This last week was our VBS, Sparks Fly – our theme had us talking all about fire the whole week. We found stories of fire in scripture, we sang songs with fire in them, the kids learned how to start fires and how to put them out, and the fire truck came for a visit. It was a lot of fire. But of course we were also using our scripture stories to teach something greater than just about fire. We heard about the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the Exodus story and talked about how God leads us on our way. We met Moses and heard about his encounter with God in the burning bush, when God called him to an important job and gave him the help he needed to do it – just as God does for each of us to help us do God’s will in the world. We heard about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, and how God saved them and is with us too even through terrible things. We learned about the day of Pentecost and how the fire of the Spirit comes to each of us to help us share the good news. And we heard about breakfast with Jesus on the beach around the campfire and received again his commandment to love one another and to share Jesus’ word of love with the world.
Last year as we were winding up our Vacation Bible School, Susie told me she’d already decided on fire for this year’s VBS. I could see how well we could run with that theme, but I was also nervous about it. After all, in a drought year full of fire danger, talking about fire too much seemed like a risky move. And I have very bad firsthand experience with kids and fire, since my own daughter Frances fell into the campfire at Family Camp two years ago and badly burned her hands. My priest self could see all the wonderful metaphors and activities that could come of a theme of fire. The rest of my self, however, was afraid. Would it freak Frances out to have that theme all week? Would there be an accident with all those kids around fire? Would we magically call down fire on ourselves from the hills by talking about it in such a dry year?
But I needn’t have feared. Everything went well. The kids learned a lot about fire that they hadn’t known before, including a lot about how to be careful with it. Frances had no problem with the theme whatsoever, even telling the story of her accident and showing her scars to her new friends. And of course talking about fire did not cause a wildfire to start. Instead, the message that really took off like wildfire was the idea that God loves us, that God is with us through everything, and that God wants us to share that love with everyone.
In today’s gospel Jesus is sharing just this message with his own fearful disciples. Jesus has commissioned his twelve disciples and is about to send them out to spread the gospel, and he knows that they are already afraid of what they are about to do. So he tells them, don’t be afraid! Do not fear. You are infinitely precious to God. Nothing anyone can do to you will truly harm you, because God has you in hand. What you are going to do is not easy – but do not be afraid, for God is with you. And off they go.
We all of us have to deal with fear at times. Our own memories of trauma, or our phobias, or just our worry over possible discomfort and inconvenience can make us resist something without any clear sense of why. Sometimes those feelings run deep, so deep that we might not even be entirely clear that they’re part of us. Brain scientists have been doing a lot of work on understanding how the brain retains memories, and how old fears can keep us from moving ahead in our lives even when we’re not consciously aware of them. They’re still not sure how it all works, but it’s clear that old fears can continue to shape us in the present. We might be able to come up with plausible and convincing reasons for why we feel afraid or why we are refusing to do something, but sometimes deep down we know that it’s just more visceral than rational. We don’t want to do it just because, well, we don’t want to do it. We’re not willing because we’re just too afraid. And that’s all we’re going to say about it, thank you.
Sometimes in communities our biggest fear is conflict, the possibility that someone else might disagree with us and argue against what we’re doing. Jesus tells his disciples about this, too, warning that following his path isn’t always going to lead to peace and harmony with family and friends. It’s a hard teaching, because we do naturally shy away from conflict. No one, or very few people anyway, likes arguing and fighting with others, particularly others we’re close to. It’s normal to want to get along and have happy community. But our fear of conflict and opposition can keep us from moving ahead on things that God is calling us to do. It is hard to be visionary when we’re afraid of what others might think. It’s hard to lead when one word of dissent stops us in our tracks. And so a new idea is squashed because two or three people say no – effectively holding hostage the rest of the community and their possibilities for the future. Our vestry has to deal with this, as many community leaders do.
But as Jesus says, conflict and opposition really isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us. In fact, nothing we can imagine, really, is the worst thing that can happen to us. Sometimes I find that the one way to work myself through a fear is to honestly envision the worst thing I can imagine happening – in order to realize that even if that happened, I could go on. Jesus’ message to his disciples is that even death itself is not the worst thing, because God holds our lives beyond death. Do not be afraid, he says. None of the stuff in your way needs to be permanent. Fear and worries and old memories and routines, all of that can change. You can let that all go, if you trust me.
And so that is the message he gives to us as well. In times of deep tragedy as well as in ordinary everyday worries, we are not alone. Just as our kids learned last week, God is with us through everything. God gives us what we need to do what we are called to do, and always invites us out to share the good news of love with others. May we hold to that, and that alone. Do not be afraid! Amen.