A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 20, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 9:30-37
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I assume all of you heard the news about the 14-year-old who was arrested at his Irving, Texas, high school this week.[1]  I want to take you on a journey, a retracing of my experience of this news as it unfolded because I think it is germane to my sermon topic today.

Ahmed Mohamed being arrested. Photo from NBC

For me, the news broke in my Facebook feed.  A 14-year-old boy was arrested in Texas when an electronic clock he made as a project for his engineering class was mistaken for a bomb.  I thought some disparaging thoughts about Texas and scrolled on to the next post.  After all, schools have a responsibility to keep students safe, and if one student did something that threatened or even seemed to threaten the others, the school administration needed to react.

More posts showed up in my Facebook feed when I checked it throughout the day, so I clicked on one.  The first thing I noticed was the kid’s name:  Ahmed Mohamed.  I wondered if the level of suspicion would have been as high if the boy was named Paul Christianson.

And I started wondering about the school staff.  How could they possibly mistake a clock for a bomb?  Had the kid made any threats? No.  Had he ever claimed it was anything but a clock? No.  Did it look like there were explosives? No, it was built in a pencil case.  Why on earth did they call the police and why on earth did the police arrest the kid?

Photo of pencil box in which Ahmed built his clock, released by police.

I was relieved when I started seeing the reactions of people outside Irving, Texas.  My favorite response was from the President, posted on Twitter almost immediately after the story broke:  “Cool clock, Ahmed.  Want to bring it to the White House?  We should inspire more kids like you to like science.  It’s what makes America great.”[2]  Mark Zuckerberg invited Ahmed to visit Facebook and said that he wanted to meet the kid.  The chair of theoretical physics at MIT (Ahmed’s dream school) invited him to come visit (and to visit Harvard) saying that she knows Ahmed likes the hands-on stuff, but the theory of physics can be interesting, too.  And, under the heading of “Get arrested and get cool swag,” Microsoft’s CEO sent Ahmed a care package.[3]

Care package from Microsoft CEO. Photo from Microsoft News

Still, there was part of me that thought, “This was a really stupid mistake on the part of the school and the police, but they do have a responsibility to protect the students.”  And then I read a Facebook post[4] that changed my mind.  This post pointed out that they didn’t evacuate the school, like you do when you think that there’s a bomb.  They didn’t call a bomb squad, like you do when there’s a suspicious package.  They didn’t get as far away from him as possible, like you do if you think he has a bomb.  They put him and the clock in an office, they waited with him for the police to arrive, they put Ahmed and the clock in a police car, and when they got to the police station, they took pictures of it.  They never thought he had a bomb.

At first, I thought the issue was fear – fear of the object, maybe even fear of the object because a Muslim kid built it.  Now I’m inclined to think that the issue is fear – fear that a brown-skinned, Muslim kid could excel, could be creative, might achieve.

Fear makes us do stupid things.

Yes, sometimes fear is helpful.  Over the eons, our fight, flight, or freeze response to threatening situations probably kept Homo sapiens from extinction.  And in some situations, the fear response is still very helpful because it keeps us safe.  But fear can be a conditioned response based on nothing threatening.  Many of the things we fear we learned to fear.  We weren’t afraid of them until experience or culture taught us to be afraid.  And those learned fears often lead to prejudices.  And those prejudices lead to injustices.  Fear can move us to do stupid things.

Or as David Lose puts it, “Fear has this way of leading you to misperceive both threats and opportunities, of prompting impulsive and sometimes irrational behavior, and of narrowing your vision so it’s difficult to see possibilities.  Which is why it’s hard to be wise, prudent, or compassionate when you are afraid.”[5]

“This week’s reading is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith.  Notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his impending crucifixion because they are afraid.  And the next thing you know they’re talking about securing their place in the coming kingdom.  Fear does that.  It both paralyzes you and drives you to look out only for yourself.”[6]

Mark contrasts faith and fear in other places in his gospel.  After he stills the storm that terrified his disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40).  As he revives Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father (who had just been told that his daughter was dead), “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36).

“Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is, or at least that kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts, and drives [us] to despair.”[7]

So, here’s a question for you:  What are you afraid of?

I would actually like you to reflect on this question.  Jot down your answers on a corner of your copy of the bulletin.  Push past the phobia answers (for me, that’s snakes; an easy but not instructive answer).  Push past, look inside and ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?”

As I sat with this question this week, these are the answers I came up with:  Perhaps because I keep seeing articles about the astronomical costs for housing in San Francisco that is driving up housing costs throughout the Bay Area, I’m afraid I may not have enough savings to retire.

“Okay,” I thought, “that’s a fear.  But what are you really afraid of, Jeff?”  And I looked deeper inside discovered that I’m afraid of being rejected or shamed; and I’m afraid of anger – my own anger and anger in other people.

I share these fears not because I expect any of you to fix them (or me).  That’s not your job.  They are my fears.  I share them because I think this is a safe space where I can be real.  I share them because I trust you to hear them.  I share them to encourage you to look inside yourself to discover what you really fear.  And I share them because, as Mark is pointing out, there is a relationship between fear and faith.

Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties is an invitation faith.  And by faith, I don’t mean giving our intellectual assent to some proposition – as if believing the right things about God somehow inoculates us from fear.  Rather, I mean faith “as movement, faith as taking a step forward (even a little step) in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises.

“Note what follows the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ probing question that only exposes the depth of their anxiety:  Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children.

“These are small things when you think about it.  Serving others, opening yourself to another’s need, being honest about your own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child, welcoming a stranger.  But they are available to each and all of us every single day.  And each time we make even the smallest of these gestures in faith – that is, find the strength and courage to reach out to another in compassion even when we are afraid – we will find our fear lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear and death do not have the last word.”[8]

I began thinking that the Irving high school over-reaction to Ahmed’s clock was understandable.  We want our schools to be a safe space for our children.  The over-reaction may have exposed how unsafe the schools are – not because of the students, but because of the unnamed, unconscious fears of the adults.

Our lesson from Mark suggests ways to make those school and our churches and every place safer spaces for everyone:  When we make the small gestures of caring, of compassion, of welcome, of honesty,  and when we receive those gestures with gratitude and trust.

Amen.

[1] Bill Chappell, “Texas High School Student Shows Off Homemade Clock, Gets Handcuffed,” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/16/440820557/high-school-student-shows-off-homemade-clock-gets-handcuffed (posted 16 September 2015, accessed 19 September 2015).

[2] Barack Obama, Twitter, https://twitter.com/POTUS/status/644193755814342656 (posted and accessed 16 September 2015).

[3] Mehedi Hassan, “Ahmed Mohamed gets Surface Pro 3, and more goodies from Microsoft CEO,” Microsoft News, http://microsoft-news.com/ahmed-mohamed-gets-surface-pro-3-and-more-goodies-from-microsoft-ceo/ (posted and accessed 19 September 2015).

[4] I have since seen this post attributed to several people, so I don’t know who wrote it originally.

[5] David Lose, “Pentecost 17B: Faith & Fear,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-17-b-faith-fear/ (posted and accessed 14 September 2015).

[6] Ibid, emphasis added.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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