Sandwich, New Hampshire, where my mother-in-law owns a house, is a quiet place. In the center of town you will find a small post office, a couple of churches, one restaurant, a craft store, and a seasonal café that has changed owners multiple times in recent years, seemingly always on the verge of closing its doors. There are a couple of stop signs and no stop lights. I’ve never heard any resident of Sandwich use the word “traffic.”
Even on vacation, however, one can’t avoid seeking out certain basic necessities. So last week Kristin and I had to drive into the nearby towns of Center Harbor and Meredith if we wanted to buy groceries or fill the car with gas or pick up small items at the drugstore or the hardware store. And in order to get to Center Harbor or Meredith from Sandwich, the quickest way is to drive down Route 25 through Moultonborough, New Hampshire.
Moultonborough is a little bigger than Sandwich, with a few more stores and places of interest. We don’t tend to spend a lot of time in Moultonborough on vacation, but not because it’s unpleasant. The simple fact is that Moultonborough tends to be for us a point along the way to somewhere else.
Having said all that, there is one store in Moultonborough that has caught my eye a few times in recent years. It’s a gun and ammunition store and I can’t tell you the actual name of the store. Not being a gun owner myself, I’ve never set foot in the store. But the store sits by the side of the road and it has one of those big, old fashioned, yellow signs out front that you can’t miss when you drive by. With black horizontal bars on it so someone can change the letters of the sign by hand anytime they choose.
Clearly the owner of this store has a sense of humor, although it’s a bit offbeat. He or she tends to put words together on that roadside sign that are absurd enough to make you chuckle, even at forty miles per hour. My favorite was the one from last summer where the sign advertised “gluten free guns.” I’m pretty sure Josh made me stop the car one night so he could jump out and take a selfie in front of that slogan.
In any case, fast forward to a couple of Sunday’s ago, when I had to drive from Sandwich to Meredith to buy some groceries, and I knew I would be passing the sign outside the gun store. I expected something clever and perhaps a bit goofy. If the sign was really good, I contemplated stopping the car and taking a selfie of my own to send to Josh.
As I drove through Moultonborough, I saw the gun store off to my right and noticed the words on the sign were new. This time, the sign read, “bulletproof backpacks.” Those two words together, particularly in front of a gun and ammunition store, were odd and jarring enough that I chuckled for a moment. But it wasn’t quite the same reaction as last summer. This time it was more of a nervous chuckle. The kind of chuckle you let out when you’re not completely sure whether it’s a joke.
Sure enough I drove by that same sign a number of times last week, and after the second or third time I realized the sign wasn’t going to change anytime soon. With schools in Moultonborough starting the day after Labor Day, that sign was up there for a reason. And the reason wasn’t to make people laugh as they drove by…
Over the years, I have shopped for backpacks on an almost yearly basis. Whether the backpack was for my own use or for one of my children, there were always a few practical questions to consider. Was the backpack big enough? Did it have enough pockets in it? Would it be light enough and easy enough to carry when it was full of books and other school materials?
And then there were the really important questions to take into account. Was the backpack the right color? And did it have an image or an icon on it that was culturally relevant enough to draw the admiration of peers in the school? In other words, was the backpack cool enough to be seen with?
Yet there is one thing about a backpack I’ve never considered. In some figment of my imagination, I suppose I could have guessed in the year 2018 that you could find someone somewhere offering to sell a bulletproof backpack. I doubt if you could buy such a thing in a mainstream department store. But if you looked on the internet, I suspect there is a market for bulletproof backpacks. Maybe it’s even a growing market for all I know.
Still, I could not have imagined we would be at the point in 2018 where a gun and ammunition store would publicly advertise bulletproof backpacks the week before school started. How many parents, how many youth, how many children have driven by that sign, read it silently or out loud, and tried to make sense of it? Even more than that, how many people have stopped into that gun and ammunition store to inquire about such a backpack…or to purchase one…?
Before I go any further, I don’t intend for this sermon to be about gun violence or school shootings. I have preached too many of those sermons and I rue the day I preach another one. Instead, this sermon is a sermon about fear. About the messages we hear and absorb every day, both subtle and anything but subtle, designed to make us afraid.
You can read those messages on old fashioned signs or on high tech websites. You can see the messages daily on news channels and they appear relentlessly on social media applications. The messages often originate from people in positions of power and they are spread by family and friends and people in our neighborhoods.
We know the messages so well, they are so prevalent; we could name them and come up with a long list. Muslims are terrorists…be afraid of them. People who cross the border into this country are prone to violence…be afraid of them. People of different races and ethnicities are taking over our jobs and our communities and threatening our way of life… be afraid of them.
Be afraid of drugs and the drug dealers. Be afraid of the ones on the other side of the political aisle. Be afraid of nuclear weapons and unpredictable world leaders and the start of Armageddon. Lock your doors. Keep a close eye on your children and grandchildren. Arm yourself. Be wary of anyone who doesn’t look or think or act like you do. Stay vigilant at all times. Wear a bulletproof backpack to your next class in school…
I wonder what God thinks of all this. Especially since God repeats a message of God’s own over and over and over again in the Bible. A message that boils down to four short words. Do not be afraid.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” We heard God’s message unequivocally this morning in Psalm 46, but you can find it throughout the Old Testament. And then Jesus picks up the message and utters it time and again in the New Testament. Whatever you do, wherever you go, whoever you are with, no matter how dire it seems. Don’t be afraid.
God’s message is so easily drowned out in the world in which we live. And yet, even admitting that there are scary things and scary people in our world, do we have to give in to fear? Do we have to order our lives and our routines according to what frightens us? Do we truly believe there is another way…God’s way?
Sometimes when I find myself preoccupied with fear, I remember a few words and use them as a mantra. Paying attention to my breathing in and my exhaling out, I repeat eight words from the end of Psalm 46. Words which help me center and refocus.
“Be still. And know. That I. Am God.” Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46 begins with a reminder that God is our refuge and strength and we have nothing to fear. And it ends with a prescription. In case you forget. In case fear and anxiety and panic overtake you. Be still and know that I am God.
In the stillness, when we’re not moving fast and driving by, God’s message is loud and clear. Stop and be still. Stop long enough to take in beauty and feel joy and name gratitude. Celebrate the possibility of each new day and signs of God’s peace and God’s hope are unmistakable. So unmistakable they are capable of casting out our fear.
We worship a God who poses an alternative. A God who will not give in and will not let us go even when the world’s messages ring persistently in our ears. A God whose voice reverberates loudly in the stillness. Do not be afraid. Amen.