1 John 4:7-21
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.”
Wow. There is so much in these texts for today. So much. I’ve been focusing on similar texts from 1 John on Wednesday evenings as well. They are not easy texts. Perfect love casts out fear, and those who are in fear are not in love. And then “Anyone who doesn’t love a brother or sister can’t love God.” Wow. “Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.” And then Jesus goes on to tell us to, “Love your enemies.” Wow. Who can do all of this? Who can live without fear? Who can love their enemies? Who is it who loves every person without exception? And who is loving to even those who are hurtful and sinful and bad to us or, what’s even harder, who can love those who hurt our loved ones, our children?
None of us succeed at all of this. And yet the passage from 1st John would tell us that when we are afraid, we are not living in love. And when we fail to be loving, to anyone, we are not loving God.
There is a great deal in this passage, but what I want to especially focus on today is the fear aspect of this passage. Fear casts out love. Love casts out fear. We see this all the time. As we hear about what is going on in Baltimore, regardless of how you understand or interpret the events, we can see the truth about fear and love. The fear and anger of those rioting includes no love for those they feel or believe have hurt them. There is only fear, which leads to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to this kind of destruction and, indeed, to suffering. And the response of those on the other side is also fear, which includes no love or ability to hear what the rioters are trying to say with their rioting behavior. There’s no love because everyone is acting out of their fear. And again, no matter how you understand what is going on politically, or who you see being at fault here, it is easy to see that fear is truly casting out love. No one is hearing, no one is seeing with eyes of compassion, no one is engaging in the empathy, understanding, and possibilities for constructive change that love demands. Fear IS leading to anger, which is leading to hate, which is leading to destruction and which is then causing great suffering.
The thing we tend to fear most is death. That’s not always true, but I do think as a general rule it is what we fear most. And even though Jesus’ resurrection shows us that we don’t even need to fear death, that there is life after death, that even death is ultimately defeated, when we are faced with death, and even more, I think, when the people we love are faced with death, it is really hard to hang on to our peace, our commitment to loving even our enemies, our call to choose love over fear.
We struggle so much with fear. I mentioned in a newsletter article a few months ago, that not only have parks removed all of the little merry-go-rounds we used to have along with the see-saws, but now they are starting to remove swing sets because “some kid might walk in front of the swing and get knocked down!” I loved that equipment as a kid, especially the swings. But because of our fear of someone getting hurt, we are removing those opportunities for kids. When I was a kid, I was shoved out the door early in the morning to play in the street with the other kids on our block, called home only for supper in the evenings. I walked, hiked, by myself starting at age 6 in the foothills of Mt. Diablo. Could I have been hurt? Of course. I could have fallen in a mole hole and sprained an ankle. I could have been bitten by a spider or a snake. Someone bad might have been in those hills when I was up there who might have grabbed me or worse. There are all kinds of dangers I could have suffered. But those walks in those hills are my fondest child-hood memories. It is in those hills that I found, met and grew close to God. I got my exercise in those hills without my parents ever paying a cent, staying in shape physically, emotionally and spiritually in those hills. Now a days I would never, ever let my kids walk in them alone. I would never let my kids play in the streets unsupervised. We would never do this. Our kids stay inside unless they are in an outdoor sporting situation that is heavily supervised. But I wonder what we have lost because of our desire to protect them. About three years ago, I read another article on line about how dangerous ice cream trucks are and what MIGHT happen to kids who went to buy ice cream from them – they could be kidnapped or poisoned. In the comment section, someone asked the reporter if the scenario he had painted had actually ever happened. The journalist admitted, “well, no, I haven’t been able to find any record of anything like this actually happening. But it COULD happen.” Well, yes, anything could happen. But does it mean we simply stop living because of our fear? I wonder more and more, how much we have lost out of fear. I wonder how much living we have denied those we love the very most because we are afraid and want to protect them. And I wonder as we move forward at what point we will just insist that everyone stay in their own isolated homes with the doors all locked all the time because we are just too afraid to go out. It is not just love that is chased away by fear. LIFE itself is also chased away by fear. We are so afraid of death, that we don’t allow ourselves or our loved ones to LIVE the life we are so terrified of giving up! The thing with fear is that it simply doesn’t leave room for anything else – like beauty, or purpose. Like hope, or joy. Like reconciliation or peace. Like LOVE.
Marianne Williamson said, “We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
About ten years ago a book came out, “The Price of Privilege” which was written by a woman. Madeline Levine, doing research into those growing up in Marin County, possibly the most affluent community in our country. The kids were not allowed to fail. Or rather, the parents of these kids did not allow them to fail. If a kid had a paper due the next day that they had put off, the parents would help the kids write the paper, staying up all night with them in order to assure their success. These kids simply were not allowed to experience failure in any way. The parents had this huge fear of their kids not being at the very top. And they had a huge fear of their kids suffering at all to the point where they would be helicopter parents, overseeing every activity and situation. Making sure nothing bad ever happened to their kids. But the researcher then followed the kids when they left home and went on to college. Some experienced failure at college then for the very first time. The parents weren’t there to write the papers for them or stand up for them. For others it wasn’t until they got their first jobs. But either way, life includes failure. And what this researcher found was that these kids had no experience handling failure and so when they experienced it finally, they simply were not able to cope. The suicide rates among these kids was astronomical. The clinical depression rate even higher. In not allowing the kids to live all of life, which includes experiencing hard times, they did not build up a resilience or coping ability in their children which would allow them to know that everything passes, that what one experiences in each moment does not define the entirety of life.
I read an article this morning that was talking about how much good it does for kids to occasionally fall, get hurt, experience pain and learn to move through and beyond it. Our fear of our kids experiencing any kind of pain or hurt damages them more than we can imagine. Fear. Fear, fear, fear. Damaging all of us, keeping us from love, keeping us from LIFE.
The Good News in this is that God knows this is not easy for us. God understands that. Every time an angel appears in scripture, the first words they speak are words of calm, “Do not be afraid.” Every time. And then we come to have Jesus’ experience. And we have his cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” which I think expresses both a feeling of abandonment, and also a feeling of fear. In that, I find great hope. Because it says that God, too, experienced those feelings, those very human feelings. And while God calls us to step out of fear, because in fear we really are unable to feel love and compassion and empathy for that which we fear, at the same time, God loves us through that fear. And God will call us into a love that surpasses it. Psalm 22 reminds us not only that God has experienced all of what it is to be human, from our deepest pain to our fear, it also shows us that when we turn that over to God, when we turn over the fear as well as the pain to God, that we are reminded that God is bigger than both. Vs. 27 of the Psalm – “Every part of the earth will remember and come back to the Lord; every family among all the nations will worship you.” We have nothing to fear. Ultimately God wins. On this, the 5th Sunday of Easter, we can remember the promise – God wins every time. Love wins every time. Death was overcome. Fear was overcome. Love conquered all.
Yes, we will feel afraid. It is human. And God knows that. But we can turn that over to God. And we can trust in God’s promise that Love wins. The more we trust it, the less we will fear. The less we fear, the more we can love. The more we love, the closer we come to God. Every time. Amen.