A Fresh Start

This sermon was preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on April 6, 2014, at University United Methodist Church.

O God, in the stillness, come meet us.  Amen.

This has been the kind of week that inspires fear within us. 

First, on Wednesday, there was the tragic shooting at Fort Hood, Texas that killed three people (in addition to the shooter) and injured 16 people.

Severe thunderstorms, heavy winds, and tornadoes followed Wednesday afternoon and Thursday, striking several states in the Midwest, including Missouri and specifically St. Louis and University City.

These are the kinds of experiences that you wish were made up and unreal—the kind that you imagine you will only ever hear about on the news on TV, until they happen to you, your family, or in your front yard. 

Fear.  It is one of the most natural parts of life.  When we are young, our fears are smaller, but just as real to us.  We fear getting lost in the department store or going outside when it is dark.

As we grow, we fear stepping out on our own; we fear the big job interview; we fear making a mistake.  When someone close to us dies, we realize our mortality and we fear death.  When we have a new opportunity, we fear that we are not good enough and cannot succeed.

Fear is a part of life that is inescapable and it is present in our lives in very real and tangible ways.

Fear is even a part of our faith.  Following Jesus is not necessarily easy and if we are serious about walking in the footsteps of this radical guy from Nazareth, the invitation requires something big of us.  In Luke 9:23-25, Jesus invites the disciples and us to lose our lives in order to find them.  As Stephanie Spellers points out in the book Radical Welcome,

There is nothing easy or comfortable about losing your life, even if Jesus holds out the promise of new, abundant, better, resurrected life.  We don’t really know what that life will look like or what it will take to claim it.  All we know is that our old ways must die, for there can be no new life without some form of death.  Radical welcome is to a great degree the practice of embracing our inevitable fear of the other, of loss, of death.[1]

There are many stories in scripture when people are afraid and God comes with a reassuring word.  Here are just a few examples.

In multiple situations in his life, Abraham is afraid.  God shows up over and over and says, “Be not afraid.”  God offers a similar reassurance to Moses when Moses is doubting his gifts.  “Be not afraid.”  When Mary finds out she is pregnant, the angel tells her, “Be not afraid.”  And when Jesus is about to leave his disciples, he tells them, “Be not afraid.”

These words are meant to give us a response that strengthens and reassures us.  However, far too often, we have used the phrase “Be not afraid” to squelch fear.  We have used it to lead us to the assumption that fear is bad and we need to deny it or get rid of it as soon as possible.

Truthfully, if we listen to fear, it can make us wiser.  If we face fear, it can make us free.  If we experience fear, it can lead to deeper faith. 

You see, fear is never the final word.  Fear gives way to wisdom, freedom, faith, and ultimately resurrection.

Sometimes fear pops up inside of us when something changes that we wish would stay the same.  It can even be something small and petty like the color of the carpet in the sanctuary.  And imagine how overwhelming fear gets when we encounter people who don’t believe like us, talk like us, look like us or even smell like us.

When fear presents itself, part of the work on the church is to create a holding space for fear to fully come out and be listened to, faced, and experienced so that it can give way to wisdom, freedom, and deeper faith.[2]  We are called to create a holding space so that fear can lead to the kind of spiritual growth that the prophet Ezekiel describes.

Ezekiel’s words are challenging and inspiring at the same time.

He writes about how God is promising to use our human weaknesses, like fear, as an opportunity to make us new. 

First, God will sprinkle clean water on us and cleanse us from our uncleanness and from all of our idols.  I think we have to unpack this a little bit. 

In biblical times, people or things became unclean when they were used for a purpose other than the purpose that God intended for them to be used.  Life was regulated by rules for how to maintain cleanliness.  Though modern Christians don’t believe that we are bound by the long list of rules found in the Old Testament, I wonder if we miss an opportunity for self-reflection if we skip over this part without asking ourselves, “What is the uncleanness in my life that God wants to clean up?  How am I using my life, my body, or my gifts for a purpose other than what God intended?  How is fear working in my life to draw me away from the calling God has for me?”

In addition, idols were tokens or images that people worshiped in place of God.  Though, we don’t carry around golden statues and ask them to give us things these days, we are distracted and our attention and devotion is often divided and focused on someone or something other than God.  It would be easy to dismiss this part, but again, we miss an opportunity for self-reflection if we do so without asking ourselves, “What is getting most of my time, attention, and adoration these days?  Am I putting something in a primary place in my life instead of God?  How am I allowing fear to become the factor (the idol) that sways my actions, thoughts, and words?”

But, remember what I said earlier.  Fear never has the last word.  God follows this tough call to self-reflection with a promise of resurrection, hope, and new life.  God will put a new heart and a new spirit within us.  In fact, God will give us God’s heart and God’s spirit so that we can discern the purpose God has for us, so that we can live into that statement “Do not be afraid!” so that we are not so distracted and divided.  This new heart of flesh will allow us to feel, love, and grieve along with God.  This presence of God in our lives will help us to follow God and be God’s people..

The first step is to listen to our fears, face our fears, and fully experience our fears.  From there, wisdom, freedom, and faith have a space to grow an God gives us the fresh start that we are longing for.

Pray with me:

Dear God, we thank you for the whole range of human emotion and for the way that you can use even our fears to transform our lives and the life of the community.  In these days following national tragedy and natural disaster, give us strength and courage to confront our fears and accept the gift of a fresh start that you offer to each one of us.  In the name of Jesus who holds our fears, we pray, Amen.

Copyright 2014 by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali

[1]{C} Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, by Stephanie Spellers, Copyright 2006 by Stephanie Spellers, Church Publishing, Incorporated, p. 51.

{C}[2]{C} Ibid. p. 150.