Summary: Looks at fear and why we shouldn’t be afraid. Tom Clancy’s movie is used as the title, and little else.
Just a few weeks ago, the movie "The Sum of All Fears" was released. This movie plays on the fear of international hostility, and allows our favorite Tom Clancy character Jack Ryan to save the day once again. The movie title though, seems to hit on a very timely topic these days: fear. Even though we are past the nine-month mark since 9/11, many of us are still fearful of things that never would have worried us before. Workers staffing the Freedom Festival, Detroit’s annual celebration in conjunction with Windsor, Ontario, have already been warned of possible terrorist attacks. Anyone who has taken an airplane in the last nine months knows the underlying tension present in today’s passengers.
"Thomas Merton once said that at the root of all war is fear - not so much the fear we have of one another but the fear we have of everything." (Homiletics Online) Fear can unnecessarily paralyze us or it can hastily send us on the defensive. Think about our national reaction to the events of 9/11. We put up our guard against all sorts of ridiculous things. We irrationally think that if we avoid tall buildings and airplanes we are safer. We report unusual activity of Arabic people we see, like when they purchase too much candy (actual case - the guy was a store owner). People are speculating about the atmosphere on September 11th, 2002. Fear seems to be a regular companion these days.
Many types of fear grip us today: fear of losing our jobs, fear of personal safety, fear of health concerns for ourselves or our families, fear of academic failure, fear of harassment, fear of looking foolish, fear of not being loved, fear of being ostracized, fear of being unprepared for financial struggles ahead, fear of being alone. There are so many different places that we experience fear these days. At home, on the job, in the store, fear is all around. Apparently, the sum of all fears (to use Tom Clancy’s phrase) is huge!
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus makes a simple, but timely point to his disciples: "No matter what happens, do not be afraid." He gets to the point by using multiple examples of scary things that could threaten the disciples. "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master." Jesus talks about confrontations he’s faced, and reminds them that they aren’t going to escape without being bothered too. "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!" In other words, if Jesus’ opponents have claimed that Jesus is the devil himself, they will make even more painful comments about Jesus’ followers. Jesus reassures his disciples that even if they are verbally abused for their connection to him, they should not fear.
As he tries to ease the disciples’ fears, Jesus says: "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." In other words, he says, "Don’t fear people. Fear God." There is nothing that anyone can do to us that nullifies God’s claim on us. Even if a person kills our body, God still has power over our soul. Even if someone threatens everything we have, God still has the last word. Jesus is right; we shouldn’t fear people.
But what about Jesus’ admonition to "fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell"? Do you want to be afraid of God? I sure don’t. But let me tell you about another use of the word "fear" in the Bible and in church tradition. "Fear" implies a deep respect for God Almighty, a mystery that shrouds God’s full definition, a healthy distance between Creator and people. In Luther’s Small Catechism, we are reminded to "fear, love, and trust God". Fear reminds us that we are not equal to God. We always must "look up" to God, even if God offers grace and mercy in that meeting.
After Jesus tells the disciples to fear God instead of people, he reminds them that they are each valuable to God. We may not be God’s equals, but God knows us intimately and personally. "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father." Not even a tiny sparrow dies without God’s awareness, and we are of more value than cheap little birds. More than just the fact that God notices when we die, Jesus reminds the disciples that God knows everything about them.
He says, "And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows." I could sit here all day trying to count how many hairs I have. Probably I’d never get the right answer, because as soon as I counted them, one or more would have fallen out, and I’d be out of whack again. But it is reassuring to know that God, who knows everything about us, still loves us. Even when our hair falls out due to old age or chemo or stress or whatever, God knows how many hairs are on your head. God knows the thoughts of your heart before you are aware of them yourself. God is not an unmoved onlooker, but is deeply interested in each of us.