Sermon of the Week
Words to Build a Life On:
We Will Not Fear.
One of the things I love about people
is how they get animated about the things that they are passionate about.
Walk down the street with someone who fancies themself a baker
and see what happens when you pass the storefront of a bakery…
eyes light up, looking over the éclairs and the macaroons.
Spend some time hanging out with that guy who had a band in college
and see what happens when some amazing song comes on the radio.
He’s tapping out the drum rhythm to Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks
or doing air guitar to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Take your philosopher major friend to a used bookstore,
your gardener friend walking through a well maintained urban core and their parks,
that sort of thing.
Every so often, a friend of mine who was once a journalist
will get so animated reading the news
that he’ll exclaim with great passion: Wow, look at that lede!
and no one around him will really quite know what he’s talking about.
I thought about him, yesterday, reading the New York Times
and its coverage of Hurricane Florence.
There’s was a great story that started like this:
“As the flat-bottomed fishing boat crept into the swirling river
that had once been Summer Haven Lane,
Tray Hillman scanned the brown floodwaters
and half-submerged houses
in search for somebody to save.
“Today it’s been women and kids,” Mr. Tillman said.
Now that, as my friend would say, is quite a lede.
A Lede is the opening sentence or paragraph of a news story.
It summarizes the most important aspects of the news being reported.
Back in the day, when they actually printed the news
on real paper, and smudgy ink
every inch was valuable real estate.
So every word was scrutinized
and journalists quickly developed
a style of writing
that put the key details early in the story,
knowing that they might lose anything towards the end
to the wrath of the editor’s pencil.
A well crafted lede is a thing of beauty, to a print journalist and an editor
and probably to us, too, if we stopped to think about it
instead of the story at hand.
But this lede on Saturday opened me up to a beautiful story
about the everyday heroes that worked through fatigue and stress and muck
to try to save lives in the wake of these horrible storms.
The article’s headline is telling too:
Torrents of Water in Towns Across the Carolinas. And a Guy With a Boat.
The story detailed how Tillman, who is a construction foreman,
was part of these makeshift rescue flotillas
that plucked hundreds of people stranded in attics and second-floor bedrooms
and church vestibules and crumbling decks
as the relentless rains flood rivers
and send all that water
through downtowns miles and miles away from the coast.
Inland flooding, it is reported, is maybe the biggest continuing danger
as Florence continues this weekend through the Carolinas,
and an improvised network of volunteers
from all over the world, some, they report, from as far away as Africa
sprung up to rescue those who did not evacuate.
either because they were far enough inland that they weren’t in evacuation zones
or because they were poor or hobbled and unable to get away.
I heard on NPR that some people from the KC area
left on Monday and Tuesday to go help out this week, too.
There are more than 1000 FEMA workers in the area
trained and well equipped.
There are hundreds of sheriffs deputies and firefighters.
And then there are people like Mr. Tillman,
a guy with a boat
and other unofficial groups with amazing names
you might pick for your fantasy sports teams.
That’s how I think about the Cajun Navy, at least.
They use a walkie-talkie app called Zello on their phones
to share information about people and situations they’re concerned about.
“It’s been reported that snakes are in the floodwaters around Crabtree Creek,
so I would not go outside,
we don’t want any of you all to get bit by something”
“I have two elderly people I haven’t heard from since yesterday”
[can you check on them?]
That sort of thing.
And as we watch with amazement
these powerful events and the grand human drama
of suffering and hurt and loss,
we see the incredible spirit
of people working to save each other
from waters that come up to our necks, if not higher
to use a biblical metaphor for our most fearful moments (Psalm 69:1).
And we might utter a little prayer, of hope and of deep yearning
that they all might all be ok.
Our sermon series on Words to Build a Life On is wrapping up soon.
Just this Sunday, and next Sunday.
We’ve been exploring essential ideas of our faith
that can be said in just a few words
a phrase here and there to remember.
Some of those essential ideas are there
because Jesus made a big deal of them. Those are rather important.
Blessed… said Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…
a map to help us stand where God stands.
Other phrases we looked at because
they provide the lens through which we can understand other ideas.
The greatest is love.
That’s a big deal,
if we want to understand how scripture teaches us to live in the world.
Then there are the ideas that are important
because they convey something that is woven
throughout the scriptures, throughout God’s interaction with the world
in both Old and New testaments.
Today’s phrase is like that.
We Will Not Fear.
Some of you may remember,
a couple of years ago I was able to offer a seven-week sermon series
that I called Fearless Faith,
which I mention just to illustrate that this is a major topic in the Bible
something God is trying to help us attend to.
And I think that’s because God knows us pretty well
and knows that fear, whether it’s general anxiety
or worry about something that is coming up
or a particular danger that we are seeking to avoid
or a panic that sets in when those we love are in peril:
God knows that this is something we all experience.
It is a very human emotion.
If you’re a careful reader of Scripture, this can get a bit complicated
because there’s another sense of the word fear we find there
that has little to do with all of this.
Sometimes we read, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures
about fear and trembling before God, the awesome creator of our lives.
So we read about Moses, standing before the bush
that is ablaze but not consumed by the fire
in fear and trembling, standing on holy ground.
We read about the ancients travelling in the wilderness
in awe of God’s amazing deeds of power.
That’s a different thing entirely from what we’re exploring here.
It’s another sermon for another day
though it’s important to at least talk about here
because so many people seem to believe that some fear is good.
They like to use fear, or manipulate fear
or impose fear,
and they see God doing this, somehow
when they read those passages of Scripture.
Those are complicated passages
and there is a thread in the Old Testament where God appears to require
an understanding from God’s people that God is God and we are not.
Sometimes our great human sin is indeed pridefulness,
our thinking that we are, or should be, as powerful as God
and it helps us to understand that we are creatures
creatures who are made and loved and cared for by the creator God.
In those contexts, the word fear is better understood as awe
or deep, abiding respect.
But not fear, not really,
not as if God is going to turn on you, arbitrarily
like a despot or cruel ruler might,
not at all.
There is no place where God acts like that.
More often, God is seen as both the powerful one who creates and leads and delivers
and the one who comforts and assures and relates to us, intimately and gingerly.
I wish our scriptural translations could be more nuanced on this point.
Sometimes the people of faith, in the bible
show fear before God, as in reference and awe and understanding
of the vastness, the grandeur of what we’re dealing with.
Sometimes the people of God show fear
as in the deep worry and concern of their lives.
Two different things that we need to keep separate, and distinct.
For that latter idea
the anxieties and burdens that we carry,
God has a lot to say,
because God wants us to know that God’s Got Our Back,
that we are loved and cherished and cared for
that the promises of God are for us,
for our loved ones,
for our communities
and that, in life or in death, it’s all going to be ok.
is one of the most preeminent scholars of the psalms.
He’s one of those people
like our musician friend
who riffs an air guitar when his favorite song comes on a radio,
or our art friend
who can spend hours looking at the different kinds of brushes
at the art supply warehouse.
Brueggemann is like that when we start talking about the Hebrew Bible.
And he points out
that some psalms were written for good times,
when all is well
and the world is sane and safe and orderly.
He calls them psalms of orientation.
The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want.
He maketh me lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside still waters.
He restoreth my soul…
The trouble, of course,
is that life is not always like that,
even though we wish profoundly that it were.
And so, Bruggemann says,
there are psalms of disorientation,
written for times when things look bleak
and people are feeling weak and anxious,
times when we experience the world “falling apart,”
times of radical change when old certainties no longer hold.
Psalm 46 is crucial, Professor Brueggemann says,
“given our cultural situation of dismay and anxiety.”
God, the psalmist asserts,
is not only present in the good times,
when nature is kind,
and the sea calm,
and the crops plentiful,
and children all healthy and above-average,
as they used to say about Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.
God is not only present
when our personal well-being is secure,
our so-called enemies are subdued and quiet.
God, the psalmist asserts,
and may be relied upon
when nature is unkind,
when mountains shake, and the sea roars—
when radical change happens and nothing feels safe and secure.
God is in the midst of all that, too.
That’s quite the lede:
God is our refuge and strength
A very present help in trouble.
And this isn’t just about the so-called natural order:
wind and rain and earthquake.
But during times of human-made angst, too
as the psalmist illustrates those times when kingdoms totter
and nations war against one another.
God is resolute here.
To a parched and dry land,
God offers a river to provide sustenance.
To a warring people,
God breaks the bow and shatters the spear.
To a noisy and cacophonous spirit
God says: Be still. Know that I am God,
that I am with you,
that I am a refuge for you.
God’s got your back.
Jesus echoes this fundamental idea
in what Pat read for us this morning,
this reading from the Gospel of John during Jesus’ final days
there, huddled around his disciples,
who are anxious and worried and afraid.
It’s ok, my friends.
We’re uncertain of the future, but God is here with you now
God will always be with you.
God will send the Spirit to be with you
and I will leave you my peace.
Not as the world gives do I give.
Do not let your hearts be troubled,
neither let them be afraid.
It is not that God is saying that we won’t experience hardship or hurt,
that faithful people are immune to the realities of life.
But God promises never to leave us alone.
God promises to help us through
to safety and healing on the other side.
God promises that we have a lasting and eternal place to dwell
and assures us that everything is going to be ok.
Fear is pretty much the opposite of that:
the worry that it’s not going to be ok.
But God tells us that it will be.
Fear not: God’s got you.
I don’t like thinking about all the times in my life I’ve felt afraid,
and I’m aware, honestly, that I’ve led a fairly safe and privileged life.
The fear that others routinely bear, well founded, often,
is not part of my day to day.
But I remember that moment, lost in the mall
thinking I’d never see my mother again.
I remember that moment before my car struck the concrete median
that would send me across three lanes of interstate highway in the rain
wondering about our then infant-daughters back home.
I remember the get-under-your-desk drills of the early eighties
which must have been nuclear fall out drills
and I wonder about our high schoolers these days
preparing for someone wandering their halls with a semi-automatic rifle.
I’ve seen tornados pretty close, too close, really.
And then there are the things I likely never will fear for
but know people who do
like where their next meal is going to come from
or how they’re going to make rent or get medicine
or if their kid is going to make it home without getting pulled over and scrutinized.
We carry things that are worth fearing.
But we lean on each other.
We trust that we are not abandoned by God
and that, instead, God is working to inspire us
to share our loaves and our fishes, the things we have
with one another
so that our worries might be relieved
our hunger sated,
our illness, where possible, cured.
God inspires people to rush toward the storm with their boats
or others to write their leaders to mobilize help
or still more to send some of their resources to be pooled with others
so that they can have the food and water and shelter they need.
And, together, with God’s help
we piece back together a hurting world.
And when our efforts on this world are done
we have the promises of that time when pain and hurt and fear
will be no more, and we are in the eternal presence and love of God.
We will not fear.
This is not a phrase to make us feel badly when we do experience worry.
Far from it.
God knows this is part of who we are
that fear sometimes saves us from danger,
helps us find new solutions.
Rather, we will not fear is the context
of understanding that God is bigger than our fears,
and that God is resolute in helping calm them.
It is a call to trust, and to get moving
so that we do what we can to help meet the needs of others
so that their fear might subside.
as the people of God in this place
give thanks to the one who made us, who loves us
who comforts us, who has our back
and, trusting in God’s promises
may we do whatever we can
to alleviate the fears of others
so that they can live fearlessly, bravely, faithfully
into God’s new heaven and new earth.
We will not fear.
Words to build a life on.
May it be so.
 Jack Healy and Sheri Fink, “Torrents of Water in Towns Across the Carolinas. And a Guy With a Boat.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/15/us/florence-volunteer-rescue.html (accessed September 15, 2018)
 See Walter Brueggemann, The Spirituality of the Psalms, (Fortress Press 2001) pp. 19-25.