When we are in those stages of life when fear has taken grip of our hearts, we seem to have more questions. We might want to ask: Where is God? Has God left me? Has God abandoned my community to suffer? When we are afraid we sometimes become inconsolable. For the past couple of months, I have had people in all aspects of my life coming to me with these types of questions ever fearful of what the future might be. And just now I am realizing that God has been challenging me to preach on fear. So for the next couple of weeks we will be looking at fear. This week we look at fear as it might grip a community of people. Fear of the collective whole. Have you ever felt that type of fear of the unknown, fear of an uncertain future for a community you belong to?
This week, I was speaking to another minister of a small church. He is new to his community and struggling with a people gripped in the clutches of fear. What he hears the most is “Well we have never done it like that before? Or the last minister never preached like that?” What I hear in those words is fear. Fear of the unfamiliar. This church was in its heyday in the 1980s and 90s when they experienced a boom in their membership never before seen since the founding of the church. So they keep fighting to keep everything the way it was then refusing to change their worship services, the borders on the bulletins, the type of fundraisers, the gardens in their parks, the look of their fellowship hall, or even to try a new hymn once in awhile. They have been gripped by fear. This year will be their first year with no Sunday school. They reacted harshly to the addition of flowers even for Sunday morning for worship.
It is their history that they rest their pride in. This history is predictable. They already know what has happened and there is comfort in that which is familiar. They know how God worked in their past. But for now they don’t see God in the present state of their church, and they can’t determine how God will be speaking to them in the future. So for now they hinder new ideas. They are asking, where is God in this changing environment of faith? Many believe that God has gone silent. But I would say that the pain they have suffered, the struggles they have seen in recent years, has left them with uncertainty, a lack of trust in leadership, and fear that keeps them looking behind themselves instead of in front of themselves. They are afraid that God may not be in the future, that the work of future generations will lead to the down fall of all they have worked so hard to maintain. Fear is what is rooting them in the 80s and 90s. The minister who led men into success has passed away and they grieve for him and fear that there will never be a trusted clergy person to guide them towards success again.
In that fear progress seems to have come to a screeching halt. There are dangerous undercurrents stirring in that community and it is all caused by fear. This happens to all of us and to all communities. When fear creeps up and is not handled then it takes control making it hard to make decisions, making it hard even to breathe. In the process, we might ask, where God is, but we don’t actually seek out God and we forget to listen for God’s words in the times of trouble. We forget that sometimes God speaks to us through discomfort. God speaks to us through the anxiety that we feel. That is when we know that perhaps we are fighting against the direction that God has chosen for us to go.
Discomfort is a common way in which God communicates a message to a people, a group , a nation. Jeremiah was just such a mouthpiece. His job was not to build the people up or to make them feel good about themselves, not at this juncture in their history. His mission was to make the people of Judah feel as uncomfortable as possible. His job was to get under their skin, to irritate them, and to make them feel guilty, to make them feel scared. God was giving the nation of Judah a very clear message. They were no longer searching for God but rather falling into the sinful ways of the Northern Israelites which led to the destruction of the northern kingdom at the hands of the Assyrian Empire. Jeremiah was being harsh because God needed the people to feel uncomfortable. The people needed to start to look back to God for guidance and direction and to be open to changing their lives.
God speaks to us through our times of success but also speaks just as clearly in our times of distress. He speaks to us through our feels, our emotions, our fears, our needs. We just need to be open to the ways that God leads us. We have these experiences for a reason. I was once told that discomfort is God speaking to me. Every experience is one that I am meant to learn from and the same applies to communities. Every experience we have, every time we feel uncomfortable particularly as a whole is God trying to lead us. But we need to do some work to know what God is asking of us, to see how he intends to lead us. We need to do the work to be aware of what is being communicated to us through our fear.
Having fear isn’t a sign that we should never do anything new. Fear could be a sign that something is missing or that we are being asked to travel outside of our comfort zones, or that as collective individuals trust in God is what needs to be worked on. Sirach was a teacher and so his book was intended to be an educational piece. The passage we heard today spoke about pride, sin, and departing from the way of God. Although it sounds accusatory, it was purely meant to let people know that when we stop looking to God, when we stop recognizing that God is the source of all successes and the source of our confidence then we fall into the pitfalls of very human reactions and emotions. This is when we let fear stop progress. This is when we forget that God is our source of inspiration and we lose sight of him. This is when we look towards only humanity to be our inspiration and we don’t give glory and thanks to God for the blessings we have experienced. Sirach taught, “The beginning of man’s pride is to depart from the Lord”. So when fears creep up, when they threaten to prevent us from doing God’s work. We need to remember the teachings of Sirach and the warnings of Jeremiah and look all the more to the Lord for guidance, for inspiration, for confidence in the future that he has designed for us.
There is so much to fear in this world. There are so many questions and such uncertainty about tomorrow that learning to place our trust in the Lord will free us to live into his word. It will free us to experiment with his call. It will free us to make mistakes, to learn, and to grow into his message. So this week let us go forth and work to place our trust in the Lord. Let us place our fears into his hands and know that when we’re nervous, anxious, or scared that our bodies are telling us that something is different, something is changing, and in those moments we need to look towards God and trust where he leads us next.
 Sirach 10: 12, RSV.
(Based on Jeremiah 2: 4-13 and Sirach 10: 12-18)