It haunted me for years. I saw my friends do it. They talked about how thrilling it was. But when I looked, I could feel the fear clinch inside of me. Now, I didn’t say that. No, I just told people I wasn’t interested in doing it.
I even came up with a substitute activity to show my courage. I swam across the lake while my dad paddled along beside me in a canoe to make sure I didn’t drown. I told myself. Certainly, what I’m doing is harder than what they were doing. I’m swimming over a mile through deep water. They are just jumping off a small cliff. But I knew the truth. I was scared to jump. So, I didn’t.
I carried that regret for years, until, I had another opportunity to take such a leap. I was still scared, if anything more scared than I had been those years before. But this time, I did not let my fear stop me. I still remember the relief, the exuberance, the sense of triumph I felt after that leap. And it reminded me. The greatest enemy any person faces is often their own fear.
Have you ever had a moment where you wished you had taken a risk and didn’t? How did it feel? And have you ever had a time where you did face your fear, where you took that leap? How did that feel?
Fear rarely helps you. More often, it actually hurts you. Physically, it increases your risk of heart disease and other health problems. It can even damage your brain, including your ability to remember. Practically, it usually leads you to not make better decisions, but worst ones, even ones that can kill you.
Before I came to the church I once served on Long Island, one of their former pastors had lost his wife, Marjorie, to breast cancer. The loss devastated everyone, especially her two sons, who lost their mom right in the middle of their teens. But years later, I heard a tragic twist to that terrible loss. I was talking to the church’s music director, Lorna, about Marjorie’s death. And as we talked, she paused, and said quietly these words. “Kennedy, do you know that she knew?” Puzzled, I asked. “She knew what?” Lorna explained. “Marjorie was a nurse. So she knew to do regular breast self-exams. That’s when she discovered the lump. But she didn’t do anything about it. And by the time, she did, it was too late.”
When Marjorie delayed that visit to the doctor, she probably said to herself that the lump was likely nothing to worry about. She may have thought that she didn’t want to unduly alarm the family. But none of that was true. She simply was too scared to discover the truth, and by the time she overcame that fear, it was already too late. Fear can be that dangerous. Not only does it rarely tell you the truth, it often stops you from seeing the truth you desperately need to see. It does fit the acronym for FEAR, False Evidence Appearing Real.
That’s why the most common command in the Bible is simply this. Do not fear. Yet, fear can be so insidious that, like it did with Marjorie, it can capture you without you even realizing it. So, how do you live a life where you conquer fear instead of getting captured by it? How do you live a life where you take the risks that will enable you to grow, to blossom into who God created you to be? In this simple story, Jesus shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.
How do you not let fear limit your life? How do you prevent it from taking you captive? In this story of the brave widow, Jesus tells you. In this story, Jesus points to how fear can take control without you even knowing it. And at the same time, Jesus shows you the path out of the fear. Jesus tells you. Freedom with fear begins with one step, one step that then leads to many.
But before you and I look at that first step, we need to look at how subtle fear can be, how it can decide things in your life, without you even realizing it.
This story that we just heard occurs in a strange place. Before Jesus talks about this woman, do you know what he’s been doing? He’s been arguing. He’s been having one argument after another with people who have questions about who Jesus is, what Jesus is doing. Then in the midst of all these arguments, Jesus turns and notices this widow throwing two pennies into the collection plate.
It almost seems as if Jesus got distracted from his main job, facing down his opponents. But in reality, Jesus was showing his opponents what lay behind every argument that they laid out. Yes, one had this objection, and another, had this concern. But no matter what differences each opponent had, their opposition had one common source. They were scared that Jesus was right, that indeed God had come in the flesh. And if this was true, then that would force them into a decision they’d rather not make. Deciding to follow Jesus meant all sorts of sacrifices, all manner of disturbing change in their lives. So, what did they decide to do instead? They decided to come up with all sorts of excuses, all sorts of rationales to avoid taking that risk, all sorts of reasons why Jesus couldn’t be right.
So, what does Jesus do? He points to someone who is taking a far more radical risk than simply believing. He points to a poor woman, bereft of anything but a half penny, but who takes that minuscule amount, and lays it before God. And Jesus sees her sacrifice for what it is. Now, what Jesus saw, even the translators have difficult facing. They soften Jesus’ actual words. In the translation we heard this morning, we read “she gave all she had to live on.” That comes close, but it doesn’t give Jesus’ description full justice. Jesus says that she gave more than what she had to live on. Jesus says that she gave her bios, the Greek word for life. This widow in those two pennies was risking her very life. She was placing everything on the line.
And in pointing out the radical courage of this widow, Jesus was pointing out what lay behind all his opponents’ objections, their fear, their fear of taking anything close to the step of faith this woman did.
Yet Jesus’ doesn’t simply call out those opponents, Jesus calls out pretty much everyone. How many of us have come anywhere close to the courage of this widow?
When I think of her story, I remember the popular business fable of the chicken and the pig. Do you know it?
A pig and a chicken were walking down the road. As they passed a church, they notice that a potluck charity breakfast was under way. Caught up in the spirit, the pig suggested to the chicken that they each make a contribution.
“Great Idea!” the chicken cried. “Let’s offer them ham and eggs!”
“Not so fast.” said the pig. “For you, that’s just a contribution, but for me, it’s a total commitment.”
When it comes to giving, almost everyone falls far more into the chicken category than the pig. You and I may believe that God will provide, but we’re not so interested in testing that belief out too strongly. So yes, we give, some of us more generously than others. But do you give like the widow? Does your gift take away from your ability to put food on your table or to pay your rent or mortgage, or even to take the vacations you desire? And sure, you and I might say, that such giving would be reckless or foolish. But beyond that rationale, is there a deeper reason? Are we scared to trust God that much?
On June 30th 1859, the great tightrope walker, Blondin, did his most daring feat ever. He walked on a two inch rope across Niagara Falls, a distance of over a quarter of a mile. 25,000 people witnessed the sight. Blondin, being the showman he was, didn’t just walk across. No, in the middle he sat down, and called for the ferry boat Maiden of the Mist to park below him. He then pulled up from the boat a bottle of wine on a rope, and after a nice swig continued his journey to the Canadian side of the Falls. On his way back, he hauled a camera with a tripod on his back, and in the middle, set down his balancing pole, and setting up the camera took a picture of the crowd on the American side.
But Blondin wasn’t finished. Five days later on July the 4th, he went again, this time without a balancing pole. Halfway over, he lay down on the cable, flipped himself over, and began walking backwards. On the way back, he took it one step further, wearing a sack over his body the whole way.
Every two weeks or so, Blondin would go again, each time doing something crazier than the time before, like somersaulting and backflipping his way across or pushing a wheelbarrow across. When he reached the other side with the wheelbarrow, he invited someone to jump in, but go figure, nobody took up the offer. In fact, while everyone believed that Blondin could carry someone across, no one but his own manager, Harry Colchord, ever had the courage to take him up on the offer.
Now, you may not have the dream of crossing Niagara Falls, but your fear can stop you from fulfilling the dreams you do have. And you often won’t even realize it is your fear that is stopping you. No, you will come up with some other reasonable explanation for your reluctance to risk, but if you’re honest, it will be rarely that. It will be your fear, lying to you, holding you back, giving you false evidence that appears real.
And if you’re honest too, when it comes to your giving, it will be your fear speaking to you there. But what would it look like to take a step through that fear, one step closer to the faith of that widow. What would it be like to take an honest look at what you are giving, not simply as an amount, but in the same way, Jesus looked at the widow’s gift in terms of proportion. Out of what God has provided you, what percentage do you give back to God, 1%, 2%, 5%, 10%? Whatever that amount is, what about giving more, maybe instead of 1%, it becomes 2% or even 1.25%, or instead of 5% it became 6 or instead of 10, it becomes 12. Or if that math gets too complicated, let’s make it simpler. Just give more, enough more that it makes you a little nervous. Why? Because in that step, you will be taking a step through the barriers of fear that hold you back not only here, but in other areas of your life too. And you will be doing it for the sake of the One, who has broken through every barrier, to shatter those very fears.
In Jesus God went beyond even the gift of that widow. In Jesus, God didn’t risk his life. God gave his life. He gave his life for you. God gave his life to free you, to free you from your false fears so you can live in the freedom and security of a love that knows no bounds. Let God give you that freedom. Let God show you his faithfulness. And what better place to begin than with one small step of faith with our money, one of the areas where many of our greatest fears live.
God isn’t asking you to become the widow today. But God is asking you to trust, to trust just a bit more in this God who has given everything for you. As the writer Ruth Senter puts it:
God’s call to you, his child, is not to safeness, but always to something more – always upward, higher, further along. To bypass the call is to settle for mediocrity, complacency, and dormancy. And should you choose not to risk, you will more than likely wake up some morning with the haunting question on your mind, “Could God have had something more for me, if only I had dared to trust?”
Dare to trust today. Take that step in your giving to God that moves you a bit further from the limits of fear into the freedom of faith. And see how God will use that step to break you out from the fears that hold you captive.