|FEAR IS NOT AN OPTION
A sermon by Dean Scotty McLennan
University Public Worship
Stanford Memorial Church
November 18, 2007
Jesus exhorts his disciples in today’s gospel lessoni not to be terrified by news of wars and insurrections. He predicts that the temple in Jerusalem will soon be destroyed, that nation will arise against nation, that there will be dreadful portents of all kinds. He notes that his disciples will be persecuted, betrayed by relatives and friends, and brought before kings and governors.
Over 6 years ago, in October of 2001, I preached a sermon – entitled “Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself” about being terrified by news of war, death and destruction, actual and predicted. The World Trade Center towers had fallen, the Pentagon had been in flames, and Osama bin Laden had spoken: "There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that."ii We were reeling from the September 11 attacks and the FBI had put law enforcement agencies on highest alert, warning of further terrorist attacks on American soil.iii
Three years later I preached another sermon here,iv noting that fear was still in the air. More than a thousand American men and woman had died at that point on the soils of Afghanistan and Iraq. The terrorist threat still loomed large, abroad and at home. By then much of the world had moved from a sympathetic solidarity with Americans -- "We are all Americans" -- to a deep hatred for America. We’d just gone through an elections season which many have called one of the most divisive in our history, torn asunder into blue states and red states, blue people and red people. Many Americans had become genuinely fearful to speak out, to organize, to act politically or even religiously in the face of disintegration of civil liberties in America. They felt a new McCarthyism was the air.
Things are not better today. Our nation is deeply entrenched in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have lasted longer now longer than our engagement in World War II. Compared to the less than 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11,v “More than 4,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan… and at least 70,000 Iraqi civilians have died since [we invaded in] March 2003.”vi U.S. Army desertions have surged eighty percent since 2003 to almost 5,000 this year.vii The Democratically-controlled Congress keeps funding these wars without setting any veto-proof date for withdrawal, as the majority of our citizens want.viii
There’s considerable evidence that President Bush and members of his inner circle like Vice President Dick Cheney are moving us toward war with Iran, with the Pentagon already having developed a list of some 2,000 bombing targets in that country.ix And the curtailment of civil liberties continues post 9/11, including infringement of basic rights protecting privacy, due process, and reasonable searches and seizures, with unprecedented electronic surveillance, secret detention, abusive interrogation including torture, and denial of habeas corpus.x All of this pales, of course, in comparison to another terrorist attack within America, which could occur anytime and make 9/11 look like a minor incident.
Many of us are still in fear, just as the terrorists want. We’ve allowed our politicians to fight wars abroad and restrict our human rights and civil liberties at home on the basis of that fear. This is not a prophetic sermon today, calling us to political activism, although I feel that’s a critical response, which will help us corporately to deal with our fear and hopefully remove some of the basis for it. This is instead a pastoral sermon directed instead to our personal fears, feeling that we’re living in the kind of times Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel lesson: a time of war and destruction, of persecution and dreadful portents.
As I’ve noted in prior sermons, there have been very difficult times before in history and Americans have found reservoirs of strength. There have been other occasions when this country was facing great dangers, and responsible leaders have counseled us about our emotions. For example, in the midst of the great Depression of the nineteen-thirties, Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural address spoke of being in the midst of a "national emergency" where "the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone." He identified a "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." And it was in this speech that he uttered his famous words, "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."xi
Winston Churchill likewise called his nation from fear to courage when it was passing through "a dark and deadly valley" in the early years of World War II, when Hitler's Third Reich was bombing London every night. "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"xii During a year of bombardment and untold suffering, Churchill tirelessly visited victims of the blitz and showed up at scenes of bomb damage, smoking his cigar and giving his V sign.xiii At the lowest point, he said, "Never give in -- never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense."xiv
What added value do we gain from the Christian perspective on fear? I repeat here words with which I’ve addressed this congregation before. Jesus is of course the great model. He prays poignantly in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he is to die a terrible, painful death on the cross: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” He doesn’t want to die, and certainly not in the unspeakably cruel, torturing way it’s going to happen. In the process of praying, though, he ends up facing his fears directly: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He finds courage – it seems partly by being with his friends, partly by power of will, and partly by trusting his life and death to God. For as he ultimately says to God in his prayer, “not what I want, but what you want.”
His love is intense: his love for his disciples, even as they are falling asleep, rather than being with him, and are soon to deny him and abandon him. Likewise his love of God is intense – his “Father who art in heaven...thy will be done.” Ultimately the Christian story is one of resurrection and eternal life. The final word is God’s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean freedom from suffering and violence. What is to be, though, both on earth and in heaven, is love: for and from our friends, partners, families and countless others known or unknown. Over all is the love of God, which the world can neither give nor take away. The ultimate truth is that we are embraced and held in life and in death by loving arms, by the power of love itself, which is God incarnate.
This may be all too theologically abstract and unconvincing, so let me try to make it more concrete through the example and words of one more nearly our contemporary, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a major leader of the American civil rights movement and a major critic of America's war in Vietnam, he spent a lot of time in jail. Again and again he put his life on the line, risking his family's lives along with his own. He was stabbed, his house was bombed, and finally he was killed for his efforts before he reached the age of forty. How did he deal with his fears?
In his book The Strength to Love King counsels four things: "First, we must unflinchingly face our fears and honestly ask ourselves why we are afraid." Second, we must nurture the classical virtue of courage, the power of the mind to overcome fear. Third, "Fear is mastered through love. Scriptures affirm that "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear." Fourth, "Fear is mastered through faith...[which] assures us that the universe is trustworthy and that God is concerned."xv
By looking squarely and honestly at our fears, King explains, we gain a degree of power and control. We're then able to separate fears grounded in present reality from those, which are imaginary or unlikely to be realized. Ignoring or repressing fears also leads to increasing inner conflicts rather than to quelling them.
Second, in describing courage, King quotes the Stoic philosopher Epictetus as having said almost two thousand years before Roosevelt that "It is not death or hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of hardship and death." King goes on to say that courageous people "never lose the zest for living, even though their life situation is zestless" Cowardly people, "overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live." "Courage is an inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations; cowardice is a submissive surrender to circumstance."xvi
Third, in describing the spiritual concept of love, King insists that "The kind of love which led Christ to a cross and kept Paul unembittered amid the angry torrents of persecution is not soft, anemic and sentimental." Instead, "Such love confronts evil without flinching and shows in our popular parlance an infinite capability 'to take it.' Such love overcomes the world even from a rough-hewn cross against the skyline." In words, which are still true today, Rev. King spoke of a deteriorating international situation which is "shot through with the lethal darts of fear." That fear is not just of violent aggression, as he explains, but also of "loss of scientific and technological supremacy, economic power, and our own loss of status and power." Hate is rooted in this kind of fear, and "the only cure for fear-hate is love." "We say that war is a consequence of hate, but close scrutiny reveals this sequence: first fear, then hate, then war, and finally deeper hatred." From King's perspective, building armaments will not cast out fear, but instead produce greater fear: "Not arms, but [only] love, understanding, and organized goodwill can cast out fear."xvii
Finally, King speaks of mastering fear through faith. He explains that "A positive religious faith does not offer an illusion that we shall be exempt from pain and suffering, nor does it imbue us with the idea that life is a drama of unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease. Rather, it instills us with the inner equilibrium needed to face strains, burdens, and fears that inevitably come, and assures us that the world is trustworthy and that God is concerned." King reminds us that death is inevitable, and it’s just a matter of time and place. "It is a democracy for all of the people, not an aristocracy for some of the people...We need not fear it...Death is not the ultimate evil; the ultimate evil is to be outside God's love."xviii
Is America today still full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east, as Bin Laden once claimed? I hope not. May we face the fears we do have squarely and honestly, work hard to develop the virtue of courage in small everyday ways (which will fortify us for the major moments we need it), practice love to cast out fear, and celebrate that in the end our lives and our deaths are in the hands of a loving God.
i Luke 21: 5-19.
ii Osama bin Laden, translation of taped remarks aired on the Al-Jazeera television network on October 7, 2001 (San Jose Mercury, October 8, 2001, p. 16A).
iii Lenny Savino and Kevin Murphy, "FBI Issues Warning of Potential New Attack," San Jose Mercury News
, October 12, 2001, p. 1A.
iv Scotty McLennan
, “Courage in Spite of Fear,” (Stanford Memorial Church, January 16, 2005).
v “U.S. deaths in Iraq, war on terror surpass 9/11 toll,” CNN.com International Edition, www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/09/03/death.toll/index.html
vi Alasdair Roberts, “The War We Deserve,” Foreign Policy (November/December, 2007), p. 49.
vii Lolita C. Baldor, “Army Desertions Surge in Past Year,” San Jose Mercury News, November 17, 2007, p. 4a.
viii Polling reports collected at www.pollingreport.com/iraq.html
ix Philip Sherwell and Tim Shipman, “Bush setting America up for war with Iran,” The Telegraph
(United Kingdom, September 16, 2007),
x Roberts, “The War We Deserve,” p. 49.
xi Franklin D. Roosevelt, "First Inaugural Address," March 4, 1933 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Digital Archives, www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu).
xii Winston Churchill
, Speech to the House of Commons, June 18, 1940 (www.winstonchurchill.org).
xiii Herbert G. Nicholas, "Sir Winston Churchill," Encyclopedia Britannica, 1978, Vol. 4, p. 598.
xiv Winston Churchill, Speech to students at the Harrow School, October 29, 1941 (www.winstonchurchill.org).
xv Martin Luther King, Jr., The Strength to Love (1963) as reproduced in James Melvin Washington (ed.), A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1986), pp. 511-515.
xvi Ibid., pp. 511-513.
xvii Ibid., p. 513.
xviii Ibid., pp. 515-516.