“Do Not Be Your Fear”
Luke 2: 1-20
Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott
December 10th, 2013 – Monmouth College Christmas Convocation
I’m going to begin today with things I am afraid of. It’s sort of a random list, but here we go.
I am afraid of:
- Global Warming
- Snakes and Large Spiders
I am afraid of:
- Deep Water
- Speaking in Public
- Looking or sounding stupid
I am afraid of:
- Something bad happening to my children
- The power I possess and how it can change me
- The power I do not possess and how it can change me
- Being all alone when I am old
- Stomach bugs that wreak havoc on my household
- Disappointing people
- My car breaking down far from civilization on a moonless night. A pick up truck pulls in behind me and a man gets out. He’s carrying an axe.
This is my random list. I could go on. But what’s on your list? Maybe the things on your list are far different from mine, but I’m wondering if your list is just as long. I was struck recently by the words of Quaker and teacher Parker Palmer who writes about the dominant role that fear plays in our lives. Palmer says, “It is no accident that all of the world’s wisdom traditions address the fact of fear, for all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy. And all of these traditions, despite their great diversity, unite in one exhortation to those who walk in their ways: ‘Be not afraid.’”
When I first read Palmer’s words, I suddenly remembered that the scripture text from Luke that President Ditzler just read—the story of Jesus’ birth, the story of Christmas—included this exhortation. “Do not be afraid!” the angel said to the shepherds who were “terrified” by this heavenly vision.
Which is extraordinary, if you stop to think about it, because what could really scare a shepherd? Dan and I live just outside of Monmouth—which means we live five minutes away. It’s beautiful out there, though. I love it because it really feels like I am getting away when I go home. This area outside of Monmouth is Carhartt country, because our neighbors are farmers and day laborers—men and women who I see working out in the fields on bitter cold days, with their hoods pulled up over their ears, their Carhartt jackets zipped to the neck. I drive my son to school with the car heater blaring and I think, my blood is not thick enough for that kind of cold; my character’s not strong enough for that kind of work. When we first moved to Monmouth from North Carolina three years ago in the bitter cold month of December, Dan and I ventured over to Farm King to equip ourselves for our new climate. My amazing, talented, brilliant husband tried on a Carhartt jacket and—no offense, honey—but that thing swallowed him whole. Carhartt’s are not made for men with professions like my husband’s. Carhartt’s are made for shepherds.
Yes, this is who the angel appeared to on that cold 1st century evening. The shepherds were the day laborers, the field workers of their time. With their wind-chapped faces and dirt-stained hands, they were hardy and strong, able to work long hours outside in the bitter cold. Their job was to protect their flock from wolves and bandits and all types of evil that only appear when the night is darkest. They’d seen it all. Until an angel showed up surrounded by the glory of God. And these shepherds, these strong, hardy, fearless men were, suddenly, terrified. Which reveals that no matter who we are, no matter our profession, or our life experience, or our temperament, fear lives in all of us.
Last week as I was feverishly preparing for this Christmas Convocation our son, Isaac, came down with a stomach bug. We were up all night on Monday. Then on Tuesday the bug bit our daughter Ella. She got it worse than Isaac, which meant Tuesday night was, well, quite frankly, hell. As soon as Dan and I fell asleep, Ella called out for us again. She just got sick and sick and sick some more.
Early in the evening I took the general health precautions—washing my hands after every time I touched her or anything associated with her. But by four in the morning I was so tired I just sort of gave up trying to keep myself clean because at that point puke and poop were everywhere. It was in that 4:00am moment of exhaustion that I started to freak. As much as I was concerned for my baby girl who was so sick, I couldn’t keep my mind from reviewing my calendar and all the things I had to do—things that really could not be put on hold if I got sick.
So I started picturing myself on stage at Saturday night’s Christmas concert praying and puking. I pictured myself here today preaching and puking. Everywhere I went in my mind that night I was puking. Puking on the President. Puking on communion. Puking all over Christmas at Monmouth. As it will in 4:00am freak outs, my mind raced. My chest felt tight. My breathing grew rapid because I was afraid.
Isn’t it funny how fear doesn’t make rational sense? I mean what good was my anxiety serving in my 4:00am freak out? If I was going to get sick, I was going to get sick. There was nothing I could do about it. So why be afraid? And why were the shepherds terrified when the angel showed up? Sure, they’d never seen anything like that before. But did that mean it was going to be bad news? They had no idea why the angel had appeared. We just have such a hard time, we human beings, when we don’t know, when we can’t predict, when we aren’t in control. Fear rises in all of us when we face the unknown. (By the way, how are you students feeling about final exams?)
“Everyone has fear,” Parker Palmer writes. “’Do not be afraid!’ does not mean we cannot have fear. Instead, ‘Do not be afraid!’ says we should not be the fear we have.”
“Yes we have places of fear inside of us,” Palmer continues, “but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to [live] from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety.”
The morning after my 4:00am freak out, I wrote an email to a friend in which I shared all my anxiety about the week ahead. In this email I mentioned that ironically my Christmas sermon was all about fear. My friend didn’t think it was ironic, though. She thought it was perfect that I was led to write and preach on fear in the midst of an anxious week. “All of our expectations of what ‘should be’ throw us off,” she wrote in her note back. “What is happening is happening. You just need to find the place inside of you that can help you navigate.” I wrote most of this sermon after receiving that email. The panic was fresh, so it was easy to describe. And the act of writing helped me move my fear to its proper place within me. From that moment, I moved forward in faith. What was going to happen was going to happen. I would navigate and negotiate. And I would not be my fear.
Some of you may be wondering…so how’d all this turn out? Well, I did get a little queezy last Friday. But that was it! Today I’m good to go! President Ditzler, you are SAFE sitting beside me!
Getting back to the shepherds, though, they also overcame their fear. Out of their trembling, they moved from a place of panic to a place of faith, and hope and trust. Which led them to a baby. The Christmas story is a story of new birth, yes, but it’s also the birth of a new way of being.
A new way of being, that to fully understand, we must acknowledge the context of fear into which Christ was born. A context that poet Madeleine L’ Engle describes as:
A land in the crushing grip of Rome
A people betrayed by war and hate
Honour and truth trampled by scorn
The inn was full on the planet earth.
This was no time for a child to be born.
And yet Love still took the risk of birth.
With this birth, a way of being was born that brought people together rather than pushing them apart. A way of being was born that inspired people to courageous, revolutionary acts, rather than crippling them with anxiety and panic. A way of being was born that commanded we care for the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, rather than a fearfulness that built walls and fences and deep-rooted prejudices to push away all who were different.
Yes, the Christmas story is a story of new birth, but it’s also the birth of a new way of being.
So let’s revisit my list and wonder for a moment about who I could be if I were not shaped by my fear of change, or rejection, or of disappointing people?
Who could you be if you were not constrained by the fear of making mistakes, or of following your passion, or of asking yourself the hardest questions?
Who could we be if our fear of loss, or of being wrong, or of not having enough did not rule our lives and our world?
Who could I be? Who could you be? Who could we be if we lived not from a place of fear, but from a place of faith, hope, and trust? Well, we’d be a people made new.
Christmas is always a beautiful time of year. It is even more beautiful when we understand it as God’s invitation to us, once again, to be born into a new way of being. “Do not be afraid!” The angel cries. Do not be your fear. For unto us a child is born.
Now to the God who invites us to this place of new being, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, (Jossey-Bass, SanFrancisco, CA), pg. 93.
 Lines taken from Madeleine L’Engle’s poem, “The Risk of Birth”, The Ordering of Love, (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 2005) pg.155.