Many of you know that our dog Gabriel is a rescue, brought up from Tennessee to Bideawee animal shelter here in Manhattan, where we found him. He’s a sweet dog, but he does have his anxieties. He doesn’t like motorcycles or thunder or fireworks or loud noises of any kind – all more or less like other dogs, I suppose. But lately, about the time the warmer weather kicked in, he started nervously pacing the house, standing and looking out the door, and then going to hide in the closet, trembling and panting. Well, said the vet, he’s a hound, and you know they can hear and smell things that we can’t. Frances thinks it might be the sound of air conditioners newly humming in the air. Or maybe, Jim thinks, it’s the renewed sounds of construction in the city. Or, I like to think, maybe it’s a ghost in the rectory. Or…we have no idea. But no amount of our reassuring words can talk him out of it. Don’t be afraid, Gabriel! But he is afraid.
He’s not alone. So much of our world is afraid, fed and governed by fear. Some of it is entirely reasonable fear. There are those who are afraid of the coronavirus, and what this disease might do – some of you tell me you have not set foot from your apartment since the middle of March. And that fear is only increased by the confusing messages of our leaders. I am tired of having to make what are public health decisions myself, without help and guidance from those who should know better than I. I am afraid of making the wrong choice as we look to reopen the church. This virus has us all afraid.
Then there are those who are afraid of the unrest on our streets, fearful that the scenes of violence and looting a few weeks ago mean some ultimate end to order and reasonable society. There are those on the other hand who are afraid of the police, of the blue wave of lethal force being unleashed on people who are peacefully demonstrating, or those on our streets whose mental illness or addiction make them erratic and confused, or those who just find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, being the wrong color. On every side of the fault lines, we are afraid.
There are those who are afraid of the plummeting markets, the surge in unemployment, the mess in the economy that might lead to my job, or your job, or our retirement savings, or our church, being lost. We are afraid that there is not enough money. Whether we have plenty in the bank or not enough food for tomorrow, we are afraid.
There are those who are afraid that the life we had before is over, because we’re wary of infection and need to stay away from other people; or because our eyes are newly opened to the racism undergirding privilege for some of us, and the system rigged against us, for others of us, and having seen that, we can’t go back; or because the usual patterns of school and transitions and seasons are all upended with the shutdowns and uncertain reopenings. We don’t know what’s coming next on any level, and we are afraid. We are so often afraid.
Our country is built on fear. Fear is laced right through our founding documents, statements of liberty and justice written by white men who kept slaves, who passed other laws to deny liberty and freedom to black and indigenous people even while they fought their own ‘colonial oppressors.’ Fear is there in immigration past and present, the economy fed by cheap labor even while we fear disease, cultural change, different languages spoken on our streets and in our schools. Fear is there in all the history of oppression of LGBT people, finally legally resolved in employment protection and marriage equality, but still culturally at work in so many places. Fear is there in the election cycle of misinformation and accusation that we go through every few years, partisan fear that leaks even into our families and summer picnics. The economy, our history, relations between classes and races, even much of the American version of Christianity is fraught with fear. And fear makes people do terrible things.
When you think of it all, it’s remarkable that we don’t just all go into our bunkers. There are times when I despair over what we do to one another in this country, as we watch those who keep their billions all for themselves; cheat and bribe so their children go to the right schools and their company earns the best profit; build high walls to keep others out; buy big weapons and battle anyone who says otherwise. The sort of gangster life that plays out in greedy executives and gun fanatics and craven political leaders should, it seems, rationally be what we all choose. We’re so afraid of one another – why wouldn’t we all do that?
And yet we don’t, most of us. Even early in this pandemic, people went out to make sure their neighbors had food. I know of many who have increased their charitable giving to organizations that work for justice and care for those in need. I hear white people of privilege say they want to learn to better understand how they themselves may be part of the problem. Thousands have gone into the streets to protest and have prayed with and embraced the police, or stood steadfast against police weapons if it came to that. People are calling people they’ve never met to ask how they are, what they need, or to engage them in conversation even about politics and the upcoming election. Many are asking, what more can we do? I want to do more. We are ready to risk ourselves for others – risk infection from disease, risk not having enough for ourselves, risk injury and harm, risk being belittled and spit on. What makes us do it?
The science of altruism is mixed on the explanation. There are studies that suggest that we only go out of our way for others when we stand to receive something back, like in a tribe where our collective survival depends upon one another. There are other studies that suggest that we are wired for altruism because of our inherent social empathy for one another, that deep down, we care about other human beings regardless of who they are. There are other studies that suggest it’s a little of both depending on different people. Sort of inconclusive. But we seem able to do great things, even when it scares us.
Paul tells the church in Rome, we know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. We are united with him in a resurrection like his. And Jesus tells us, do not fear.
We, friends, are Christians. Our scriptures tell us over and over again not to be afraid. We hear this from angels and prophets and Jesus and in God’s own voice, hundreds of times: do not fear. Do not be afraid. It’s a deeply reassuring few words, and they’re said over and over again. We do not need to be afraid. We can ease up on our fight or flight response. We can stand down. We can lower our guard.
But that message in scripture, do not be afraid, is always coupled with something we’ve gotta do. It’s never, don’t be afraid, just go back home to your gated mansion and watch Netflix. It’s do not be afraid of them – go and do what I am asking you to do. Do not be afraid, God says to Moses – go speak the truth to Pharaoh and lead my people out of slavery. Do not fear, Moses tells the people, God goes with you and will not fail you. Do not be afraid, God says to Jeremiah – go and speak my word to the nations. Do not be afraid, the angel says to Mary – give birth to the Messiah. Do not be anxious about anything, Paul tells the Philippians – go witness to the gospel.
And it’s put most starkly in Jesus’ words today: have no fear of those who can only kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Take up your cross. Those who lose their life for my sake will find it. That’s Faith 401 – way advanced. Yet there it is, written for all of us. Do not be afraid. I have something for you to do. And I am with you.
That is what fuels us as Christians. We risk and speak the truth boldly and give generously and make fools of ourselves because God tells us to. As Christians, we speak out, in the political sphere, in the streets, in our families and friend groups – we bear witness to the truth that God made all people and loves us, and calls us to love one another. As Christians, we handle our money lightly, allowing it to flow as currency to give life to all, rather than piling it up for our own selves in stagnant pools. As Christians, we risk saying the wrong thing as we try to say in love the thing that needs to be said. As Christians, we make sure our church, our buildings, our energies, our assets, serve others. As Christians, we pray for God’s help, and we act. Death no longer has dominion over us.
God loves us; God knows every hair on our heads; God holds us as gently as sparrows; and God sends us forth, to be fearless speakers of the truth, menders of the breach, healers of our world. Don’t be afraid, God says. Go on. You’re good. And I’m with you. May those words change us, and change this world.