Sermon   March 15, 2015   “Healing our Fears” by Rev. June Fothergill

Scriptures: Numbers 21: 4-9, John 3: 14-17

I suffer from two phobias says Brad Stine, “  1  Phobia- phobia – the fear that you’re unable to get scared and  2  Xylophataquiopiaphobia- the fear of not pronouncing words correctly . (p. 341 An Encyclopedia of Humor)

A cab driver died and arrived at the Pearly Gates. Just ahead of him was a famous minister, but St Peter motioned him aside and took the cabbie into heaven at once.  “How come you’re making me wait, while the cab driver gets right in? Asked the frustrated clergyman, “Haven’t I done everything possible to preach the gospel and live a good life?

“Yet, said St Peter but that cab driver scared hell out of more people than you ever did. (p. 80 An Encyclopedia of Humor)

Do you like to be frightened?  I know some folks like scary movies or experiences.  I frankly do not.  I’m a fear avoider big time.  Yet, I have learned that fear is just an ordinary part of being human. It’s an emotion we all experience.    I appreciate Marshall Rosenberg’s insight that emotions like fear indicate that a human need is threatened or at risk.  When we feel afraid or encounter others who are afraid, we can ask- what is the human need not being met or threatened?  What does the person need?   This moves us past evaluating or judging ourselves of others for our feelings toward trying to understand and have compassion for one another.

God understands this.  The people in the wilderness had a great fear- that they would die in the wilderness.  After taking the big step of fleeing Egypt and slavery, they were afraid that their wilderness journey would come to nothing- death and destruction.  They manifested this fear by complaining and impatience.   “Why are we out here? The food provided is boring.  Maybe it would be better if we hadn’t come.”   IN the midst of these complaints a new danger arose- poisonous snakes came into the camp and some people died of their bites.  What they feared was happening- they were dying in the wilderness.

Yet, they had learned a couple things on their wilderness journey- if there was trouble go to Moses.  And there is a God out there who cares about what they do.    So they came to Moses this time not with their complaints but with their repentance.  “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”

So, good ol Moses did it (one more time) He prayed to God for the people.   And God invited Moses to do an interesting thing.   God told Moses to make a pole with a snake on it and raise it up before the people.  When they raise their eyes to look at the pole, they will be healed.     So Moses found some bronze and made a symbol of a snake on a pole.  A symbol that we still use for the medical profession.   The story ends, “whenever a serpent bit someone that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

The serpents didn’t go away, people still got bit but now there was a way through the situation, now there was a way to be healed and whole once again.  God was with them not to take away every scary threat life brings but to offer healing and life in their midst.  This was the lesson of the wilderness.   Real threats. Real remedies. Real God.

Real threats.  Here’s one for you- Death and suffering.  Or how about this?   That everything that gives our lives meaning will fall apart.    Or how about this?   The destruction of our planet.    What are the real threats in our lives?   We can feel afraid of many things that are not actually very threatening to our lives.  Most snakes and spiders for example are harmless to us and even beneficial.   It’s healthy to assess the threats in our lives- do we have unfounded fears that are in the way of a full life?  Yet, it also true that some of our fears point to real threats to our lives and future.    How do we deal with these real threats and the fear they engender in us?

There are ways that many of us try to deal with these fears.  Some of us get very protective of what we consider our own- we get the upgraded security system and maybe even buy a weapon.   Some of us succumb and hide- we try not to venture out into areas of the world that are deemed dangerous, we limit with whom we will associate, we build walls.   Some of us instead build bridges, we seek to find and build community so we are not alone in the face of the threats.     And finally some of us face our fears and discover that they don’t have to defeat our spirits that there is a space beyond our fears that is life abundant.

Real remedies.  The people of Israel discovered the remedy for their fearsome experience of the serpents when they turned again to God. They discovered that healing was possible.

My sister Ruth is a Geriatric doctor. She deals with people at the end of their life cycle and their families and those who tend them.  She told a story the other day of a call she received from a nurse about a patient who seemed to have pneumonia.  The nurse was asking the doctor question- should we try a stronger antibiotic?  “I just don’t want to miss anything” the nurse said.

The patient, Jim P was an 86 year old man with advanced Parkinsons who had lived in the nursing home for about 8months. His wife visited daily and often fed him.  Months ago they had discussed his prognosis and Jim’s wishes to not have heroic measures at the end of his life.

Ruth shares,

“I give my learned and experienced little talk on the pros and cons of a stronger antibiotic and then I pause, “Rita where is Jim’s wife? How is she?  Is she asking for a stronger antibiotic?  Rita answers, “I told her to climb into bed with Jim and just hold him because I think he is dying.

Tears spring up instantly in my eyes. Deep breath. “Oh Rita what we so much more often miss is the sacred moment of death. You have already done far more for Jim what a stronger antibiotic could ever do.  I trust your intuition and skill. Thank you for being there for Jim and Betty at this moment. An hour and a half later Rita texts me “Jim just passed. Blessedly in Betty’s arms.”   Oh my I most missed it again. That pause.”

That pause to look up at the true source of healing. That pause to turn from our fear filled striving to look upon the real remedy.

For finally God is real.   The fears and struggles of our lives, the snakes that come and threaten us are real and they hurt.  The good news of the wilderness and of the Cross of Jesus is that God is real too!   The Cross of Jesus, the snakes in the wilderness represent all our fears and threats that our lives and our legacy will come to nothing.  But God is real. And God’s word in Jesus and Bronze snake lifted up is that there is an eternal remedy.  God’s love and healing is always flowing toward us bringing the deep healing of all our needs.

My sister can take that pause.  We all can take that pause. And look up and look deeper because of this real, living God.  This light that beacons us to live in love not fear.  To open ourselves to each moment as an opportunity to build bridges of love and understanding.  For Ruth, she has been on a journey of regular prayer and connection with a Benedictine monastery as a layperson.    Learning to take this pause, to turn to the true source of healing for our lives, is our spiritual work.   It involves choosing healthy ways to deal with our fears:

Such as building bridges of true loving community-  finding others to share our walk of faith, our questions and our fears, so that we can help one another and channel god’s love and mercy to one another.

Or facing our fears- like the bronzed serpent on the pole.  Not getting caught up in Phobia phobia- but knowing that when we admit our fears and the needs behind them- then we can begin to learn trust, then we can begin to accept the healing and hope the Spirit offers us and be empowered to pause, to pay attention enough to share it with others.

I close with another story of healing.

Miles O’ Brien is a journalist and science correspondent.  When working in the Philippines he had an accident which resulted in the amputation of one of his arms.   Miles woke up in the hospital at first thinking he had caught a break. He would feel his left arm, but it was an illusion, a phantom limb, his arm was gone.  He checked out of the hospital two days later and spent more than a week in the Philippines finishing his stories.  In an extreme form a denial he told no one what had happened. They were dark days and later he told a friend he even considered suicide.  He’d never been the sort of person who reached out for help. And he wanted to prove to himself he could move forward and still do his job.  And he has tried to prove he can maintain his active life beyond work, with some missteps. He started running but losing an arm affected his balance and he took some spills and hurt himself when he tried to reach out to break his fall with the arm that wasn’t there.   The emotional journey, still not completed, has been one of self discovery. He’s learned that there’s no weakness in asking for help. He realizes what loved ones and even strangers think of him and it has been overwhelming.  He says, “If I had to trade it- that arm for the knowledge and the love that I feel?  It’s a hell of a way to learn a lesson.  I’ll go with the love. “(The Register Guard, Friday March 6, 2015, “For O’Brien, Loss of arm brought precious lesson” by David Bauder p. D10)



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