There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.           1 John 4:18

For months now I have been planning to come to you this morning in my role as Executive Director of the historic Massachusetts Bible Society and to preach about our belief that we should take the Bible seriously, but not literally.  And then came the Boston Marathon.

As this past week of terror and tragedy wore on, I found I couldn’t come here this morning and do business as usual.  I haven’t been with you this week to know if you were consumed by the events of the week in the way those of us in the city were.  I haven’t been privy to your kitchen table conversations, your Facebook posts, your personal connections to the event or your general concerns in the way your own pastor would be.

But, I do know one thing.  Just by virtue of being human, you have known fear.  Those of us living in the Boston suburbs felt the fear of a bomber on the loose this week and many of us felt the shaking of our security when a senseless act of extreme violence turned a joyous sporting event into a war zone.  We thought things like, “Can I ever attend a large event without worry?”  “How do I protect my children from random threats and senseless violence?”  “Why would anyone do such a thing?” and even “Can I trust the people I thought were my friends?”  We were very literally locked in our homes, afraid.

But it doesn’t have to be a physical bomb to shakes our foundations.  The doctor calls with test results.  We discover the betrayal of a friend or intimate partner. We lose a job.  A loved one dies.  In all of those circumstances and in a myriad of others, when we are faced with the fact that our future is uncertain and in many ways beyond our control, fear appears on our horizon.  When that happens, we have a choice, and it is that choice I want to examine more closely.

1 John 4:18 tells us, There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear.”  While few of us manage to love perfectly, the truth behind that passage is that fear and love are competing powers but, when they face off head to head, love wins.  Love can, in fact, drive out fear.

The first consistent fear I remember having as a child was the fear of spiders.  I grew up in a 200-year-old farmhouse, so it wasn’t like you could easily obliterate spiders.  Whenever I saw a spider I would scream like the world was coming to an end and my mother would come to the rescue.  My mother loved everything that lived and moved on the planet, and she would find the spider, coax it onto a piece of paper or into a jar and put the spider outside.

She spent time educating me about spiders and showed me beautiful webs that glistened with dew in the sun.  She reminded me that spiders, too, were God’s creatures.  But it didn’t matter.  Whether I was five or twelve or seventeen, I still screamed when I saw a spider and she still came to rescue it.  Then I got married.  In my new home with my new husband I saw a spider.  I screamed and my dutiful husband came to rescue me.  Squash.  No more spider.

I was stunned and horrified.  Something had died just because I didn’t appreciate the kind of beauty God had given to it.  Suddenly, I felt God’s love for the spider.  I never screamed at a spider again.  We co-exist now in peace.  Love drove out fear.

The Bible verse on which I hang every scrap of my theology comes a little earlier in 1 John 4—1 John 4:8b to be exact:  “God is love.”  “God is love” is an equation, so if God is love then love is God.  From that, I have come to believe that every human virtue is an expression of love.  We come to know those expressions by different names, depending on the circumstances and emotions we are facing.

For example, when love meets pain, we call it compassion.  When love meets frustration we call it patience.  When love meets power we call it humility.  And when we bring the power of love to the experience of fear, we call it courage.

Of course when any kind of fear strikes, our instincts tell us to run and hide.  Or scream, as the case may be. That instantaneous, gut reaction to save our own hides is natural and doesn’t represent a real choice—at least not initially. We don’t naturally face down our fear.  Not without practice, and the stronger the threat, the more natural that is.  We saw that on Monday.  Bombs went off and most people ran away without thinking.  But then some of them stopped to allow what had just happened to register.  And then they had a choice, as we always do.

Once we have stopped our instinctive flight from whatever has frightened us, we have choices.  The noblest is courage, and I’ll return to that in a minute.  But we can also choose to keep running.  We can choose not to deal with whatever threatens us. Now in some cases that reaction just represents common sense.  A burglar breaks into your home and you call 911.  A black widow spider would call for second thoughts.  But when we can stick our heads in the sand and pretend it there is no threat; when we draw the curtains, withdraw into ourselves, and use various means of hiding from the world because of our fear, that is the choice of cowardice.  It is the purely human choice more often than not.

There is also a more sinister choice.  There are some who are faced with fear that become envious of its power.  Perhaps some circumstance in their lives has made them feel powerless and suddenly they see the potential of using fear to their own advantage.  Those people embrace fear as a means of enhancing their own power over others and the fruit of that embrace we call cruelty.

It might be the actual bombs of a terrorist, but it might also be the emotional cruelty of a bully, the threats and beatings of domestic violence, or the iron grip of a tyrant.  It might even be the manipulations of religious leaders who use the threat of hellfire and damnation to keep followers in line and submissive.  A colleague once lamented to me, “It’s really hard being a liberal pastor.  You can’t threaten your congregation with hell to get them to do what you want.”  Fear is a powerful motivator and a potent weapon and those who crave power are pulled toward it like a moth to a flame.

When we see unspeakable cruelty as we witnessed this week and ask, “Why?” you can bet that fear is at least part of the answer.  Those who commit such acts were at some point normal, decent human beings who were confronted by fear and made the choice to embrace its power as their own.  But, like the One Ring that Frodo had to destroy in the fiery mountain, fear eats at the soul of those who wield it.  But cowardice and cruelty are not our only choices.

The stories that move us; the stories that touch something deep within our hearts; the stories that bring a tear to our eyes and make us line up and cheer in the streets are the stories of courage.  If cowardice is the human choice and cruelty is the evil choice, courage is the divine choice.  These are the people who run toward the bomb blast.  When others hunker down, the courageous gear up.  Somehow they face the fear head-on, knowing that the power of their love is stronger.  And we ask, “How do they do it?”  “Can I become like them?”  “Is that something a normal person can do or are they different somehow?”

The answer is, “No, they are not any different than you or I.”  It is only my experience with spiders writ large.  Courage is not an inborn trait like blue eyes or brown eyes.  Courage is a choice any one of us can make when confronted by even the greatest fears we encounter in life.  Courage is simply learning to face down our fear with love.

Being courageous is not being fearless.  By definition, courage is facing up to fear.  If you aren’t afraid, then your actions aren’t properly called courage.  Those with courage might initially run as their instinct propels them.  But then they stop.  They look back—and they are afraid.  But they run back anyway.  They face it, even if their knuckles are turning white and their knees are knocking.  They falter, they fall, they hurt, and sometimes they die.  But they face it, because love for the other demands it.  They face it because God’s love springs up in their hearts, even if they might name it differently.  They face it because when love meets fear, love always wins.

Courage is actually an intermediate step on the way to that perfect love that casts out all fear.  What is it that our heroes always say when the media catches up with them for an interview and ask how they could risk their lives?  They say, “I didn’t even think about that.”  “Anyone would do the same.”  “I just did my duty.”  “He had no legs.  I had to carry him.”  Those are the people who have had practice facing fear.  They know its power and know that the power of love is stronger.  Their more perfect love has cast out the initial, instinctual fear that makes the rest of us run for cover before we even think.  Their courage is no longer needed because their fears were sent packing long ago.

Most of us are actually some combination of all of it.  Even Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.  Those who pull someone from a burning building without a second thought might still need to find a well of courage to face their own helplessness when a loved one drifts into the fog of Alzheimer’s.  Those who bravely speak truth to even the world’s most powerful may still be terrified that no one will ever really love them.  We are sometimes hero, sometimes coward, sometimes tyrant, depending on the type of fear that we face.

The challenge set before us this marathon week—the race that is set before us to run—is the challenge of finding our courage.  It is learning not only to face our fear, but to face our fear with love.  That is how God becomes present in even the most terrifying situations.  We bring God there when we bring our love.  Some are already making different choices.  Some already have taken their own fears from the bombing and molded them into bombs of hatred to be tossed at Muslims, people of color, Chechens, or an opposing political faction.  We must guard against that reaction in ourselves with all our strength.

We can begin to cross that line when our fear rises up in hatred even against the bombers themselves and our desire burns for vengeance rather than justice. That is not courage, because that is not love.  That is not the way of the people of God, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim or anything else.  Our religious faith is a discipline we choose to guide our lives, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, and Jesus says, “Stop!  Do not run.  Do not hate.  I am love, and if I am to be present in this terrible thing, then I must channel my love to the world through you.”

With and through the power of God’s Spirit, there is no fear that can conquer our love.  It has been just a few scant weeks since Christians gathered across the globe to affirm that the sting of death and the fear of the grave has been conquered.  It cannot beat us; a tomb will one day receive us, but it cannot hold us.  Life wins.  Love wins.  Every. Single. Time.

Fear and terror only defeat us if we so choose.  Fear grows behind our backs and shrinks when we turn and look it in the eye.  The monstrous terrorist turns out to be a frightened boy, bleeding and hiding in a landlocked boat, taken into custody by a nation whose first order of business was to send him to a hospital.  He will face justice.  But true justice is simply the form love takes when faced with crime.  How we handle his case, and how we as a country respond to the fears brought to the surface by his actions will reveal, for good or for ill, the soul of our nation.

In the meantime, may we learn to find our courage.  May we remember that God walks with us even through the valley of the shadow and then rolls the stone away from our tomb in the dark of night.

I leave you with the words of Paul at the end of Romans 8:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who love us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen and Amen.


(c) 2013 by Anne Robertson

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