Sunday's Sermon / August 6, 2017

Matthew 14: 22-33

                                                                                                           BE AFRAID

    We donít often think about how Jesus was feeling in any given gospel story. After all, weíre looking for the meaning for ourselves. Weíre reading it to see what Jesus has to say to us. Other than a few stories, when Jesus weeps or gets especially angry, his emotions donít usually play into how we read any given story. Why would it matter what Jesusí state of mind is? But in this story, this week, it seems important. At the beginning of Matthew 14, we find out that John the Baptist has just been killed, and killed in a very political, dramatic way. He was imprisoned by King Herod, but he was killed on the whim of a dancing girl. His head is brought out on a silver platter. Surely this news, if it is recorded, had spread, even if it was just a rumor of these things. John is not just a prophet, heís also Jesusí cousin. Whether they were close, we donít know. But we know that Jesus was raised alongside John, that they were just months apart in age. And that their ministry overlapped in significant ways. And that Johnís death showed pretty graphically how the powers-that-be dealt with those who told the truth, especially to their power. I think itís fair to assume that Jesus was sad. Heartbroken, even.
    Upon hearing this heartbreaking news, Jesus tries and fails to get away from the crowds once already. They follow him. Rather than shooing them away, Jesus feels compassion for them and heals many of them. The disciples say, OK, now itís getting late. Send this huge crowd away, so they can go find food. Instead of sending them away, Jesus sits them down. He multiplies a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread. And he feeds them. All 5000 of them, or more really, it was 5000 men, plus women and children. Pretty amazing stuff. But how do you think Jesus felt now? Heíd had no time to grieve. No time to himself, like he wanted. No time to pray. Jesus was sad and exhausted.
    And I donít know about you, but thatís a lot of how I was feeling at I approached this story this week. As far as the news goes this has been a sad and exhausting week. All week the threat of nuclear war with North Korea has been looming large, and now in the last few days, the white-supremacist rallies and resulting protests not so far away in Charlottesville, Virginia have defied words. Iím sad and exhausted. Sad because that kind of hate is still so present in peopleís hearts, the kind of hate that shouts ďGo back to Africa,Ē and other hate speech at passersby and wears t-shirts quoting Adolph Hitler. Sad that that hate doesnít even have to wear a hood anymore. Sad that many of those people rallying for white power are my age, and many of them probably call themselves Christians, too. Sad that they donít realize we are all made in Godís image. Sad for the violence that resulted in death and injuries. Sad for the ways Iíve allowed racist things to be said and done in my life and not spoken up. Tired of listening to the news, because I might hear something else sad. Sad and exhausted.
    Finally, Jesus, sad and exhausted like me, gets away for a minute. He dismisses the crowds, and sends the disciples on ahead in the boat to the other shore. He stays and goes up a mountain to pray. He stays up the mountain that night. Meanwhile, the disciples are only about in the middle of the lake, because the wind is against them. First thing in the morning, Jesus comes down from the mountain, walks on the water, and goes out to meet them. He walks out to his disciples on the water, and his disciples, thinking heís a ghost, are afraid. In fairness to them, walking on water is not normal behavior, and they were probably either asleep or just waking up. In any case, they are so afraid, they cry out in fear. And Jesus says to them Ė take heart, or be of good cheer, do not be afraid.
    Now, Jesus says this a lot, youíll notice. In Johnís gospel, itís kind of a refrain Ė do not let your hearts be troubled, do not be afraid. Jesus says it to the disciples when he appears to them after the resurrection. Donít be afraid, itís just me. The Bible actually includes this phrase many, many times. And we can tend to take it prescriptively, meaning, OK, Jesus says not to be afraid to his disciples, so weíd better conquer all of our fears. Weíd better start not being afraid. We donít know how weíre going to accomplish this, but we think weíd better get to it. A good Christian does not fear. Right?
    Maybe not. Look at most of the times God or Jesus says, ďdo not fear,Ē or ďdo not be afraidĒ in the gospels. Iíll give you a hint Ė itís when scary things are happening! Angels are appearing left and right in the beginning to tell people that awesome, scary life-changing things will happen to them. And they all start with ďdo not fear.Ē You know, thanks for the advice, Mr. Angel sir. I wasnít afraid until you got here. When Jesus finds his disciples and tells them to leave their homes, families, and professions to wander around homeless with him for a few years he says Ė wait for it Ė do not fear! When Jesus walks out on the water Ė again, not a totally normal thing to do Ė he says do not be afraid. When a few disciples go up with Jesus on a mountain and see him glowing white and hear the booming voice of God, Jesus says Ė do not be afraid. And then after Jesus has gone through the torture and painful death of a Roman crucifixion, he reappears in the middle of his already scared disciples, who are afraid they might be the next ones the Romans make an example of, and he decides to just apparate in to the locked room, and appear among them, and he says Ė you guessed it Ė do not fear. A dead guy suddenly reappearing. Do not be afraid. Sure. Notice, every single one of these times, Jesus says ďdo not fear,Ē or ďdo not be afraid,Ē when some really truly scary stuff is happening.
    We hear these various ďdo not be afraids,Ē and we think a good Christian needs to be without fear. Perfect love, scripture says, casts out fear. But letís face it, who among us has perfect love? Anyone? If we did have it, we probably wouldnít need to be here listening to a sermon. Weíre not perfect. We all have fears. And we sometimes read these kinds of passages, hear Jesus say, ďdo not be afraid,Ē and we hear it as ďnever be afraid again.Ē We hear it as some kind of command. When really, in all of these cases, it is Jesusí way of saying, I know youíre scared. Itís me. Itís going to be OK. Iím here with you. Itís not a command to make us feel guilty about being afraid. Itís a reassurance that God is with us always, in spite of our real, justified fear.
    Thatís clearly how Peter hears it, because he is reassured enough to try something bold. Lord, he says, if itís really you, tell me to step out of the boat and onto the water and walk to you. And Jesus says, come. So, Peter steps out of the boat, and starts to walk on the water towards Jesus. But Peter loses his focus, because of the wind. He starts to sink a little and gets really frightened. He yells for help. And Jesus reaches out and grabs him, and says, ďyou of little faith, why did you doubt?Ē And they both climb back in to the boat. And the wind dies down and the disciples worship Jesus, because of what they saw.
    Peter is probably sad and tired too. Sad and tired for many of the same reasons as Jesus, sad about John, tired of the constant crowds, exhausted from the homeless, humble way they were living. And add in scared, too. Scared that Herod would come after them next. Scared of Jesus, who he loves, but who also does really frightening things all the time like heal people and multiply bread, and walk on water. But Peter in that moment of seeing Jesus on the water, in the middle of his sadness, fear, and exhaustion, does something bold. He hears Jesusí reassurance not to be afraid, and he steps out of the boat. He takes that big step out onto the water. Now, his sadness and fear donít go away. Heís still afraid. So afraid that he loses focus and sinks a little. Heís not perfect either. But he takes that big first step, even though heís afraid. He leaves the relative comfort and safety of the boat. Even though heís the only one. Even though he has no idea what will happen. Even though heís still afraid.
    Our small kernel of good news today, our mustard seed of hope, is found in Peterís one big step off that boat. It doesnít matter that he was tired, sad, and afraid, before he took the step. It doesnít even matter that he was afraid after he took the step. Jesus had him the whole time. He was afraid Ė so what? He did it. He took that first step towards something new. And if Peter can do it, so can we. We can be sad, tired, and scared after this weekís news. And we can still take at least one step towards something better. For ourselves, our community, our country, our world. When we take a faithful step out of our comfort zone, even if weíre afraid before that step and afraid right after that step, still Jesus reassures us that heís got us. Heíll catch us. Thatís the real meaning of ďdo not be afraid.Ē
    If Peter can take that one step, even though heís afraid before and afraid after, so can we. One of the ministers  who was in Charlottesville this weekend, holding a worship service and standing in opposition to hatred and white supremacy, is also one of my favorite Christian writers. He wrote these words, long before the events of this week, but they seem meaningful now: ďThe country is in deep trouble. We've forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that's the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.Ē
    Stepping out on nothing, hoping to land on something. Wrestling with despair, but never allowing despair to have the last word. In other words, being sad, tired, and afraid, but stepping out of the boat anyway. Just taking that one step. Doing that one next thing. Being impatient with evil but patient with people. Fighting for justice and equality for everyone. Praying for our enemies.
    I donít know whatís made you sad, tired, or afraid this week. Probably some of the same things it was for me. But also probably some other things I donít even know about. And I donít know what will make you sad, tired, or afraid next week. I definitely donít know what that one step is, for you. I donít know the ways God is calling you out of your comfort zone. Maybe, in this week, itís just admitting the times youíve been prejudiced or allowed prejudice to operate without challenging it. I know thatís one of my steps, for sure. Maybe your step is different. Maybe itís listening to someone else who is hurting. Maybe itís giving yourself permission to step away from the noise to take time to pray or rest, even if it means some other things wonít get done. Maybe it is praying for your enemies. Maybe it is some other kind of loving action, some other act of justice, peace, or mercy. I donít know what that step is for you.
    All I know for sure is this. When Jesus says, do not be afraid Ė what he really means is, itís me. Iím here. Iíve got you. He doesnít mean you have to cease all fear and be immediately perfectly calm. Jesus is holding out his hand, saying I know youíre sad. Youíre tired. Youíre afraid. Iíve felt all those things too. But take this next step, just one step, and Iíll catch you. Step out of your safe and comfortable place, and Iíll be there with you. Iíve got you. Youíre mine. I wonít let you sink. I canít promise you that you wonít be sad, afraid, or tired. But I can promise you that whenever you take a faithful step, I will be there. God will be there.
    So be sad. Be tired. Be afraid. But step out anyway. And God will be there. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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