The wages of fear I

By Donald Schell

“Tell us why we shouldn’t be afraid. Then tell us again. We can’t hear it too often.”

When my parishioner gave me that preaching mandate, I thought immediately of “The Wages of Fear,” Clouzot’s title for his 1953 gritty white-knuckle thriller film of desperate men driving tanker truckloads of nitroglycerin. To my ear Clouzot’s title echoes and comments on what St. Paul said in Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” “ Ah,” Clouzot seems to reply, “so apparently sin and fear pay the same wages.”

I write of the wages of fear in 2010 in the long wake of 9/11/2001 when a new doctrine (or heresy) of constant fear claimed to change everything forever. Maybe it has. I hope not.

6 p.m. that night, just twelve hours after the attacks, thanks to mass email, a sidewalk sign and Pacific Time’s extra three hours, we filled our church for a requiem and mass for peace. About a third of the people came with friends or from the sign or phoning the church. Prayers and singing, silence and tears filled the church that evening with a spirit blending like the sadness and hope of our truest funerals, a blend of Good Friday and Easter.

But afterwards one parishioner angrily complained at my presumption rewriting the evening’s final hymn. Politically more conservative than me, my old friend knew how her preacher mistrusted any rush to war, so she’d flinched when the leaflet gave her the unexpected and uncomfortable immediacy of singing,

“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!

America! America! God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.”

“No, those aren’t my words,” I said, a little too curtly, and showed her the hymnal. I knew that more than mistrusting heroes who loved mercy more than life or a prayer that God confirm us in self control; she mistrusted my underlying anger and fear that touched her own fear and anger.

Friday watching our President on TV preach his call to war from the pulpit of our Cathedral in Washington fueled my anger: ‘Our responsibility is clear’ he said, ‘to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil…this nation is peaceful but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.’

‘Rid the world of evil?’ I muttered, ‘…an hour of our choosing?’


So the mercy and self-control I sort of wished I had written into that second verse were even farther from my mind as I prepared Sunday’s sermon. Most preachers feel it sooner or later; the exciting stirring of our inner Amos, the righteous, wrathful, prophetic voice we know will make people uncomfortable. Though I knew our congregation was raw and jittery, my Sunday sermon was full of angry, prophetic confidence. And it was after that liturgy that another voice, a real prophet, offered this preacher her urgent plea, “You’ve got to tell us why we shouldn’t be afraid. Then tell us again. And again. We can’t hear it too often.”

It is a strangely grace-filled thing to preach and preside for a congregation of friends and strangers who are desperately eager to pray, who long to hear a word of Good News, and who hunger to receive the body of Christ. With my mandate to address our fear, I climbed off my prophetic soapbox and listened like the rest of the people to the readings and my and our asking over the next several weeks preaching, “What do we have to fear?”

Extended preaching time with the question of how we live beyond our fear and how we lay our fears to rest, highlighted something startlingly new in our lectionary’s long Advent-themed Autumn –

– Godly hope, the promise of God-with-us,

– God’s desire that we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God,

– and all the prophets’ promises and comfort were spoken to people whose lives had been devastated by war after war, by poverty, by famine, by the oppressive greed of a few, by their own lack of compassion and lack of love and forgiveness. Reading after reading looked on massive threat, chaos and sorrow without blinking. And where can we go from there? To St. Paul telling us (over and over) to give thanks in all things, and to the writer of I John telling us, ‘perfect love casts out fear.’

This ancient theme of fearlessness and hope in trouble resounds in the Black Church. Our sisters and brothers who have known steady and terrible suffering touch this holy fearlessness in music like ‘The Storm is passing over,’

Encourage my soul and let us journey on –

For the night is dark and I am far from home

Thanks be to God the morning light appears,

The storm is passing over, The storm is passing over,

The storm is passing over halleu

Hal-le- (all) lu-jah, Ha-le-lu-jah, Ha-le-lu-jah, ah, ah, ah

The storm is passing over, the storm is passing over,

the storm is passing over halleu!

Preaching that fall with the simple prophetic charge my parishioner had given me, I felt how eagerly people listened for encouragement (renewing and blessing their courage), and how joyfully they welcomed the reminder that ‘faith’ grounds all our trust in God. I felt their sigh of relief and recognition to hear that ‘perfect love casts out fear,’ and just as importantly their relief as well that we wouldn’t pretend to offer them safety, no trouble, or easy security.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is

President of All Saints Company.

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