STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH FEBRUARY 21, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram LENT 1
WORSHIPPING TOGETHER AT HOME
If you wish, you may set up 7 candles. Traditionally, the colour of the candles is purple, but any colour will do if you don’t have purple. Light them all prior to worship and extinguish one the first week after the Call to Worship. Remember to blow them all out following the benediction. The following week you will only light 6 candles and extinguish one, etc. By Good Friday, all the candles will be extinguished symbolizing the death of Jesus who is the Light of the World.
Call to Worship: written by the Rev. Mary Whitson for PWSD
L: Lent is a journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, toward resurrection and new life.
We will be transformed and blessed on this journey.
P: We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are travelers on the road.
L: We undertake the journey knowing we will not remain the same.
P: We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are travelers on the road.
L: The journey will take time. We will feel the strain in our bodies and in our souls, yet love will urge us onward.
P: We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are travelers on the road.
L: Let us start the journey with prayer:
All: God of all times and places, as we begin the pilgrimage from life to death to new life,
you will surprise us and nurture us.
We put our trust in you, knowing you will guide and provide for us.
In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
Extinguish the first candle of Lent.
(To learn more about the work of Presbyterian World Service and Development (PWSD)
read the story that follows the benediction).
Hymn: We Praise You O God
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Holy God, you are our refuge and strength, present to us in times of trouble.
You are our guardian and our protector.
You never leave us or forsake us.
You provide for all our needs.
You came in Jesus Christ to save us from death; we live with the promise of eternal life.
You come in the Holy Spirit, to sanctify us, encourage us, pray for us, empower us, give us words to speak and advocate for us.
We worship you for all you are and for being engaged in our lives.
We confess that although you are the one who can destroy both our body and our soul, we do not fear you, yet we are afraid of many things.
We get anxious in the face of change, clinging to our old ways.
We are fearful of what you may call us to do.
We live as cautious people.
We worry a lot about the state of our planet, our finances, our families, our health, CoVid and so many other things.
Our fear reflects our lack of faith in you and in your promises. Forgive us.
As we worship today, fill us with confidence in you. Help us to trust your word to us. Help us to rest in your assurance and care.
We remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who are also worshipping at this time; thank you that we are one, just as you are one.
May our worship be a gift which brings joy to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 91 selected verses
You who sit down in the High God’s presence,
Who spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow,
“God, you’re my refuge.
I trust in you and I’m safe!”
Fear nothing—not wild wolves in the night,
not flying arrows in the day,
Not disease that prowls through the darkness,
not disaster that erupts at high noon.
God says, “Call me and I’ll answer, I’ll be at your side in bad times;
I’ll give you a long life,
I’ll give you a long drink of salvation!”
Prayer for Illumination: God of Power, as we listen to your word give us the courage to profess our faith, to live as Jesus taught and to follow in his footsteps, even as they lead to the cross. Amen.
1 Samuel 12: 11 – 25
1 John 4: 17 – 31
Matthew 25: 14 – 30
Message: Unchallenged Sin: Fear
This week we begin the season of Lent. Lent is a period of 40 days reminding us of the Israelites years of wandering in the wilderness and Jesus’ days in the desert. It’s a time for self-examination and penitence as we reflect on the reason Jesus had to die – to redeem each person from sin and death. There are many sins which the Church readily condemns; for instance, pride, lust, greed, gluttony, envy, wrath, and sloth are among the top 7 which the Roman Catholic Church considers deadly. There are also sins with which the Church seems content to live. Perhaps we don’t think of them as sin or see them as damaging. Maybe they’re so universal that we’ve silently conspired to let them go. After all, everyone does them. It’s as if we signed a secret pact to ignore these innate human traits. But what is sin, if not an innate human trait? While the Church focuses on the big 7 (especially lust – we really seem to like that one), many others go unchallenged. Some sins that fall into this category include fear, apathy, lying, entitlement, excess, vanity, and insecurity. Over the next 7 weeks, we’ll be reflecting on these tendencies to which we normally turn a blind eye.
Today we’re looking at the sin of fear. Fear is quite prevalent in our world. As I sit down to write this sermon, I’m fearful I won’t have anything to say about fear. The command “do not be afraid” along with it’s many variations such as “fear not” or “do not worry” is the most repeated instruction in the Bible. I’ve never counted but it’s been said that some form of “do not be afraid” appears 365 times in scripture, once for every day of the year. If that’s true, it’s quite appropriate. I suspect most people feel some form of fear, anxiety or worry every day. It may be fleeting or pervasive, but fear passes through everyone’s filter more often than we like to admit. The cartoon character Charlie Brown once said “I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.” Not only are we fearful every day, we are fearful for days on end. Throw in a virus on a pandemic scale, and we’re fearful 24/7.
It’s odd to call sin a fear because fear is an instinct and instincts are God-given gifts. Without a sense of fear, we wouldn’t register danger. In an abandoned alley at night, we’d saunter along until the shadowy figure running behind us put a gun to our back. We’d jump off tall buildings onto concrete. We’d let our children wander into traffic. Failure would be our top goal. We wouldn’t register that there’s something creepy about clowns. Some fear is good and necessary for us to live well. In his grace, God has given us the instinct to be cautious and protective.
Like many of God’s good gifts, fear can become distorted. In the extreme, fear becomes phobia. We can have extreme fears about things like clouds (nephophobia), knees (genuphobia), or small holes clustered close together (trypophobia). You’ll notice I didn’t mention snakes, because a fear of snakes is the only sane response to a legless reptile that hides under bushes, flattens out to slide under a door or comes up a drain, to poison you, squeeze you to death or swallow you whole. Some phobias are not a problem (just avoid snakes). Serious phobias though, interfere with one’s ability to function and are often the result of emotional trauma. Just as a justified, healthy sense of fear isn’t a sin, neither is a phobia sin. Phobia is an illness. Illnesses, including phobias, may exist because the world is in a fallen state, but a clinical phobia is not something people choose or something over which they have control. If you have a real phobia that affects your life, ask God for strength and healing to overcome your affliction and see a specialist.
So, is it fair to label fear a sin? If so what types of fear would be included? When we say “fear is a sin, we’re talking about fear that keeps us from trusting; anxiety that overwhelms us, sometimes for no reason; endless fretting and paralyzing worry. Fear causes us to lose sleep; to take the familiar path; to avoid situations we may enjoy. Fear weakens our immune system and can cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems, and even decreased fertility. It can lead to accelerated aging and even premature death. Fear can impair memory and brain function. Fear may cause depression. Fear robs us of hope, joy, and faith. Fear keeps us from stepping out or speaking out in Jesus’ name. In all these ways, our fears work against God’s will for us. Fear does not lead to abundant life. In fact, fear resists the fullness of life Christ offers and so in this way, fear is sin.
In the parable of the talents, 3 people are given a sum of money, 5K, 2K and 1K, to invest. The person with the most money has the most to lose. He invests his money and is able to present 10K when the CEO returns. The second one also has a 100% profit to show for his efforts. The third man had taken his 1K, dug a hole in his backyard and buried the money, ensuring not a cent would be lost. When the boss gets back, the third steward retrieves the money and presents it to him expecting his praise, but the CEO is livid with him for the excessive caution he’s shown. He tells the man that he could have at least opened a bank account and made a little interest. In his anger he punishes the man. Now listen to the man’s reason for burying the money, “Sir, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money” (Matthew 25: 24 & 25). I was afraid. And of what was he fearful? That he would disappoint his boss, by not meeting his standards. He was afraid to fail. Perhaps he worried the boss would express anger, or he’d lose his job. But at the core of it all he was afraid to take a risk. And look at what his fear caused him to do. He hid what he had been given; he literally buried it.
Now, I doubt Jesus was giving investment tips. He was talking about life and in life more dreams are destroyed by fear than by failure. We don’t reach our goals, fulfill our potential or achieve anything without risk. When you think about it, life is one big gamble. We don’t know the outcome of anything we set out to do. Whether you’re the baby sticking her fist in her mouth for the first time, the child joining a soccer team, the teen asking someone to the prom, the young adult choosing a career or a spouse or a home – it’s all a risk. Then we have kids, change jobs, make new friends – who knows how things will turn out? Not to mention the risks inherent in the complexities of life. Do I confront the person who has wounded me? Do I take the chemo treatment? Do I apologize and risk the possibility of rejection? Do I go to AA when even doing it “one day at a time” looks highly unlikely? Do I invest in a business deal, even if I could be cheated? How many people stay in a miserable, loveless marriage swallowing their anger because getting out is too frightening a prospect? And risk doesn’t stop as we age. We move into a senior’s residence, undergo life-threatening surgery, keep our spouse with Alzheimer’s at home, or our life partner dies. The only way we can ensure that we’ll never be hurt, never be lonely, never get cheated, never fail, never disappoint someone and avoid all catastrophe is to do nothing. But then, doing nothing causes it’s own chain reaction. As with the man in the parable, it often brings down on us the very thing we were trying to avoid. We may fail regardless. The results we seek don’t happen because doing nothing, or doing nothing new, produces nothing. Someone may be angry at us. We may lose our job or our health or our spouse.
Instead of finding new life, using our gifts and reaching our potential, fear causes us to take all our God-given abilities, personality and potential and hide it. Fear makes us take our “self”, the “self” God created to be a blessing to this world and bury it in the ground well before we’re physically dead. Fear kills our spirit. Fear keeps us from bearing fruit. Fear keeps us from doing the things God created us and called us to do. Instead of choosing to live fully, adapting to life’s many challenges and changes and finding new life as Christ wills for us, fear keeps us in the tomb.
Not only does fear cause us to miss the life God has planned for us, fear causes us to be faithless. In the time of Samuel, when the Israelites were establishing the promised land, they came up against many enemies. From the time God brought them out of Egypt, he had provided for them, rescuing them from one enemy after another. Even though God was with them, the fear of the people caused them to worship the deities of other nations, and then to demand a King. Their fear told them their God wasn’t an adequate god, and their divine sovereign wasn’t as good as a human king. The lost faith. Their fear of abandonment and of being less powerful than other nations was greater than their fear of God. Not only did they lose faith, they became unfaithful. Their fear gave birth to more fear; their faithlessness to more faithlessness. Samuel was adamant in pointing out their lack of faith and calling them to repentance. Once the Israelites recognized they had betrayed God, they feared God would desert them forever. They begged God for mercy. Samuel answered, “Don’t be fearful. It’s true that you have done something very wrong. All the same, don’t turn your back on God. Worship and serve him heart and soul! Don’t chase after ghost-gods. There’s nothing to them. They can’t help you. They’re nothing but ghost-gods! God, simply because of who he is, is not going to walk off and leave his people. God took delight in making you into his very own people.” No matter how fearful and faithless we have been, God will not abandon us. While it is in our nature to be fearful, it is not in God’s nature to walk off and leave us. And that is the reason we never need to fear.
As I searched the internet for insights into fear, I found many quotes designed to give people a pep talk to urge them past their fear; I found articles outlining methods for overcoming fear and worry; I found exercises to bring one’s anxiety under control. All of these things may be helpful, and we need to do what we can to rise above our fears but there is only one thing that drives out fear and that is perfect love. There is only one source of perfect love and that is God who is faithful even when we are faithless. God showed his faithfulness in Jesus who went to the cross to defeat our fear and who rose to “be with us always” (Matthew 28:20). With God on our side, we have nothing to fear.
There once was this criminal who had committed a crime. (Because that’s what criminals do.) He was sent to the king for his punishment. The king told him he had a choice of two punishments. He could be hung by a rope or take what’s behind a mysterious, menacing looking iron door. The criminal quickly decided on the rope. The king laughed and said: “You know, it’s funny, I offer everyone the same choice, and nearly everyone picks the rope.” As the noose was being slipped on him, he turned to the king and asked: “So, tell me. What’s behind the door?” The king paused then answered: “Freedom, but it seems most people are so afraid of the unknown that they immediately take the rope.” What wonderful things God has in store for those who trust him and are not afraid.
Silent prayer and reflection
Lord God, you are our King, our Comforter, our Protector. You provide for us every day. You always watch over us. We are eternally yours. We bring our offerings in faith, clinging not to our own resources, but to your consistent love. Help us to give to others generously and without fear. Amen.
Hymn: God of Mercy, God of Grace
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Lord God, we thank you that although you are above and beyond our understanding, our human nature, our capacity to trust, you love us with an everlasting love. You are the one constant we can rely upon. Your love drives out fear.
We thank you that you have our backs. With you on our side, we do not need to be fearful. The worst people can do to us is fleeting compared to the promise of eternity with you. In Christ you have saved us. No matter what hardships we face, we know you are there to lift us up. Whatever life throws at us, you power is stronger.
When we remember you, our fear subsides, and our faith grows. It is out of that trust that we come to you today to with our prayers and requests.
We pray for your Church, here and throughout the world. You know we are stuck in traditions that are not always helpful. We dislike change because it always comes with risk. We fear the disorientation it brings. We worry that we will fail. Help us to trust you for our future, recognizing that health and growth come with new ways of doing things. Move us out of our comfort zones. Help us not to live for ourselves, but to be the Church for those who live beyond our doors. Give new life to stale habits so that we may reach more people for Christ and so fulfill our purpose.
As CoVid continues to loom large, give us patience. Use this as an opportunity for your Spirit to reach deep within ourselves and teach us what is truly life-giving. Help us to be present to you and present within ourselves. Keep us from fear and encourage us with opportunities to serve. Watch over our bodies and give us good health, so that we will be free to worship and enjoy you.
We pray for places in our world where there is suffering. We pray for those who are persecuted and oppressed. We pray for those who are hungry and thirsty. We pray for those who live with diseases and illnesses that are preventable. We pray for those who live with war and the threat of violence. We pray for those who fight against prejudice every day. And Lord, we pray for those who perpetrate such things – soften their hearts, send your Spirit, lead them to Christ.
We pray for people who do not worship you and who do not know the saving grace of Jesus. Break through to them that they may be transformed and find abundant life. We pray especially for those you will lead to us and to our congregation; may we be a blessing to them and a path to healing, acceptance and freedom in Christ.
And we pray for those we know and love who are suffering. We pray for those in grief, that they may find comfort. We pray for those who are ill, and we remember….
We add to these our prayers for those we name before you now.
Thank you, Jesus that you intercede for us. You know our deepest needs and the desires of our hearts which we hold up to you in this moment of silence…
Now hear us as we pray your prayer and grant our petitions as we say…
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn: One (a Song for Unity)
Invitation to Mission
We do not go from here alone.
We go in the power and presence of the Almighty God.
Trusting in him,
We will not be afraid.
Benediction: May the Triune God bless and keep you. Amen.
Igniting the Power of Women and Girls to Decide Their Future:
In the small village of Bihar in India, 13-year-old Poonam learned that her parents had arranged for her to be married in a few months. In many parts of India, early marriages are a common practice and a significant issue—58 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. Girls who are forced into early marriages are taken out of school and made vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections and early pregnancy. At a PWS&D-supported information session that addressed issues of gender, sexual and reproductive rights in her village, Poonam shared her worries about her marriage with the session leader, Meera. The next day, Meera met with Poonam’s family. The information shared by Meera helped Poonam’s parents understand how important it was for Poonam to stay in school. As a result, the wedding was postponed, and a jubilant Poonam will be able to complete her education. This Lenten season faithfully respond to empower women and girls with the tools they need to break down barriers of inequality.