Pushing through fear

Pushing through fear

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Matthew 14:27

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

August 13, 2017 – 10A Pentecost

Our granddaughter, Emerson Ann, came into the world this past Wednesday evening. She is healthy, beautiful, and doing well, as is our daughter, Kate, and her husband, Hunter. For all these things, we give God thanks and praise. Pat and I are now blessed with two grandchildren, with yet another one on the way in December, God willing, and we intend to do our best to spoil them all.

As human experiences go, the birth of a child is about as close as we come to both the beauty and the power of the divine, and it elicits an equally wide range of emotions: there is great hope but also anxiety; there is great joy but also pain; there is great courage but also fear.

It’s much easier for the grandparents, of course, sitting on the sidelines, but even so, I was struck by how anxious I was just waiting for reports from the labor room of how things were going. And as I waited, I couldn’t but help re-live in my own mind the experience of watching Emerson’s mom, Kate, come into the world some thirty years ago.

I remember standing there in the delivery room of Stanford University Medical Center, awkwardly dressed in the unfamiliar green gown and mask of the maternity ward. I crouch behind one of the nurses, desperate to get as clear a view as I can of this amazing moment, but also fearful of getting too close to such an awesome sight. I know that I am on holy ground, simultaneously attracted to the sheer mystery of life bursting forth into the world while also afraid of its power. With one hand, I reach out to Pat, as she struggles in the painful throes of childbirth, wanting to comfort her; but truth be told, I am hanging on to dear life as much as she is. And then, with that last great push, a little body emerges into view. Like all fathers, I find myself counting fingers and toes, arms and legs, making sure everything is there and in its place, waiting for that first, noisy squeal of assurance that another life has begun, and that all is well.

To witness the birth of a child is miracle enough, but to know that she is your own makes this moment unlike anything else. Suddenly, as a parent, you feel an overwhelming desire to do anything for this new life, to nourish her, to share with her all the joy and beauty that is in this world, but also to protect her from life’s many dangers.

For let’s be honest, there is a lot to fear in this world. As we watched our daughter and her husband bring little Emerson home from the hospital, I couldn’t help but worry for her future: our newsfeed is suddenly filled with talk of nuclear conflict in a way we haven’t heard since the Cold War; our country is as divided as ever and politicians on both sides of the aisle seem inept and untrustworthy; meanwhile the threat of terrorism around the world still looms, our fragile planet is suffering from our own lack of care, and then to witness yesterday’s outburst of racist and anti-Semitic violence in Charlottesville just sickens one’s soul.

Perhaps the world has always been a fearful place, just in different ways. Perhaps that is why today’s gospel lesson about a frightening journey on a stormy Sea of Galilee is such a timeless story – because it speaks to our fear.

The story opens with Jesus calling the disciples into a boat, while he remains on the mountaintop to pray. As the darkness of evening comes, chaotic winds kick up, and the disciples suddenly find themselves alone in their boat, separated from their Teacher, in the midst of a perilous storm. The boat is battered by the waves as it is driven further and further from land, with the wind against them.

In this moment of heart-stopping danger, Jesus’ choices are several. He could, on the one hand, remain safely on the mountaintop, leaving the disciples to navigate the threat of the storm on their own. Or, he could exercise his divine authority over the natural elements by arresting the storm and eliminating the danger for the disciples, just as he had calmed the sea for them once before. Yet he does neither of these things. Instead, he ventures forth himself into the swirling chaos.

But, as the story unfolds, we see that his aim in doing so is not heroically to swim out to rescue the boat like some superhero. Rather, his purpose is to lead: to show the disciples that their destiny and their one hope is to venture forth on their own into the turbulent waters, trusting in his caring presence.

“Take heart,” Jesus tells them, as he moves toward them in the waters. “It is I; do not be afraid.” And then, with one simple word, he invites them, through the person of Peter, to step into the turbulence. “Come,” he says.

This is not just some simple miracle story. It is a parable about our relationship to God and our call to follow Jesus into the uncertainty of the world. The story teaches that God is neither a magician, whom we can somehow always count on to rescue us from life’s dangers by either making them go away or relieving us of the responsibility to act; nor is He a dispassionate Creator, utterly removed from the risks that surround us, who leaves us to our own devices.

Rather, our God is an empowering God, a God who encourages us to claim our agency and to take risks. At the same time, He is a caring God, one who invites us to trust in his constant presence, a presence that not so much saves us from danger, as sees us through danger.

The great temptation, of course, is just to stay in the boat, to let fear have its way, to opt for the safety of just staying put. But that is not the way of Christ. He beckons us to join Him in the turbulent waters.

But then we get to the part of the story I find truest to my own experience. And that is the moment when Peter starts to venture out on to the water. God love him. We know he is scared to death, and who wouldn’t be, in the midst of a violent storm. He desperately wants to show Jesus his courage, his obedience. And he also knows, I suspect, that the other disciples are watching him. He feels everyone’s eyes upon him.

But then, he makes the mistake of looking down, taking his eyes off of Jesus, and staring instead into the water, and letting fear, once again, take hold of him. And that, of course, is when he begins to sink. Such is the power of fear.

So, how is it that we overcome this power? The first and most important point about the story is to note that we cannot do it ourselves. Peter doesn’t just dig a little deeper into his resolve, so that he can save himself. Rather, Jesus grabs him. Jesus reaches out and catches Peter. Our salvation comes from God, not from ourselves.

This is the paradox of fear. You can’t think or work your way out of it. Rather, overcoming fear is about letting go; it is about recognizing that we are not in control of everything; it is about surrendering ourselves to the care of another, surrendering ourselves to the care of someone who loves us so much that He won’t let us go. This is the promise at the heart of this story, at the heart of all of Matthew’s Gospel, and at the heart of our faith: that God never gives up, that God is with us and for us, that God, in the end, will do what we cannot.

Few of us will experience fear quite as dramatically as Peter did that day on the Sea of Galilee. But I know that each of us comes into church this morning with our own set of fears. The fear that accompanies a bad diagnosis. The fear that a daughter or son is on a wayward path. The fear that a marriage may be falling apart. The fear that a job is not working out. Our fears are many.

I cannot promise you that whatever you fear will not come to pass. God does not promise us particular outcomes. What he does promise us, though, is that if we place our trust in Christ’s abiding presence, then ultimately He will see us through our fears. Not around them, but through them. Just like a mother pushes through the fears of childbirth into the joy of new life.

As our family welcomes a new, precious life into our midst, I very much want to offer little Emerson a prayer; a prayer that might help her to find her way in this chaotic world; a prayer to guide her through her fears. Maybe it will help you too. I know no better such prayer than this one, a very honest, a very humble, and a very real prayer by the late Thomas Merton. Let us pray:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where we are going. I do not see the road ahead. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always. And even when I seem to be lost and find myself in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for I know you are ever with me, and that you will never leave me to face my perils alone. This I pray in Christ’s name and for your love’s sake. Amen.”