Thursday, August 10, 2017

Fear Not: a sermon based on Matthew 14:22-33

Matthew 14:22-23
I have many fears, some might say phobias. They are not all rational, although some are very rational. I am scared of moths. I know there is nothing they can do to me; but their fluttering close to my person gives me the absolute willies and I cannot keep from hyperventilating. Perhaps it’s because they unnerve me, their tendency to fly into a flame, or perhaps it’s because a babysitter let me watch Mothra versus Godzilla when I was a young child. 

Whatever the reason, I fear them.
That is a little fear, one that I manage fairly well day to day. But I have much bigger fears, most of them centered on the wellbeing of my children in those moments when I am unable to be a physical barrier between them and something that might cause them harm.
I would be lying if I said that the recent uptick in talk of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles hasn’t cost me some sleepless, fear-filled nights. I fear for our nation and our world, specifically of what will happen if my generation doesn’t step up and step out. What kind of legacy will we leave for our kids?

And it is with these fears and worries and anxieties that I approach this text this morning. And perhaps because of those very things that I find such hope here.
Matthew’s Gospel takes us through some of the more dramatic moments of Jesus’s life. His birth, his greeting by the Wisemen, the proclaiming of his identity as the Messiah when he was only 8 days old , his healing of the blind and the paraplegic, to the feeding of the 5,000 we heard about last week. Jesus was certainly drawing attention and making a name for himself. But all of these things, this standing up to powers and principalities, it’s a dangerous thing. It had cost John the Baptist his head. Jesus needed some time to think things through, to pray, to be alone and recharge.
He sent his disciples ahead of him on the boat. Ahead where? Towards Capernaum, back into the region where he had faced persecution before. He compelled them to go and told them he would be along later. The road weary group loaded into the boat and began the journey to the other side, leaving Jesus to trek up the mountainside alone.
And while they were sailing along a storm came up, with wild winds and crashing waves. It is said that storms pop up on this lake even today in unexpected fierceness, catching many a sailor unaware. This is where the disciples found themselves that night. Riding out a storm, in a boat, on a lake. It must have reminded them of the storm they had encountered on this same lake, not so long ago.

In chapter 8 of Matthew we have the story of Jesus and the disciples crossing the lake to get to the other side, which by the way was toward Gentile country, when a storm came up that shook the boat and rocked their courage. At that time Jesus had been in the boat with them and calmed the storm by rebuking the waves. They had been afraid and asked each other “Who is this that even the wind and waves obey him?”

I can almost see Peter and John looking at each other, realizing the storm is coming, but knowing Jesus isn’t in the boat this time. They do not have a sleeping savior to wake. They are on their own.
In our darkest times we often feel this same way. Alone. We cannot see Jesus, we cannot feel Jesus and we are convinced that we have been left to deal with crisis using the every man for himself mentality. And when this happens, fear sets in.
“Whether it’s the fear of a return of an illness, the stability of a fragile relationship of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives, of what future our congregation has, of the direction of our country…. You name it, there is a lot in our individual, congregational, and corporate lives that can make us afraid. And that fear is debilitating. It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence. Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us.”[i]
While the disciples were struggling, full of fear, wondering what might happen, Jesus was already on his way to them. Jesus went to them across the storm, walking on the water, he sought them out in the darkest times of their lives.
Jesus didn’t wait for the wind and waves to calm, but instead walked over them to the people who needed him the most. There are no circumstances that can separate us from the love of Christ, not even a surprise gale!
When the disciples saw him approach they thought he was a ghost. Who else would be out on a night like that? They had no frame of reference for someone walking on water. This was not like the scene from The Shack where Jesus and Mac have a fun foot race across a lake! 

In their fear they were convinced that this was a malevolent force that had come to add to their terror.
Sometimes the solution to our fears, the answer to our darkness, seems threatening and scary. An abused woman, feeling with her children in the middle of the night, that’s a freighting thing.

 A little girl surrounded by US deputy Marshals to go to her first day of school, that’s a scary sight. 

A lone person standing up against a tank; that is the stuff nightmares are made of.

But these are also moments when Christ is present. Standing up against injustice, walking the path toward freedom, loving in a place of hate. And in this moment of fear, where they were convinced a spirit or ghost had come along, they were immediately comforted by the voice of Jesus saying “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
They were saved! Jesus had arrived and as he had proven his power over the wind and waves, they all knew everything would be okay. Well, that’s how the story should have gone. But as we all know, past experiences don’t always increase our present understanding.[ii]
Peter asked for proof. This is a time when I relate to Peter so much. I’ve prayed the prayer asking for a sign, even when I’ve already received one. I’ve asked for confirmation, even when Jesus has offered everything short of a certified notarized engraved invitation to follow him. Peter asks for just a little bit more.
And instead of shutting him down, instead of lecturing him about how you should not put the Lord your God to the test, Jesus obliges and extends his grace to Peter, inviting him to stand upon the waves.
And here is where we usually hear the expression that we must be like Peter and “Step out of the boat.” Only, I’m not going to tell you that. I’m also not going to tell you to “keep your eyes on Jesus” to keep from sinking after stepping out. Quite honestly I think the other disciples made the right choice by staying in the boat. No one but the creator of the seas should be standing on them.
What I want to focus on is Jesus’ reaction to Peter. When Peter began to sink he cried out in fear “Save me Lord.” And immediately, instantly, without pause, Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter’s hand, saving him and leading him back to the boat.

That is the most compelling thing in this scripture for me. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to reach out even when our own stupid curiosity or pride got us into this mess. Jesus saves Peter, and all of us! Jesus will not let go! He will grab a hold and pull us back from all of our failings and restore us to our rightful place at his side.
For me, this is the heart of Matthew's Gospel, of our faith. God does not give up on us. God does not leave us alone, God will do for us what we cannot do on our own. “And this promise is the one thing I know of that helps us cope with and transcend fear. Transcend, not defeat. Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with being faithless. Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we are afraid.”[iii]
We can face our dark nights of the soul, our fears, knowing that Jesus does not let us go. We can walk through the storms that will pop up, some unexpected, others that we have seen from far off, knowing that God does not leave us without hope. Take heart my friends, do not be afraid, for Jesus is with us, even to the end of the age.

[i] David Lose, In The Meantime. Pentecost 10A: Something More
[ii] Jill Duffield, Looking into the Lectionary 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
[iii] David Lose, In The Meantime. Pentecost 10A: Something More