Fear No Evil – Lectionary 07/18/2021

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Sermon Text

            There are few scriptures that are as well known as the 23rd Psalm. Though it is ultimately not helpful for us to rank the ubiquity or popularity of scripture in popular culture, it is certainly the case that the scriptures which people know tells us a lot about how the world sees us. The more common a scripture is the more that its truth is disseminated into the world, and, in theory, the better an understanding there should be about the truth that scripture delivers to us. However, I would also say that familiarity can breed its own kind of ignorance and apathy. If I begin to say, “For God so loved the world…” I can expect that when I point to you, I can hear a chorus in reply, “that he gave his only begotten son…” (John 3:16) Yet, if we were sat down to explain not only that verse, but the full context and message of the passage it is contained in, we might suddenly find neither the knowledge or inspiration to do so.

            The 23rd Psalm contains some of the most evocative language that we could ask for. Both as a message of reassurance and as a summary of reality, Psalm 23 is direct in stating how things really are. The opening is an assertion of God’s goodness. God is my shepherd; I shall not want. The center of the Psalm then speaks to the reality of the past and the present suffering we all face. “Though [we] walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” we are asked to trust in God. Even when all light seems to have gone out of the world, we hope. Not because it is easy, but because it is necessary.

Finally, the Psalmist closes the Psalm by looking to the future and its signs in the present. The abundance of God’s goodness is not just found in physical sustenance, but in spiritual security and the communities of mutual love we form for ourselves. “Our cup runs over,” not because we have much, but because of God’s presence here with us. The grace of God, that transformative force that sends us into the world as a holy and reconciled people, this is what goes before us and beside us into all creation. This Psalm, in its few lines and words, can offer us a lot of consolation in the midst of hardships.

There’s much to be taken from this Psalm, but I want to focus in on one particular claim that it makes. The idea that, “Though [we] walk through the valley of the shadow of death, [we] fear no evil; for [God] is with [us.]” This line challenges us to live into the peace which God offers to us. This Psalm is claiming that God’s blessings can be so plain to us that, even in our deepest, darkest struggles, we can maintain hope. That, to me, is amazing. Yet, I would also say it is not an easy thing. When I think of my life, my own dispositions, it is far easier to be frightened or to live in despair than to hold onto hope.

Fear is not a negative thing in itself. Like all our emotions and instincts, it is given to us by God for a purpose. Fear lets us know when there is danger, when a situation is not as it should be. When the truck in front of us veers into our lane, fear triggers the necessary biochemical response to cause us to brake or steer away from them. When we smell smoke coming from somewhere it should not, fear drives us to investigate and eliminate the potential danger which that smell indicates. Fear is there to guide our response to the potential dangers we face, and even though it is often unpleasant, it exists to keep us safe.

Fear, it should also be said, can be a pleasant experience. Does anyone here like horror movies? I do, I love the stuff. The internet in particular has produced a modern horror experience in the form of ARGs and Unficition stories, stories told as though they are really happening across social media and audio-visual mediums. This fear is pleasant to us because it makes the big and scary concepts of the world – death, evil, uncertainty – into a monster or thing we can be afraid of. It gives a face to the nameless fears we hold onto in life.

On the opposite end of this spectrum is the “fear of God,” something described throughout scripture that, many modern interpreters, attempt to soften by turning into, “respect,” or “admiration,” of God. I do not think that it is good to fear God, after all, God is our comforter. However, God is scary in a different way. In terms of categorizing horror, God is a Cosmic Horror, in the sense that God is bigger than we can imagine. God thinks like we could never think. When we meet something so incomprehensible, we can only tremble in fear at the enormity of the being we have just realized exists. Thankfully, the next revelation God offers to us outside of God’s enormity is God’s goodness. “Be not afraid,” and “steadfast love,” turn the unknowable and immense deity before us into a source of comfort rather than fear.

Fear, then, is a complex thing to discuss in any context. It is good, but as with anything in life, too much of it or too little of it can hurt us. The Psalmist making a claim that the faithful, “will fear no evil,” is then a bit strange. It is good to have some concept of fear, otherwise we would be reckless. Remembering that “evil,” in Hebrew is not just the opposite of good, but any physical disaster, we are left with a bigger question. When disaster comes, what should we do? Last week we saw that the Psalms allow us to express our discomfort with the present moment, to ask questions and voice our complaint to God. Likewise, we saw that we could be hopeful in the midst of that desperation. What, then, are we to do about fear?

As we said a moment ago, too much or too little of a thing can be dangerous. What I believe the Psalmist means here is that the hope of God allows us to never be overcome with our fear. It is natural that in the moment we may be afraid, that we, looking forward, may worry about real dangers looming overhead, but in all things the Psalmist is hoping that we can trust God enough to not let those worries or fears consume our life. We dig deep into the foundation of strength God gives us, and we find strength to make it, even just a little further, along life’s road.

There are things that can complicate this ability for us to not fear. Firstly, fear doesn’t always feel like fear. Sometimes fear is sadness, a hopelessness that nothing can ever change in life. Other times, fear manifests as anger, a desire to destroy the thing we have decided is a risk to us. It seems to me that, when we become afraid, we can manifest that fear in as many ways as we can feel anything. So, to really understand fear, we have to investigate many of our more intense emotions and try and seek out their root. Am I mad because some boundary has been violated in my life, or because my fear has convinced me that has happened? Am I truly out of options, or has fear led me to believe that is the case?

Let’s complicate matters a little more. Some of us, have brains that actively work against us having pleasant or normative responses to anything. I myself suffer from a condition that was once known as dysthymia, literally “Bad spiritedness.” I don’t like that translation, but the condition is now called, “Persistent Depressive Disorder.” It means that, unlike other depressive disorders defined by intense, periodic depressive symptoms, I always have low-grade depressive symptoms. The sun doesn’t shine as brightly for me, sensations are often muted, my enjoyment of a thing has a set limit. Sometimes, that makes it hard to do anything but languish. It is very easy for me, mild as my symptoms are, to think hope is lost, others have it worse.

There’s treatment for me, and for other who have faced these struggles. I encourage anyone who is on the fence about psychological treatment to seek it out, it does a great deal of good. Yet, having made clear that I do not mean to demean mental health struggles, I want to focus on why it is important for we as Christians to be people of hope. Fear, though God given and helpful at times, can be twisted to cause a great deal of harm. Entire industries depend upon keeping people scared so that they are constantly spending money to prevent problems that are either non-existent, or extremely unlikely to occur. Unfortunately, many find a home in the Church.

In 2020, Rev. Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist minister, author, professor, Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism at Wheaton University, and then contributor to Christianity Today, revived a discussion he had begun in 2017. This centered on the idea that Christians seem to disproportionately believe false narrative which are thrown their way. The exact reason behind this is unclear, but many fear-mongering tactics can be used to harm the Church and its witness, and we tend to excitedly grab hold of them. For Stetzer in 2017, it was the rise of the Q-Anon conspiracy and #Pizzagate he was writing against, in 2020 it was COVID-19 conspiracies linking the virus and the vaccines to all manner of unfounded, malicious, and even Satanic origins. Fear manifested in anger and despair, but fear ruled over many minds.[1]

We as Christians are told again and again by Christ and the apostles to be “watchful.” We are to guard our heart, we are to look for Christ’s return and the salvation of creation writ large, we are to keep an eye always on the horizon of what could be. I believe this state of vigilance, something Scripture asks of us so that we can live better lives worthy of our calling, does make us susceptible to abuse. Even Christ seems to warn against this, admonishing us to look out for false claims that the End has come (Matt. 24: 1-8) and to be careful of those who would use our faith to abuse our wallets (Luke 16:1-9.)

Manufactured fear is a powerful industry. Since its inception in the 90s, global antivaccination groups have funneled millions from research through misinformation. Medical skepticism has funded an entire industry based on alternative and sometimes dangerous cures. End times speculation leads to people hoarding resources in their basement, it fueled the grocery shortages we saw early in the Pandemic, it robs us of our ability to act, because it is built off of fear someone else made just for us. In attempts to be faithful, how do we so often become fearful?

Many people far smarter than me have analyzed these phenomena, but I think it comes back to the premise we began with. Life is hard, and sometimes scary. Fear, the God given mechanism by which we react to a stimulus and determine whether it is good or bad, can become twisted and used against us. Sometimes it is our own mind warring against us. Sometimes it is circumstance rightly leading us to worry. Sometimes, it is someone pulling strings to make us as scared as we could possibly be. Fear, like all of God’s good gifts, is easily perverted.

What then of our Psalmist? What words do they have to comfort us? “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” That is not, as some might read it, a command to never worry or be afraid. Instead it is the aspiration we all have to know that God is really beside us in the hard times. The deepest darkness cannot snuff out the light of God’s hope and we need to cling tightly to it. Last week we talked about how hard it can be, in the midst of despair, to leave bed. The problem does not stop there. We have to go through our day, our week, our life, living into the hope God has given to us. That precious oil on our head, the wine that spills over and out of our cup.

We of the Church must pursue truth, and not give into falsehood. We must also simply hope, to believe God is good, and pursue God even when we cannot see God active around us. For some of us, that means we visit our psychologists, and we take our meds, and we are stronger for it. For some of us, that means thinking long and hard about the Facebook post we are thinking of sharing, evaluating its truth rather than the way it makes us feel. Most importantly, and for all of us, the hard times must not be an off-ramp of our faith. We must see it as part of the journey we are taking. We do not call suffering good, but in the suffering, we seek the goodness of God. We walk through the valley because we know a green pasture is waiting for us. We take the long way home, because the Lord is our Shepherd, and we know that no evil will ever overcome the goodness of our Lord. Fear no evil, for God is with you, yesterday, today, and every day, even to the end of the world. – Amen.

[1] Ed Stetzer. “On Christians Spreading Corona Conspiracies: Gullibility is not a Spiritual Gift” in The Exchange. 2021 Christianity Today. Available at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2020/april/christians-and-corona-conspiracies.html

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