Monday, April 25, 2016

Facing Fear Finding Hope

Acts 11:1-18 
Do you remember a television show named, “Fear Factor”.  It could have been on 9 or 10 years ago when it was on.  Now I didn’t watch it regularly but I do remember that it’s content was pretty disgusting.  Contestants would compete against one another performing three stunts.  The first and the third stunts were usually some sort of extreme stunts like bunji jumping or some other spectacular act that would take all the guts that you could muster up.  The second stunt was more gruesome.  The one time I did watch it I watched the contestants gobble down the intestines of a goat.  It was pretty unfathomable.  The point of the show was for contestants to face their fear so that they might win $50,000. 

Today we will examine what it is to face our fears, whatever they may be.  Hear now the words of God from the Acts of the Apostles, the 11th chapter, Contemporary English Version….

The apostles and the followers in Judea heard that Gentiles had accepted God’s message.  So when Peter came to Jerusalem, some of the Jewish followers started arguing with him. They wanted Gentile followers to be circumcised, and  they said, “You stayed in the homes of Gentiles, and you even ate with them!”

Then Peter told them exactly what had happened:

I was in the town of Joppa and was praying when I fell sound asleep and had a vision. I saw heaven open, and something like a huge sheet held by its four corners came down to me.  When I looked in it, I saw animals, wild beasts, snakes, and birds.  I heard a voice saying to me, “Peter, get up! Kill these and eat them.”

But I said, “Lord, I can’t do that! I’ve never taken a bite of anything that is unclean and not fit to eat.”

The voice from heaven spoke to me again, “When God says that something can be used for food, don’t say it isn’t fit to eat.”  This happened three times before it was all taken back into heaven.

Suddenly three men from Caesarea stood in front of the house where I was staying.  The Holy Spirit told me to go with them and not to worry. Then six of the Lord’s followers went with me to the home of a man  who told us that an angel had appeared to him. The angel had ordered him to send to Joppa for someone named Simon Peter.  Then Peter would tell him how he and everyone in his house could be saved.

After I started speaking, the Holy Spirit was given to them, just as the Spirit had been given to us at the beginning.  I remembered that the Lord had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  God gave those Gentiles the same gift that he gave us when we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. So how could I have gone against God?

When they heard Peter say this, they stopped arguing and started praising God. They said, “God has now let Gentiles turn to him, and he has given life to them!”

In first century Judaism there WAS a great fear of one who was “clean” or ritually pure mixing with one who is “unclean”.  We see that issue specifically addressed and laid out in Halakah - Jewish law.  There are certain foods that can be eaten and some that are “tref” – unclean. They are not to be touched.

The other law that we see debated in detail in the New Testament is that of circumcision.  The circumcised or the ritually pure ones did not have contact with, or eat with, the uncircumcised; neither could they go into their homes.  The laws regarding circumcision produced lengthy discussions between the Jews, the God-fearers – who were Gentiles that take on Jewish life but were not converts, and the Gentiles.  Circumcision, God’s covenant with the Jews - it was a big deal.

While it may seem trivial to us, concern for purity was a concern for community solidarity, it was an identity marker as God’s covenanted people.  There was great fear that their identity as Jews would somehow be obliterated.  So they obeyed the laws of God as God’s chosen people.

Now we know that the believers of the early church were certainly not reluctant to voice their differences of opinion.  Peter is sorely criticized for entering their home and eating with the ‘unclean’.  He’s in essence being ‘called on the carpet’ for breaking the rules.  What he did was controversial.  But for a healthy community controversy needs to be voiced not avoided and conflict needs to be transformed. 

So rather than come back at them with a rebuttal, he tells them a story and we see that it changed their lives.  Stories invite people to cross over chasms that might in other ways be too wide to cross.  We know that Jesus told stories in the form of parables; it was a way to make meaning and give understanding to difficult concepts or fears.

So following in his master’s ways he begins the telling of this vision where God tells him to eat unclean foods.  His fear is of eating unclean animals which would in turn render him unclean.  So his fear is much larger that just eating meat, it was of breaking halakah, it was risking isolation for himself from his community, it was a fear of being defiled as well. But God persisted three times and while God didn’t dangle $50,000 over Peter’s head, Peter finally got the point.

Peter’s vision asks him to refrain from judgement, that there is no boundary to God’s love.  That the distinction barriers between clean and unclean will not stand any longer.  It is the enlarging of God’s grace and love that the message of Peter’s vision is trying to say.

By the Holy Spirit’s influence Peter faced his fear and got out of the way.  He let go of his fear and accepts the outcome of his vision, which is inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenantal love of God.  He proclaims, “who was I that I could hinder God?”  Peter, at the moment of realization figured out that he could not manipulate, plead, hinder or stop God.  God made an amendment to the law which now included us, the Gentiles. When Peter stepped aside he saw there was a new vision, a new hope for humanity. 

We all have fear within us of some type.  Often our fears will produce good results and cautious living.  When my kids were little I was afraid that they would be run over in the street so I taught them to look both ways for oncoming cars.  It worked!  They are still alive, they are 31, 33, and 35 and they look before they cross the street.  It was the fear of continued conflict and war that brought 50 countries together in 1945, which in turn gave birth to the United Nations.  Fear is not always immobilizing.  Sometimes it’s good and helps us to look at situations rationally and make sound decisions for safety.   

But more often then not, fear is crippling, it’s stifling, or it can be deadly.  Whether we are impeded by our own fears or fears produced by external factors, we are stunted by these phobias.  High places, dark rooms, creepy crawly things, underneath the bed, the fear of growing old .  And then there are deeper fears such as the fear of failure, of ignorance, the fear of losing yourself, the fear of losing someone else, or the fear of the unknown. 

In it’s most severe form, fear can produce prejudice and hatred and hatred as we know produces violence.  If left unchecked it leads to all sorts of destructive acts: bullying, self annihilation, war, murder.  This is abnormal fear and yet so quickly fear can escalate to this level and we are seeing more and more of it.

We are in a time of discernment now, a time of redevelopment. It is a time of the unknown.  There are new initiatives being explored like the new position of Director of Faith Formation, of becoming an Open and Affirming church, and a new governance configuration for our church that will ease some of the burdens of a structure that is cumbersome.  And you might say – wait – this is too much – I am afraid that I won’t even recognize my beloved OCC. 

I can understand that it is this fear of the unknown that could drive you to shut down and say no but you will be able to recognize OCC, the same spirit of God that has been with us for over 200 years will continue to be with us to guide us and sustain us.  If Peter had said no to his fears WE wouldn’t be here gathered as a church community.  

At this moment in time, with the larger church changing, God is calling us into the future.  The future is always the unknown.  Each day that you get up you face the unknown.  Each time night you lie down you are facing the unknown.  And yet we do it.            

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talks about facing fear in his book “Strength to Love”.  He says that we first have to honestly ask, why are we afraid?  Facing fear, understanding fear can be a very empowering act in and of itself.  He also says that fear can be mastered by courage.  Even though there are things and situations that might scare us we resolve to go forward anyway and not look back.  Fear is mastered through love and faith.  The first epistle of John tells us, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.”

Love in Christ is a perfect love, it is not necessary to fear but to trust in the ineffable power of God.  Peter overcame his fear through the vision and persistence of God.  He was able to traverse the mountains and valleys of fear and enter into the meadows of hope. Through his faith he was able to finally say, “who am I to hinder God???”  Through his faith and courage we are now part of the covenant of God.

Dr. King, at the end of his sermon, “Antidotes for Fear” quotes a motto that, a generation ago flanked the walls of devout people, it read:

“Fear knocked at the door.
Faith answered.
There was no one there.”

Face fear with faith.  Faith that God is doing a new thing with us and that God will not lead us off in the wrong direction.  Remember that God is for us and not against us, loving us all and paving the way into the future. 


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