This morning, we begin a new worship series that parallels our stewardship season. And as we do, we take a look at what it means to be fearless in our faith. What does that mean, exactly? What is fearlessness? And is that really the goal? After all, it’s not as though “fear” is purely a bad thing. Fear has been essential to the survival of our species. If our ancestors hadn’t feared saber-toothed tigers, then we likely wouldn’t have been here at all.
Fear is an important part of the wiring God has given us. It lets us know instinctively when we are in danger even when we aren’t consciously aware of it. Self-defense classes teach you to trust fear – if a situation feels wrong, then it is wrong.
So in a sense, the suggestion to be fearless is not only counterintuitive; it’s counterproductive. Fear, it seems, is an essential, usually trustworthy part of life.
Usually – but not always.
Our lesson this morning, taken from the first three chapters of Exodus, bears out this complicated role that fear plays in our lives. The Egyptians fear the Israelites because they are growing in number – and so, not only are they enslaved, but their mail children are to be killed. Moses’ mother fears for his life, setting him adrift in a basket on the Nile, an act which ends up saving his life.
The adult Moses, after killing an Egyptian, flees in fear to escape his punishment. And as God tells him to go back to free the Israelites, Moses is gripped by fear again. Fear, it seems, is complicated. It can be life-saving; and it can be imprisoning. While fear may be essential to survival, it is not essential to faith.
You see, when we are afraid, we revert to our most primal selves. We protect ourselves and our tribe at all costs, because somewhere, deeply embedded in our gray matter, are these circuits that convince us that, suddenly, everything is at stake. There are times when fear serves us well. And there are times when it trips us up. The hard part is knowing the difference.
In Exodus, Moses’ mother’s fear leads her to creative ways to preserve the life of her baby; and Moses’ fear of retribution sends him into exile in the Sinai. In both cases, fear led in the right direction. But Pharaoh’s fear led him to unjust brutality; and Moses’ fear of returning led him to protest against what God had set him apart to do. In both cases, fear led them astray. What can we possibly learn about fearlessness when it comes to faith, except that it’s unreliable?
Three days ago, a young man killed ten people, including himself, and wounded nine others at an Oregon community college. Accounts describe the shooter as a white supremacist with anti-religious leanings who was obsessed with guns. Our response as a nation is all-too-predictable. We retreat to our echo chambers where we convince ourselves yet again that we are right because we have always been calling for more guns, or fewer guns, or somewhere in between. Surely, cooler heads will prevail and bring about some common sense reforms in our gun laws, right? Or is it that fear undermines our ability to think reasonably about this uniquely American plague of mass shootings?
I am more and more convinced that the primal fears we could once trust no longer serve us well. Society has developed into this complex set of relationships; our tribes of self-identification should no longer matter, but fear causes us to retreat into our groups of those who are “like us”. Our news media knows that fear is an addictive drug and feeds it to us 24-hours a day, such that we seek out only those sources that feed our fears and convince us of our own self-righteousness.
The goal, I believe, is not to eliminate fear altogether. Instead, while we should listen to fear, and expect it, we should not be ruled by it. If we, like Moses, continue to let fear be our guide at all times, we will miss the moments when God is calling us to places and ministries that make us uncomfortable. To be faithful, at times, means to be fearless. And the only way to make that happen is through discipline and practice.
We now know this about ourselves as a species. Those neural pathways aren’t as hard-wired as we used to think. Through consistent practice and readjustment, we can be rewired for the kind of fearlessness that faith can call us to.
When I think back about things that used to terrify me but no longer do, public speaking comes to mind. I did not emerge from the womb ready to preach. I still remember my first church job out of seminary. There were days when the mere thought of preaching would make me physically ill. And while I would be lying if I said I have eliminated the nervousness altogether, it does not control me anymore. It’s not that I have eliminated it or learned to ignore it, either. Instead, I now use it as a helpful reminder that the very act of preaching is a presumptuous one. My most fervent prayer, each and every time I preach, is that the words of my mouth would be acceptable in God’s sight. I never want to be in the position where I assume I no longer need God’s wisdom to be a preacher. At the same time, I never want to be in the position where fear controls me and convinces me that I have nothing to say.
Friends, there are times when faithfulness calls us to acts of bravery we might not think we are capable of. And yet, if it is truly faithful, God will give us what we need to step out in risk. It takes practice, and there are ample opportunities to do just that.
Today, as we begin our stewardship campaign, I want you to consider what it might mean for you to live your faith fearlessly. Fear convinces us that we live in a culture of scarcity; if I don’t grab it, someone else will. If I give it away, then I am vulnerable. Faith calls us to trust: trust in the God of abundance and provision. We give it away as an act of faith in itself – not because we are fearless, necessarily, but because we have an opportunity to practice faithful bravery even while we remain somewhat skittish.
We have cards with our logo for our stewardship campaign on them. I want you to take one for yourself, and to keep it with you for the duration of the campaign – in your wallet, on your bathroom mirror, wherever it is that you will be reminded of our call to fearlessness.
What I want to be absolutely crystal clear about is this: what you give is ultimately up to you and God. So whatever you do, I want you to do it prayerfully. After all, it is what God desires of you, not what the church or the pastor asks of you, that is faithful. Trust God to lead you in faithfulness.
I simply want to encourage you to practice a lifestyle of giving that grows in fearlessness. What do you give currently? What percentage is it of your income? Is it 2%? 3? Can you increase that giving by an additional 1%? How much time do you give away? Is it four hours a week? Five? Can you add an additional hour?
All of this comes with the careful caveat that faithful living is a larger concept of which the church is a mere part. To be what God has created me to be, I am called to be a faithful husband, father, son, brother, child of God. And I am also called to be a pastor – in this case, pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. But being a pastor is not the entirety of my calling.
Similarly, God calls you to be a member of Christ’s church. But that membership is not the entirety of God’s calling. Perhaps you are a parent, or a spouse; above all, you are God’s beloved, called to faithfulness that takes fear into account but is not ruled by it.
The point in all of this is that we are called to fearless giving, and are capable of far more than we think we are. Let us, in our giving, strive for the model of Moses’ mother. The life of her precious son was threatened. She did what she did motivated out of fear, yes, but also out of love and out of faith. Much like the contemporary Syrian mothers with the same set of motivations, she set her son adrift on the water in a vessel that was not seaworthy. She gave her son to the elements, trusting that God would provide. And in that act of trust, a people were given the hope of freedom, following this same helpless infant pulled from his basket of reeds and given a second chance to live and lead.
With this image in mind, is it any surprise that God would call us, too, to acts of faithful giving? As Christians, as disciples of Christ, as followers of Jesus, we surely know that the fullest act of faithfulness was Christ’s own self-giving on the cross. He did it for our sake, not for his own. How can we not respond by our own selfless, fearless giving of what God has entrusted to us?
Many of you have heard of the hero that emerged in the Oregon shooting. When Chris Mintz heard the sound of bullets, his army training meant that he ran towards the shooting, rather than away from it. He told the shooter, “It’s my son’s birthday” before being shot seven times. He survived and is expected to make a full recovery. That act of bravery most certainly saved the lives of others, distracting and delaying the gunman and giving time for police to respond.
I have not seen any reports on whether or not Mintz is a person of faith; in many ways, that is irrelevant. The point is that he embodied fearless giving – giving of himself so that others would have a chance to live. I would hope that our lives would even be a mere reflection of this kind of fearlessness.
When we come to the table, we recognize that I’m not the one who invites us here, nor is it the congregation or leadership that sets the table, except in the most literal of ways. This table belongs to no one but Jesus. And we, fed here, we are sent to feed. Nourished at this table, we are emboldened to live lives of faithful, fearless giving – of what we have, of what we are – to a world that is desperately hungry in body, mind, and spirit.
So come – let us taste and see that the Lord is good!