Sermon for Sunday, March 17, 2019 – “Praying with our Fear”

Second Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa|
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Preaching Psalm: Psalm 27

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2When evildoers close in against me to devour my flesh,
they, my foes and my enemies, will stumble and fall.
3Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear.
Though war rise up against me, my trust will not be shaken.
4One thing I ask of the Lord; one thing I seek;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek God in the temple. 
5For in the day of trouble God will give me shelter,
hide me in the hidden places of the sanctuary, and raise me high upon a rock.
6Even now my head is lifted up above my enemies who surround me.
Therefore I will offer sacrifice in the sanctuary, sacrifices of rejoicing; I will sing and make music to the Lord.
7Hear my voice, O Lord, when I call;
have mercy on me and answer me.
8My heart speaks your message—“Seek my face.”
Your face, O Lord, I will seek. 
9Hide not your face from me, turn not away from your servant in anger.
Cast me not away—you have been my helper; forsake me not, O God of my salvation.
10Though my father and my mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me in.
11Teach me your way, O Lord;
lead me on a level path, because of my oppressors.
12Subject me not to the will of my foes,
for they rise up against me, false witnesses breathing violence.
13This I believe—that I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living!
14Wait for the Lord and be strong.
Take heart and wait for the Lord! 

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

Dear ones, we need help. We need help in dealing with fear. Fear of the other is leading to so much violence in our world as we saw on display this past week in New Zealand. Acts like that also make us more fearful and worried for ourselves, for loved ones and neighbors, for Muslim neighbors, for our own country and our world. What do we do with this fear? What do we do with the fear that is a regular part of any life?

I have one friend from seminary who approaches any fear or challenge by saying, “It’s going to be fine.” I’ll call him Joe. No matter what issues arise, Joe says, “Ahh, no need to worry. It will be fine.”

He is always confident and sometimes correct. There are times I really want to be that unflappable. Yet, I’ve learned that his confidence, while encouraging, isn’t always grounded in reality.

Then there’s another friend who often thinks about the worst-case scenarios and tries to be ready for them. I’ll call him Paul. He is thorough and prepared and really, really extra vigilant. He also seems really anxious and tired a lot of the time.

Our Psalm today shows us a middle way between these two extremes, a way that acknowledges that there are real concerns and yet remains grounded in trust and hope, grounded in God.

Certainly, we each have our own personalities that wire us to respond to challenges and fear differently. I value both Joe and Paul and learn a lot from them. I also don’t know much about how they pray. Maybe their prayers are very different from their public personas.

As I’ve lived with Psalm 27 this week, I’m persuaded that all of us – Joe, Paul, you and I – would be wise to approach our fears and challenges the way the Psalmist does. In the Psalms, God has given us a different way to be with fear, a way that allows us to be a hopeful, peaceful presence in this anxious world.

As the Psalmist starts to pray, he sounds an awful lot like Joe – “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

No worries, it’s all good. I’ve got nothing to fear.

But then the Psalmist answers his own question – of whom shall I be afraid? Well, there are evil-doers, foes, enemies, an army encamped against him, oppressors, and false witnesses breathing violence – to name just a few.

The Psalmist just stuck his head in the sand, pretending to not see the very real issues in his life. He is aware of them. He names and acknowledges them and brings them to God in prayer. Then he grounds himself in something greater than his fears, in God, and that allows him to rejoice and sing despite the threats all around him.

There is so much faithful wisdom here. Sometimes we get the message that Christians are sup- posed to just push down any fear, that fear is a sign we don’t have enough faith. The witness of scripture contradicts that message over and over. People of faith have all sorts of fear. God doesn’t ask us to just pretend it’s all good. Nor does God expect us to muscle through on our own by being extra prepared for every situation or other strategy to combat fear.

Instead, God gives us the Psalms that offer a different way of being with fear.

First, become aware of fear, notice and name what is making you afraid. I suppose that was a pretty simple step when there were “evildoers closing in to devour your flesh” or “armies encamped” in front of you. Some days it is easy for us to identify what is making us anxious. Yet, in our day we also live with a kind of low-grade fear all the time. We’re barraged with so many fear-inducing messages. But, we’re also told to just keep on keeping on, to just keep pushing through which means we’re not even always aware of the fear we’re carrying.

So sometimes we need to pause and get curious about the worries and racing thoughts in our heads. We need to ask, “What’s troubling me, what’s keeping me up at night, what keeps nagging away in the back of my mind?” Any psychologist will tell us that when we get in touch with what’s eating at us, when we name it, then it has less power over us. Then we can see that anxious thoughts aren’t who we truly are, they are just thoughts.

But the Psalmist goes further than that. He also brings his fears to God and remembers that he is grounded in God – God who is greater than his fears.

He says, “For in the day of trouble God will give me shelter, hide me in the hidden places of the sanctuary, and raise me high upon a rock.”

We, too, need to be reminded that our fears don’t define us and don’t have to control us because our true identity is beloved child of God. Our peace comes not because we can manage our thoughts well or keep calm and carry on. Our peace comes because our life is held in God, now and always. No matter what happens to us, we belong to God. No matter where we are, God is present.

God’s presence gives us the hope, the peace, the courage we need. We can ground ourselves in God’s presence at any moment of the day using a simple breath prayer. Let’s try it now for a moment: Close your eyes or lower your gaze to the floor, bring your attention to your breath, and I’ll lead us through a simple prayer.

As you breathe in and out,
imagine that you are breathing in peace and letting go of fear,
breathing in hope and letting go of worry,
breathing in rest and letting go of weariness.
Take a few moments to breathe and pray.
Now return your attention to a few final words.

This grounding in God’s presence helps us to rejoice and sing – another helpful response to fear. It sounds crazy when the Psalmist says he will do that in the face of his enemies. Yet to rejoice and sing is a way to experience some freedom from fear, a way to say, “Fear, you do not control me, I will not be defined by you. I will trust and hope even when things are hard because I know my life is held in God.”

Beloved of God, you belong to God. In Jesus, who stretched out his arms in love on the cross, God has gathered us together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.

Nothing – not sin, not death, not powers nor principalities – nothing can separate us from the love of God.

You can trust and hope.

You can be a calm and hopeful presence in this fearful world because your life is held in God.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.