Fear itself

Pentecost 8 (Year A), Sunday, August 7, 2011

1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Mark Lutheran Church, Salem, OR

Watch a video of “Fear Itself” sermon

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In his first inaugural address Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  While that was obviously a bit before my time, I know the phrase because it seeped in to our national consciousness.  It’s now the kind of cliché that people toss around without thinking.  Today we are in a very similar situation to the one Roosevelt wrote about.  Our economy is unstable and unpredictable, has been for some time, and looks to continue that way for the forseeable future.  In addition, there is considerable international instability, as there was in the 1930’s.  To top it off, technological changes are bringing social changes at a pace we can barely keep up with, which was also true to a certain extent in Roosevelt’s day.  There are a lot of things to fear, and a lot of people who allow themselves to be paralyzed by that fear.  You can be paralyzed by your fears without even consciously admitting to yourself that you are afraid.  Roosevelt knew that.

Are you afraid?  Are you afraid of losing your job, or your retirement fund, or your house?  Are you afraid of terrorists attacking our country again, whether Islamic or a nationalist like Anders Breivik’s recent campaign in Norway?  The problem with fear is that it’s so easy to get used to it, to deal with it by pretending it doesn’t exist, so that we don’t realize just how much control our fears have over our actions.  In my own life, I discovered this just a few years ago when my first internship deteriorated.  I’m not naturally very good in social situations.  It has been a struggle for me, over the years, to learn to read social cues.  What I didn’t realize until after having a major setback and going through counseling for a year was just how anxious I was about it.  I spent so much time afraid, I didn’t know what it felt like to not be afraid.  I certainly didn’t realize how much that anxiety controlled my actions.  Because I was anxious, I avoided social situations, and when I was in them I focused more on my fears than on dealing with people, which made it even harder.  I didn’t realize I was doing it, because I was trying so hard to pretend I wasn’t afraid.  All I did was dig myself in deeper.

There’s a lot of that kind of fear going around the church these days.  By ‘the church’ I don’t just mean St. Mark or the ELCA.  I mean all Christians in America, and in the world.  It’s the kind of deep-seated fear that people often try to avoid facing head-on.  It is, at heart, a fear of the unknown.  It used to be that a church opened its doors in this country, and people came.  People participated.  You could assume that most people were Christians, that most people would come to church or send their children to church.  You could assume that they would want to participate in potlucks and soup suppers and circles and Bible studies.  You could assume they would give money to the church.  You could assume that American society would support churches by not scheduling things on Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings that might conflict with church.  You could assume that even people who weren’t Christian themselves would respect Christian beliefs and had a basic foundation of Biblical knowledge.

You can’t assume any of that any more.  So people are afraid, because they don’t know what to do now.  In most churches, membership and budgets are both shrinking.  Nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen next, and where we go from here.  A lot of Christians, and a lot of congregations, have responded to that uncertainty by pulling in on themselves.  They don’t want to deal with the fact that things are changing, because it’s frightening when you don’t know what’s going to happen.  So they do things the same way they always have and try to convince themselves that everything’s going fine.  People pretend that doing the same things they always have in the same way they always have will work the same way they always have.  Instead of going out into the world, they let themselves get isolated and withdrawn, where it’s safe … but that means they can’t bring God’s Good News to anyone.  In fact, when you’re hiding like that, when you’re guided by your fears, it’s hard to hear the Good News yourself.

Today’s readings have something to say about fear.  First we have Elijah.  To give you a bit of background, today’s first lesson comes just after the story of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al.  You see, Queen Jezebel worshipped Ba’al instead of the God of Israel, and had killed most of the prophets of God.  So Elijah, one of the few people who stayed faithful to God, challenged the prophets of Ba’al.  Elijah and Ba’al’s prophets set up altars to their respective gods, and prayed, and whichever god lit his altar on fire first was the winner.  Elijah doused his altar with water before praying, just to prove how much better God was than Ba’al.  When God lit the altar in one of the showiest miracles of the Old Testament (and Ba’al’s altar failed to get so much as a spark), Elijah was proved right.  So he slaughtered the prophets of Ba’al to drive the message home and possibly also to get revenge for all the prophets of God that had been murdered.  Alas, Queen Jezebel was not amused at having her god humiliated and her priests killed, and threatened to kill Elijah.  And so Elijah, just after participating in a graphic proof of God’s power, fled in terror, ending up in a cave on Mount Horeb.  That’s where our first lesson begins, with Elijah cowering in a cave as far from the people of Israel who follow Jezebel as he can get.  Hiding from the very people he was called to bring God’s Word to.

Then there’s Peter, in the Gospel lesson.  Peter was in a boat with the other disciples, being tossed about on a stormy sea in the wee hours of the morning after what had to have been a nerve-wracking night of trying to keep their boat from sinking.  The disciples—including Peter—thought Jesus was a ghost and were terrified.  Wouldn’t you be, if you were them?  Jesus tried to calm their fear and Peter responded by demanding proof: make him walk on the water, too.  So Peter got out of the boat and came to Jesus.

I once sang a song in a church choir about this story.  It was a fun song, kind of a modern jazzy blues piece, but I didn’t like it.  The moral of the song was “Your faith alone will soon decide/If you’re gonna sink or swim.”  Problem is, that’s not what happens in the story.  Peter’s faith doesn’t decide whether he sinks or swims.  Peter’s faith failed.  Even with Jesus standing right there in front of him, Peter’s fear won out and Peter started to sink like a stone.  If it were left up to Peter’s faith, he would have drowned.

Jesus saved Peter.  Jesus saved Peter despite the fact that Peter’s faith was weak and small and not good enough for the task at hand.  Jesus reached out to Peter when Peter was tossed about by the storm and riddled with doubts and fears, just as God sheltered and guided Elijah on his journey and came to him in the cave.  Just as God comes to us when we are blinded by our own fears.  You see, the story isn’t really about Peter’s faith or even Peter’s fear, it’s about God’s saving grace.  And the story of our faith isn’t about what we do or don’t do, it’s about how we respond to God’s saving grace in our lives.

Like Elijah, it is very tempting to hide ourselves away from the things we are afraid of.  God sends us out into the world to bring his healing grace and proclaim his saving Word, and yet we are afraid.  It’s hard to talk to people about your faith, particularly when there’s a good chance they’ll have prejudices about it—and you.  It’s hard to talk about your faith with people who don’t agree with you.  It’s hard to talk about God and God’s grace in a world full of fear.  It’s hard to have confidence in God’s salvation when you’re being tossed about on the storms of life.  We don’t have to worry about being killed for our faith as Elijah did, and we don’t have to worry about literally drowning if our faith isn’t strong enough as Peter did, but we still have a lot of reasons to fear.  Thank God that God’s faithfulness is stronger and greater than our fears!

God came to Elijah, and sent Elijah back out to spread God’s Word.  Even when Elijah thought that Ba’al’s prophets had taken over and destroyed God’s people, there were still some who remained faithful.  More than that, there were people who needed to hear God’s Word.  As Paul said, how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?

We are the ones sent to proclaim good news to a fearful world.  We are the ones who have experienced God’s love and faithfulness, and we are the ones sent to pass on that love to everyone we meet.  We don’t know what’s going to happen, and there are many reasons to be afraid.  There have been times—and there will be in the future—when we let our fears get the better of us, when our faith fails.  There will be times when the storms of life distract us from God’s presence beside us.  There will be times when it feels like we’re all alone and we can’t imagine a way things could turn out okay.  But God will always be with us no matter what.  We are not alone, and God will never let us go.  God sends us out into the world, in the midst of the things we fear, but we do not go alone, for God is with us.

Amen.

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