Fear of the Other Jan. 19, 2019
1 John 4: 7-8, 18-21
Today we continue our sermon series called Unafraid, where we’re looking at a common fear that probably plagues us more than we know: Fear of the Other. I invite you to read with me…
I had a bit of a reality check as a fourth grader at Hickory Grove Elementary School in Brookville, Pennsylvania. I don’t know when you discovered that the world was messier than you knew, but for me, it was fourth grade. Fourth grade was a big year for our school district. It was a year where three groups of students at three different schools came together to form one large class. During our K-3 years, we had been geographically assigned to the school nearest our homes, but fourth grade was the year we all become one. And that change was both exciting and nerve-wracking. After a few weeks of living into this new reality, I was really finding my comfort zone. I found it easy to make friends; I was getting good grades; and I was genuinely enjoying my experience… until one day on the playground. To this day, I’m still not sure why he did it. Maybe it was just a boy being a boy. Or maybe he was trying to prove his manliness. But whatever the reason, on that day, a much larger boy, punched me so hard in the gut that I was left doubled-over and gasping for air. It was the first time I realized that someone did not like me and wanted to hurt me. And to make matters worse, it was the first time I noticed other people (especially the girls) pointing and laughing at me. And I felt absolutely horrible. Despite my parent’s best attempts to remind me that God’s Word says to love others, I didn’t feel much love that day. But I did feel a whole lot of fear.
We live in a messy world, don’t we? My fourth grade playground story is a prime example. I don’t know why or how a fourth grader learned that the best way to deal with differences was to hurt another person, but that’s the route he chose. And for a few years it changed me. For the first time in my life, as I laid sprawled out on the blacktop, I felt emotions that I hadn’t experienced before. I didn’t know what they were back then, but now I have the vocabulary to call those emotions by their real names: shame, humility and fear. That experience was a perfect storm of multiple changes happening around me and inside of me at once, and it began to impact the way I interacted with others. To put it bluntly, I didn’t like the way this experience made me feel, and I was determined that I would never let it happen again. So I morphed into self-preservation mode, which as some psychologists point out, is a popular response to the fears we face, especially when that fear is another person.
Fear of others is an all-too common theme in our messy world. In a 2017 survey conducted by Chapman University, the number one fear among Americans is not a what, but a who: the government. The biggest fear that worries most Americans is the threat of corrupt politicians. (https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2017/10/11/americas-top-fears-2017/) Now, that may or may not describe you, but the truth is still the same: we’re often afraid of others. Sometimes we fear what others might do to us out of hatred or spite; sometimes we fear how others might make us feel. It might be the fourth grade bully on the playground or the foreign leader who likes to play with nuclear weapons. Maybe it’s the person with a disability you don’t quite understand or the one who shared your secret when you asked them not to. Maybe it’s a boss who could fire you at any moment, the child struggling with addiction, the man who always talks to himself, or the new neighbor who just moved in and likes to play his music for all the world to hear. Our messy world is filled with people who are different, and how we respond to those differences matter.
The Bible is filled with all sorts of responses to fear of others, and most of them only extend the problem. We can’t even get through the first few chapters of Genesis before this fear rears it’s ugly head. Take for instance Adam and Eve. After eating the forbidden fruit, they hid themselves in the garden, afraid of what God might say or do to them. And then there’s Cain, who out of jealousy killed his brother Abel. But I have a feeling Cain was afraid he’d never be as good as Able. That’s a real fear. Skip over to the New Testament and we see that some of the best stories in the Gospels are rooted in fear of others. The Prodigal Son feared that his Father wouldn’t accept him after all he’d done. What’s dad going to think of me? That’s a real fear! And in the Story of the Good Samaritan, the first two travelers bypassed the man left for dead on the road, fearful of what they might contract if they stopped to help. We could go on and on with biblical and personal examples, but I think you get the point. When we’re afraid of others, the self-defense mechanisms go up and God’s plan for the world gets pushed farther to the edges of our thoughts. And so it’s to this messy and hurting world that God sends His Son to show us a new way to interact with others, a way that has the power of overcome the biggest gaps.
In First John, our text for today, we’re told God’s way for us in this world is love. It is love that marks us as God’s people. It’s love that puts us in His company and signals to the world that we’re becoming disciples. Listen to these words from verses 7 and 8: Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love. The only way to know God is to love. That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? I don’t think you can be any clearer that that. Jesus himself points to this when he says that the greatest commandment of all is love: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Love is the way we’re to called to respond to this messy world. But if can just be honest for a second, there are days I wish Jesus had never uttered the command to love. You know why? Because love is hard. And it takes a lot of energy. When I’m hurting and angry, I don’t want to love. When I feel ashamed and embarrassed, I don’t want to love. When I’ve been stabbed in the back and abandoned, I don’t feel like love. But yet, God’s Word tells us that this type of love is possible and can become desirable. It’s the love Jesus himself gives to us when we’ve caused Him the same hurt and harm that we ourselves fear. And God wants nothing more than to share His perfect love with us and set us free to live unafraid.
Pursuing a way of love will set us free from a lifetime of fear. Pursuing this way of love can help overcome the biggest obstacles and differences that keep people from one another. Pursuing a way of love can turn to strangers into neighbors and enemies into friends. But it also requires us to lower the drawbridge of our hearts, because the type of love that heals and repairs, that reaches out and redeems, cannot be done from afar. It requires us to see what fear doesn’t permit us to see and believe in possibilities that fear refuses to entertain. And that’s why we need the aid of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, we’ll continue to let our fears define our relationships and dictate the way we approach others. But with the Spirit leading our way, new creation is always possible.
I saw the beautiful love-shaping work of God’s Spirit this week when I watched an interview by two men, two powerful men, speaking about their unlikely relationship (qideas.org). One of the men was Jim Daly, President of Focus on the Family, an organization that holds to a conservative view of families and marriages. Sitting beside him was Ted Trimpa, one of the leading gay right’s activist in the country and member of the Gill Foundation, a major philanthropic organization in Colorado. For years, these two men and their organizations were on opposite sides of every aisle imaginable…and in many ways, still are. Political, theological, economical, you name it. And sometimes the interactions were ugly. Advertisements would poke fun at the other groups, often depicting their faces in ungodly ways. But something began to change when the men heard about the growing national sex-trafficking crisis, and how Colorado, their home state, had one of the worst grades in the country. And in a move that could’ve only been orchestrated by the Holy Spirit, these two men began to reach across the aisle to solve a problem that neither could afford to ignore.
There was a lot of risk in that move. But there is no love without risk. If you choose the way of love, at least the type of love that brings healing and hope, there’s no guarantee you won’t get hurt. For both Jim Daly and Ted Trimpa, and the organizations they represented, there was the potential for lost support. And it happened. People pulled their funding, quit listening to their advice and broke away. When we choose to love the other, we expose our hearts and enter into extremely vulnerable territory. And sometimes people walk away, throw shade and sell you out. Even Jesus experienced this when his good friend Judas chose the money. Yet the pain of that moment was not enough to undo the redemptive and healing work that God would soon reveal on the cross. And for Jim and Ted, the discomfort of reaching across the aisle was overcome by the hope of rescuing young girls out of a growing epidemic. And surprisingly, that move cultivated an unlikely friendship between two foes. As the interview ended, Ted shared about a recent open heart surgery as said, “The one person I knew would be praying for me and would constantly be asking about me…was Jim.” (Interview can be viewed at qideas.org)
The lines that divide us as human beings are constantly growing, as is the fear of those who think, look and act differently. And we’ve done a lot of damage to others in the name of fear. When the Psalmist asks the question, “What can man to do me?”, the answer is “Alot.” Our capacity to hurt others and be hurt by others is real. But the good news is that God’s capacity to drive out that fear is even stronger. Sometimes we just have to take that step and trust that God will do what we cannot. If we take that step to love, we might get hurt. We might discover things about others we’d rather not know. We might discover things about ourselves we’d rather not know. But we might also discover the creative capacity of God’s Spirit to breathe something new.
The greatest creative work in the history of the universe happened when Jesus, out of love, took his place on a cross and brought God and humanity back together again. It was perfect love, and that love still cries out for foes to fight for each other. Our world’s problems of disconnect and discord can only be solved when fearfully love the other. It’s true that others might harm us…but they might also help heal us. It’s true that others might leave us…but they also might draw near to us when we need them the most. It’s true that others might degrade us…but they also might be the very ones to lift us up. And that type of love can change the world. Martin Luther King Jr put in powerfully when he had this to say about the Good Samaritan: “I imagine the first question the priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’…But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”’ (You can watch on YouTube). That’s a question that tears down walls, builds bridges, ends stigma and brings life. I don’t know who you fear today and why, but love them, as much as you can, and see what God might do. Amen.