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Sermon for 24 February 2013

First Reading                     Genesis 15:1–12, 17–18

1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”  4 But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.”  Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”  6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.  7 Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”  8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”  10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.  11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.  12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.  17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.  18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.

Psalm                                                        Psalm 27

1The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?  The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?  2When evildoers close in against me to devour my flesh, they, my foes and my enemies, will stumble and fall.  3Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear.  Though war rise up against me, my trust will not be shaken.  4One thing I ask of the LORD; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life; to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek God in the temple.  5For in the day of trouble God will give me shelter, hide me in the hidden places of the sanctuary, and raise me high upon a rock.  6Even now my head is lifted up above my enemies who surround me.  Therefore I will offer sacrifice in the sanctuary, sacrifices of rejoicing; I will sing and make music to the LORD.  7Hear my voice, O LORD, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me.  8My heart speaks your message—”Seek my face.”  Your face, O LORD, I will seek.  9Hide not your face from me, turn not away from your servant in anger.  Cast me not away—you have been my helper; forsake me not, O God of my salvation.  10Though my father and my mother forsake me, the LORD will take me in.  11Teach me your way, O LORD; lead me on a level path, because of my oppressors.  12Subject me not to the will of my foes, for they rise up against me, false witnesses breathing violence.  13This I believe—that I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!  14Wait for the LORD and be strong.  Take heart and wait for the LORD!

 Second Reading                 Philippians 3:17—4:1

Chapter 3  17 Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.  18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears.  19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.  20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Chapter 4  1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Gospel                                              Luke 13:31–35

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’  34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  35 See, your house is left to you.  And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”


When we’re uncertain about the future

One of the things I noticed when I first visited UNCC with Leanna was the prevalence of security call boxes with a blue light on top.  What’s really interesting is these call boxes seem to be every few hundred feet or so.   The reason for these callboxes is that if a student is wandering around the campus at night and felt uneasy about somebody following them, for instance, they could hit the button and have a security officer come investigate immediately.  It’s an interesting idea that provides students with a sense of security and reduces the level of fear one can experience when traveling alone on foot at night.  Being the father of a young daughter, I liked the idea.

However, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that on one of these phones I saw a sign that said, “Out of Order.”  Underneath it someone had scrawled. . . “Keep Running!”  I guess if you’re in trouble or are truly afraid, it’s good advice.  It also highlights one aspect of the human condition, fear is a powerful motivator.

It’s like the story of the gentleman who had an irrational fear that his legs were going to become paralyzed.  One night while he was at a dinner party he reached down and pinched his leg.  He couldn’t feel anything and became alarmed.  Out loud he exclaimed, “Oh, no.  It’s just as I feared.  I’m totally without feeling below my waist.”   A lady sitting next to him turned, smiled and said, “If it’s any comfort to you, the leg you pinched was mine.”

All kinds of things, from imagined to real, can cause us hit our panic buttons.  Maybe that’s why we find the words “Fear not!” so many times in the scriptures.  It’s one of the most common expressions in the sacred Word.  Psychologists tell us, that fear is an extremely strong emotion, that can either be a motivator or debilitate.  It’s the base emotion for our fight or flight reaction to a stressful situation.  In other words, fear can be either good or bad, depending on how we react to it.  Fear is an emotion given to us by God when we were created, as a means of protecting ourselves from harm, so it’s no surprise that the Bible recognizes it as one of our base emotions.  And the very first time God says “Fear not” to anyone in the Bible is in our lesson for today from Genesis.  It comes at an interesting time.

Abram, or Abraham as he would later be known, has returned from a tremendous military victory over four kings from Mesopotamia.  These kings had banded together for the purpose of military conquest and had kidnapped Abram’s nephew Lot.  Abram is not only successful on the battlefield against these four kings and their armies, but he’s beginning to acquire both wealth and stature in this new land to which God has called him.  Still, in spite of all his accomplishments, his heart is uncertain; uncertain about his future and uncertain about the God who had called him.

I’m confident that many of us here today know what that’s like, to be afraid or unsure about our futures.  It’s not unreasonable in today’s world.  The economy is indeterminate at best.  Despite the promises of the Affordable Care Act to reign in medical costs, a report published this past week showed insurance premium costs rising and could increase by more than 50% in the coming months.  But that’s not all that causes us distress.

Many of us have been saving for retirement, but the stock market’s constant bouncing around has played havoc with our 401K’s.  And now with Washington’s unwillingness to leave the Social Security funds that you and I have been paying into for years alone, it’s questionable as to whether or not it will be able to even supplement our income needs in the future.  Even so, we continue to save and invest even though the returns have been almost nonexistent the last few years.  What’s worse is that the value of your home equity took a tremendous hit a few years back and it still hasn’t made it back to the plus side of the ledger.  And so we’re becoming fearful.  How will we ever keep up with the pace of inflation?  None of us want to live out our final days in poverty or to be a burden to our children in the future.  But in the ancient world, care of the elderly and the parents was in the hands of the children.

One reason Abram was anxious about his situation was because he and his wife were childless.  In the ancient world, being childless was to be without support in one’s old age.  It was an agrarian society.  Children were needed to help gather crops or tend animals.  Children were the means of carrying on the family line and preserving the family inheritance.  Even more important, not having children made people very vulnerable in their old age with no one to protect the family assets or care to for them.  Additionally, there would be no one to look after the funeral rites when you died, rites that were seen as necessary to secure your soul’s rest in the life to come.  Therefore, not having a child and thus an heir, weighed heavily on Abram and his wife, Sarai.

Of course, some of us have children and that weighs on us in its own way.  It’s not easy having a family in today’s world.  A man, submitting information to his income tax preparer, was asked how many dependents he had.  “Eight,” he replied.  The preparer asked, “Would you mind repeating that?”  The man replied, “Not if I can help it.”  Children of course are a source of many joys.  They can also be a source of many sleepless nights.  What kind of future will our children have?  Will they be safe?  Will they resist certain temptations?  And now, with the world financial situation as it is, the deficit in this country at more than $16 trillion and rising and the constant attacks on and the decline of Christian values in our society, what kind of world will our children inherit?  One of the biggest stressors we experience is fear of the unknown, and Abram was not exempt; he too was uncertain about his future.

I think in one way or another everyone here today can relate, regardless of your age or station in life.  For teenagers, it might be the uncertainty of new classes or facing new challenges.  Will the class be hard; will I do well; will I be the only one working on the group project?  For those getting near to the end of high school, it might be, do I simply look for work or will I get accepted to the college of my choice?  What classes do I need to take to get a good job and what kind of job can I possibly get in today’s economy?  And none of this gets any easier in adulthood.

There are always more stressors and questions.  Like, what if the company lays me off?  The people I’m working with seem to get younger and younger.  Do they look at me as an old fossil, no longer able to hack it?  My family seems to be coming apart.  What if I end up alone?  And then there are the trials of aging.   How long will my health hold out?  What happens to me if I get hurt and am laid up for a period of time?  Can I make it without being a burden to my children?  Will the monies I have set aside last?

The questions and concerns seem endless, but such is the realities of this life. Abram was uncertain about his future, and all of us have been there or will be there, sooner or later.  Which brings us to the reality that every one of every age and station knows what it is to be afraid.  Anxiety has been called “the official emotion of our age” and it can be a troubling emotion.  Did you know that the word “anxiety” comes from the Greek word ananke, meaning “throat” or “to press together.”  Ananke was the name of the Greek god of constraint who presided over slavery.  Ananke was also the word used for the yokes or rings on the necks of slaves.

The connection between the words ananke and anxiety are obvious.  Anxiety can hold us back, take us by the throat, and chain us like a slave.  Other words from the same root include the German word “angst” which means a general dread and the Latin word “angere” which means to choke or strangle, as well as the English word “angina” which means the tight sensation in the chest that accompanies dread.  Fear is indeed a universal emotion.  Of course, some people have more to fear than others.

Mother Teresa once told about a child she picked up from the street.  She could tell from the child’s face that she was hungry.  Mother Teresa didn’t know how many days it had been since that little one had eaten.  So she gave her a piece of bread, and the child took the bread and, crumb by crumb, started eating it.   Mother Teresa said to her, “Eat, eat the bread.  You are hungry.”  And the little one looked at her and said, “I am afraid. When the bread will be finished, I will be hungry again.”

Compared to that little girl, most of our problems are inconsequential.  And if we were to be truthful, most of us would have to admit that many of our concerns are really overblown.  Most of us aren’t going to end up homeless.  We’re not going to starve to death.  Over eating for most people in our society today is our major concern.  Most of us aren’t going to contract a fatal illness anytime soon.  However, knowledge isn’t always a cure for fear.  I can give you all kinds of accurate information about the things of which you’re afraid, but it might not help us overcome our fears.

For example, neuroscientist Richard Restak notes that the odds are 94,900,000 to 1 that a shark will attack you.  The odds for drowning are much worse, 225,000 to 1.  In other words, it’s hundreds of times more likely that you will drown compared to getting bit by a shark.  However, when you go to the beach, which do you worry about most, drowning or a shark attack?  Even when we know that our fears are overblown, many of us are still afraid.  Of course, a little bit of knowledge can even increase our fears.

I understand this was true of the great scientist Louis Pasteur.  Once Pasteur discovered the germ theory of disease he began to realize that germs are in the air and on everything we touch.  And, in Pasteur’s time there was no such thing as antibiotics.

Through pasteurization, the process that Pasteur developed, he discovered he could remove bacteria from milk.  However, humankind was still at the mercy of invisible killers like strep and staph infections, and the bacteria and viruses that cause diseases like anthrax, cholera, and rabies.  Extensive use of antibiotics was still a century away.

Pasteur’s discovery that germs were everywhere haunted him.  He became obsessed with contamination and cleanliness.  He compulsively washed and rewashed his hands; he even washed the bar of soap!  He refused to shake hands with anyone.  And if anyone did managed to grab his hand to shake it, Pasteur immediately rushed to a sink.  His fear of germs became a phobia.  It affected his eating habits and it was a constant problem for his family.

During the Franco‑Prussian War, Pasteur’s son, Jean‑Baptiste served in the French army and was stationed in an army hospital.  Pasteur actually wrote to his son’s commanding officer requesting that Jean‑Baptiste be sent to the frontline and away from the contamination in the hospital.  In Pasteur’s mind, flying bullets on the frontline were safer than sleeping beside all those germ‑ridden sick and wounded men.  Of course, he may have been partly right.  Even today people in hospitals are at risk from bacteria, especially super-bugs.  Pasteur’s fears weren’t totally groundless.  I’d like to say that knowledge is a powerful weapon against fear, but that’s not altogether true.  In all actually, there are only two ways to deal with fear.

The first is to face our fears.  That’s what researchers have discovered in trying to help people with phobias.  They call it Exposure Therapy; it’s a treatment of carefully exposing people to the very thing they dread most, to help them overcome their fears.  The problem is, so few people seek help; most of us prefer trying to avoid the thing that awakens terror within us.  “Your instincts tell you to escape or avoid,” says one psychologist who has done extensive work in this field, “but what you really need to do is face down the fear.”  However, we do need to recognize that some fears are rational.

A fear of falling off a roof for example.  I joke all the time I don’t mind the fall, it’s the sudden stop at the end that scares me.  Rational fear, or a health respect for the risks of an activity, can cause us to take adequate precautions when working on or around certain situations.  But fears can also be irrational.

Have you ever known someone who was afraid of going to the doctor because they feared they were sick and they didn’t want to have their fears confirmed?  Rather counter-productive I’d say.  You may not be nearly as sick as you think and if you are, getting treatment sooner rather than later could save your life.  Running away from many of our fears can have terrible consequences.

In 1972 David Smith spent a night alone in St. Michael’s Cave on the island of Gibraltar as a test of his courage.  In his book Hug the Monster he tells of hearing strange sounds all around him as he lay there in the pitch‑black, damp, deserted cave.  Most frightening was the fear that he was not alone!  His fear soon turned to panic.  He was afraid he was losing his mind.  Then suddenly, as he was approaching his psychological breaking point, Smith thought to himself, “Whatever the monster looks like, I will hug it.”  “That simple, almost silly thought brought great relief to his restless mind.  He soon fell into a deep and peaceful sleep until morning.  He learned that embracing his fear, literally or figuratively, allowed him to subdue it.”

The next time you’re afraid, try “hugging the monster,” says author Steve Goodier.  “Face that fear head‑on, whatever it is, and embrace it.  You may be surprised at how quickly it slips away and at how confident you begin to feel.  Like . . . Eleanor Roosevelt once said, ‘You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.’”  That’s the first way of conquering your fear:  face it.  The second is, fall back on your faith.

“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:  ‘Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.’”  After hearing Abram’s statement of uncertainty over his childless state, God takes him outside and says, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if indeed you can count them.”  Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”  And the writer of Genesis records, “Abram believed the Lord . . .” That’s a life-changing statement of faith:  “Abram believed the Lord . . .”  Do we really believe the Lord?  Do we really trust Him?  Sometimes mistaken ideas about faith and about God can cause us to be afraid.  A pastor recounted how as a child he sat through many long and boring worship services.  He says he couldn’t help envying his unchurched friends.

One Sunday, he slipped out of church and went to the local candy store where he spent his offering on Tootsie rolls.  He returned to church just in time to hear the sermon about Ananias and Sapphira.  Hopefully you remember that story?  In the book of Acts we’re told how Ananias and Sapphira lied about their offering and were struck dead because of it.  Going home this little boy prayed fervently and passionately for forgiveness for spending his offering on candy.  He stayed up all night chanting, “I love Jesus, I love Jesus,” in hopes that this would convince God to spare his life.

It’s sad that our faith, rather than giving us comfort, can sometimes add to our distress.  As a child that pastor had not yet experienced the love and comfort that God would one day bring into his life.  So he was afraid.  A mature faith understands that though life is difficult, we’re never beyond God’s loving and gracious care.

Dr. Thomas Long tells of talking to a minister of a church in a dangerous part of the city.  This pastor said he was always amazed by a certain woman, a member of his church, who seemed to have no fear about coming to meetings and services at the church at night, even though she had no car and would have to walk home through the dark and frightening streets.

One night, after a prayer service at which this woman had been present, the minister was locking up the church, and he happened to see her walking from the church down the street toward her apartment.  As she walked, she was holding her hand out, as if some unseen companion were walking with her and holding her hand, and as she walked, she was humming a familiar spiritual, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on.  Hold my hand, lest I fall.  Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”

Was she afraid?  Yea, she was scared.  Did she let her fear defeat her?  No!  She faced her fear and fell back on her faith.  She trusted God.  Perhaps she looked up, as Abram did, and counted the stars.  Of course, not very many stars show up over a large city.  But there are enough, enough to remind us that God is with us.  It’s a good song; maybe we should adopt it as our traveling music as we walk through life:  “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on.  Hold my hand, lest I fall.  Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”   Amen

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