Sermon by the Rev. Molly F James, Ph.D. | 22 February 2015

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15 

May God’s Word be spoken. May God’s Word be heard. May that point us to the Living Word who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

MollyJamesA few nights ago my husband, Reade, and I sat on the couch relishing some quiet after our children were in bed. We marveled together at the blessings in our lives – jobs we love, a wonderful house, healthy children and each other. And yet we both know life has not, nor will it always be as easy and joyful as it is right now.

That is a lesson I learned early. I was diagnosed with bone cancer when
I was thirteen. It took almost a year for the full magnitude of what was happening to sink in. Until then I managed to cope pretty well. But just as I was finishing my treatments and things were looking good from a physical standpoint, the emotional and spiritual challenges really began. That was when the fear came. The kind of fear that can be overwhelming and seem to run your life.

It was as though someone had taken the rug out from under me. Up until then I had the blissful ignorance of youth. I had not had to confront my own mortality. Then I did. And I thought if this terrible thing called cancer could happen to me, what was going to protect me from all the other terrible things in the world. What I wanted, what I desperately craved was some sense of control, some sort of guarantee that I was going to be okay. That I was going to have a long and healthy life.

But no one could give me that guarantee, that sense of control, and so it was tempting to give into the fear, to let it run my life.

Now today is the first Sunday in Lent, and our Gospel lesson is about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Now you may be wondering what my story of fear has to do with Lent and temptation. Normally our conversations about temptation and Lent focus on the more superficial sorts of temptations like coffee or chocolate. Yet I think Lent is a good time to think about some of the other temptations we face in our lives. And I would be willing to bet I am not the only one who has ever been tempted by fear.

Now you may be thinking, what can be so tempting about fear and anxiety? Who LIKES being afraid? It is not a delicious indulgence like coffee or chocolate. And yet, I do think fear and anxiety can be tempting. They are tempting because they give us the illusion of control. In the face of a life threatening diagnosis, in the face of the loss of a job or a broken relationship, in the face of our news headlines about the shooting deaths of young people or the most recent horrific act of Islamic State, in the face of all those terrible realities of our broken and sinful world, we feel powerless, and so it is tempting to give in to the fear. It is tempting because being anxious and fearful lets us feel busy. Worrying at least feels like we are DOING something.

Yet worrying merely serves to occupy our minds. It does not ultimately give us anything other than an increase in our blood pressure and stress hormones. Most of the things we are tempted to worry about are the big things – our health, our future, the safety of our loved ones, and the possibility of our own death. While we can have some influence in these matters, ultimately we do not get to decide how long we have in this world. Time is a precious gift. None of us will live forever. That is the reminder we received as our foreheads were marked with ashes on Wednesday. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You, me, and everyone else on this planet. That is the truth of the human experience.

So, what if we took Lent as an opportunity to live in a new way. What if we gave up fear and anxiety for Lent?

Ha, you may be thinking, well that is a lot easier said than done. It is. I agree. I am the mother of young children, one of whom is about to be mobile. And his older sister will be going to kindergarten this fall. We live in CT. For all of us who have seen the faces of the parents of children who died at Sandy Hook, even sending a child to school is not without
its worries. I don’t think my life as a parent will ever be free from fear and anxiety. And there is truth in that for all of us, parents or not, no matter what age we are. Fear and anxiety are what come with loving deeply. When we care about someone, it scares us to imagine life without that person.

So when I suggest that we give up fear and anxiety, I am not suggesting that it is a simple matter of setting our minds and never looking back. As though we could just decide to stop being fearful or anxious. And yet I do think we have some choice about how much control fear and anxiety have in our lives. I think we can “give up” letting them be dominant forces in our lives. In fact, I think as Christians, we are called to focus on joy
and hope, rather than fear and anxiety. We are called to be messengers of peace, called to be light bearers in the world. Just as Christ did in the wilderness, we are called to resist the temptations of Satan. Those include the temptations of fear and anxiety.

Fear and anxiety can be terribly strong forces in our lives, IF, and only
if, we let them. As we are human beings who love deeply, we will never
be free from fear and anxiety. We can, however, be free from their stranglehold grip in our lives. We can refuse to give in to all the fearful “what ifs?” our imaginations can conjure up. We can choose abundance and life over scarcity and loss. We can trust that the love of God is stronger than death, stronger than anything. We can believe that the hope of Easter is always real, that God is at work, here and now, bringing about new life.

That is our choice. Will we be on the lookout for those stories that feed into our fears and anxiety or will be on the lookout for those things that fill us with hope? Will we give thanks for the innumerable blessings in our lives? For the privilege of being gathered in this place for worship, the privilege of being fed and supported by this community? Will we let ourselves be filled by hope – rejoicing in the creativity and ingenuity of others? If any of us
are need a little extra hope this Lent, may I suggest seeking out the small children in our lives or the Brendons [dogs] of our lives? There is nothing quite like the laughter and smiles of children or the love of a dog to restore the soul, to remind us that even when it seems that we are surrounded by tragedy and loss, there are always signs of hope, symbols of new life, if only we will look for them.