March 26, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
This Lenten worship series is called “Fear Not: Overcoming Fear with Faith.”
We started with Jesus saying, “Therefore, do not worry about what you’re going to eat or drink or wear . . .” I heard one person summarize that message as “Take deep breaths and don’t watch the news.” That’s a great start to overcoming fear!
The next Sunday was about balancing our natural fear of strangers and foreigners with the Bible’s insistence on hospitality and justice.
Still to come in this series:
1 John says that perfect love casts out fear. Oh, to love like that!
The psalms teach that the opposite of fear is not fearlessness but trust.
On Good Friday we’ll watch in Gethsemane as Jesus prays himself through fear.
Even the Easter story has the phrase Do not be afraid not once but twice. Even on Easter people are afraid.
We are such fearful creatures; and Jesus just keeps saying it: Take heart, it is I; don’t be afraid!
The first part of today’s Gospel story shows that we can allow ourselves be scared of almost anything—even Jesus! The disciples are in a boat, in a storm, in the dark, wind and waves everywhere, and Jesus comes to them, walking on the sea. But instead of saying, “O thank God, it’s Jesus,” and calming down, they think he’s a ghost and their fear turns to abject terror. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of you have ever been afraid of the very thing you needed most? Yeah, me too.
You see, the disciples thought they were on their own. Jesus had stayed behind to pray and sent them on ahead. What the disciples forgot is that as long as Jesus is praying, we are never alone. What the disciples forgot was that when we need him, Jesus is never far away and will make his way to us come what may. What the disciples forgot was that just a few chapters earlier Jesus had calmed one storm; and if he can calm one storm, he can calm this storm.
We fear because we forget that Jesus is praying for us, forget that he is never far from us, forget that he is the wave-walker and storm-stiller. We fear, I once read, because we overestimate the power of the storm and underestimate the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. We forget, and so I am here to remind you—we are here every Sunday to remind each other: Take heart, Jesus says, it is I; don’t be afraid.
Some people stumble over this story and similar stories in the Bible because they get caught up in whether or not it “really happened,” whether physics allows someone to walk on top of water. These people fail to realize that the Bible is not a science textbook, or even a history book, exactly. This story is a parable. At the end of the story when we expect Matthew to say, “the disciples worshiped Jesus,” instead it says, “those in the boat worshiped him.” And who are “those in the boat?” Well, we are, of course. This is not a story about the laws of nature. It’s not a story about something that happened once a long time ago to other people. It’s a story that happens all the time, to us: in our little boat, in the storm, in the dark, with wind and waves all around, we get so anxious that even Jesus scan frighten us. But here he comes, walking on top of those waves we’re so afraid of, he gets in the boat with us, and now look—everything’s going to be all right. The truth is, he was never far away, and we had each other all the while. What is there, really, to be afraid of?
The second part of this Gospel story has Peter daring to see if he too can walk on water. He takes a deep breath, steps out of the boat, starts to walk on top of the water, and then suddenly he falls. You could call it a failure; even Jesus seems exasperated with Peter. But what actually happens next? Well, for one thing, water isn't too hard a thing to fall on. It doesn’t hurt him. And then Jesus reaches out, scoops Peter up, and sets him back in the boat with his friends. That's it. That's the full extent of what happens when Peter falls—Jesus picks him up and puts him back in the boat. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? What is there, really, to be afraid of?
Now I'm aware there's more than one answer to that question. Jesus asks Peter, "Why did you doubt?" Writer Amy Hunter says, "I want to jump in to defend Peter. 'Hello! Lord! Waves and wind!"1 Wind and waves, Lord—what do you mean "Why did I doubt?"
And we might answer the same way. Why are you afraid?
Hello, I might lose my job, Lord. Or my marriage, Lord.
Hello, it could be cancer, Lord. People die from it.
Hello, I haven't heard from my kid in days, Lord.
Hello, Lord, it's called high school, or college, or retirement, or, well, you get the idea.
What are we afraid of? Plenty! And when we fall, Jesus will scoop us up, dry us off, and set us back in the boat. And when we get sick, Jesus will come to our side. And when a loved one dies and we feel all alone, Jesus will set us back in the boat with the other disciples. And when we go through things we think we can't endure, Jesus will come to us walking right on top of the water, just to show it can be done. On the one hand, there's plenty to be afraid of; on the other hand, with a Savior like Jesus, what is there to be afraid of?
Here’s what I mean. Pastor Michael Lindvall tells this story. On the day their youngest child was baptized, Pastor Lindvall and his wife took the baby to visit an elderly couple from their church. Minnie was 91 and near the end of a long and painful battle with cancer. Her husband Angus was doing the best he could, but just didn’t know how to face life without his partner of over sixty years. They laid the child in the old woman’s eager arms. The baby, who had wailed through her baptism and cried much of the day since, became still. Minnie looked into the baby’s eyes and said, “Shhh, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Pastor Lindvall writes, As I looked down from the pulpit at the funeral two weeks later, I wondered if it is true that there is nothing to be afraid of. Have all the mothers who have cooed those words to their sleepless babies been telling lies? After all, a disease marches deeper into your body for a decade and a half, finally taking you away from the ones you love. And now a man has to sleep alone in a double bed at the age of ninety-one. Is there really nothing to be afraid of?
Then came the closing hymn for Minnie’s service. Precious Lord, they sang, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
Minnie, it occurred to the pastor, had not been afraid, but not precisely because there is nothing to be afraid of. The truth is more subtle. There is plenty to be afraid of, but in spite of that, you don’t have to be afraid.”2
Take heart, Jesus says, It is I. Don’t be afraid. Yes, Lord, we say. Yes, Lord.
So here’s what we’re going to do. In your bulletin is a pink card. At the top it says, “What are you afraid of?” And at the bottom it has those words of Jesus: “Take heart. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” With that card in hand, take a few moments and get in touch with what you fear. What makes your heart race, your muscles tense, your stomach churn? Whatever it is, write it down: What are you afraid of?
Then when you’re ready, come and leave that paper at the cross. As you leave that paper here, take a moment to hear Jesus say the words to you: “Take heart. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” This is, I hope, a helpful spiritual exercise. It is, of course, not magic. Will there still be things to be afraid of after you leave that paper at the cross? Of course. But remember--the truth is subtle: there is plenty to be afraid of, but in spite of that, you don’t have to be afraid. Take heart, Jesus said. It is I. Do not be afraid. Whenever you’re ready, bring your card, bring you fear, and leave it at the cross.
1 Amy B. Hunter, "Stepping Out," Living By the Word, The Christian Century (July 26, 2005, 19.
2 Michael L. Lindvall, Leaving North Haven: The Further Adventures of a Small Town Pastor (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 2002), 232-33.