Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "I Believe in the Sun: Hope for Tomorrow"
Mark 1: 1-15 and Isaiah 40: 1-11, First Sunday of Advent
And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Have you heard of a fearologist? In this time of COVID-19 we hear a lot about virologists, but I’m talking about a FEAR-ologist. It’s a thing. A fearologist is someone who studies….you guessed it: fear.
On the podcast “Ologies” that invites scientists with odd and interesting specialties to talk about their work, host Alie Ward interviewed Fearologist Mary Poffenroth, who teaches at San Jose State. When the host first came across the word fearologist, she thought it was a typo, maybe it was pearologist, with a p, someone who studies pears, or a feetologist who studies feet. But no, fearology is a real thing. And it turns out it is a needed thing for us as humans because fear is a part of being human.
Fear in itself is not something we talk about too much. Poffenroth says we prefer to talk about stress. In fact we say it all the time, “I’m so stressed.” But the stress response in our bodies is the same thing as the fear response—the tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, sometimes we sweat.
Poffenroth says, “In Western society, we have this stress ‘badge of courage’. When you ask someone how they are: “Oh my [gosh], I'm so stressed!” [and then the response] “Oh [I know], me too!” There's the kids and there's the work and there's the other things! So we feel confident talking about stress because we can commiserate, but we don't feel confident talking about [what Poffenroth calls] the ‘f-word’ because, she says, there's so much shame associated with fear in our society… Yet, it's one of the four basic human emotions that go into make all of the rainbow of colors of all the other emotions.”
Sometimes we try to deny that fear exists, with statements like “Be fearless” and “No fear!” But according to Poffenroth, we can’t be fearless. Fear exists, and we don’t have any control over that fact.
Advent begins, every year, in fear. It’s always been curious to me that we do this—open the most joyous Christian season, the one that ends with the birth of our Jesus, with warnings, and accounts of portending omens. The lectionary gospel lesson for Advent today begins, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory.” Other scriptures that typically open Advent have the skies being ripped open. But we don’t need those scriptures this year to remind us that chaos is swirling around us. We are living it, some of us even so much more than others with jobs changed or lost, financial concerns, fears about catching or passing the virus. Those are macro-level fears, but at a more personal level too, many of us are living with a new level of chaos in our homes, or a new kind of fear of being alone. The beginning work of Advent is to not turn away from what is, from the present reality, and to say, “Ah, this is me, this is us.”
So fear exists, it is part of being human, and we don’t have any control over that. What we do have control over is our response to fear. Enter our text today from Isaiah. Hear these words again, this time from the translation, the Message:
“Comfort, oh comfort my people,”
says your God.
“Speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem,
but also make it very clear
That she has served her sentence,
that her [brokenness] is taken care of—forgiven!
She’s been punished enough and more than enough,
and now it’s over and done with.”
This is an interesting text when we think about what it means to be human and what it means that God came to one of us as one of us, human, flesh and blood. The words are comforting, but their purpose is more than just comfort. They are words of preparation for the in-breaking of the incarnation—think about this—God came to us as one of us. God didn’t ask us to change, to be better or somehow more than enough, to be different than who we are: which is human. Instead, God affirms who we are, and all that comes with that.
It’s actually a radical act of acceptance, respect and love. God created us, so conceivably, God could change us. Couldn’t God change the way our amygdala, that little almond shaped place on both sides of our brains, reacts to stressors? Wouldn’t it be an act of compassion not to ever have that flood of cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our bodies? But God chooses not change our basic humanness, not only honoring who we are as humans, but accompanying us, making sure we know God knows the pain of our fear, and all the sorrow and joy of being human, by becoming one of us.
In the Ologies podcast Dr. Poffenroth said something very significant about fear. The host even called it life-changing. She said, “We have two different kinds of fear. We have factual fear and fictional fear. Factual fears are going to be actual threats to your life that are happening in a shared reality, right now, that your body's responding to. Your amygdala helps your entire body marshall resources to deal with a real threat.” And that is actually a very useful thing.
But fictional fears are those things that may have a nugget of truth in them but mostly are taken to an extreme. These are every day fears: will I get stuck in traffic and not make it to work on time? will I be able to keep my job? do others like me? Are my children ok? Is my spouse in this for the long haul? Our central nervous system detects some threat, and our amygdala fires up with an all-out fear response as if we are being attacked. And THIS is what Poffenroth says IS in our control: our response to THOSE fears. By paying attention to what is really causing the fear response, we can distinguish between factual fear and fictional fear and this requires being in the moment. Being present to what is.
And this is what God is saying, too. The work of Advent is about being awake and paying attention. Acknowledging what is real. We are human. Fear exists. We cannot NOT be human but we can see the difference between factual fear and fictional fear and change our response. The best way to calm fear, Poffenroth says, is to reach out and get connection, to ask for connection and receive that support. That can be very hard to do. Modern western society socializes us NOT to do that.
But the whole meaning of the incarnation is that God is breaking through that isolation. And God is not asking us to be anything other than who we are! When God comes to us as us, not asking us to be fundamentally different, this is on a human level and an individual level. As part of the human community, God is not asking me, Kristin as a human, to not have a physiological response to fear. And God, is not asking me, Kristin, to not be Kristin. Now that blows me away. I am painfully aware of how I imperfect I am. How I can get focused on a goal and forget the world and the people around me. How I doubt myself. How I can get lost in regret.
God is saying, change your response to all of these fears, because doubt and inadequacy and regret are really just fear with fancy names, and reach out to me. Reach out to each other, which is my body. I am here for you. You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased. And I’ll show you how true this is by coming to you in flesh and blood. Comfort, comfort, O my people. All is forgiven. I see you as you are and wouldn’t change a thing, says God. God is awake to who we are and loves us for who we are, and we need to do that, too.
This radical love and acceptance is why we can say I believe in the Sun, even when it is not shining. It is said that the other side of fear is hope, and that is true, but I submit to you today that the other side of fear is also…trust. If the antidote to those every day fears is to reach out for connection and support, we can do that most easily when we know that our hand will be met with another hand. The incarnation is God’s reaching out God’s hand waiting for our touch, waiting for that reach. Even when fears could our vision and our light, God is there, God of comfort, God who is well pleased with you, in all of your individuality and humanity. I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - November 29, 2020
First Sunday of Advent: I Believe in the Sun: Hope for Tomorrow
Prelude: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Welcome & Open Prayer - Rev. Kristin Stoneking & Susan Jardin, Rev. Jerry Asheim & Melani Gantes
Advent Carol of Hope: "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" Rev. Jerry Asheim & Chris Poston
Isaiah Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-11 - Carol Baumbauer
Children’s Message: Susan Jardin & Judy Kriege
Gospel Reading: Mark 1: 1-15 - Carol Baumbauer
The Witness of Music (Anthem): "I Believe" recorded for the "Sounds of Epworth" CD, 2019
Message: "I Believe in the Sun: Hope for Tomorrow" - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Advent Carol of Response: "People Look East" UM Hymnal # 202 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Margot Hanson
Litany of Belief - Dianne Rush Woods & Orion Lacey
Prayers in the Stillness - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Melani Gantes
Offering Announcement and Opportunities - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Doxology - Judy Kriege
WE GO FORTH
Carol of Resistance: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Chris Poston
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking & Handbells on the front porch
Postlude: "Now Thank We All Our God" - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special thanks to:
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt