Considering the Gospel in a Culture of Fear

[1] “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:28-33)

[2] “Consider the lilies….” The invitation seems a luxury at a time when there are so many other images competing for our attention, images that are cruel and confounding, images that show us the darker side of human nature.

[3] Some are global images that bombard us from newspapers and the media. Consider the digital photographs documenting American treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Consider the images of the World Trade Towers, woven into the woolen fabrics of Afghan rugs and now on sale in San Francisco’s Mission District. Consider Wall Street worries about the FUD factor, the toll that Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt take on the stock market. Consider a “war” that is was declared over a year ago, but is still going on, demanding more American troops and more American dollars.

[4] These are complex images. They don’t pack nicely into moving cartons labeled “church” and “family” and “politics”; they all jumble together, resisting neat categories. And we can’t turn these images off with a click of the remote; they haunt us in the night hours. The fields to which we are called have more than lilies. There are a lot more sinister images to consider.

[5] And yet the lilies Jesus invites us to consider may be more real than our fears. In his book The Culture of Fear (NY: Basic Books, 1999) sociologist Barry Glassner muses on the manufacturing of fear. He identifies the peddlers who create, manipulate, and profit from people’s anxieties, deflecting our attention from other concerns. We know from the news that “if it bleeds, it leads,” and reporters hype an incident of workplace violence with stories that begin: “How can you be sure the person sitting next to you at work won’t go over the edge and bring an Uzi to the office tomorrow?” The obvious answer is: “You can’t!”

[6] Since church offices are also workplaces, we all ought to be shuddering in our chasubles and albs every Sunday. In fact, however, fewer than one in twenty homicides occurs at a workplace. A relatively rare crime rents an inordinate amount of space in our anxiety closets. Glassner concludes that Americans are deeply afraid – but afraid about the wrong things. Too much money has followed the trail of our fears, diverted from real projects that desperately need attention, like anti-poverty measures and child welfare. In our gullibility, we have only ourselves to blame. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we have become captive to the fears of our own creation. The anxieties we ourselves have conjured now possess us.

[7] I want to consider one of the images that haunts us, because it illustrates two by-products of the culture of fear: a mentality of scarcity and the presentation of the other as Enemy. I don’t need to reproduce this image in print or beam it onto a screen. This image is embedded in our minds and our hearts. It is the image of the hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on a box with wires taped to his fingers. The captive was told that if he stepped off the box, he would be electrocuted. The photo was snapped in an instant, but we can imagine it was time-lapse photography, because the man was made to stand there for hours in the same posture. And so he did, fear fighting against exhaustion, terrified that any false step would jolt him to death. It is an image that is cruel and telling. The cruelty was intentional, even if commanded, abrogating international accords that are meant to safeguard human treatment of prisoners.

[8] But the image is also telling, because superimposed onto the captive’s terror is the fear of his captors. I have tried – we have all tried — to understand the psyche of the people who perpetrated such cruelty. The pictures tell us not simply how well they could terrorize someone else; they tell us how terrified the torturers were themselves. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib knew their own vulnerability. Notice how commentators speak of the atmosphere in the prison: the soldiers were underslept and unprepared, they were under- supported and unrested, they were unsupervised and untrained for the task shoved in their faces. A litany of scarcity engenders their terror. And this, all of it, is most certainly true. But the pictures speak a thousand words: the soldiers were terrified. And terrified in a culture that would not allow them to admit their fears. Fear fueled their cruelty; cruelty spiked the fear of retaliation. Between soldiers and prisoners there was a mutual exchange of fear that turned the persecuted into the persecutor, the terrorist into the terrorized – and back again in a vicious circle of evil. Fear locks both parties – the captor and the captive – into a cell for which no one has the key.

[9] Herein lies the rationale – and really it is an ir-rationale – of the culture of fear. But the fear that such scarcity promulgates takes on a life of its own: those who manufacture fear ultimately wind up in its thrall.

[10] How are we to consider the Gospel in this culture of fear? Particularly a Gospel that urges upon us the seeming luxury of “considering the lilies….” What stands in opposition to this culture of fear? Surprisingly, the opposite of fear is not gung-ho, guts-out courage. No, courage does not counter fear; it only repackages it. The poet T.S. Eliot put it well in “Gerontion”: “Neither fear nor courage saves us.” I will put it more crassly: courage is only fear with a bad make-up job, industrial strength mascara that runs like a faucet when you cry – or when you bleed.

[11] In order for courage to function it needs enemies; it feeds on enemies – in fact, it will create enemies – even when they are not there! – in order to display itself front and center. I’ve observed leaders who were merely courageous, and like Don Quixote they thrust their lances at a merry-go-round of revolving windmills. One week it’s the church council; the next week it’s the organist; then the evangelical community church down the street poaching potential members. Finally, even the bishop masquerades as the prince of demons. This may be a strategy for effective combat, but it is not a strategy for missional leadership. And at the bottom of it all is fear: fear of losing members, fear of losing face, fear of losing standing, fear of losing friends. This is how a culture of fear regards the world: all the world’s an enemy – or at best a competitor. Don’t be a leader who is merely courageous.

[12] Be a leader who considers the Gospel and the world it displays. In this world the opposite of fear is not courage but trust – which translated into theological terms as faith. Faith regards the other – not as enemy – but as faithful disciples and present neighbors. Indeed, to women and men of faith, all the world’s a neighbor. Faith turns the litany of scarcity into a celebration of abundance.

[13] Jesus was born into a culture of fear himself. If you’ve seen “The Passion according to Mel Gibson,” you know that the Roman occupation of Palestine was far more brutal than the American occupation in Iraq. Rulers, Roman and Jewish alike, ruled in fear of the violence of the mob. The ordinary peasant worried about where the next meal would come from, whether their children would survive childhood, for this was the only social security system available in the ancient world. Poverty was grinding, and it had religious ramifications. If one couldn’t afford to sacrifice at the Temple and pay taxes to both Roman and Jewish leaders, the inference was that God had rejected that person as well.

[14] Jesus began his ministry in a culture of fear. Therefore, the words Jesus spoke most frequently to his anxious crew are worth hearing again today, because they so directly address the fears of our own time. Indeed, Jesus repeated these words so often he sounds like a broken record, but they function as bookends to the journey of discipleship. They are the first words Jesus says to his disciples – and the last. The words are simply: “Follow me.” And the corollary command, spoken almost as often, is Christians’ secret weapon against a culture of fear: “Be not anxious,” or “Be not afraid.” I like to think of these two commands as the positive and negative statements of discipleship, the “thou- shalt” and “thou- shalt-not” of following Jesus. One reminds us of the way into discipleship; the other points the way out of the labyrinth of fear.

[15] Following Jesus the disciples met the God to whom he prayed. The name of this God had been unpronounceable in Jewish liturgy, but Jesus not only spoke it aloud, but named God as “Father.” The ancient world remanded to fathers responsibility for providing for the needs of their children, and disciples should expect nothing less from God. The Father of the whole creation provides for it, sustains it, and delights in it. In this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus details a divine abundance. “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” “Are you not of more value than they?” “Will God not much more clothe you?”

[16] The words relate no litany of scarcity, but a celebration of abundance. Each of these declarations of divine surplus cancels out a fear, heaves a huge worry out of the anxiety closet. And I’m sure seminary graduates could rattle off the divine attributes of God is rapid-fire succession – you know, that catalogue of “Omni-“s; that God is all-knowing or omniscient; that God is all-powerful or omnipotent; that God is everywhere and omni-present. But Jesus here adds an attribute that can’t be catalogued as an “Omni-“. It doesn’t even exist as a noun. Indeed, this attribute frames a whole divine habit of being. It is the attribute of divine abundance, summed up in the words “how much more!” “How much more” will God provide for you – trust in that! Take that to the bank! In his miracles, his multiplication of loaves and fishes, the lavish outpouring of oil on his feet, the reckless turning of water into wine, in many and various ways, Jesus demonstrates a God whose abundance exceeds our wildest expectations. All you got to do is say: “Yes! Thank you! I’ll have one of those!”

[17] I remember the remarks Dr. Robert Goeser made at his retirement dinner almost a decade ago. Dr. Goeser remained so convinced of this divine attribute of abundance that it had become the lens which he viewed his own life. Nothing had followed the script he’d written for himself at his own graduation from Yale University forty years before. Nothing! But “how much more” it all added up to. This was the refrain of a disciple whose vision had been tutored by long and faithful consideration of the lilies.

[18] “Consider the lilies…..” It’s not a luxury then, is it? Considering the lilies is the lifeblood of discipleship, and it’s effect is two-fold. First, it uncoils a heart turned in on itself, which Martin Luther famously called the cor incurvatus in se. What does he mean? Think of the inner workings of a Swiss watch, the tightly coiled springs of densely packed energy that pulse the watch forward. My heart has felt like that at times. Obsession and fear and anxiety wrap the heartstrings around themselves in a huge, confused knot: “What will we eat?” “What will we drink?” “What will we wear?” “When will the troops come home?” “When will this war be over?” “How will we pay off all these debts?” “Where will we find a first call?” It’s the hard-wiring of narcissism: in my fear, everything is all about ME ME ME!

[19] Of course, if God provides for our every need, then disciples are relieved of that desperate scramble for survival. All we need to do is long for God, and that habit of longing unbends the strings of the heart and creates a space where Christ might enter and dwell. Twelve Step programs have awkwardly but accurately spoken of this as “that God-shaped hole” inside of us, and they warn of the temptation to stuff that hole with all manner of false gods and false promises to confer security. St. Augustine spoke more eloquently of “a holy longing for God” and the space that longing creates. The more we yearn for the God in whom we place our trust, the larger that space becomes. A heart turned in on itself slowly unbends to reach for the subject of its longing: God.

[20] Here is a second effect of considering the lilies. The consequence of this “holy longing” is the freedom to attend to the neighbor. After all, if God will provide, then our needs are taken care of. The other no longer bears the face of the Enemy, threatening our security and our very earthly existence. Nor is the other the Competitor for scarce resources. Faith removes the hood of anonymity from both captor and captive alike, revealing there the face of the neighbor, child of God, creature of the same creator. The familiar prayer in the liturgy runs – “in faith toward you and fervent love for one another,” but it is really the case that faith in God enables, even compels love of the neighbor. For it is when we trust in God – and relieve ourselves of the awesome responsibility of providing for ourselves — that we are freed to see the other as neighbor – and nothing less.

[21] Generosity is that spacious habit of human nature that welcomes the other as neighbor, that opens oneself to the neighbor, and that discovers in the face of the neighbor the face of Christ. I would tell you to be generous leaders, but the most accurate way to put that is not a command: “Be generous.” Nor is it as statement of fact: “You can be generous leaders, because God has been generous with you.” Rather it’s a Declaration of Independence, releasing you from fear and freeing you for life with abundance.

[22] Finally, considering the Gospel in a culture of fear means that we discover the wild Gospel culture of generosity. I hope that in the time you have spent with us you have been infected with that spirit of abundance. I think Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary embodies it: This institution has done more with less than any I’ve ever seen. I hope you catch our “can-do” attitude and our joyous spirit of “what-the hellness” – that invite our constituency to come to us with their ideas, because we have a Gospel recklessness that says “Hey, let’s try it!” At its best, we regard the other not as Enemy but Co-Conspirator in the ranks of God’s boisterous disciples. It’s attitude with a capital “J”, for Jesus was the one who thumbed his nose at powers and principalities, refused to give in, managed to celebrate the night before he died, and cook breakfast for his disciples after he rose from the dead. Make the Last Supper and the First Breakfast icons of your ministry, and be not afraid of suffering, nor of celebration either. Practice that wild joy that marks those who trust in a God that does provide -and provides with characteristic wild abandon.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).