Sunday, April 27, 2014

Fear and Freedom

I Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31
 Preached at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
April 27, 2014

We are born with two instinctual fears: fear of falling and fear of loud noises. We learn to be afraid of other things. We learn to trust the same as we learn to fear. Life is all about learning.

In my lifetime I have learned to fear rejection and abandonment.  We all have our biggest fears and those have been mine. Many trained therapists through the years have listened to me talking about how those fears have gripped me and tossed me about.  So you’ll understand when I tell you I was sick with fear, shocked into a near panic in December of 2008, when I received a letter from a United Church of Christ conference minister telling me that I had officially lost my standing as a minister in that denomination. Rejected and abandoned.

A confusing and frustrating three-year process had led to that letter and the termination of my ministry with that particular denomination. “Somebody from a previous congregation has written a letter of complaint,” I was told from the beginning of the process. I was never told who wrote the letter nor was I told what the complaint was. I knew I had never stolen anything from a church member. There was no abuse of my authority involving sexual misconduct. There was no drunken behavior that might have shocked or embarrassed anyone. Repeatedly I met with a conference committee on ministry in an effort to mend what was broken. My local pastor, Cheryl Cornish, went with me to several of those meetings as an advocate. Friends wrote letters of support. But the dye was cast. Every time I asked, “What are the charges against me?” I got the same response from the conference minister, “You know the answer to that.”

When the letter of termination arrived in the mail it read: “She acts confused about things she knows and she seems angry with this committee.” I was. 

Losing my standing as a minister in the United Church of Christ felt like the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It left me feeling a little crazy…what had happened? It made no sense and that cloud of uncertainty would not lie down and settle. There was no one smart enough to explain it to me. There was no one powerful enough to fix things. I lost confidence in the church and its systems. I lost confidence in myself. I lost my career, my income, my pension and my health insurance. I felt like my life had ended. Hiding felt like the best response. 

t would be years before I learned that that confusing process and the loss of my ministerial standing with the UCC was a gift to my faith, a light pointing the way to deeper faith.
Because now my ministerial standing is with the Progressive Christian Alliance, a group of professional clergy who engage in ministry outside the walls of church buildings, who believe that good news is most effectively offered and received out in the streets and in the places where people actually live. I have discovered places where my light can shine and make a difference. I am now involved in work and ministry that fits me like a glove. 

I am guessing that many of you have had similar challenges in life. Loss of a career, the death of a dream, injustice, sickness, betrayal, divorce, tragedy that turned the lights out and left you in a dark place—afraid of falling, afraid of loud noises, afraid of what else might come along and knock the foundation out from under your life. 

Of course we resist, for as long as possible, the very idea that we could ever fall or fail. None of us graduate from college and make failure part of our career plan. I think I’ll become a professional failure in 2008. No. But Richard Rohr, in his book, Falling Upward, tells us that falling and failure are important for all of us if we are ever to wake up and realize the value of our faith. In fact, falling and failure are the keys that open the door to let light into our darkness. 

Rohr points out that we all seek security. As we get educated and move along in our careers, we plan on moving toward home, a safe place, a place to belong. But Rohr says we’re inviting fear into our lives if our largest hope is security and a place to stay put. For the spiritually awake and alive, home is a place from which we move out and away- following the one with the nail scarred hands and feet. 

This is what I have learned… the fear I felt as a result of that rejection and abandonment left me nowhere to go but to ask for God’s help. I had to learn to trust love. It wasn't helpful to trust smart people. Nothing was resolved or aided by trusting powerful people. There was really no point in trusting my own rule-keeping and ethical behavior. I was forced to move more deeply into my own spiritual resources where I found Jesus meeting me right where my needs were, showing me his own wounds and reminding me that he knows all too well what it feels like to be treated unfairly, to be rejected and abandoned. Prayer, good friends, creative projects and therapy have reassured me that the God who created me will never reject or abandon me. I have no need to fear.

Following the crucifixion, the disciples were afraid and hiding in the dark behind locked doors. Confusion was huge in the mix of their fear. What could possibly have gone wrong? They had been with the Messiah, the one sent from God, the beloved. And if he could be arrested, convicted, executed … gone… what else might happen in this terrible world?

Jesus walked right through the locked doors and right into the room where the disciples were. He met them where their fears were - not with judgment or any kind of shaming. He showed all of them his hands, his feet and his side, pierced and wounded, so they could see and believe, learn to trust something more. 

Love cannot be executed. Love is never gone. We can let go of our fears and learn to trust love. And when we do, we will experience true freedom, moving out and following love wherever it takes us.