Lent 2 C: Fearless for a Purpose

The readings for the Second Sunday of Lent are:

Old Testament      Genesis 15:1–12, 17–18

Psalm                    Psalm 27

New Testament     Philippians 3:17–4:1

Gospel                   Luke 13:31–35

“No Fear.” It has been  a popular motto for a certain cross section of people around the world. And it also became a slogan plastered on decals and bumper stickers for a brand of clothing, power drinks, and other products—a company that sponsored, what else, mixed martial arts competitions, motocross, and other extreme sports.

And “no fear” is an idea taken up recently by those who oppose all sorts of restrictions and mandates meant to mitigate the harm of the Covid pandemic. “I’m not afraid of a little virus like the rest of you wimps. I’m fearless.”

But the whole “no fear” thing is about the false courage of looking for danger. What if danger comes looking for you? That’s what the Psalmist and Jesus–Psalm 27 and Luke 13–are talking about.

A fundamental element about courage is the discernment and knowledge of what constitutes true threat and meaningful risk. What is it that we truly need to face up to?  

Ancient Israel and Jesus certainly went through the fires of testing. Psalm 27 mentions three faces of threat: war, adversaries in a culture of feuds and vendettas, and abandonment by the vital support structure of the family.  Yes, verse ten reveals to us that the psalmist knows the possibility of the worst that life can throw at you. In  hard times even the strongest natural bonds can be broken: friends and even parents can turn against you under the pressure.

For Jesus it’s a conspiracy out to destroy him: Herod is the tip of a very cold iceberg that includes the corrupt high priesthood and Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, and the Roman Empire. Luke takes pains in his chronological notes of Luke 2:1-2 and 3:1-2 to underline this. It’s a killing machine that makes strange bedfellows of religious and political elites.

In the face of such fearsome powers, what can save us?

Dear Abby supposedly was the one to coin the phrase, “The  church is a hospital for sinners—not a museum for saints.  But truly it is neither. The church is not a place at all, but it is a living community on earth where Christ followers are trained and empowered to be fearless in confronting the true threats of life. In this family of faith we are filled with the Spirit and we follow Christ, our  model and our leader in completing our mission no matter what.

We truly need this authentic church today. These past two years have been our time of testing. Do we know how to stand up strong for the right things? This has been our testing time of fear.

We have been challenged by the very things that should have brought us together: pandemic, the torment of racism and injustice, extreme weather disasters of drought, fire, floods, and tornadoes. And now, a potential for a nuclear WWIII, courtesy of Vladimir Putin.

But, instead of facing the fear of these threats, we choose to fear and fight each other. Far too many people are turning against the very people who are giving of their lives, and even risking their lives to help them.

The great good news is that, as part of Christ’s church, and now, in Lent, we are being trained and empowered to be fearless.

First of all, we hear the story of Jesus’ love—how, in the face of  Herod and the High Priests in Jerusalem who wanted to kill him, our Savior loved his enemies. Like a mother hen he longed to gather people—the very people who wanted to kill him.

Then, we return to our baptisms and repent of our anger and hatred. We share a meal of body and blood for all Gods people. So awakened in us once again is the Holy Spirit of  gathering love that overcomes violence.

Then we go out of our worship services, part of a worldwide community dedicated to confronting fear-based violence, and defeating it.

If you are like me, you need this training and power to both understand and face today’s fears. The fear of Covid has been with us for over two years now. But the bigger threat is all that keeps us from doing what’s right out of neighbor-love.

Connie and I wrestled with this threat recently when her brother died. Both of us, by nature are cautious and careful people. But the church helps us also be people who care deeply for others. We knew hospitals in our county were still close to being overwhelmed; and so we wanted to do our bit by being vaccinated and boosted and wearing masks indoors with crowds. But we knew also that many members of Connie’s family were not vaccinated at all and were not wearing masks. A funeral for a twin brother is a crucial thing. Yet Connie would have to face up to the fear of offending and perhaps even angering dear family members if we handled this situation indelicately.

So, our faith and the gospel and the sacraments helped us realize people aren’t the enemy here, but instead an industry that profits from whipping up selfishness and resentment. The misinformation and the stirring up of resentments makes people turn on the very folk who are trying to help, like nurses, doctors, teachers, and that big boogey man, Anthony Fauci.

The Word and Sacraments and fellowship of God’s church helped Connie find the way to attend the funeral, yet wear a mask at the right times, socially distance a bit at the right times, and still share God’s healing love with family.

There are many examples of our need for the right fearlessness in these times; but one special one came up this past week. My five-year-old granddaughter was reading a book in which a pet monkey’s owner died. She sat in her mother’s lap and asked, “Mom, am I going to die?”

This is fearsome territory for any parent, right? But we all live in a time when confronting the reality of death is especially dangerous, because we so want to be scientific. Have you noticed that both sides of the mask and vaccine debate strive to say they are the ones who “follow the science?” And both sides of the abortion wars claim that the science is on their side. And the religion wars too. The more argumentative the Bible believers are the more they claim that the science of archaeology proves Noah’s Ark, the Exodus, and even the Resurrection of Jesus.

My daughter is a nurse—scientifically trained. But she is also the daughter of a preacher. She and her husband haven’t been going to church, but their daughter goes to a preschool of an Episcopal church. You see, they are in this fearsome place of living in two worlds. And it raises these hard, hard questions: “Am I going to die? And what does that mean? And is there anything more to life than science—than molecules and chemistry?”

I pray for you and all parents and grandparents, the training and the empowerment of God’s church. In this living body of Christ we learn that there are indeed things beyond what threatens us: beyond our sight and senses, beyond our test tubes and electron microscopes, beyond the power of war and the force of lies and misinformation, beyond the power of Herod or the Roman Empire or Putin, beyond even the power of death.

And I pray that all of you would know that, like the psalmist you can overcome your fears. You can still stand with integrity, go beyond mere science, and bear witness to the Power greater than death.

I pray that you would realize that, like Jesus, you have a job to do. So your fearlessness has a purpose bigger than you.  You, like Jesus will fearlessly cast out demons, perform cures, gather people together rather than scatter them, and tell your children and grandchildren about the surpassing, eternal love of God.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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