Fear No Evil

Trinitarian Congregational Church                                                 Fourth Sunday of Easter

Anthony S. Kill                                                                                               April 22, 2018

Texts: I John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18


When I was first studying psychology and counseling in college and grad school way back in the 1960s and 70s, one of the books that was popular was Thomas Harris’s book, “I’m OK, You’re OK”.  The book was about Transactional Analysis –a way of analyzing the different roles we play at different times in different relationships. It is based on the work of psychologist Eric Berne, who wrote “Games People Play” and other books about the various ploys and tactics we enter into in our relationships, often unconsciously.

One thing that Harris and Berne brought into popular awareness is what they called the ‘tape recorder’ that each of us carries around in our heads. This tape recorder is stocked with a whole life’s history of phrases and voices –especially voices from our early, formative years — that tell us how to think, how to act, and how to approach life.

One very specific example that Harris cited was about a recently married couple who always got into an argument in the kitchen whenever they cooked a roast. The bride insisted that you had to cut off both ends of the roast before putting it in the oven. That was just the way you were supposed to prepare it. The husband thought that was crazy, and a waste of good meat. But the wife knew that she was right, even though she couldn’t name the law of thermodynamics that said why roasts cooked better that way. She just knew that that was the way all the women in her family had always done it, — her mom and her grandmother and her aunts and her cousins– so there had to be good reason. Well, it got to be such an issue that she finally asked her mother, once when they were talking on the phone, why she had always cut both ends off the roast before cooking. Her mother was taken by surprise, and could say only that that was the way her mother had always prepared roasts.

So, the next vacation, when the bride and groom had a chance to visit with grandmother, the young woman took grandma aside and asked privately, “Grandma, when you fixed a roast for your family, why did you always cut both ends off before putting it in the oven?” Grandma just laughed that anyone would have even remembered that, and she said, “We raised our family in the thirties. We seldom had a roast in the depression years, but when we did, I only had one roasting pan, and it was only ten inches long. It wouldn’t hold a full-sized roast! I had to cut the meat down to fit the pan!”

Most of our internal tapes aren’t that obvious, or that easy to track down. But we all have tapes that tell us what kind of persons we are — or more accurately, what kind of person we heard our parents or teachers or siblings telling us we were, which we then incorporated as our own thinking. We have tapes telling us what to think, how to act, what we’re good at (or not good at!) whether certain behavior is good or bad. “He was always good with his hands” “She’s the beauty, but her sister got all the brains.” “That child couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” “He’s always been such a troublemaker.” But many of these internal voices may have little or nothing to do with our real skills or attitudes or opinions as adults.  They are not about external reality; they are the opinions and attitudes that we have internalized, but may have never examined. We swallowed them whole, mentally and emotionally, and they still pop up to influence our thinking and feeling and behavior at times, even though they may contradict what we know to be true about ourselves or our world as adults.

Every one of us has a whole family of such voices inside, from the past as well as the present. Some voices are always judging and condemning us, and some voices always excusing us,            blaming the other guy and giving ourselves the easy way out; And some voices support and encourage us, giving us some necessary praise and loving support, and guidance and strength from within.

Some of those internal voices always seem to demand and expect more from others, more than they can ever give, and so they make us quickly feel angry or hurt or deprived by any real or imagined slight or lack of notice by others; and other voices always demand and expect more of ourselves more than we can ever meet up to — creating impossibly high standards of all that we can be and can do, but also high disappointments for what we could have been and should have done, so that we always feel guilty for what we lack, and whoever we are or whatever we do is never enough.

And then there also all the voices that come from outside us, of course: The voices of peer pressure and prevailing opinion, the voices of media and advertising, telling us how deprived we are if we don’t have the classiest automobile or the most marvelous vacation hideaway, or the the biggest, sharpest HD flatscreen TV or latest update on our computer, or the smartest smartphone on the market (which will be obsolete next week, of course). These too we tend to internalize as our own thoughts or priorities or needs. This dialogue with real and imagined, internal and external voices  is something that goes on all the time for us.  This is why loving and supportive families are such a gift in life for those who have them, and why honest, wise and caring friends are such a treasure. They are a community of actual people in active relationships, with real-time voices, who can give us feedback and advice, reality checks and positive support.

It is in the context of this whole world of voices that I hear Jesus words from the tenth chapter of John “I am the good shepherd .. “My sheep will listen to my voice. “I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father “I lay down my life for my sheep. “And no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Our internal worlds consist of more than the subconscious internalized voices of the past, and the din and pressure of the voices of the world around us.

We have a spiritual world within as well, a voice that is within us, but also beyond us; a voice that does not excuse us irresponsibly, but neither does it condemn us. Just as Jesus’ intimate relationship with his divine Father was so much part of his sense of self-identity and sense of purpose in life, So Christ the shepherd can becomes part of our internal world, part of our sense of who we are and what we have going for us, and who we are meant to be as we make our way through the world.

This is a voice that says, in every circumstance, “My grace is enough for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This is a voice that is always there to remind us, “I have already forgiven you.” “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek and those who mourn, the compassionate and the peacemakers, for they are children of God” This is the voice that assures us: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me” “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

This is a voice that calls us beyond the real or imagined limitations of our lives, the hurts from others that we cling to, the excuses for ourselves that we hide behind, the condemnations of ourselves that grind us down, and calls us into the real world of spirit, where we can see that the brief but precious span of life that we have been given is a banquet table, a cup overflowing, a tremendous gift of love from God.

Life is not a gift to be held close in protective fear, or wasted in crippling guilt or regret for roads not taken. It is a gift to be opened, laid wide, and lived out in love. With the Lord as our Shepherd, our caretaker, we can dare to be bold and sure-footed in the living of our lives.

The 10th chapter of John and the 23rd Psalm are honest about the world in which we live.

They acknowledge that this world can be an unjust and sometimes dangerous place, that there are dark valleys of the shadow of death, and there are some enemies around us. There are wolves out there, and unfaithful shepherds, and still these passages affirm that we have a savior, and a safe and secure haven in God.  We have a savior and a safe and secure haven in God.  The Psalmist calls this haven the House of the Lord. “And I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.”

The priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen observed in one of his books that many of us live as if we’ve forgotten our address and are living at the wrong place — living in the house of fear instead of the house of the Lord.

There is truly much to fear in our world, and it’s easy to understand why people sometimes think that that’s all there is. In this difficult and challenging time, fear has invaded every part of our lives, and some of our civic and religious leaders seem to foster and thrive on a climate of fear.

But God’s alternative to this house of fear is the house of the Lord, the house of love; In Nouwen’s words, “the place where we can think, speak, and act in the ways of God, not in the ways of the fear-filled world.” The House of the Lord lacks for nothing. It is a place of abundance and beauty. In contrast to the parched places of our lives, it is a place of verdant and nourishing green pastures. In contrast to the cacophony of noises of our daily lives and frazzled spirits, it is a place of deep, still waters, where silence carries us to the wellsprings of our faith.

In contrast to the futile desperation of endlessly seeking after the latest electronic gadget, the fast road to wealth and security, or the newest, hippest, coolest whatever, when we are at home with God, we know that our cup is already filled to overflowing. To dwell in the house of the Lord, is to be rooted in love and grounded in love.

We cannot possibly be fully rooted and grounded in love when we live in a house of fear. That can only happen when we live in the House of the Lord. To live in the house of the Lord is to be guided not by terror, but by trust; not by hostility, but by hospitality; not by fear of scarcity, but by overflowing abundance.

To live in the house of the Lord is to know that goodness and mercy, not evil and judgment, but goodness and mercy will pursue us all the days of our lives.

But how, you may ask, how do we sort out this one voice from so many other voices within and outside? Only by a spirit that finds the space to listen for God’s voice, for the Good Shepherd’s voice, amid the clamor of all the other voices.

This is one of the reasons we need involved and caring and positive friends and loved ones. And it is also one of the reasons we need the church, why the world needs the church, why our children need the church.

We need the community that carries the living Word, the living voice of Christ, and lets it speak to the present and the future.

Through the church, we help create a space in which to hear the one true voice, amid all the other voices that would distract us from caring about our true selves, or demean us to be less than ourselves, or condemn us for not being more than ourselves.

For the good shepherd knows us; knows us as our true selves, and loves us, and forgives us, and inspires us to be sheep of God’s flock, and servants of God’s grace precisely in the persons that we are –no more, and no less, than beloved children of God.  Amen