June 24, 2018, Fear (Not) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000086
I am afraid of the dark. I know that’s supposed to be a kid thing, but if I am honest I have to admit that as old as I am, I am still afraid of the dark. I remember one evening when we lived on the farm, and I had stayed out working late in the gardens so that I had to walk through the woods alone to get back home. There wasn’t any real danger, and I knew that, but I remember how absolutely terrified I felt, and how ridiculously relieved I was when I finally saw the lamplight shining from the windows of our house!
I’m a Christian, and a priest at that, and faith is my life, and yet even so, I find myself being afraid of a lot of things. These days I am afraid for my sister, who is battling cancer and dealing with some pretty awful reactions to her chemo. I am afraid for her, that her suffering will increase as she continues her treatments, because she’s only at the beginning. I am afraid for myself, because I love her and I don’t feel ready to lose her just yet.
I’m afraid of guns, and large crowds of people, and I am afraid for the futures of my children and grandchildren. I am afraid for the little children I see on the news who have been taken from their parents with what seems to be little or no concern for their welfare. I am afraid of the hatred and racism and suspicion violence that seem to be growing in our country. I have lots of fears. I suspect I’m not too unusual. There are a lot of things to be afraid of in this world, because there are a lot of things – a lot of things – that are too much for us to handle: too big, too strong, too complicated, too hard. That’s a fact.
There’s even a collect that acknowledges the scariness of human existence: “O GOD, you know us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright…” It is a natural thing for us to be afraid sometimes, because we are frail creatures and because so many things in this world are bigger and stronger than we are. In the gospel reading today, the storm that came up while the disciples were ferrying Jesus across the lake must have been a doozy. These were men who for the most part had grown up on the water. They would have known how to handle boats in rough weather from the time they were little boys. But on the night that Mark writes about, they were facing a storm that was too much even for them, and they were terrified.
And in their terror, they ran down to wake up Jesus – and I always think how exhausted Jesus must have been, to be sleeping through this catastrophic storm – but they woke him up and they asked him, “Don’t you care that we are about to die?” It’s really important to notice and remember that question, because after Jesus has rebuked the wind and the waves and everything is quiet again, he rebukes the disciples as well. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
And I don’t believe that Jesus is rebuking them simply because they were terrified of the storm. Mark tells us that the waves were already filling the boat; they were in the middle of the sea, and it was dark, and the boat was about to go down. Of course they were afraid. Their failure of faith was not that they weren’t facing death like heroes. Their failure of faith was in forgetting the love that Jesus had for them. “Teacher, don’t you care?” They allowed their fear, their natural fear, to overwhelm the faith they had in Jesus’ concern for them; their fear of death was made all the more terrifying by the fear that their Teacher and Lord and Friend was not there for them. “Don’t you care?”
We all know how big a difference there is in facing suffering, whether we face it alone, or in the company of those who love us. Pain and sickness and loss and even death are made so much less fearful to us when we feel the hand of someone who loves us holding our hand, when we hear the beloved voice near us, when we just know that people are praying for us and that we are in their thoughts, even if they are far away. It makes all the difference to know that people care, to know that God himself cares what we are going through.
That’s what makes the recordings we have been hearing of the cries of the little children who have crossed the border with their parents and then have been taken away from them so heartbreaking. Those are cries of pure fear, because those children are surrounded by strangers, and by other children who are as afraid as they are, and they have no way of knowing that there is anyone who cares what is happening to them. We know that God loves each of them, and that he cares deeply about their suffering. But how can they know? How can they have that faith, when they have had everything they have ever trusted taken from them?
But even the disciples, even we ourselves, who have known the love of God, even we can forget that in our fear. Even we can waver in our faith sometimes, saying to God, “Don’t you care?” And that is our very worst fear.
But for the disciples on that night, when the story comes to an end, when the waves and the wind had gone quiet and still, when the boat had stopped pitching on the waves and shuddering under the force of the gale, Mark tells us, “They were filled with great fear.” They looked at each other, saying in hushed voices, “Who is this man, that even the wind and the sea obey his voice?” The poor disciples went from one fear to another on the sea that night, but this second fear was an entirely different kind of fear. They were terrified all right. But they no longer doubted Jesus’ concern for them. They were simply blown away by this glimpse of his divine power. To be standing in that boat, face to face with someone they suddenly realized was Lord over the forces of nature – that was something to bring them to their knees in awe, and more than that, in fear.
Sometimes we try to soften the idea of “fearing God” by saying it is not really fear, but more like respect or awe – the feeling you would have in the presence of a magnificent cathedral, or in the presence of a great person like Pope Francis. But I believe that what the disciples were feeling was more than that, more than respect, more even that awe. I am sure that they were shaken to the very core of their being that this man Jesus, this Teacher that they thought they knew – that he was someone and something much different, much more awe-some, much more strange and beyond their knowing than they had ever imagined. “They were filled with great fear.”
But that kind of fear is nothing at all like the helpless panic the disciples were feeling when they woke up the sleeping Jesus, or like the terror of a little migrant child crying for her mother or father. God never wants us to feel that kind of fear. John wrote about that kind of fear: “There is no fear in love because God’s love for us takes away all dread of what he might do to us…and that shows that we are not fully convinced that he really loves us.”
Jesus taught about fear to his disciples who were going to face great persecution. “Don’t be afraid of those who have the power to kill your body, but who have no power over your soul. The only one you need to fear is the one who has the power to destroy both body and soul in hell.” And that sounds pretty darn scary. But then Jesus went on: “You can buy two sparrows for a penny in the marketplace, can’t you? But not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Father taking notice. So don’t be afraid at all, because you are worth more than many sparrows.”
It’s a teaching that kind of makes your head spin. Basically, Jesus is telling us, there is nothing in creation worth being really afraid of apart from God, who has the power to destroy you utterly, body and soul. But guess what, that terrifying God is your own Father, who loves you so much he knows exactly how many hairs there are on your head. Your Father is terrifyingly big, and he is alarmingly powerful. He is the boss of the wind and the waves; he is the boss of the demons; he is the boss of cancer. But here’s the thing, he is the one who loves you more than his own life. So then, Jesus told them, you have absolutely nothing to fear.
Isaiah wrote to Israel, “Do not call conspiracy what this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.
The fear of God, then, is the terrifying and glorious wonder of who God is – more powerful, more good, more strange and Other, than anything we human beings could have ever dreamt up on our own. But we never need to doubt his love for us. We never need to dread what he has in mind for us. We never need to worry that he is too busy to take notice of us. We never, never, never, need to ask him, “Don’t you care?” Because it is smack in the midst of his loving care for us that we are struck dumb with the wonder of who he really is – and we will never come to the end of that wonder because we will never be able to grasp all of the wonder of who he is.
As Moses declared: What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear him, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to him, the earth with all that is in it – the wind and the waves obey his voice. But that same God set his heart in love on your fathers and he chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.