Text of the sermon preached on Proper 7B (4th Sunday after Pentecost) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
What are you afraid of?
I ask that because I have a hunch that we’re rarely aware of just how significant a role fear plays in many of our decisions, actions, and conversations.
Perhaps it’s an argument between spouses about whether or not to spend money to take a summer vacation. Except it’s not just about the money to go to the beach, it’s about the fear that there might not be enough to cover the bills when they get back. Or maybe it’s a discernment process about whether to merge with another congregation. And behind all of the good reasons on both sides is the fear each party harbors about losing their identity. Or maybe it’s a heated discussion between a teenager and parent about how late to be out with the car, and what’s behind the conversation again is fear. The teenager’s fear of missing out, of being left behind by some friends who will definitely be out late, and a parent’s fear about all the things that could harm her beloved child.
Yes, fear lurks just under the surface of a lot of the difficult moments in our lives.
But is it unfaithful?
That’s the question that struck me in today’s gospel reading. Notice Jesus’ sharp words to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” OUCH!
So what do you think…is Jesus equating fear with a lack of faith? This troubles me because I’ve long thought that faith doesn’t banish fear, but helps you cope with it.
At the same time, I do see a connection between fear and a lack of faith. Let me get at it this way. Think of faith primarily as trust, not simply as belief, but the kind of trust that motivates you to action. For example, you only let people you trust watch your kids when they’re little. And if you lose trust in your employer, you find it hard to give all you’ve got at work. Does that make sense? Faith is trust.
Well, when I’m afraid, I have a really, really hard time trusting. Fear paralyzes, making trusting — and the confident action that trust makes possible — very difficult, if not impossible. So maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we need your help,” but rather come already assuming the worst, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying??” This isn’t a trusting or faithful request. It’s a fear-induced accusation.
Keep in mind, of course, that whatever the quality of their interaction with Jesus, he still calms the sea. He does care for them. He does look out for them. You don’t have to have perfect faith for God to respond. Indeed, you can even be paralyzed by fear, assume the worst about God, and still receive God’s mercy and grace. And then, perhaps, an invitation to greater faith!
Interestingly, their fear doesn’t evaporate with the stilling of the sea, but it is transformed from the paralyzing anxiety that assumes the worst to a kind of holy awe at the presence and power of the One in their midst. They thought they knew Jesus, and now they have to wonder if they really did. I think that’s the invitation for us as well. To bring our fears, anxieties, and concerns to God as best as we can and watch as they are transformed and we are amazed once again at this God who never, ever ceases to surprise us.
So I wonder if that’s part of the nature of our life in Christian Community. To remind each other that while God may be so much bigger than we’d thought, and that while the life of faith may at times be much harder than we’d bargained for, God will not abandon us. Not to the tempestuous storms of like, or even to the gale-force winds of our fears. Rather, God will come, stilling wind and wave, calming the fear-ridden heart, telling us again that we are God’s own beloved children, and calling us to greater faith.
And when we do that — comfort each other with the news of God’s steadfast love — we are playing one of the great roles described throughout scripture. For at critical moments across the biblical drama, apostles, angels, and prophets will be sent to the people of God to say these four powerful yet simple words: Do not be afraid. And each time we say and hear these words, we join all those saints before who, caught up in the Spirit of God, find the courage not just to survive, but to flourish. Not just to live, but to live with abundance. And not just to get by, but knowing the favor we enjoy in and through Christ, to dare great things, expect great things, ask for great things, and share great things.
My mentor priest in Tennessee once told me a story of another priest who had experienced a devastating season in his life. His son committed suicide. After a period away from his church, the priest returned, still very much grieving, but also healing. On his first Sunday back, the priest got up in the pulpit and delivered the shortest sermon of his career: “People: I have been to the bottom, and the bottom holds.”
Good people of St. Cornelius hold onto your pews, because I’m about to change lanes and get on the highway. I had a completely different sermon prepared for today. But when the disturbing news came out of Charleston, South Carolina followed by the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical letter “Laudato Si” it was obvious another word was asking to emerge. We are living in desperate times with fear. When a young man guns down fellow humans after spending an hour with them praying with the intention of starting a “race war,” you know we are living in desperate times. When the United Nations reports that over 30 million people fled their homes last year because of disasters such as storms and flooding, you know we are living in desperate times. When 1/3 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are nearly depleted, the majority of the world’s drinking water consumed, you know we are living in desperate times. Wars over race and religion, wars over resources, drought, famine, disease, whispers of another economic collapse…you know we are living in desperate times.
“Gird up your loins…” God may be questioning us. What will we answer? Or will the fierceness of these storms cause us to lament and panic, furiously bailing out our little boat and calling out to our God, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
God’s answer? “The bottom holds.”
Jesus calming the storm. Does he calm the storm or does he calm the disciples? The disciples may be carrying him in their boat, but it is Jesus who is taking the disciples to a different place. He is taking them away from the territory familiar to them, the area of Capernaum where they all grew up, where they spent Friday evening in the synagogues being Jewish, where they
first encountered Jesus. He’s taking them away from Capernaum, across the Sea of Galilee to the land of the Gerasenes, where Gentiles live, where the “Other” dwelled. He was taking them to unfamiliar territory where they would be demanded to change.
The storm on the Sea of Galilee wasn’t just a storm of choppy seas and wild wind. It was the coming storm of the demands of change in the disciples’ hearts. They would have to witness Jesus talking with the “Other”, eating with the “Other”, healing the “Other”. They would be challenged to do likewise — to open their hearts to their enemies, to recognize them as God’s beloved people, to engage them as brothers and sisters…to change. Such change would produce other changes, like how and with whom they ate, where they walked and with whom they spoke and conducted business. Paul writes about this change at length in Romans when he talks about how to build community with Christ-believing Gentiles.
Now notice that Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid?” He doesn’t assert “There is nothing to be afraid of.” He isn’t denying or in denial that the storm on the Sea of Galilee is a perilous thing for a small fishing boat full of men. He’s not in denial that the changes soon to be demanded of them would cause a storm. He simply asks, “Why are you afraid?”
“Gird up your loins…” Change is upon us. The why of racism, the why of global climate change —the time is passed for us to answer “why.” Now is the time to answer with action. Now is the day when we act out our Gospel charge “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Racism, global climate change, that will first affect the poorest in our world — these are storms that demand change. Change in what we tolerate and what we don’t.
“Gird up your loins,” because you’re going to need the extra support. Why are we afraid? Of what are we afraid? Change? Pshh… The arguments with family, friends, business partners, teachers, politicians….Pshhh. Are we aware of how much power we have? Do you know how powerful you are? God may be so big, so absolutely huge, so very impressive to all of us down here, you know, but God gives us power to change and affect change. God empowers us to endure afflictions, endure debate, endure the profound patience that learning to embrace the “Other” requires. God empowers us to endure the hardships and labor that changing our ways of consuming the earth’s resources requires. And empowers us to strive to love as we use truthful speech to “proclaim justice and peace for all people.”
Your baptism is your boat. Look at this space. We are in the hull of a boat. This boat, our church, the Body of Christ, carries us to a different place, a place where change will be demanded of us. Some of us are already in the midst of change in order to respond to the storms.
These storms demand change. How will we answer to these demands? Will we gird up our loins? Or will we panic and bail?
I hope that we will gird up our loins. But if we panic, I hope we will remember who made the bottom and hear the voice of the whirlwind question us, “Who are you to question me, puny mortal? Where were you when I gave you my spirit to endure? Where were you when I showed that life overcomes death and love always wins? Where were you when I empowered you with my Spirit to strive for justice and peace?”
What will we say? How will we answer God, the maker of heaven and earth? The maker of the stars and the deep dark of outer space? How will we respond to the God who is alive, always present to us…even at the bottom? What is your answer?