Sermon preached on January 18, 2015
by Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney,
Willow Grove Presbyterian Church, Scotch Plains, New Jersey
Images are from Powerpoint used during the sermon
Fear- What are you afraid of?
(some responses from congregation – falling, being assaulted, losing my job, war, dying, someone I love getting hurt or dying, terrorist attack)
These are realities and worries that can make us feel afraid. Dr. King lived with realities that could cause most people to be afraid. Today I am going to share parts of his sermon entitled, “Antidotes to Fear” found in a collection of his sermons Strength to Love. Every year in January I read some of his sermons. His words challenge me in my faith journey as a Christian and as a pastor. Today’s sermon is based on I John 4, specifically verse 18.
11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us….. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
This week around our country, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be remembered in school assemblies, church services, newspaper articles and in public memorial services. Many will hear his vision, his valor and his courage and will be motivated and asked to do something, to make a difference through acts of service, acts of kindness and acts of justice. In our community our church and many of us will participate in the MLK Day of Service here in Scotch Plains and Fanwood.
I have been inspired throughout my life by Rev. King because of his vision, his courage and his leadership in the Civil Rights movement, but also because of his Christian faith which motivated and sustained him to go forward and fight for justice. I grew up in Southern California in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic community and schools. I did not see blatant racism or segregation growing up, but I have come to realize I need to listen to Dr. King’s words and listen to the stories of people of color to have a deeper understanding of the past and the present. I need to listen so I can more genuinely be about the work of building the Beloved Community and fulfilling God’s vision of shalom.
Martin Luther King was the son of a Baptist pastor who was licensed to preach in 1947 when he was just 19 years old. In 1948 and became the Associate pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church where he served with his father. He graduated from Morehouse College and then Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania where he would receive his Bachelor of Divinity degree.
In 1954 he was appointed as the twentieth pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, after receiving a PhD in Systematic Theology from Boston University. In 1960 the family would move back to Atlanta where Rev. King would again serve as co-pastor with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and as director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference until his assassination in 1968.
Throughout his career as a Baptist minister and pastor, I imagine Rev. King doing all the typical pastoral duties and functions that are part of the calling and the job. As a man with a deep and abiding Christian faith I imagine him spending time in prayer, reflection, Bible study, and sermon preparation. He would have spent time visiting church members in their homes, making hospital and nursing home visits, counseling and praying with people during times of crisis or ill health. He would have done funerals, weddings, served Communion and performed Baptisms. He most likely spent hours in meetings at the church. I imagine him at a Church Council meeting involved in ordinary but important conversations that all churches discuss such as the Sunday School curriculum or a plumbing problem.
But there was something else that Rev. Dr. King had to deal with that went beyond the typical pastor’s job description. It is something I have not had to face. It was something he couldn’t ignore or dismiss. Martin Luther King had to deal with racism, racial injustice and the fear and the hate of segregation. While he was a pastor, husband and father, the Civil Rights movement was picking up speed and Rev. King was compelled to speak out and to get involved. As Rev. King spoke out more often, he began to feel the effects of his public words upon a community filled with fear and hate. Twice bombs were thrown onto the porch of his home; many threats on his life. All because of the color of his skin.
And he saw many black African Americans with a growing hate and fear of many whites. And he saw many white people with a growing sense of fear and hatred of black people. Certainly not all but many.
I wonder if Dr. King was ever afraid.
There was a great deal to be afraid of. Nothing seemed to stop him, but fear could have paralyzed him, and he could have just continued on quietly as a pastor at a church or as a professor at a university. But fear did not stop this man of faith and of conviction and so what was his antidote for fear? There is still fear all around us and within us.
What are Pastor King’s words to us about fear? (1)
In a sermon entitled Antidotes for Fear, Pastor King says we are to:
This sermon, with these four antidotes for fear are based on 1 John 4:18 , “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
He begins this sermon presenting the problem of fear. King says:
In these days of catastrophic change and calamitous uncertainty, is there any man who does not experience the depression and bewilderment of crippling fear, which like a nagging hound of hell, pursues our every footstep?
He goes on to list a number of fears; fears about our physical health and well being, as well as threats from the physical world. He mentions our phobias, our emotional and mental fears, our economic fears, our religious fears, the fear of the atomic bomb and the fear of death. But Pastor King also challenges us to see how fear can be healthy.
King says: “Fear is a powerfully creative force. Every great invention and intellectual advance represents a desire to escape from some dreaded circumstance or condition. The fear of darkness led to the discovery of the secret of electricity. The fear of pain led to the marvelous advances of medical science. The fear of ignorance was one reason that man built great institutions of learning. The fear of war was one of the forces behind the birth of the United Nations. Angelo Patri has rightly said, “Education consists in being afraid at the right time.” If man were to lose his capacity to fear, he would be deprived of his capacity to grow, invent and create. So in a sense fear is normal, necessary and creative.”
King explains using snakes as his example, saying that there are normal fears and abnormal fears; a fear of snakes in the Amazon is a normal fear if you live in the Amazon, but a fear of snakes in a city apartment under your bed is abnormal. He summarizes “normal fear protects us: abnormal fear paralyzes us.”[ I think this is interesting and a challenge – for us to think about how our own fears are healthy. Pastor King then suggests that we not try to get rid of our fears, but to master them and he gives us these four antidotes to fear:
Face our fears
Master fear through love
Be filled with faith in God
First we must face our fears and ask why we are afraid. Many of us have fears and many of us spend wasted years finding ways around them, rather than confronting them head on and going through them. We avoid things, imagine all kinds of things and often make it worse. We are fearful even take the first steps, because fear controls our mind and we don’t even want to think about it. Fears may have come from experiences in childhood. King points out that we will never be cured of our fears by escapism, but that confrontation will give us power over our fear.
The second antidote to fear is to master our fear through the use of courage. Courage is the power of the mind to overcome fear. Not all our fears are imaginary ones. There is pain in this world; there are unjust systems and unfair practices that still affect our lives. We live in an anxiety filled culture. We can see natural disasters or the results of terrorism or war up close and personal, in color on CNN, moments after they have happened. King says that “courage is an inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations” and he challenges us to “build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”
Third, fear is mastered by love. Rev. King turns to his text in 1 John 4: 18 “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” and then he goes on to explain the strength of this perfect love. King explains that “love” was not a mamby pamby wishy washy sentimental love. Love was not the cheap love we see splashed all over the pink and red cards and candy that are already displayed in the drugstores for Valentines’ Day. He was talking about a perfect love, a redemptive love evidenced in the type of love that Jesus Christ displayed on the cross. King preached and spoke often about this kind of strong love – this agape love which is the highest form of love that would change the world. And it is his last antidote for fear that will sustain us and help us practice that love.
The last antidote for fear is that which is mastered through faith. King believed that it was faith that will sustain us and give us that inner resolve to keep going. Our faith gives us additional and powerful spiritual resources to use in a fear-filled world and he says this: “…A positive religious faith does not offer an illusion that we shall be exempt from pain and suffering, nor does it imbue us with the idea that life is a drama of unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease. Rather it instills us with the inner equilibrium needed to face strains, burdens, and fears that inevitably come and assures us that the universe is trustworthy and God is concerned.”
Face our fears -Be courageous – Master fear through love – Be filled with faith in God
And he continues with these eloquent and comforting words:
“Above the manyness of time stands the one eternal God, with wisdom to guide us, strength to protect us, and love to keep us. His boundless love supports and contains us as a mighty ocean contains and supports the tiny drops of every wave. With a surging fullness he is forever moving toward us, seeking to fill the little creeks and bays of our lives with unlimited resources. …Any man who finds this cosmic sustenance can walk the highways of life without the fatigue of pessimism and the weight of morbid fears.”
It is this kind of courageous, perfect love and faith that changed the world through the actions of Jesus Christ and also sustained the hard work of Rev. King through all the real fears that could have stopped him. May that same love do the same for you. May we join our voices and our actions together to lean into the reality of the Beloved Community and the fullness of Dr. King’s Dream. May your faith “transform(s) the whirlwind of your despair into a warm and reviving breeze of hope.” Amen.
Quotes are from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Antidotes for Fear, Strength to Love © 2010 Fortress Press, 1963 original publication date, and © 1981, pages 119-132.
(1) Consideration of “Antidotes for Fear,” By the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rev. Deborah J. Blanchard, First Baptist Church of Littleton, MA http://fbclittleton.org/antidotesfear.html Parts of this sermon were adapted for today’s sermon.