Sermon: Just a Little Fear

A castle against the skyline - the one used as "Castle Anthrax" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

January 26, 2020
Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Psalm 27:1, 4-9

by Eric Anderson

Just a Little Fear.

That’s the title of this sermon, and some of you might wonder where that came from. Some of you, and I have my ideas about who that might be, have guessed and are wondering whether I’ll admit it.

The answer to that is: “Yes.”

In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones – Jones died just this past week – Sir Galahad the Chaste has to be rescued from the Castle Anthrax where he has been subjected to certain temptation from the eight score young women living there.

Sir Lancelot grabs him by the arm and begins pulling him away, saying, “We were in the nick of time. You were in great peril.”

Sir Galahad protests, “I don’t think I was.”

Lancelot replies, “Yes, you were. You were in terrible peril.”

Trying to pull away, Galahad says, “Look, let me go back in there and face the peril.”

Lancelot: “No, it’s too perilous.”

Galahad argues, “Look, it’s my duty as a knight to sample as much peril as I can.”

“No, we’ve got to find the Holy Grail. Come on.”

Galahad whines, “Oh, let me have just a little bit of peril?”

I’m afraid that’s one of the things that leaps to mind when I hear the opening verse of Psalm 27:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Well, I say, lots of things. Some of them are things. Some of them are people.

As an individual, I am not particularly driven by my fears, I think. I have all the caution of my generations of New England ancestors who, since the late 1600s, have mostly stayed right there in New England. My father observed that he reinvented his teaching career roughly every seven years – what’s striking is that he did it within the same school system. I’ve followed something of the same pattern, but it didn’t prevent me from doing something similar, spending seventeen years working for the Connecticut Conference but accumulating six separate titles along the way. I guess I had to reinvent my work more often than my father did.

And now I’m here. No, I’m not particularly driven by my fears. Still, I hear the Psalmist’s summons to fearlessness with… reluctance. Fear is a natural human response. Fear gives us the energy to face or to flee the immediate dangers of our situation. Fear gives us focus in the moment to escape or to overcome.

The problem with that focus is that it cuts off our intelligence. A fear response is rarely a creative one. That’s why people with dangerous jobs get trained to the point of reflex. Adrenalin demands an immediate action, and without training the body to do the right thing rather than something that might be wrong, it’s pretty likely the body will do a wrong thing.

Here’s an example from most of my life. It’s widely said that those who live in the American South don’t know how to drive in a snowstorm. Ask most American Southerners and they’ll tell you the same. They’re not practiced at it. They haven’t developed the reflexes. They’re likely to press the accelerator hard and get the tires spinning to no effect. They’re likely to jam on the brakes and find themselves sliding along the slick surface, slowing only gradually.

Here’s the thing most people won’t tell you: New Englanders can’t drive any better in the first storm of the winter, either. Spring and summer dull the winter reflexes. Fear responses take over, and cars go sliding along.

Recently, this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been flying around the Internet. It’s from an essay he wrote while imprisoned by the Nazis titled “On Stupidity,” and in reading it, I run the risk of insulting people who have been bullied with the name “stupid.” Here’s what Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

Found in Letters and Papers from Prison.

What Bonhoeffer describes here – somebody pushing aside facts, somebody going on the attack – that sounds like somebody in the midst of a fear response. The Nazi regime made a point of sparking, feeding, and inflaming the fears of the German people. Fear limited their ability to critique what they heard. Fear limited their ability to respond creatively. Fear limited their ability to discern the truth.

Ironically, they were then summoned to courage in war.

So if I’m going to have a little fear, it better be just a little fear.

As Andrew Nagy-Benson writes in Feasting on the Word, “In the face of persecution the psalmist offers a song of praise and a bold statement of faith. He confidently declares that God ‘will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock’ (v. 5). This expression of hope casts light on the tension between fear and faith.

“In the light of this psalm, faith’s opponent is not doubt. The psalmist does not question the presence or goodness of God. Rather the psalmist helps us see that fear is the foe of faith. Great are the troubles and trials that loom over the psalmist, but his faith in God equips him with strength to endure ‘the day of trouble’ (v. 5).”

(Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville, John Knox Press), 2010)

The curious thing about Psalm 27 is its ordering of things. It would make sense to name the threats, then pray to God, and then give thanks for God’s response. That’s not how it works. The ancient poet first declares that “the Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?” Only then did he raise the realities that he faced of foes and enemies.

That’s because it’s the right order to do this. Human beings prepare themselves to face adversity. They prepare for difficulties. They prepare for trouble. They train themselves to recognize the fear response and do the positive things despite it. It doesn’t prevent the feelings, oh, my no. But it prevents more of the destructive impulses that fear provides.

Author MaryAnn McKibben Dana writes in Feasting on the Word, “Indeed, in the midst of the confident assurances, the psalmist’s confident language is hard won. The psalmist has experienced real hardship and trusts in God in spite of, or perhaps because of, those difficulties. Some psalms of praise border on the cheeriness of a pep rally – ‘God is in his heaven; all is right with the world.’ It is a message that has a place in our liturgical toolbox, but such messages can also feel false when unabashed praise is sincere, and when the messenger is trying too hard. Psalm 27 strikes an authentic balance between God’s goodness and the gritty reality of our lives.”

(Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville, John Knox Press), 2010)

One of the ways to prepare ourselves for the challenges of human life is to place our foundational trust in God, to feed the confidence within our hearts that God is our light and our salvation, that God is the stronghold of our life. One of the ways to prepare ourselves for the challenges of human life is to seek the beauty of God in the created world, whether it be in the shaping of the mountains or the curl of the wave, or whether it be in the creative efforts of the human mind and heart. One of the ways to prepare ourselves for the challenges of human life is to be joyful in God’s presence. It doesn’t matter whether you express your joy through singing or through dance or through some other expression. What matters is that you seek the Lord in joy.

That confidence will not prevent you from feeling fear when it comes. But it can be a shield against its worst effects. Even better, it help you build a reflex to listen for God, who speaks in the still moments of your life, and speaks as well into the traumas and the trials.

In stillness, build a reflex to listen for God when stress and trial come.

Trust in God, and take courage.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Just a Little Fear

Is the recording identical to the prepared text? No. Vive la difference!

Photo of Doune Castle (called “Castle Anthrax” in the film) in Scotland by Brian MacLennan, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on January 26, 2020

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