This week, I’ve encountered a few different high school seniors who are experiencing an increased level of anxiety and fear. Whenever someone mentions the “class of 2016,” there inevitably arises a throng of cheers and applause. It’s their senior year and they have plenty approaching things to be excited about- college, freedom from Mom and Dad, independence, new experiences, and so on…
Yet there are many high school seniors who, even in the midst of the excitement, are feeling extremely stressed and anxious about all the change that is pending. Where am I going to go to college? AM I going to college? How am I going to pay for college? What is my future going to look like?
All of these questions on top of the typical every day struggles that kids go through provide a context that can be quite overwhelming. Of course, we as their teachers are there to help guide them through this time and these processes, but ultimately there is only so much we can do.
This dual existence of excitement and fear is actually reflected, in a sense, in our gospel lesson this morning. In his gospel, Mark often contrasts faith and fear, as he does here.
English teacher moment: I am always blown away at how artfully and masterfully Mark weaves together stories that compliment and challenge each other; it wasn’t until revisiting this scripture lesson that I noticed this particular pattern!
This isn’t the first or “only time [he] contrasts faith and fear. After he stills the storm that had terrified his disciples, Jesus asks them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’ (Mark 4:40)” (Lose). In what is quite possibly my favorite chapter of scripture, Jesus comes face to face with three different people suffering from three different afflictions: the Gerasene Demoniac, the woman with the 12-year flow of blood, and Jairus’ daughter. After Jairus is told his daughter has died, Jesus urges the distraught father, “Do not be afraid, only believe” (Mark 5:36). With the demon-possessed man, Jesus refuses to give in to fear as the man rushes at him at full speed with rocks in his hands, ready to bash his head in, instead only demanding to know the name of whom he is dealing with. “Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is, or at least that kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts, and drives to despair” (Lose).
As they are moving in to Capernaum, Jesus asks his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” Turns out they were having a little spat over who was the greatest of them. It’s a bit juvenile, but can’t we just see them talking about this? Jesus likes ME best because I had the right answer about who he was! No, Jesus likes ME the best, because I stood next to him when that crazy guy was running at him. Are you kidding? Jesus saw you flinch! He likes ME the best because I baptized the most people when he sent us out! On and on and on.
And we don’t even need to be told in verse 34 that they were silent when he asked them; we know that kind of embarrassment, being caught for quibbling over something that so misses the point! If we are honest about the disciples, and about ourselves, we realize that conversations, arguments like these, derive from a place of fear. It is their insecurity, their worry, their anxiety, their apprehension that drives them to wonder in the first place where they stand in Jesus’ esteem! It is OUR insecurity, our worry, our anxiety, our apprehension that drives us fret over things that, ultimately, are unimportant.
Jesus’ response unfolds like this: He lifts up children to identify who the kingdom of heaven will truly belong to: these vulnerable, dispossessed members of society, often viewed as property to be seen but never heard, who are empowered and uplifted in the kingdom of God. It is all the other dispossessed- the sick, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant- who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
“Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children” (Lose).
Fear is a fickle thing that has the ability to do real damage. “Fear you see, ultimately blinds us to God’s action all around us” (Lose).
So I ask, hesitatingly to be honest, “what fears pursue you during the day and haunt you at night? What worries weigh you down so that it’s difficult to move forward in faith?” (Lose). Fear about being alone? Fear about losing a loved one? Fear about troubled relationships? Fear and anxiety over health or employment? Concern for the future of our children or grandchildren? Apprehension over global warming or the immigration crisis in this and other countries? Is it closer to home in the anxiety over ‘what comes next?’ Or is it the fear that our churches will close?
I would be a pretty terrible preacher, besides being a liar, if I claimed to have no fears… To be honest, I don’t find myself getting too anxious over things that involve change or uncertainty; I have always had an ability to either roll with things as they happened, or compartmentalize and deal with things one at a time.
What does worry me though, and what keeps me awake at night, are the anxieties over money- will there be enough to pay the many student loans that come knocking every month; the fear that of the many things that demand my time, something will fall through the cracks; the fear that, when I, hopefully, have kids, that the world we are leaving them will be increasingly unstable because of politics and climate change.
I DO have fears… yet I am reminded that there is something much bigger than me, and, comfortingly, much bigger than my fears: the love of God in Christ.
I ask again: what are you afraid of? What keeps you awake at night? Go ahead… take a moment and write it down.
Now ask yourself, if Jesus were here in front of me right now, what would he tell me about my fears? “Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties is an invitation not to faith as intellectual assent- as if believing in God somehow prohibits fear” (Lose).
Plenty of faithful witnesses throughout scripture were afraid. It is a natural emotion, and it is not something we should expect to NEVER encounter. Rather, we are called to learn to embrace our fear, and learn to dance with it. Jesus’ response is an invitation “to faith as movement, faith as taking a step forward (even a little step) in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises” (Lose).
All of those things we are afraid of? We are given ways, right here, through Christ, to overcome them. “These are small things when you think about it. Serving others, opening yourself to another’s need, being honest about your own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child, welcoming a stranger. But they are available to each and all of us every single day. And each time we make even the smallest of these gestures in faith – that is, find the strength and courage to reach out to another in compassion even when we are afraid – we will find our fear lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear and death do not have the last word.
“Fear you see, ultimately blinds us to God’s action all around us, and as we call attention to God’s presence and movement among us and invite each other to join in God’s work through even the smallest of steps, we realize that the God who once created out of nothing, made light from darkness, and raised Jesus from the dead is still at work, not dispelling all our fears but keeping us from being overwhelmed by them and helping us to move forward in faith” (Lose).
What are we afraid of? Let’s name those things; get them out of the way. The named is so less scary than the unnamed. Then, maybe, we can begin to move forward with Jesus, no longer weighed down by the burden of fear. Amen.