Moving Beyond Fear


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

June 3, 2018

Texts: Psalm 27; 1 Samuel 22:1-20

      It was the middle of the night and I was shaking my father trying to wake him up. Frantically, I was signing, “Fast! Fast! Wolf outside window! Wolf! Wolf!” My father drowsily got out of bed and took me to the window where we could look into the alley way. “Where wolf, where?” he signed. In the morning I saw him tell my mother he would never read me “Little Red Riding Hood” again.

        Like many small children, I had incredible night-mares. There were times I had to pinch myself to move me beyond trying to finish the story I had interrupted by waking up. And then there are places in the world where waking up becomes the nightmare, such as the Rohingya woman who sees her baby thrown into her burning house set on fire by Myanmar soldiers. Or the Congolese woman at the U.S. border requesting asylum who has her child torn out of her arms kicking and screaming as she is dragged away from her mother by the Border Patrol, the mother physically held back by another sterling example of our border policy.

        This morning’s Psalm is yet another example of a cry to the Lord in the midst of a fearful situation. David certainly had many of them, only one of which we read about this morning. As with many in power, those who think they should be able to have it all, Saul grew to fear David because as the text tells us a few chapters before this morning’s reading, Saul was jealous of David’s pop-ularity with the people. “Saul has killed his thousands,” the people sang, “But David has killed his ten thousands.”

        Saul, then like other leaders since, tries to appro-priate David’s popularity. In those days the practice was to bring the possible threat into the family through marriage, so Saul gave his daughter Michal to David as a wife. Saul, however, had a bad temper and a loud mouth, and think-ing that he could just say what he thought without con-sidering the consequences, told Jonathan that he planned to kill David.

        David’s wife Michal, however, warned David and helped him escape where he went to the cave in this morning’s reading. Saul, of course, is furious that his daughter would have shifted her loyalties so quickly and protected her husband. So we find David wondering what it was that he had done to Saul that he should have to run and hide from Saul.

         The story of their conflict does not have a happy ending; few stories of conflict do. In the end, Saul loses to the Philistines. Saul falls on his own sword; his sons Jonathan and his two brothers die in battle and for the short term the Philistines have the day.

          Following his lament for the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, David then moves not just to take the crown and cement loyalties but also remembers that it is to the Lord he must be grateful and the Psalm we read this morning is but one example.

          “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” are words that were composed to comfort in the midst of real fear, for in the second part of the Psalm, David turns to the Lord and crying out, says: “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!” Our fears may not be the same as David’s or anyone caught in the midst of warfare, but in the midst of our own fears how often have we cried out to God in the same way.

          And in our crying out, we beg God not to turn away from us: “Do not hide your face from me … do not cut me off,” we cry. Then we bargain some more: Teach me your way, O Lord,” hoping that somehow if we just urge God to show us the right way, all will turn out okay.

           Moving beyond fear, the Psalmist puts trust in the Lord: I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, but at the same time, we are admon-ished to wait for the Lord. Be strong, the Psalmist says, and let our hearts take courage. Wait for the Lord.

        How often we have been told to take heart, have courage, to be strong. The translation we read this morn-ing says to wait for the Lord, the Hebrew word translated here as “wait” might better be translated as “hope” or “trust,” or “look with anticipation.” The Septuagint uses a phrase for the Hebrew, written obviously in the context of its time: “act like a man!” In other words, God will fill your heart with courage when you stand by your convictions and act for the right.

        Fear is a primitive emotion; by that I mean it is essential to us and to our survival as human beings. Fear is not the same as anxiety; fear is triggered by some event or series of events that cause us to feel physically or emotion-ally threatened. Without fear, we would be vulnerable to danger.

        There are times, of course, when we fear something that in the context of our situation does not make sense. Those fears are usually brought on by the beliefs and pre-judices with which we have been raised. People usually fear the outsider, the person or forces that threaten our sense of who we are or should be.

        And then there are the imagined fears, usually stoked by the political and social forces around us. In 2011, in response to the attacks on September 11, bills banning sharia law were actually introduced in 43 states. In 2011, 14 states re-introduced such legislation. We may smile at the states where such legislation was passed:  Arizona, Louisiana, Kansas, South Dakota, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, and, of course, Alabama.

         The problem is, of course, that state legislators in these states considered this a real issue. The fear of the other, the different, what we might think “yahoos” would consider “un-American,” whatever that phrase means, can overtake a body politic. And our national leadership – we’ll call it that for lack of a better word  – hasn’t helped but has stoked these fears.

         That’s not the only fear stoked. Although it’s true that there are serious gang problems in the United States, specifically in certain immigrant neighborhoods, the use of fear stoking tactics to justify the inhumane policies on our southern border is more than reprehensible. It’s disgusting. Go to CNN and listen to Judge Robert Drake’s exchange with a federal prosecutor on the separation of women from their children.

        Where are the children being placed, he asks, and the prosecutor honestly has to say she – it is a woman on the tape – has no idea where the children have been taken. Apart from the final destination, what’s the differ-ence between this and throwing children into cattle cars during World War II? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Really, now.

         What’s interesting about fear from a psychological point of view is that the more imminent the threat, the more heroic the action one takes. There are two major types of fear; the first is instinctive coming from a real threat; the second is learned. And that fear is closely con-nected to hate. Remember the song from South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear/you’ve got to be taught from year to year/it’s got to be drummed into your dear little ear/you’ve got to be carefully taught.” That song was revolutionary when it was written, but the lesson still holds today. “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/of people whose eyes are oddly made/and people whose skin is a different shade. . .”

        The second kind of fear is the one we need to overcome. The Psalms of David about fear were composed in response to real fear; David knew Saul was out to get him, to kill him because Saul saw David as a threat not just to him but to his son Jonathan whom Saul hoped would succeed him as king. David cried aloud to God: Abandon me not, nor forsake me, O God of my rescue. And at the same time, confirmed his trust that the Lord would listen and help.

         But that trust in the Lord did not just have David hide, but take courage and come out to respond to the immediate danger that faced Israel. After Saul and his sons die, David knew he had to take on the Philistines. As re-counted in the second book of Samuel, the battles go back and forth but David is finally able to secure his kingdom and the people Israel into the kingdom called Judah with Jerusalem as its capital city. He faced imminent threat and armed with his trust in the Lord, won.

         Now, in this twenty-first century, we should have a different understanding of the nature of our trust in the Lord. The God in whom we move and have our being is not confined to the explanations of success and failure one reads in the recounting of David’s successes and Saul’s failures.

         But like the Psalm, those stories can be seen as metaphors for how we can move beyond our fears, espec-ially those pushed on us by people who think about little more than their own power. We are told as a Nation that we must be afraid of the “other,” the unfamiliar, the woman with a hijab or a Sikh man with a dastar.

         But when in our history we have reacted thusly, we have failed our Nation’s and our society’s highest ideals. On Thursday as I was in the elevator at 970 Broad, the Rodino Building, I listened to the people who had just passed their naturalization tests and were going up to be sworn in as new citizens. They talked of the hope of this Nation, of the fears they had overcome to come here.

         One of them, a woman from some Central or South American country by her accent I surmised, turned to me and asked if I was a lawyer. I guess she saw my briefcase, and I answered yes, and she said her hope was now to study even more in order to become “something,” as she put it to help her new country. Then she said, “I could not have done it without trusting in God.” I just nodded and got off on the 12th floor to go before a judge. Like those of the Psalmist, her words filled me with the courage I need to move beyond fear.

          Let us pray: God who fills our hearts with courage when we are faithful to you, continue to be with us as we strive to be with those who need our help. In the name of him who reached out to everyone, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.