Be afraid, be very afraid ? (Sermon St Agnes, Toxteth Park)

Sermon – 12th Ordinary Sunday Year A

St Agnes, Toxteth Park, 25th June, 2017

 

“Be afraid, be very afraid.”

When I started preparing this morning’s sermon and read what Jesus has to say in today’s Gospel my first thought was, ‘Well you haven’t read the news recently!’

“Do not be afraid.” You have got to be joking. There is so much to be afraid of.

Trump in the White House. Scores dead in one building. Dozens more tower blocks unsafe. Terrorist attacks. Attacks on the Muslim faithful as they leave their prayers. Brexit negotiations. What’s not to be afraid of?

I was surprised that the origin of that sentence: “Be afraid, be very afraid”, is so recent. First used in 1986 to advertise The Fly.

Do you remember? The film where Jeff Goldblum plays a scientist who is developing a transporter but gets his atoms mixed up with a fly caught in the machine and gradually turns into a fly himself.

Oh for such innocent days!

Is it really possible to do what Jesus asks us to do, to not be afraid? The Bible uses the phrase or its equivalent many times: “Do not be afraid.” Perhaps up to 160 times (depending on which exact phrases you count). The angel used the phrase to Mary when she conceived. Yet what pregnant mother has not felt some fear: fear of childbirth, fear of what could go wrong in the pregnancy? What unmarried, teenage girl being told she was miraculously pregnant wouldn’t feel a little fear?

Jesus himself was clearly afraid when he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Afraid of the pain and agony that he was well aware was ahead of him. Did he remember what he had said to the disciples and laugh at the words: “Do not be afraid” ?

Some years ago a book was published with the title Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.

You’ll find it in the self-help section of bookshops, by Susan Jeffers.

It is easy to deride self-help books but this is not bad. I have found it very helpful.

I feel lots of fears.

I give probably hundreds of public talks in the course of a year, sermons, lectures, keynote addresses, seminars and workshops, presentations, meditations and retreats. But I still feel afraid. The adrenalin still rushes, my mouth still goes dry. Surely, one day I will be shown to be the fraud I am?

I like the idea of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Susan Jeffers suggests what she calls five truths about fear:

  1. The fear will never go away as long as you continue to grow!
  2. The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and…do it!
  3. The only way to feel better about yourself is to go out and…do it!
  4. Not only are you afraid when facing the unknown, so is everyone else!
  5. Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the bigger underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness!

I think that is a fine list to live by. It is exactly, of course, what Jesus did. He felt the fear but went ahead with the task he was called to. And it’s among his last words on the cross that I think we can find the Christian way in which we can embrace the fear and grow in our spiritual lives.

From the cross Jesus prays: “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”

He abandons himself into the hands of God.

I think this is the profound trust that God asks of us and which will bring us deep trust and peace, a deep joy and happiness.

But it doesn’t surprise me that Jesus can only do this in the final moments of his life. This is something that few of us can really do. There is something strong and powerful within us that holds on to the need for control.

Jesus’ abandonment of himself into God’s hands is sometimes called Abandonment to Divine Providence, Fr Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote about this in the early eighteenth century:

“In the state of abandonment the only rule is the duty of the present moment. In this the soul is light as a feather, liquid as water, simple as a child, active as a ball in receiving and following all the inspirations of grace. Such souls have no more consistence and rigidity than molten metal. As this takes any form according to the mould into which it is poured, so these souls are pliant and easily receptive of any form that God chooses to give them. In a word, their disposition resembles the atmosphere, which is affected by every breeze; or water, which flows into any shaped vessel exactly filling every crevice. They are before God like a perfectly woven fabric with a clear surface; and neither think, nor seek to know what God will be pleased to trace thereon, because they have confidence in Him, they abandon themselves to Him, and, entirely absorbed by their duty, they think not of themselves, nor of what may be necessary for them, nor of how to obtain it.” 

 

These are very wonderful words:

Imagine yourself as light as a feather, liquid as water, simple as a child, active as a ball in receiving and following the inspirations of grace.

Friends, the best prayer I know for embracing this is the prayer of abandonment of Blessed Charles de Foucauld:

 

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;

do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,

and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

 

Some years ago I used this text for my annual retreat. I realised with deep fear on that retreat how little I really mean these words.

“Ready for all, I accept all”: come off it!

“Do with me what you will”: what about all my plans and ambitions?!

“I wish no more than this, O Lord”: But there are so many things I wish for.

Dear friends, you know as well as I do that I am no saint. I can’t say those words and mean them. But I can say them and want to mean them. I can feel the fear of abandoning myself to God and do it anyway.

I am now going to pray this powerful prayer of Blessed Charles aloud, if you are able to, repeat each phrase after me, and together we will say as Thomas did: ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief’. We will feel the fear and do it anyway,

“leaving the past to the infinite mercy of God, the future to His good Providence, give the present wholly to [God’s] love by being faithful to His grace.” (Jean-Pierre de Caussade).

 

Father, I abandon myself into your hands;

 

do with me what you will.


Whatever you may do, I thank you:


I am ready for all, I accept all.


Let only your will be done in me,

and in all your creatures.


I wish no more than this, O Lord.

 

Into your hands I commend my soul;


I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,


for I love you, Lord,


and so need to give myself,


to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,


and with boundless confidence,


for you are my Father.

 

 

 

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