Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Are We Building a Fear-based Community? – the power of gossip and group fear

We are afraid.  I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but here in the United States we are afraid.  We live in one of the most secure countries in the world,  in one of the most secure geographical locations, surrounded by the world’s largest military complex, in the pinnacle of pinnacles of history in terms of wealth and material excess.  We throw away more food than most countries eat.  We make (and sell) more arms than any other country on earth, maybe more than all other countries.  We are a secure people who are terrified.

We not only buy and carry weapons, increasingly arguing about whether we should have the right to carry in schools and churches!  We fear people around the world.  We fear natural disaster.  And we fear crimes.

I like to blame the media.  It is fun to judge others, and I judge them guilty.

The moment of realization for me came when I did not have a television in Phoenix, but my congregation began to talk about kidnapping.  It was rampant.  Children were being snatched off the street.  People worried about our girls who did not even know them.  I was in a hospital room on a visit with an unconscious parishioner when I saw the cable news.

Kidnapping was everywhere!  Seven references in less than one minute.  Constant pictures of cute blonde girls and one little boy.  I was worried.  Then I noticed that there were only three pictures.  They were looping the same story constantly.  I looked it up online.  There were seven open cases at that moment.  The FBI agent I called said it was actually a low point in kidnapping as a national crime. It was just the news cycle.

Why do we invest so much in weapons?  Why do we idolize snipers and praise drones?  We have become a people of unjust war.  We have become a war culture.  We love Rome.  This is just plain reality.

We could point back to World War II.  Or we could blame communists.  We could look for capitalists under the blanket, but the truth is we, the American people, have become a culture of constant fear and violent reprisal.

I am a priest.  I am wearing all black except a little dash at my Adam’s apple of white.  I am a paid Christian, follower of Jesus.  Yet when I saw the news of ISIS online and read the reports, my instinct was war, bombs, murder.  I watched the beginning clip of the martyrdom of Ethiopian Christians before I was snapped out of my fervor.

“Witness” is what martyrdom means. It was the witness of the early church that we died for our faith rather than killing for it.  The Ethiopian martyrs were doing what we have done for two millennia.  But that is not my instinct.  I am more trained by Die Hard and the Terminator than Stephen and the early church.  And that concerns me deeply.

Am I willing to die for my faith?  Am I willing to say with Christ, “If it is me you seek, then let these men go”?  I am and I am not.

“Too long I have lived among the tents of Kedar,” said the Psalmist, “I am for peace, but when I talk about it, they only talk about war.”  I preached about this recently and made the tie to gossip.  Gossip is not the well meaning, Do you know what is going on?  It is the Did you hear about so and so  . . . ?  It is the sniping of the distant foe with news and rumors.  It is destructive to community as surely as war.

It is the same instinct: to protect something or gather a people we offer up a sacrifice, and that sacrifice is always someone else.  I caught myself a few years ago using little bits of gossip to connect with people.  I am still deeply ashamed to say that.  It was horrendous.  It was wrong.  It was an attempt to build community.

Paul Born in his book Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times (2014) names the communal responses to crisis as avoidance, shallow community, fear-based community, and deep community.  He points out that fear-based community is a perverse attempt at meeting the desire for deep community.  It is gathering a group around an enemy or perceived enemy or I would add the rumor of an enemy.

This little version that we get when we gossip is cheap community.  It does not deliver on the promises of community.  It cannot deliver trust, togetherness, support, outreach, justice, and peace.  It cannot deliver joy, but it does give us that cheap moment of being on the same side for a minute or two.  It feels like community.

We have turned this, like many vices, into a national past time.  My favorite eight feet in creation somedays is that line of magazines lined up for our downfall at the cashiers of grocery stores.  I can peruse the latest gossip about people I don’t know but judge viciously based on what I know to be half-truths, at best.  We may not know each other, but we can both agree that the Kardashians are horrible shallow people and that Jenner fellow needs our pity.

Let’s revel in our moment of togetherness.  Is this the wine of our age, the drink that lubricates our friendships?

To take one step further, open Facebook.   Look at the feeds that are gathering communities around fear.  Gay people and their allies, notice the language, fear religious people.  Religious people fear gay people.  Let’s share relevant news stories to make the point that they’re out to get us.  Look at what a violent criminal the latest black man was when the police shot him.  That cop should be afraid.  Look at those police in their special forces gear and their violence.  Be afraid.  And share this.  Like it?

We are told repeatedly in the gospel that we are not to be afraid and not to judge.  We are told to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.  We are told to build communities that cross the very lines that we use to define our fears.  We are told to be communities of love.

Our moral life is supposed to be based in our love.  We are to be a people of restraint, not seeking our desires and vengeance, but rather a simple people who offer forgiveness freely.  We are called to love strangers and to be open to people who are different from us, to serve them, to love them.  And to do this because God is that way toward us.

We have to admit our sins in order to confess them and be forgiven.  We have to admit our need in order to be healed.  We have to admit that we have become a people of fear, anxiety, worry.  We have to admit that we have become a people of violence, war, gossip, and lies.  And we have to do this because it is the way of Christ we seek to follow.

We know of no other name under heaven by which we might be saved. It is clear what we are to do and who we are to be.  But we are afraid.

In the last few years it has become clear to me how much fear is natural for human beings who begin to follow Jesus.  We are called into exactly the kind of places that make us the most fearful.  We have to learn to be a people of faith, trust.  We have to trust that God will watch over us, that we will be provided for without recourse to violence, and we have to trust that the Spirit will fill us with the love we need for those who terrify us, who anger us, who make us afraid.

Jesus came to his disciple in that locked room in John and breathed on them, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  The sins you hold on to, you hold on to.”

Do not be afraid.

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