Do Not Be Afraid
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Matthew 14:22-33
“And they cried out in fear.”
We know that it is not unusual for a child to cry out in fear in the dark of the night. The night can be populated with so many ghosts. While most of us grow out of those childhood fears, most of us don’t grow out of fear itself.
So ghosts phantasms that haunt childhood don’t end, they merely change. They become adult ghost apparitions. We all have our fears. We have our own things that go bump in the night. And even if ghosts are not real, the fear they inspire is quite real. I m sure that each one of you could tell a tale about a fear in your life, about a ghost that haunts, stalks and frightens you. There are all sorts of ghosts and the fears they engender.
We fear our own death and the deaths of our loved ones. We fear the loss of health, security, success and reputation. We fear failure and what others will think about us if we fail. We fear being out of control and powerless. We fear exposing our vulnerabilities. We fear the unknown, what will happen and what might not happen. We fear others: those who look, act or believe differently that we do. We fear not being enough and being found out to be so. The list goes on and on. If you were to add to this list, what would you put on it> What do you fear the most?
It would appear that fear is a primary driver in our lives. It controls and determines so many of our responses and reactions. Do we not see this within ourselves or in others, and possibly in both ourselves and others. When fear takes hold of us, it distorts our vision, and sucks the life out of us. Fear often determines the choices we make, the words we speak, the actions we take and, yes, even the prayers we offer.
Looking at the events of today’s world, we find that fear certainly abounds. The global pandemic, if you are not a pandemic denier, brings with it, an invitation to be terrified.
Fear is one thing that both sides in any conflict have in common. There are those who want everything to return to normal and rapidly and maybe as foolishly as possible. These fear an economic depression that will compromise the fortunes of those who hold the earth’s wealth. These same would be indifferent to the food, housing and health insecurity that is already vanquishing the lives of so many.
It is interesting that while we hear news reports anticipating the worst economic depression since the great depression, we also hear reports that the stock market is reaching record highs. It is obvious that those the few who own the market are making out like the bandits they are, as the suffering of the multitude intensifies and deepens.
On the other side, there are those who appreciate the fact that this threat is not going to go away very quickly, if at all, and who fear for the lives and futures of their children and grandchildren. They are caught between a rock and a hard place – the choice between the developmental progress of kids and the legitimate and grave concerns for their safety. Listen to the voices in your head and you will hear fear. Fear is often the loudest and most talkative voice.
If the examine the scriptures, we discover that the most frequently recurring message of God to His people is to not be afraid. It was the message carried by the angels to the shepherds at the announcement of the Savior’s birth and the message of the angels who greeted the women who came to the tomb on that first Easter morn. It is a word spoken by Jesus at so many points in His ministry. It is the center of this morning’s gospel. “Do not be afraid.” Sadly, most still are. We’ve rowed the same boat as the disciples. We have been tossed by the same storms of life. We have seen the ghost and we too cry out in fear.
We have felt our world as being drenched in darkness. We have been battered, tortured and harassed by the waves of life. Does it not sometimes seem that we are rowing against the wind and making no headway? Have you ever found yourself alone, far from land and a safe harbor?
If we know what this is like, then we know what it was like for the disciples in today’s Gospel story. In such circumstances it is so easy to see ghosts, to be terrified, and to cry out in fear. That what happen to the disciples. It’s happened to us. It is happening throughout the world in spades in this present hour.
Our world is crying out in fear. Some cry out with tears and screams of horror. Witness the recent explosion in Beirut. Some cry out with deafening silence. Witness the millions who are cages in the scores of refugee camps throughout the world. Some cry out through paralysis not knowing what to say or to do. Witness the majority who take no action at all either in the direction of deeper self-awareness or in the direction of effecting change. Some cry out with protests in the public square. Witness the Black Live Matter movement and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Some cry out with rockets and bombs. Witness the desperation of the Palestinian people. Some cry out with political rhetoric and posturing that goes nowhere. Witness Washington, D.C. In whatever way we do it, at some point we all cry out in fear.
More often than not we cry out to be rescued from the circumstances of which we are afraid. We want desperately to escape the storm and avoid the ghost. We want to be picked up and set down somewhere else that is safe, calm, and comfortable. That’s what we want.
But the Lord doesn’t do that. He didn’t do that for the disciples, and He doesn’t do that for us. Instead the Lord reveals Himself, speaks and comes to the disciples in and from the very midst of the storm itself. He comes not to take the disciples out of the storm, rather He enters into the storm, their storm, with them.
The Lord does not come to us from outside our storms and fears like some search and rescue first responder. Yet that is often where we look for Him, outside the difficult and painful circumstances of our lives. We are too easily persuaded that the solutions to dire circumstances come only from outside the circumstances themselves. That is the exact opposite of what today’s gospel tells us.
Jesus came to the disciples walking on the turbulent water, thru the violent wind and in the blinding darkness. His peace, words of comfort and presence are not outside the storm but in the very eye of the storm. So why is it that we do not look for Him in that place, in the place of our fear? That is where the Lord shows up. Where else would He be? After all He is the One we call Emmanuel, God with us.
If Jesus is not in our storms and in our fears, then He is not Emmanuel. He is not God-with-us.
I wonder if we sometimes miss what is actually happening in today’s gospel. If all we see is a gravity-defying, water-walking Jesus, then we have missed the miracle. The wind and the waves are more than about weather conditions. Rather they are descriptive of what is happening within the disciples, than what is happening around them.
The real miracle in this story is that Jesus walks in the storms that brew and rage within us. That means divine power and presence have and always retain the possibility of trampling on, overcoming, and conquering human fear. It means that Jesus is Emmanuel. He is with us in the worst of circumstances. But as the disciples could not recognize this, sometimes we don’t recognize this either. “It’s a ghost,” they screamed in terror. It’s the only thing that made sense. People don’t walk on water. It had to be a ghost. What else could it be? And that is the power that fear has to deceive, distort and drown us.
It makes no sense to think that the very elements that threaten our lives are the very same elements from which life comes. Yet, is that not the way of the cross? Is that not the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection?
Isn’t that the good news that we so desperately want and need to hear?
Our storms and fears are the very place in which we might abandon ourselves to God. For this is the place and the altar of transformation.
Most of us, however, don’t abandon ourselves to God. Yes, this is the place and the altar of transformation. Surely that is how the disciples must have felt. Jesus made them, compelled them, to get into the boat and cross the sea seemingly alone. They had been abandoned to the open sea, the darkness, the waves, the wind, and the futility of their own efforts, fantasies and illusions. They were abandoned to their own un-self-sufficiency, so that they might abandon themselves to God. Yes, this is the place and the altar of transformation.
The most terrifying and fearful place, the cross on which we hang, is not the place from which we return to normal. “If you are the Son of God come down from that cross, save yourself and save us as well.” Rather the cross is the perch from which we see that normal was the very way of being that has brought us to this untenable and death dealing place.
The very elements that threaten to destroy the disciples become the environment in which they recognize Jesus as the Son of God. What they first perceived as sudden death they now recognize as new life, hope and salvation.
Every time we cry out in fear, the Lord comes to us saying, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” This is the invitation to abandon ourselves to God in the very midst of our storms and fears. How hard it is to hear and to heed those words when the waves are breaking, the wind is howling, and the ghost is approaching. “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” No matter how high the waves crest, they are the waves upon which the Lord walks to us. No matter how strong the wind blows, it is the wind through which the Lord walks to us. No matter how dark the night is, it is the night in which the Lord comes to us. No matter how great our fear, let it be the fear upon which Christ has already trampled, defeated and vanquished. “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”
August 9, 2020
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna