First Congregational Church
April 2, 2017
5th Sunday in Lent
“Fear of the Unmentionable”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A woman went to the doctor’s office. She was seen by one of the new doctors, but after about 4 minutes in the examination room, she burst out, screaming as she ran down the hall. An older doctor stopped and asked her what the problem was, and she explained. He had her sit down and relax in another room.
The older doctor marched back to the first and demanded, "What's the matter with you? Mrs. Terry is 63 years old, she has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and you told her she was pregnant?" The new doctor smiled smugly as he continued to write on his clipboard. "Cured her hiccups though, didn't it?”
A lady went to a psychiatrist complaining of a terrible phobia. “Every time I lay down on my bed I get this terrible fear that there is something underneath. “Wow” responded the psychiatrist “I’ve never heard of such a phobia, but like all phobias it can be treated, but it will likely take around 20 sessions.” “OK” responded the lady “how much is each session?” “Oh it’s just $80 a session, but trust me it’s well worth it.” When the lady didn’t come back to the psychiatrist he gave the lady a call. “How come I didn’t hear from you? he asked.” “Well” responded the lady “when I came home and told my husband about the cost, he thought he would save some money, so he just cut the legs off the bed!”
This morning’s message continues the Lenten them of fear. It began with the “The Fear of Inadequacy”, then the “Fear of Circumstances” and last week it was the ”Fear of the Unexplainable.” For those wondering, this morning’s message, The Fear of the Unmentionable” is not about underwear. Somewhere in my history, unmentionables was the polite word for items that are now given their own style shows, hosted by Victoria’s Secret.
The passage for this morning is not one that occurs in most current lectionaries. In fact, I would guess that this passage doesn’t get much press at all. It’s interesting, because in the chapter before this one, Jesus was teaching about prayer and healing. As the crowds increased to hear his teaching, he gave a little prophecy, and Jesus was then invited to eat with a Pharisee, and during the meal, he gave a royal dressing down to Pharisees and experts of the law.
1 Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2 There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 3 What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Thank you, Dawn. I don’t know if Jesus just stepped out from the Pharisee’s house - where he’d berated Pharisees with things like “Woe to you (Pharisees), because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” But apparently, while that uncomfortable conversation was taking place, more people added to the crowd outside, and Jesus continued denigrating the Pharisees - in public.
And then, while he had everyone’s attention, Jesus told the crowd not to be afraid of being killed, but “fear” God - who has the power to throw you into hell. Before anyone turns off their brain, give me a minute or two, because that is not the final word. Nor is it only as black and white as the paper on which it’s written.
I don’t know for certain, but I’m sure that this morning’s passage was often used to scare people into faith - if that’s what you want to call it. It is, after all, filled with what has been considered odiously unmentionable. Yeast: a symbol in Judaism of the permeating power of sin. Hypocrisy: one of the most hurtful criticisms. Hell: which was in reference to the actual place called Gehenna, where children of Judah were offered as sacrifices, as well as being the place where Jesus would be crucified. Sparrows: so inconsequential, it was one of the least expensive things at the market and may have been eaten by the poorest of the poor. Hair: the average head holding roughly 100,000 hair folicles - give or take.
I confess that the real title for this part of the sermon series was the Fear of Hell. Partly wanting to take leave of the zealous evangelists from days of yore, and partly wondering if the original title was a little too narrow, I thought the Fear of the Unmentionable a little more meaningfully contemporary. I thought, too, that perhaps one of the unmentionables that is perhaps bigger than some of the others, perhaps many different fears boiled down, is the fear of failure. If you don’t perform well, go directly to hell; do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
A gentleman named Will Vaus gave a wonderful alternate title for this passage. To fear or not to fear . . . that is the question. Father James Thayil wrote, “The chief purpose of God becoming man was to invite us to be critics not of others but of ourselves.” It’s good to do some honest self-reflection from time-to-time, and if nothing else, this passage reminds us to do just that.
It is so human to allow the bad - even evil - part of life to get all the attention. And that’s true for this passage, too. Because if we aren’t attentive, we miss the rest of the story. Stepping back a little, there is the “good” acknowledgement - that we have a powerful God. Our God is more powerful than any human and our God’s actions last not for a day or decade, but for eternity. And we have a God who loves, understands and forgives.
Sometimes we forget that fear is not the thing that leaves us quaking and shaking in inaction. Sometimes fear is awe and even reverence. Long ago, in a beautiful place called Minnesota, there was a spot called Paul Bunyan Land in the town of Brainerd. In that spot, there was a giant cave-like structure, maybe as high as the steeple on this church. Inside that huge cave-place sat Paul Bunyan, and when you got close to him, he would say, “Well, hello, Diane. And how are you today?” Or “Hello, Ann.” Or “Hello, Chuck.” How did he know our names?
How does God keep track of all those hair follicles and sparrows and lilies of the field and stars in the sky and grains of sand? How can we not trust the One who sent God’s own Son, to show us the way - through those things that we’d rather not mention - through those things that we wish had never happened - through to the place where we will stand in the full light of awe and reverence with and before God - for longer than any of us can even begin to imagine?
Ours is a God that understands that which is so dear to our hearts, so dear that even to mention the words brings tears or gets us choked up. And ours is a God who loves us - even when we feel cold or alone or dark or empty. God’s love for us doesn’t ever change, and to remind us of that unchanging love, Jesus gave us this meal, these simple elements of food and drink, elements that have been a necessary part of life since the beginning of time. These elements, that once had life running through them in various ways, remind us that God’s last word runs fearlessly through this world - in love. As we prepare our hearts and minds for this sacrament of grace, let us do so in the holiness of Christ’s presence among us.
Let us pray. Holy and Eternal God of Love, we thank you for your Spirit, that binds us together into one body with you and all the others throughout time. Help us, when the unmentionable times and matters come on us, to reach for you and for those who can help us remember that your love is greater than anything else in this whole, wide world. Forgive us for those times when our songs are only for the day and display, forgetting to sing in the night for your might. Thank you for the fullness of life that you give to us each and every day, each and every moment, in and through your love. For these and all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.