Back to Index

Listen to sermon by clicking here:

Because of Fear
April 21, 1974

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto


 Several weeks ago, I was at a dinner in another church seated next to an interesting, intelligent, attractive lady. Being a gentleman without his wife present, I naturally engaged her in conversation. She talked about her church, and that she had finally decided to transfer her membership to another Methodist congregation. It was a difficult decision for her for she had been a member of that church all her life. I asked her why was she changing and she described how her home church was controlled by a small group of people who over the years successfully resisted all changes, stifled all new ideas and prevented anyone but themselves from assuming real positions of leadership. Her church is now declining very rapidly in attendance, membership, money, programs. Then she said, “But  they're good people. I love them all. I've known them all my life. They're not malicious people. They're good people but they're afraid.”  Because of fear, they control, stifle and obstruct.

Fear is a paralyzing emotion. When a sense of doom permeates, people panic. They step back. Fear is very much prevalent in America today, perhaps more than we realize. In these times of rapid social change, revolution, new lifestyles, and technological miracles on every hand, many are reacting in fear. Fear is a paralyzing emotion. We see fear in some corporations, in some businesses where out of fear for one’s position, creative ideas are stifled. The advancement system is very strictly controlled. A person who is very creative and who has ingenuity is often blocked. He becomes very frustrated with his desire to see the business succeed and to see himself advance personally. And of course, this matter of fear is not old versus young. We hear often of lower level junior executives who are threatened by those over 40 and 50. Many a creative person is forced to retire because he's a threat, because of fear.

We see fear paralyzing some school systems where parents fear social change. They see themselves losing control over their children, and so they blame the school, which is very convenient. They blame the school for the increasing desire of their children for freedom. They cry, “Back to the Three Rs” as if that is some great panacea, as if some style out of the past, a method out of the past is going to prevent the erosion of their authority as parents. The administrators fear the parents, fear the School Board. The teachers fear the administrators, fear the parents and paralysis occurs. I urge you to see the movie “Conrad”, which is a story based on a true incident of just four or five years ago. A young teacher was sent to an island off South Carolina to teach some black children who were completely illiterate. They didn't even know what country they're in. They had never heard of George Washington. They didn't know what 2+2 is. He in his creativity and his ingenuity tried new methods and a whole new style of teaching. The children came alive and they started to learn, but the school system didn't know what to do with him. He was fired because of fear.

We see fear in institutions like the government where too few of our elected leaders, because of fear, are courageous for the times in which we are living demand. We see fear in families, we see fear in the church.

Many times  we are disappointed and angry with people who obstruct, stifle and control, but do not assume they are acting maliciously or spitefully. Perhaps they are afraid.

Thousands of years ago, and now preserved in our Bible, Ecclesiastes the preacher described the dilemma that fear puts us in. In the second chapter, beginning with verse 18, he wrote, “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun. Because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skills, must leave it all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil,”

Haven’t you sometimes felt as he? You work hard. You really believe in something, you put yourself into a building it up—your business, the church, a program, a ministry, or the community, a club ,a project. You really believe in something; you work hard; you put yourself into it. And then along comes the successor, the new breed, and you're just a little afraid that he doesn't understand all the labor and toil that you've put in. He doesn't quite understand your dream and your vision. He has a different set of values and different priorities. And you're just a little afraid that the changes he will make in which you so desperately believe may not necessarily be for the better. Not all changes are for the better. It's very true that the process of deterioration is so much more rapid than the process of building up. A building can be torn down in just a few weeks that took months and years to erect. The process of deconstruction is much faster than construction. And so we fear.

What do we do with that fear? I see maybe three responses, three reactions, three stances. Number one, we can decide to hold on tight, to hold off the successors—the new—to hold them off in abeyance as long as possible, to hold the reins tightly and keep control like the church that I told you about. The danger of that stance, of course, is that in the desire to preserve and save the cause in which we believe, by our very methods, we may destroy that cause.

A second stance, a second response to fear is what I would call the “what the hell” approach. What the hell, let it go. Who cares? Why fight it? Why work so hard? Life comes easy, let it go. Eat, drink and be merry. This was a solution of Ecclesiastes. People wonder how Ecclesiastes ever got into the Bible! Ecclesiastes’ solution was, “There's nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and enjoy his toil. That's all there is.” But the danger of such a stance and we see people taking this stance all around us advocating to just give up; the danger of this stance is that so shallow a commitment to what we believe in and to what we work for, so shallow a commitment passes on little of value to the next generation.

A third stance, a third response is to be open, risk and trust; trust the future, trust the situation, trust God working in the situation. I'll say more later. But first, let's back up and look more closely at the phenomenon of fear that paralyzes us. Of what are people afraid? What do they fear? I  think that such people, which includes all of us some time or another, are afraid of losing something they've gained, something they've worked for, something they've earned, something they've enjoyed, or perhaps they didn't even enjoy it. But they've gained it, they've earned it. And they just can't see themselves without it. That's the point. They can't see themselves without it. They fear loss of their position, loss of power, loss of influence; they fear a loss of place. Where will I go? Where will I belong? What will happen to me? These are the haunting questions of those who block, obstruct, and stifle;  and of those who give up and throw up their hands. Where will I go? They are afraid of not being needed. They are afraid of extinction. They are secretly afraid that the cause, the church, the community, the situation can get along without them. And then where will they be? Where will they go?

To push this idea further: a fear of extinction, a fear of things getting along without us is the fear of our death that lies deep within each one of us and raises its head on various times. Our behavior in many instances is the reality of our death. A person who fears is really afraid of his death. Paul Tillich said,” One who is afraid to die is afraid to live.” If you haven't faced the reality of your death, if you cannot deal creatively and courageously with the fact that someday you will die, you cannot deal creatively and courageously with your life.

When Jesus was arrested, the disciples were very much afraid. They ran. Peter, who so boisterously and arrogantly pledged his loyalty to Jesus just a few hours before, cowardly denied that he even knew Jesus. Three times he denied that he knew Jesus because of fear. When Jesus was condemned to die and was forced to carry his cross up the hill, a stranger had to help him because the disciples weren't there. They weren't walking with him because of fear. When Jesus hung upon the cross, when he died in excruciating pain, only a few of the women remained with him. The men weren't there because of fear.

On Easter Sunday morning when the women reported that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb and Jesus had been raised from the dead, the disciples couldn't understand it. They couldn't believe it. This was an idea too new for them. It had never been done before. They couldn't handle it. They couldn't imagine such a life. They couldn't see themselves in relation to such a life where a person can be raised from the dead. It was beyond them. They couldn't see the outcome. It was beyond their control.

And they ran. They went back to the familiar. They went back to the tried and true, They went back to their group, that cozy, comfy little group in the room and they hid themselves. Luke tells us they even shut the door for fear of the Jews. But Jesus penetrated. Jesus broke through the barricade. Jesus refused to allow them to keep things the way they were. He disrupted their cozy, comfy little group. Jesus refused to let them have the situation on their own terms. Jesus pushed them beyond their preoccupation with the fear of their own death by confronting them with the reality of his resurrection, by confronting them with the reality of his presence in their midst, by confronting them with his peace. Jesus came, stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” To Thomas—doubting, disbelieving Thomas—Jesus very dramatically said, “Thomas, put out your finger and see my hand. Put out your hand and touch my side. Do not be faithless.” Believing, Thomas, overcome, said, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus with his mind to the future, with his mind perhaps on you, said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen but yet believe,”

To all who fear loss of power, loss of position, loss of place; to all who react with control, stifling and obstructing, or who react by giving up, Jesus says, “Fear not. Don't be afraid not even of your death for in my Father's house there are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you. But I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am, you may be also.” Your true home, your true place, where you really belong is in Jesus Christ; not in anything temporal; not in any institution, club or group. All these things can get along without us because our home is with Jesus.

Relax. Trust in him. Fear not because I know that my Redeemer lives and I too shall live.

© 1974 Douglas I. Norris