Faith or Fear?

Posted 6/24/2018

Scriptures: 1 Samuel 17:1, 4-11, 32-49; Mark 4:35-41

Experiencing fear is not at all uncommon as some statistics about our fears show:

Something like 9-20% of Americans say they avoid going to the dentist because of fear. 

Something like 25 million (about 7%) of Americans suffer from some form of fear of flying. These people fall into 2 groups: Those afraid of a plane crash and those who are claustrophobic. 

Fear of severe weather was at least a bit of a problem for 73% of those who participated in a survey of mostly college-aged students.

Three to five percent of us suffer from acrophobia — a fear of heights. 

Fifteen million (close to 5%) of American adults fear speaking in public. Those who are affected with this phobia can also develop a fear of eating or drinking in front of anyone, or even of being around almost anyone but family members.

Fifteen to twenty percent of us experience at least one episode of some kind of phobia in our lifetimes. Something like 8.7% of adult Americans have at least 1 extreme fear.

Extreme fear — phobias — can paralyze us. Yet it isn’t just phobias that can paralyze us. There are many other fears that can paralyze us, leaving us unable to make any plan of action. One of those fears that many of us have is fears about the future. Like our fears of public speaking or heights or small spaces, our fear of the future can leave us paralyzed, unable to plan for the future or to respond appropriately to the changes we notice about us.

This latter fear, the fear of the future, is, I believe, a particular problem for churches. We see the changes in society about us. These changes seem to threaten our faith and the life of the church. We become fearful — a fear that often shows itself in our blaming these changes for the decline in church attendance, social problems and whatever else seems to us to be wrong in the world today.

Within the church, we are acutely aware of the dwindling number of people attending worship. We notice the number of people who used to attend “regularly” who now come much less often. We are anxious over the amount of offerings we are receiving. In so many ways our future seems so uncertain. In fact, the possibility of even having a future may seem uncertain. We become fearful and start cutting budgets, programs and outreach.

But just what does Scripture suggest we are to do in the face of the fears we experience — especially those we experience as a church? Our Scripture lessons for today give us some insight into how we can respond to our fears.

The first thing our Old Testament and Gospel passages suggest to us is that we not pretend that real threats don’t exist. We are not called upon to act as if there really aren’t dangers in our world. We aren’t called upon to pretend that the societal trends and trends in the church which cause us anxiety about our future aren’t real. Goliaths really do exist. Serious storms that threaten to capsize our boats are real. Such dangers are not figments of our imaginations. They are not to be dismissed as if they didn’t exist.

The truth is, changes in society HAVE made “church as we have always done it” more difficult to do. There really are a lot more things happening on Sunday that draw people away from attending Sunday morning worship. Our culture doesn’t assume that church attendance is part of being a good citizen anymore, so fewer people consider church attendance necessary. There really are a lot of changes in our society that make church life as we knew it in the heydays of the 1950’s pretty much impossible today. We need to admit these changes are real — and present a challenge to us as a church.

The second thing these Scripture lessons suggest is that we are to respond to these threatening “Goliaths” not with fear but with faith. But such faith isn’t faith in our own ability to resolve the danger or eliminate the threat. It is faith in God’s ability to save. 

In our Old Testament lesson, notice how David says “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” It isn’t the fact David has killed lions and bears before that makes David confident in the face of the threat Goliath presents. It is the fact he has experienced God’s salvation at work in his life in the face of threats before this moment that makes David confident. He is clear — it is God who has saved him from these ferocious animals, not his own bravery or his skill with a slingshot.

In the face of what feel like threatening changes in society about us, we are to have faith — faith in God and faith in Jesus. Like the disciples in the boat, we need to be willing to trust that Jesus is able to handle the situation. That God is big enough to take care of us, even when the boat is filling with water and in danger of capsizing. We need to trust in God, no matter what our circumstances.

Third, we are called upon to step out of simply doing what we’ve always done. The answer to our fears about the future are not found in working harder at doing the same thing yet one more time. It is found in following the leading of God’s Spirit into new ways of being and doing church.

The answer to the threat Goliath posed wasn’t found in the clash of fully armed military men. Saul and the Israelite army were fearful, because all they could imagine was a battle of warrior against warrior — and Goliath was not only larger and stronger, but was much better armed. In such a conventional battle they had no doubt about the fact they would lose.

The answer to Goliath’s threat wasn’t found in David putting on Saul’s armor so he could fight like any other military man. It was found in David going out like the shepherd he was. It was found in a shepherd boy, not a warrior. It was found in David going out with a slingshot and a few stones, not in armor carrying the weapons of war.

Times have changed. Society about us has changed and frankly we too have changed. That means the things we once did are not the answer for today challenges. God calls us to new ways of being the church. God calls us to new ministries. To new ways of showing God’s love to those about us. To new ways of involvement in our community. To new ways of reaching out to our neighbors. 

And we have changed. Rather than continuing to do old things, we need to met today’s challenges with the skills, assets and faith we have today. We need to imagine new ways these can show the love of Christ to those about us. We need to discover the new ways God is calling us to be God’s people in today’s realities.

But to do this we need to take an honest look at what we DO have. 

We may not have the money we once had, but we still have our building. How can we use our building in ways that show God’s love to those who live in our community not just for our own use?

We may not have the young people we once had, but we do have people who have lived life and gained a certain amount of wisdom. How can we use the experience and wisdom we possess as a congregation to respond to the challenges our community faces?

These are just two examples of the ways in which we might begin to think about how we meet the challenges of ministry that we face today.

Yes, we face changes and challenges as a church — lots of changes and challenges. And those changes and challenges  can feel threatening. But we can respond to them with faith and creativity, knowing that God is with us and calls and equips us for ministry in our world of today.