As Peyton drove Marc and me to the airport on Tuesday for our return trip to Toledo, we followed a little white utility van for quite a ways. The back of the van displayed the name of the electrical contractor it belonged to and, in much bigger letters, the words “Power and Security.” I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if you could just call a contractor and order up some power and security?”—not the kind that comes through wires but the kind that makes us feel like we have some control over our life? Even better if Amazon could just deliver it to your doorstep overnight.
It seems to me that the feelings of security and power are in short supply for most people these days. During the early days of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the possibility of an expanded war—possibly a nuclear war, even a third world war—hung over us. As the urgency abated (for us sitting here in the U.S., anyway) that threat may have retreated to the corners of our minds, but it still leaves us feeling a little less certain about the world. As gas and food prices continue to rise, wages and retirement savings that seemed to offer some financial security now appear to be less than sufficient. We’re starting to do things as we did pre-COVID, but do you make plans as confidently as you used to—with the expectation that all will be fine when the big day arrives?
And what about climate change? Wildfires are increasing in intensity and frequency and hurricanes are occurring earlier. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that climate change has the potential to adversely affect agricultural productivity locally and regionally due to alterations in the patterns of rainfall, pest pressure, and daily and seasonal temperatures, as well as causing more frequent extremes like heat waves and drought.
We used to send our children to school without any concern about their safety whatsoever. I can’t imagine what it’s like for parents today—let alone the children. We used to go to the grocery store, and to concerts, and to outside gathering places, and to church without considering the possibility that we might be risking our lives. Granted, we who happen to be white, straight, English-speaking, Christian, born-in-the-USA citizens living in a quiet rural suburb on sufficient incomes have good reason to feel more secure than someone who is brown, gay, Muslim, an immigrant for whom English is a second language, and/or living in areas that are rife with violence, but, we’re not immune from the risks posed by our gun-obsessed society.
We have good reason to feel insecure, and we’re likely to feel powerless as well. When there were suspicions that contaminated baby formula had sickened four babies and possibly killed two, the plant that made the formula was shut down. But what do you get when children and teachers are gunned down by the dozens in one school massacre after another, not to mention grocery stores and medical centers and streets of restaurants and shops? You get thoughts and prayers and hand-wringing.
You know that I’m all for prayers, but they have to be accompanied by action—action that, for starters, could require universal background checks and bans on automatic and high-capacity weapons, and red flag laws, all of which are supported by well over half of the Americans public, regardless of their politics—actions that too many lawmakers are too cowardly to take. (If you’re wondering, I wrote this before President Biden’s speech the other night.) We can call our elected representatives repeatedly (and we should), but it can feel pretty futile.
Things closer to home can leave us feeling powerless, too. Have you had to correct a medical bill lately? Tried to get a procedure approved by the insurance company? Tried to talk to a person about just about anything, without having to go through a web site first? Even when you use a chat feature online, you’re “chatting” with a robot.
Feeling secure in the world, and having the power to make things right, it would be great to have those, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, there’s no little white utility van that can pull up to your house and deliver them to your doorstep. And, not feeling secure, not feeling like we have power over our own lives—that can lead to fear.
We don’t like to admit that we’re afraid. The dictionary defines fear as simply “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” But, we invest it with a lot more. We see it as a weakness, a moral failing, a state that will either paralyze us or lead us to do things that others think unwise or just plain silly. We don’t describe someone as being afraid; we accuse them of being afraid. One of the earliest names children call each other is “fraidy cat.” It almost seems like we’re afraid of being afraid, or at least of anyone knowing we’re afraid.
But, Scripture takes fear seriously. You might have heard someone say that the phrase “Fear not” appears 365 times in the Bible—one for every day of the year. That’s something of a legend, but fear does show up a lot in Scripture. I did a quick word search of the New Revised Standard Version and found that the phrase “Be not afraid” appears 72 times and the word “afraid” shows up by itself another 114 times. The word “fear” appears more than two hundred times, not counting the “fear of the Lord.” That’s a lot of fear, and the Bible acknowledges and addresses it.
Fear isn’t a moral failing, but it is a kind of slavery. Fear seizes our minds and our hearts. It puts limits on us. A prime example is our politicians whose fear of angering the wrong people or losing their seat keeps them from taking bold and necessary action. Even if fear is justified and reasonable, fear can keep us from doing and being all that we can do and be. So, it’s not surprising that Paul speaks in terms of fear in contrast to a life lived in the Holy Spirit offers.
Our passage for today is a continuation of Paul’s explanation of how setting our minds on things of the flesh leads to death, while setting our minds on the Holy Spirit brings life and peace. Paul isn’t putting down our physical bodies here, but the worldly concerns that can infect us with fear. Fortunately, there’s an antidote for that fear: the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Our feelings of insecurity and powerlessness have their roots in many parts of our “fleshly” lives. A lack of connection with others can cause these feelings. Going it alone is never easy—no matter what you’re going through. It’s hard when you have no one to help you through the tough times. On our own, we feel like we have no way of righting what is wrong or being heard when we speak up about the systems that govern our lives. On our own, we feel small and insignificant and powerless.
Feeling directionless, or confused about what choices to make or paths to follow make us feel insecure. The world itself seems to be spinning out of control, and we feel powerless over what we are witnessing. All of these fleshly concerns leave us feeling like Biblical orphans—people who have no one to speak for us, to guide us, to care about us. When we feel connectionless, directionless, and powerless, we can fall back into fear. But, we have been given the antidote to fear. We have received the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit works on all the sources that give rise to fear.
Blessed by the Spirit who dwells within us, we are never alone. Jesus promised that his followers would be given another Advocate after he was gone. Pay attention to that word, “another.” This Advocate would take the place that Jesus, the original Advocate, had occupied—walking alongside his disciples. This Advocate would continue teaching and guiding Jesus’ followers, reminding us of what Jesus taught but also to be with us and guide us as we face new challenges.
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is with us in good times and bad, when we are at our best and at our worst. Paul tells us that, when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit prays for us. When we are feeling down, the Spirit comforts us. And it’s not just us that the Spirit cares for. We read in the Psalms that, when God sends forth God’s spirit, the face of the very ground is renewed.
Jesus promised that we would not be left as orphans. The Spirit testifies to that truth. The Spirit bears witness to our own spirits that, not only are we not orphans, but we have been adopted into God’s own family. We are God’s own children, and we are God’s heirs, just as Jesus is. This inheritance thing seems like a no-brainer to us, but when Paul’s audience read this, there would have been a collective “Wow!” In his world, not all children were heirs. That was a special status—one you had to be singled out for, named as, chosen to be. And we have been singled out for, named as, chosen to be heirs with Christ!
This special status carries with it special responsibilities as well. We are to suffer with him, so that we may be glorified with him. That phrase “suffer with” means that we feel what he feels, that we feel together with him—not the pain of the nails in his hands and feet, but his pain over the plight of those he loves and came to save.
We are to feel his pain with him over children who aren’t safe at school and over the way those who should be protecting them advocate for armed teachers rather than making assault weapons harder to get. We are to suffer his pain with him when refugees are crowded into camps for years and those who are fleeing violence in their homelands, as he and his parents did, are turned away. We are to feel with him his pain over those who are more vulnerable because of how they look or speak or worship. It’s not hard to figure out what causes Jesus’ pain, and we are to feel that pain with him. Then, just as he did, we are to do something to alleviate the pain we feel with him.
The Spirit empowers us to do that. On that Pentecost two thousand years ago, disciples who only spoke their own familiar language were empowered to tell others about God’s mighty deeds of power in Jesus Christ, in ways they could understand. Peter discovered within himself the ability to preach with power and authority. We are given the same power to reach inside ourselves and discover our own capabilities.
We don’t do this alone. The Spirit dwells within us, and we are also made part of a holy community of believers. This community was drawn together and empowered on that long-ago Day of Pentecost, and the Spirit continues to draw us together today. Where one alone might feel powerless, joined together by the Spirit, we are strong. Where one alone may feel insecure, joined to by the Spirit, we give each other confidence. Where one alone may feel voiceless, joined together by the Spirit we can make ourselves heard. Just like the disciples who received the Spirit as Jesus breathed on them in the upper room at Easter, and just like all those who were gathered together at Pentecost, the Spirit comes to us and creates a community where no one is alone. All receive and share the experience of the Spirit’s presence together.
Fear grows where there is a lack of connection. Fear grows where there is a lack of security. Fear grows where power is missing and direction is hard to find. But even when what is happening around us spreads the poison of fear, we have its antidote. We don’t need a little white utility van to deliver it, for God has given us a holy wind that moves us, renews us, empowers us, and binds us together. God has given us a holy flame to ignite our passion to make this world look more like God’s kingdom. Jesus has given us his Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, walks alongside us, and reminds us every day that we are the children of God. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young