BE NOT AFRAID!
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 21, 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs, CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Jeremiah 20:10-13 | Psalm 69:8-10,14,17,33-45
Romans 5:12-15 | Matthew 10:26-33
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
One of my mother’s heroes was the thirty-second President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His first inaugural address in nineteen-thirty-three proclaimed the famous phrase, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Fear is my least favorite emotion. To be a successful person, fear is something to be overcome, not accepted as part of oneself.
As much as I dislike fear, it is, however, a very human emotion. Even Jesus felt it. You may recall that in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died, Jesus pleaded with his Father to spare him from the cross when he said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”
Fear continues to be part of life for many people. Children fear parents. Spouses fear spouses. Students fear teachers. And people of color fear the police.
We saw an unfortunate example in Atlanta, Georgia, of how fear leads to death a little over a week ago when Rayshard Brooks was sleeping peacefully in his car in the drive-through of a Wendy’s restaurant whose employee called the police. Officers Garrett Rolfe and Devin Brosnan responded. They requested that the car be moved, and Rayshard moved it. However, the officers believed that Rayshard appeared to be intoxicated. After he had passed all of the physical aspects of a field sobriety test, Garrett administered a blood-alcohol meter that showed Rayshard having a blood-alcohol reading of point one zero eight, slightly over the legal limit of point zero eight. Rayshard asked to be released so he could walk to the home of a nearby sister, but Garrett refused to let him go. Allegedly, Rayshard was “driving while intoxicated,” even though Rayshard was sleeping, not driving, and on private property, not a public street, and that Rayshard moved the car before the officers had made a determination that he might have been intoxicated.
Now when people experience fear, they respond with either fight or flight, or both. When Garrett attempted to handcuff Rayshard, he was scared and become combative. The videotape shows that at no time did Garrett tell Rayshard he was under arrest. Rayshard grabbed one of the officer’s tasers, which is not a lethal weapon, and ran away, with the officers in hot pursuit. Rayshard discharged the taser, hitting no one. At that point, the taser was no longer a weapon of any kind as it has to be reset before it can be fired again. Yet, as he was running away, Garrett shot Rayshard twice in the back, killing him. The head of the Atlanta Police Officers Union, when interviewed by a news reporter, said that Garrett fired his weapon at Rayshawn out of fear. The local populace reacted with massive demonstrations which included injuries, looting, and property damage.
The bottom line is because fear got the better of two people, one of them is dead, the other is out of a job and likely to go to prison for a very long time, plus injuries and damage in reaction to the events. Yes, fear is a very destructive emotion.
What exactly is fear? According to the magazine Psychology Today, fear is an emotional response induced by a perceived threat, which causes a change in brain and organ function, as well as in behavior. Fear can lead us to hide, to run away, or to freeze in our shoes, or to fight. Fear may arise from a confrontation, or from avoiding a threat, or it may come in the form of a discovery.
I’ve heard the argument that some fears are good, like to prevent danger, like being afraid to touch a hot stove or to cross a street while cars are coming at us. But are these really fears? Aren’t they more like rational judgments? The fact is, a hot stove will burn your fingers, and if you walk in front of an oncoming car, you will more likely than not be seriously injured or killed.
However, in most contexts, fear is not productive and does more harm than good. As you have heard me preach many times, fear doesn’t build bridges and it doesn’t bake bread.
Lately, fear based on race has been in the news. Racism takes many forms and can happen in many places, and in contexts other than encounters with police. It includes prejudice, discrimination or hatred directed at someone because of their skin color, ethnicity, or national origin.
You may recall the news story about a White woman named Amy Cooper in New York City’s Central Park with her free-roaming dog. A Black birdwatcher asked Amy to leash her dog. She reacted by using her cell phone to call nine-one-one and summon the police. The first words out of her mouth were that an African American man threatened her life and made her feel unsafe, even though there were no objective facts that would alarm a reasonable person. When questioned, Amy admitted, “I was scared.”
The fact is, we live in a country where a large number of White people fear Black people. The United States has a long history of oppression and degradation of Black people. It began in the sixteen-hundreds when the first slaves arrived and still continues today despite strong civil rights laws.
Racism is more than just words, beliefs, and actions. Racism has become part of American life over a long period of time, and unfortunately, continues unabated. It includes all the barriers that prevent people from enjoying dignity and equality because of their race. Racism is not only overt but systemic. Note how Corporate America has used stereotype images of Black people to make money by promoting Aunt Jemima pancake batter, Mrs. Butterworth Syrup, and Uncle Ben’s Rice.
About a week ago, Deacon Sharon and I saw the movie, “Twelve Years A Slave,” which illustrated that slavery was the beginning of hatred towards Black people and Black men in particular. Black men and people were viewed as not “fully human.” White slave owners devalued the humanity of Black people and considered them property. The legacy of the treatment of Black men during that time has carried on throughout history and into current times. Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, James Craig Anderson, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Rayshawn Brooks, and countless other Black men and boys have been the victims of brutality generated by racism.
Racism comes from fear. In fact, people accused of racist behavior, like Amy in Central Park, use their fear to excuse their racism. When people have a negative encounter with someone of a different race, it has a lasting impact that fosters fear and prejudice. But an equally bad experience with someone of the same race, however, is readily forgiven and forgotten.
However, absent a clear and present danger, there is really no reason to be afraid of people whose skin color is different from yours. Be not afraid! Why? God is here for you. Our God is a God that loves you, down to the tiniest detail.
Today’s First Reading is the fifth of the prophet Jeremiah’s six so-called “confessions,” where Jeremiah laments his situation in prayer. Jeremiah expressed his doubts about whether God was really on his side and thought about abandoning his prophetic ministry.
The six confessions were Jeremiah’s admission that things were not going well for him. He was clearly distressed. His close friends were denouncing him and watching for him to stumble. They were looking to defeat him and exact revenge.
But God said, no, Jeremiah, don’t listen to your fears, because you have a job to do. Jeremiah chose to listen to God and do his job, rather than give in to fear of his persecutors. He realized that ultimately his persecutors would be the ones to stumble and would not succeed in stopping him.
Jeremiah was “between a rock and a hard place”, because God was pushing him to preach a message that was not well received by the people who heard it. Today’s psalm reminds us that speaking prophecy is not easy, but that nonetheless, God is here to help us.
Jesus picked up where Jeremiah left off. Let’s look at the events in chapter ten that precede today’s Gospel. We have the calling of the twelve disciples, the commissioning and sending them out, and telling them that that sometimes they would not be well-received. Today we have Jesus reminding them, “Don’t be afraid, because God will be there for you.”
Jesus told us to shout, not whisper, what’s needed to be said, and definitely not hide the message because those who hear it may not like it. Jesus reminds us that proclaiming the Word of God is never easy. Those of us who preach the Gospel in a prophetic manner are usually not popular, whether we are predicting the future, or giving insight into what is happening now. Much of the Gospel was meant to be a message of truth, not something to protect our comfort zone.
I grew up in the nineteen fifties and sixties when many churches, particularly those in the southeastern United States were racially segregated on an official basis. Some had separate seating areas for people of color, and others excluded them altogether. Most clergy, however, knew this was morally wrong.
But many clergy were too timid to buck the system. They feared to lose their livelihood, so rather than listen to Jesus, they listened to fear. Indeed, those clergy who ended racial discrimination in churches lost their jobs when they ended separate seating of different races in Southern congregations and marched in demonstrations to integrate public facilities. They refused, at the peril of their own survival, to compromise the Gospel to please the people around them.
Clergy often fear to speak out to support the least among us or to call out injustice on healthcare and many other issues. Why? Clergy often are worried about being unpopular (clergy are human; we crave having people like us, just like anyone else).
The people of Appalachia, and in the rural areas of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, fear the message of progressive Christianity, because they, quite inaccurately, think that immigrants, LGBT persons, and persons of different races are going to take their livelihood and take their lifestyle away from them. They are simply scared to get the heck out of their coal mines, give up their guns, and to change their silly literalist interpretations of scripture. Rather than trust God, they fear what is new and different. Unfortunately, they act on those fears at the ballot box, and we have what we have.
Many clergy are scared to call out what needs to be called out, like the total lack of compassion for people exhibited by those presently in power. But Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel not to hide the message of love, the message of liberation, the message of good news for the poor. Jesus tell us not to whisper it, not to keep it in the dark, but to proclaim it on the housetops.
We have got to attack fear itself to bring about change!
The message from Jesus is, BE NOT AFRAID. Jesus calls us to ignore our fears of what others might think of us, and to proclaim the Gospel without apology, and to accept that some of the people to whom we preach it are not going to like it.
In one of the pericopes that precede today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that if we are not welcomed, we should not change the message, but to shake the dust off our feet and move on. Unfortunately, the usual response is to change the message so we can stick around.
Like Jeremiah, we today are between a rock and a hard place. Like Jeremiah, we have two voices in our heads. We have Jesus urging us to proclaim the Gospel, as a moral imperative, and we have people in our world getting all over our backsides for doing exactly that because they don’t like what we have to say.
Given this choice, I go with Jesus. I will ALWAYS go with Jesus! The answer Jesus gives us when faced with fear, is that God is there for us to care for us. And because God is in our lives, we can respond to threats with, “make my day” instead of turn tail and run. Because that’s what Jesus did. However, it got him killed. But the Romans killed only His Body. They did not kill His soul. They did not win, because on Easter Day, Jesus conquered death. Yes, Jesus made a hard choice, but that’s what He’s calling us to do as well.
Today’s Gospel tells us that God cares for life as small as a sparrow and cares for us in such excruciating detail that God can count the hairs on our heads. You see, we are very valuable to God because we, indeed the people of God, are worth more than many sparrows, because we are called to build up God’s kingdom.
We are able to overcome our fears and build up God’s kingdom because God is there for us to care for us. God is our mighty fortress. God is the reason we are not to be afraid. I find this best expressed in the Coverdale version of Psalm 46. Here are some of the verses:
God is our hope and strength * a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved *
and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea.
The Lord of hosts is with us * the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Don’t let fear get in the way of your ministry. We banish and drive out fear by trusting God. It’s trusting God that enables us to say, “make my day” when we are threatened.
What is trust? According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, trust is,
“Holding a conviction that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, or effective.”
So how do we trust God? Here are some practical hints along those lines:
First, surrender to God. In God, you have a supernatural power on your side. Don’t think you can do it all by yourself. You need God. Once you stop trying to do things in your own strength, God will take over and lift you to new heights.
Second, replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Your thoughts are extremely powerful and they can affect things like your mood, your attitude, and yes, even your actions. Think positive thoughts about God, like those found in the third chapter of the Book of Proverbs:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence do not rely;
In all your ways be mindful of him, and he will make straight your paths.
Third, be patient. God will come through for you at just the right moment. God will never fail you. When you are under duress, ask God to give you patience and to help you trust that God knows what’s best for you. Remember, God is never a second late, He always shows up on time.
Today’s Second Reading refers to Adam’s sin. However, trusting God is the exact opposite of what Adam did. Adam made the mistake of trusting the devil in the form of a serpent instead of God. The consequence of the sin of Adam was bringing death into the world. Jesus, however, leads us away from evil and back to God, by, among other things, restoring our relationship with God, by reminding us, as Jesus does in today’s Gospel, that God is always there for us.
Fourth, think about replacing fear with love. What about getting people to do what you want them to do by loving them and trusting them instead of putting them in fear of you? As Nelson Mandela says, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” Focusing on our hopes will change the way we relate to one another.
I challenge all police departments to work to build trust in the communities in which they serve rather than be a threatening presence that invites mutual hostility. The “Obey authority or else” approach to life is has got to go, in all relationships between persons. That is not how Jesus did his business, and it is not how we should do ours. Forcing people to do what they do not want to do by placing them in fear is not healthy and leads to what we are seeing right now in our streets by way of personal injuries and property damage.
Just as God was present for Jeremiah, and encouraged him to get on with his ministry under God’s protection, Jesus reminds us today that God is present for us, too, once we cast out fear and replace it with trust in God. That will enable us to bring the message directly home that racism is bad, to make sure every co-worker, neighbor, and stranger gets that message.
BE NOT AFRAID. That’s what the angel Gabriel said to Mary at the Annunciation. And because She listened to God, we have Jesus. God will always hold you in the palm of His hand. God is our hope and strength, our very present help in trouble. God is our mighty fortress, a bulwark that will never fail us. AMEN.