not had a violent demonstration,
they don’t make the news.
As long as violent events don’t fall to zero,
there will be always be headlines to click on.
The data show — since the Better Angels of Our Nature was published —
rates of violence continue to go down.
Pinker isn’t the only expert who has provided ample evidence
that we are living in relatively safer times these days
not that there aren’t big problems to solve
or dangerous things we must confront.
But our worries haven’t followed suit.
If anything, they have gotten worse,
with one study, for example,
showing that rates of clinical anxiety and depression
among college students has been rising steadily, year after year, since the 1930s.
There is some disconnect between the world we live in and how we FEEL about it.
Statistically people on our planet
are living longer, healthier, happier lives than ever before
and yet many are feeling more worried, more stressed,
more anxious than ever too.
Here is where a word of faith is really really helpful.
When we need a good friend to look us in the eye and tell us to take it easy
that we’re not seeing things clearly, completely.
Paul is trying to do something like that to his friends in Rome.
In this reading we have before us today,
the Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome,
whom he has befriended in his work
planting churches in various other parts of the Mediterranean.
He longs to visit them, he tells them, so they can be together in person
face to face, friend to friend.
The church by this time is struggling to see their future.
It is a time of radical Change for them:
this faith that had been defined for centuries under the law of Moses
was given a new perspective, a new direction by Jesus
who came and loved and healed and taught
and died and lived again
what amazing possibility! what dizzying upheaval!
this faith was now being opened to Gentiles, Gentiles!
people who didn’t know the traditions or the customs
good people, earnest people
who did things completely differently.
They were struggling to understand what it meant, in their own terms:
is this new way of being God’s people, the called out people of God
is it going to be defined in the same way we always have been
by eating the right foods at the right times
by circumcising our young boys
and setting ourselves apart from the rest of the world
by observing ritual and custom handed down
from generation to generation
or is it going to be something different.
The early church struggled with change.
The Gentiles didn’t have any qualms buying meat from the temple
where it had been sacrificed in honor to some idol.
Some of them didn’t even observe a day of rest, a holy day.
And many in the early church didn’t like it. Some actively fought against it.
They sought to put their foot down and STOP all this change going on.
This was a MAJOR source of anxiety in Paul’s day.
The thing causing people to fear.
And Paul, in his response, tells the Romans that these worries
in the end, aren’t going to matter very much to God
because, in the end, God loves the traditionalists and the radicals
and is doing a new thing, God’s new thing, regardless.
Here’s how he put it:
Welcome those who are weak in faith,
but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.
Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.
Those who eat must not despise those who abstain,
and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat;
for God has welcomed them.
Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.
Those who observe the day,
observe it in honor of the Lord.
Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord,
since they give thanks to God;
while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord
and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
Its not easy to sit with change and to be told to roll with it
particularly when change happens quickly
or when we have just gotten used to the way things have been done
and now something new comes up
and we’ve got to try it a new way again.
It can get exhausting.
And it can begin to feel like there’s nothing solid to put our foot down on.
But throughout all of these lessons we’ve been looking at
perhaps the unifying thread has been a reminder that only God
really is constant enough to help us weather the changes of life
only God is solid enough to give us strength.
This is what the Psalmist has understood about God:
For God knows how we were made; God remembers that we are dust.
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
BUT…the Psalmist continues, as if to say EVEN SO
the STEADFAST LOVE of the LORD is from Everlasting to Everlasting.
After my friend decided that she needed to have a tea party with her fears
she visited the Nelson-Atkins art museum during her visit to town.
I found myself wandering the store
of the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City this week
and was struck by a grouping of jewelry.
They were all keys, some real, some stylized
– necklaces of different kinds, bracelets and bangles,
but each key had a word stamped on it.
“The Giving Keys” is the name of the organization
and among other things
they employ those transitioning out of homelessness in Los Angeles.
I found myself drawn to the one with “fearless” stamped on it.
It was a beautiful key, on a long beautiful chain.
But the longer I looked at it, the more I felt it’s weight.
The promise of being “fearless” gave way
to the pressure of being “fearless” and I knew it wasn’t right for me.
Then I looked to the one next to it
– a much more delicate key
and a much more delicate chain.
It glistened in the store light and the word jumped out at me– “courage”.
The reality is that I will never be fearless.
I may in fact always be fearful.
But as I learn to have tea with my fears,
perhaps courage is the key
that will settle me into this complicated and wondrous life.
My friend suggests COURAGE,
a courage rooted in faith
one that is supported by eyes-wide-open
to the reality of the wonderful things God is doing around us
and the possibility that we can join in to make things
a bit less scary too.
Biologists will tell us that change is a fundamental component of life:
cells receive nutrients and multiply
bodys grow strong and, as time goes on, they age and weaken.
the body breathes in and out, the heart pumps
the body changes, and then one day it does no longer.
We know that Change is Hard, but that its All We Have.
There is no such thing as standing still,
since life continues to move around us anyway.
Sometimes we can see the trends as disturbing, or concerning, or worrisome
but we know that the more we focus on the concerns
we miss the beauty, the opportunity that is present there
how GOD is present there
from everlasting to everlasting
establishing God’s realm
comforting anxious souls
calling us to courage.
Today, may we ponder anew how we can face with courage
these changes in our life
leaving the worries with God
leaning on our friends and our partners and those God gives us to love
so that we can live to the Lord, live FULLY to the Lord
just as strongly and as faithfully
as we will one day Die to the Lord.
May it be so.