"Overcoming Fear" - Pentecost 24A
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
November 19, 2017 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Matthew 25:14-20

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: November 19, 2017, Pentecost 24A

Judges 4:1-9, Matthew 25:14-30



Overcoming Fear


            “I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, and so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” So the servant gestures to the talent before him, which he had recently unearthed with the news of his masters’ arrival. We’re not talking about one tiny coin. We’re talking about the equivalent of fifteen years’ wages, a veritable buried treasure. Buried out of fear of his master. Fear of what the master might do to him if he failed. Fear based on an image of the master as exploitative and greedy. The servant, with a way to justify doing nothing risky, doing the cautious, temperate thing, takes what he has been entrusted with and buries it in the ground.


            Except the master is not pleased with his caution. The first two servants have doubled what was entrusted to them (One wonders what would have happened to them if they had failed. Would the Master have said to them, ‘At least you tried’? Or would he have taken it out of their hide?). After these glowing successes, the master turns to the third servant who has simply hidden the money, and declares him to be “wicked” and “hestitatingly fearful”. (The Greek word translated “lazy” by our NRSV may not be the best translation – it may refer better to paralyzing fearfulness.) Out of fear of failure, the servant doesn’t even bother to try.


            Fear can make us do some incredibly foolish things, based on our survival instincts. We’ve all heard of the fight-or-flight response. But there are at several more “f’s” that describe possible responses to fear. Fight, flight, freeze, and feed. So easily, like the servant, we can feel fear paralyzing us into inaction, lying to us, telling us our efforts our futile, that there is nothing we can do.


            Once upon a time, there was a high school football team in a small Midwestern town that was one of the worst teams in the state. They eked out a win in their first game, but were subsequently blown out in nearly every other game. Even their long-time arch rivals, which were the punching bag for the rest of the conference, beat them. After the first couple humiliating losses, any sense of spirit or pride in the team died. In a videotape session discussing a particular opponent, the head coach reminded the players that another team that was having an off-year had defeated their opponent fairly handily. But out of paralyzing, rationalizing fear, one of the senior players responded by saying, “But that team is usually good.” There were murmurs of agreement. The coach, furious and exasperated, pointed out that the player’s self-defeating attitude was infecting the rest of the team. Nevertheless, the coach could not “right the ship”, and the team lost all their remaining games.


            When are we like that player and rationalize our refusal to try? When are we so afraid of losing what we have that we bury our treasure in the ground, refusing to engage with our community, our church, or our world? All too often we seem to be like that player and like the servant from the gospel, so afraid to try that we fail from lack of trying.


            For a counter example, look at the story of Deborah and Barak. Deborah, a prophet, commands Barak to take Israel’s armies to counter a foreign threat – a threat that was technologically superior. Barak initially wavers, telling Deborah that he needs her with him as the representative and carrier of God’s word. She goes with him, and Barak wins victory, driving the commander, Sisera, into the tent of Jael, where he meets a rather grisly end. Barak is able to conquer his fears with the presence of God through the prophet with him.


            Too often, we think that we’re on our own, like the servant from the Gospel. But in truth, we are more like Barak. God sometimes calls us to risk, to put our faith out there, to invest in relationships, neighborhoods, and communities that we might rather feel to not be worth the effort. Indeed, we may not see much visible effort when we invest in these relationships. Mother Teresa often felt that her efforts with the poor in India were futile. Worse, she felt that God had abandoned her. Her correspondence in the book Come Be My Light describes perhaps the most intense case of the dark night of the soul on record – being a feeling of God’s absence and the futility of one’s work. Nevertheless, she continued her work. God was with her, even when she could not sense his presence at all, just as God was with Barak when he confronted the army of Sisera.


            In Isaiah 55, God promises that his word will not return void to him. When we risk using what God has given us for the sake of others, God promises a return. We may not notice the return at the time. Others may not either. The first missionary to Sweden, St. Ansgar, did not see any success in his lifetime. He died believing himself to be a failure. Yet he is remembered for planting the seed of the Gospel in that place. Even if others don’t remember how we have used what we have been given, God remembers – and God knows just how we have impacted others for the sake of the life-giving gospel.


            We can then let go of our fear of failure, our fear of investing emotional and spiritual energy and seeing no return. After all, Jesus himself apparently died in failure and disgrace – but through him God began a movement which continues to bring salvation to the world. God has given us what we need. Let’s not bury it in the ground. Let’s use what we’ve been given – this building, our possessions, our faith, our abilities – for the sake of the neighbor. In doing so, we will live out the Gospel. Amen.


© 2017, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.