This last Sunday's sermon was based on the semi-continuous reading from 1 Samuel 8, which can be found here.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
By now, that phrase is well known throughout the country. It probably sounds cliché to some of you. You’ve heard it so many times that it has lost most of its meaning—or, you assume that everyone understands the meaning that you do.
Do any of you remember the first time you heard that phrase? Maybe some of you do recall FDR’s presidential address, or heard it in a classroom in elementary school. I remember exactly how I first learned of it…I read it in these old books we used to have in the house. Little books about famous people in history.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
I can remember sitting in the living room and being both comforted and confused by this odd little phrase. At the time, I thought it meant I had no reason to be scared of spiders, ticks, and monsters in the dark. All I should be afraid of was being afraid.
Well, that was just ridiculous to my mind. I wasn’t scared of being scared. I was scared of ticks and spiders and monsters. Of not being liked by my classmates, having no friends when my family moved, and heights—heights. I still get a little lightheaded when I am on a ladder or roof somewhere.
I invite you to think of one or two things that you’re afraid of right now. And these may not be things, exactly. For you it might be something bigger. Like whether or not the crop will give a high enough yield this year, what happens if a certain measure passes on Tuesday—or doesn’t pass on Tuesday. If your job is safe, if you are safe. I’m guessing—well you can probably tell by my guesses here—that you’re probably not most scared of being scared.
The Israelites aren’t scared of being scared, either. They are scared that their future is in jeopardy. Up until now, they’ve lived with judges who would make rulings on cases. But Samuel’s heirs—heirs to the judgeship—don’t seem so good to them. The people are concerned about what will happen should these men succeed in gaining their positions as judges. It’s a political situation without much of a solution.
Israel says “wait a minute,” though. They see that countries around them have set up kingships. Israel sees this, and decides that they want what these other countries have. It’s a way out of their situation, and let’s face it, kings have power in the global sphere. Power would mean safety, if it’s on your side. Power can mean fear and destruction if it’s mounting against you on all sides like it is for Israel.
So Israel asks God to set up a monarchy. Well, ask is sort of sugar-coating it. They demand a monarchy. In the midst of God’s unfolding plan, Israel says “I don’t think so. Not like this. This isn’t us.”
They see a changing world around them, and they reject and run from the order God set up in favor of the systems of the countries around them. Samuel warns them against this, but they push through him, stubbornly moving forward.
At this point, we may be thinking that Israel acts foolishly and are setting up ways in our minds that we’re not like that. That’s usually what I do at this point of a sermon—I hear about all these characters making mistakes and I start thinking of all the ways they’re different from me. We may be able to identify with political concerns, economic concerns, and the like, but we’re different, right? We’re not radically changing the system to fit in. And it’s not like God directly set up a particular system for us and we rejected it.
Here’s the thing, though. Our fears might have been different from Israel’s, and we might have different specific reactions to our situations—Israel changes, we stay the same. But we are not so different because we both have to face how our fears affect what we do.
How does fear affect what we do? When I’m afraid, I work at blending in—disappearing so that no one will notice.
I suspect that we all do that to some degree. We just go along with what everyone else is doing—conform to the systems around us for fear of being different.
For the most part, that really works. It’s extremely easy to play into a system rather than do anything to change it. When fear has us, we become ruled by the unknown—the imagined consequences of doing this or that. Of being seen as different when we want to be accepted like everyone else.
Then we are exactly like the Israelites in this story. Just like us, they do not want to be different anymore. The time has come when they’re unsure about what the next generation will do If they’re on the same level as the countries surrounding them, that ensures a future like theirs. Israel is acting based on that desire. To be different would be to face a future unlike any of the countries around them—to trust the generation to come.
Two things: First, God says, “okay.” There is free will in humanity to walk as they will. Israel gets their king. God stays and works through the fear and the actions we take and the mistakes we make. If there is a missed opportunity, God doesn’t leave us. God doesn’t leave us for making choices, being scared, or anything really. God gives us free will and stays with us through that.
Second thing: God has something else planned, though. Something better. Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations—a stand out country and community guided and ruled by God. Instead, they assimilate by setting up a system for themselves that’s just like every other nation—they became ordinary. There was something better there to live into, and there might be for us, too. There is a bigger vision here than humanly established systems. A vision of the world where God reigns supreme.
We often act in fear—fear of change, fear of what others will think, fear of people different from us. We fear that, so we act in ways to prevent these frightening possibilities. We act for status quo rather than a new beginning, for being liked rather than respected, for being the same rather than standing out.
As it turns out, fear is actually something to really be scared of. It makes us act in ways we wouldn’t act if we weren’t afraid.
Sometimes I wonder what if …what if we were inspired rather than scared?
Hopeful rather than fearful?
Brave rather than frightened?
Thought about working for what we did want to happen instead of preventing what we didn’t?
Lived into the vision of the Dominion of God rather than cowered in fear over the consequences of changing the way things are?
Stood up for what is right rather than feared what might be wrong?
That really turns everything around, doesn’t it? Hopeful, brave, inspired acts.
What would those actions look like?
I imagine it would begin to look a bit like that vision of the Dominion of God, where people simply act for each other—live in community, share with one another, care for each other. And you know what? That world already exists—right here, right now. We do act that way and we get to see what that world is like from time to time.
What if we cultivated that? We are creatures of habit, after all. What if we used that to our advantage? Started small, with easy things—climbing ladders and towers on our own, reaching outside of our usual circle to include and be included by others, talking to our neighbors. What if we got away from the fear and worked to act in faith, trust, and love more often?
As I said, we already do that from time to time, and when we do that, we’re moving toward something like the Dominion of God. When we do that, we’re living as a people of hope.