My message for Sunday, March 18, titled,”No Fear” used Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33 as its starting point. Like a deer caught in headlights, any organization that allows fear to control its decision-making will lose. It is important in a rapidly changing world to act as well as to examine our changing context. Here is the message.
Three weeks ago, Tom spoke about becoming untied, and I will continue with his theme. One of the barriers to becoming untied is fear. Fear is the source of resistance to accepting what Jesus said in verse 25, that the one who loves their life will lose it. In my years in ministry in a variety of pastoral charges, obstacles to creative, positive change included ego, fear of loss of comfort or privilege, fear of loss of members who might not like the change, and general fear of change. I have two stories about fear.
One of my cool jobs was Carman Helper for the CPR Ogden Shops. One day, we were installing a water tank on top of a rail car being converted to a crew car. The tank weighed somewhere between 100 and 200 pounds and was to be fastened to the roof about 2 or 3 feet from the end of the rail car. I was initially assigned to the outside end of the car. The 12 foot drop to the concrete and steel rail floor bothered me greatly. My supervisor saw my fear and had me move to the other side, much to my relief. My fear made it unsafe for me and for the others in moving the tank into place and installing it. Fear impairs our ability to focus and to do a task well. In his speech to his followers, Jesus warned them about the cost of following him, giving them time to leave before their fear could cause harm to the community.
My second story is about the process of donating a kidney. About 4 years ago I decided it was time to act on my interest in donating a kidney while my health still allowed it. This was a hard choice for Bonnie, but she accepted my choice to do this. Up until I was wheeled into the operating room, I always had the choice to change my mind. I knew there was very little risk of significant harm, but there was always a little bit of fear sitting at the back of my mind. I followed through on my decision as the possible good was far more important to me than the small risk of harm. In verse 27, when Jesus says his heart was troubled, we hear that voice of fear that resided at the back of his mind, and his deliberate choice to follow through on his decision.
It is important to not let fear divert us from the choices we make to follow Jesus, and from untying us from attitudes and beliefs that get in the way of following him.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 is one of my favourite passages. It emphasises relationship with God, with the One who will not bother keeping a record of wrongs. Two weeks ago, I saw a scary edge to this passage. “No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” This beautiful sentence implies there will be a time with no need for religious people like me. We need to untie ourselves from the belief that God needs churches. Churches need God.
Jesus was a way for God to write God’s law in our hearts, to help us truly know God. Learning about God as a loving creator persistent in offering us ways to live good lives opens our hearts to loving God. By showing us how to love God and creating a community, Jesus provided a way for us to grow in our capacity and willingness to love God. For his work and sacrifice to work, we need to untie ourselves from seeing God as arbitrary, authoritarian, and needful of us and our worship. It is hard to love bosses or people who demand our affection and time.
Most institutions today are changing. The need for churches to change is clear. Those changes cannot happen unless we are able to untie us from beliefs, attitudes, habits, patterns of action, and structures that block those changes.
We need to untie ourselves from church decision-making more concerned about protecting the assets of the church than promoting the mission of the church, showing lack of trust. No fear will control our decisions if we learn to trust those working with us.
We need to untie ourselves from seeking structural solutions to functional problems. They almost never work and anyone who would like some examples can ask me later. No fear needs to push us into seeking the wrong kinds of actions. (On Sunday provided example of change in structure of Alberta Northwest Conference in 1999, and the failure of that change due to lack of understanding of the executive about the importance of a functional change that was part of our proposal.)
The hardest task may be to untie ourselves from our beliefs about what churches need, and need to do. Everything we have and do as church is a chosen option. (On Sunday added example that some churches do not have worship services, but still function as churches.)
An old one is to define a congregation by who is in church on Sundays. We need to untie ourselves from this belief as we untie ourselves from seeing people as sheep that need to belong to a certain congregation. Have no fear when we let people be people. (Added there are many people associated with St. Andrew’s and Deer Park that are rarely or never in church on Sundays. They are part of our communities in other ways).
We need to untie ourselves from seeing worship as the most important part of the life of the church. While worship creates a feeling of community and of being nourished, and can inspire us in following Jesus, it does little for developing the personal connections we all need or doing mission. Have no fear when making mission and community more important than worship. (Added there are people who can attend worship almost every Sunday for years and never get to know each other.)
We need to examine each option we have chosen in the past as part of our sense of church to see if that option still serves our purpose and our life as a community of faith. This includes buildings, worship times or even worship at all, organization, name, definition of membership, and so on. Have no fear when our examination of an option leads us to dropping or changing that option.
When the Greeks arrived asking about him, Jesus knew that, when his fame went beyond the Jewish community, the authorities would certainly be alarmed enough to end his threat to their power and comfort. He knew what he needed to do next and what would happen.
What signs are there around us pointing to what is happening in the world, and what we need to do? Let’s untie ourselves from ignoring unpleasant messages from the world around us and untie ourselves from any barriers that block us from creatively and boldly responding to those messages.
I invite you to hold the question on the screen in your mind and talk to others at coffee time or in other places. Jesus did that in the wilderness. (Questions was, “What part of church would it be most difficult for you to untie? Why?) Now is a time we can do that for ourselves.
In all things we do as congregations and individuals, if what we are doing serves God in a spirit of genuine love and acceptance, we are not to let fear hamper our efforts. Let No Fear be your watchword as you seek to follow Jesus.
Thanks be to God.