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Sun, Mar 22, 2020

The Antidote to Fear

Duration:17 mins 18 secs

The Antidote to Fear

Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

            You may have noticed that one of the most frequently-uttered commands in the Bible is “Don’t be afraid.” In Matthew’s Gospel alone, Jesus says “don’t be afraid” five times by my count, and heavenly messengers say it another two. Evidently, it’s something we need to keep hearing, because, it seems, there is always something to be afraid of.

          You might even say that the first recorded human emotion is fear. When God asked Adam why he was hiding in the garden after he and Eve had eaten from the forbidden tree, Adam’s response was quick and straightforward: “Because I was afraid” (Gen. 3:10). Adam’s fear is quite reasonable, since he has just been caught doing what he was expressly told not to do.

          Fear was a major problem for the disciples of Jesus, too, though not necessarily because of a guilty conscience. Jesus was constantly leading them into difficult situations. Their fear was understandable, though Jesus had to keep exposing it for what it was, a failure to trust in him. Peter in particular, in spite of his bravado and bragging protestations of faith, gave in to his fear when the chips were down.

          You have to give Peter some credit, though. He was the one willing to step out of a storm-tossed boat onto a turbulent sea with only a word from Jesus: “Come.”

          Peter was a fisherman, so he was used to stormy skies and tossing waves -- but he could not have been comfortable with them. Ancient people associated the sea with the primeval chaos that God had brought under control in the act of creation. By dividing the earth into clearly-defined zones of sea and dry land, God had subdued the forces of chaos, and it was only God’s continued tight control of these boundaries that kept chaos in check, and made the world habitable for human beings. But the sea was still the abode of monsters and demons; when the sea kicked up, as it was doing that night when the disciples were in the boat, all those evils seemed to be threatening to break loose. You wouldn’t want to look down too far into that dark water.

          But then, there is Jesus, striding across those angry waves, treading the demons underfoot, mastering the chaos, with sublime indifference to the terrors lurking below the surface. The mere sight of him should have caused the disciples, worn out from rowing against the storm, to heave a sigh of relief – but their nerves are shot, they think he’s a ghost, and they’re only more afraid. After all, he is walking on water! So Jesus utters the familiar Biblical command, the words of God and the angels to stricken humanity: “Be not afraid.”  Take heart – “have courage!”-- it is I. 

          And Peter himself is a sight to behold, actually taking steps toward Jesus, like a toddler toward his parents, until his focus slips, and he realizes what a nightmare he’s stepped out into. All he can see are the dark, foamy waters swirling beneath his feet, and that’s when he loses it. He succumbs to his fear, and cries out in a panic, “Lord, save me!”

          It’s pretty easy to be sucked under by the chaos, as we are set upon by unruly forces that we can’t control. Chaos is becoming the new normal for us as covid-19 makes its invisible but devastating way into our cities and communities. We see the world of commerce and society shutting down, as many businesses resort to teleworking and restaurants, bars and coffee shops, all those convivial gathering places, have had to close. (Even the cafes of Paris, which stayed open all through the Nazi occupation, have shut down.) Social contacts have to be “virtual” now, as social distancing protocols take effect. Even family members are isolated from each other, for fear of spreading the virus to the more vulnerable members. Adding to the anxiety is the fact that we don’t really know what we are dealing with, because so far, testing is unavailable to most people. We know that there are  more cases of covid-19 out there than have been reported, because a person can have the virus and have no symptoms.

There is chaos raging through the world. So we are shoring up our defenses, dedicating our energy and resources to beating back the chaos. Fear can be a powerful motivator for human action, and that’s a necessary thing -- but fear can also become a way of life, something that begins to control all our decisions. As goods and services have become scarcer over the last 10 days, it’s clear that some people have begun to panic – survivalist-style hoarding and stockpiling of weapons have already been reported. For that matter, if you have been in your neighborhood grocery store lately, you’ve encountered the empty shelves, the eerie feeling of a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Fortunately, most people are acting more calmly. But to varying degrees we are all afraid. Who will beat back the chaos for us?

          Matthew has given us a richly symbolic story about the power of the Son of God over the forces that would undo us. As Peter reacts in fright to the chaos around him, he loses his focus on Jesus and begins to sink. His fearful hesitation is what does him in. Peter’s “doubt,” as our English translation has it, is not skepticism; it’s having a “divided mind,” not knowing which is stronger, the chaos around him or the Lord who calls to him over the tumult. Peter can either try out his own strength to get himself back to equilibrium, or he can rely on the only one who can reduce the chaos to less threatening proportions.

          Now it is interesting to note that the very person who could save Peter, and did save him, is the same one who made the disciples get into the boat in the first place. What was Jesus thinking, sending them out into such a fearsome situation? Why didn’t he say, “There’s going to be a storm, go home, be safe”?

          All the great religious traditions, I believe, address the problem of fear. They don’t all address it the same way, though. In some important traditions, the way human beings get rid of the debilitating effects of fear is through a process of detachment. A person learns to free himself from destructive emotions like fear, anger and jealousy by disengaging from the concerns of the physical world. You achieve spiritual enlightenment when you become indifferent to both the joys and the sufferings of earthly life.

          There is much to be said for this path, if you can do it, but it is not the path of Biblical faith. The particular challenge of the Christian faith, I think, is this: We are asked to give our fears over to God, to trust in God in such a way that our fears can no longer rule us. And we are to do this without ever becoming disengaged from the world as it is. We are to be right in the middle of the struggle, rowing against the storm if we must, but trusting that our God will not let us be overwhelmed by it. When the powers of chaos threaten to engulf us, we are to trust in “the immense counter-power of God”[i] to keep us standing.

          In Albert Camus’s now-classic novel, The Plague, an Algerian port city has an epidemic of bubonic plague (a far more deadly scourge than covid-19). As the death toll rises, panic mounts in the city. After quarantine is imposed, many of the people left in the city seek desperate, illegal measures to get out before they become the next victims of the disease. Most are forced to stay and watch as loved ones succumb to the pestilence, waiting in dread for the time when the disease may claim them, too. The disease itself is almost a character in this novel, a kind of chaos monster that threatens all that is good, decent and orderly in human life. The heroes of the book are the ones who don’t panic. They find their salvation in choosing to enter the struggle against the disease, from the doctor who works tirelessly to treat the ever-increasing stream of the sick and dying, to the volunteers who organize sanitation squads and care for the victims. By choosing to be engaged even in the situations of greatest danger, by reaching out in compassion to the victims and acting in solidarity with the suffering, they rise above the fear that is threatening the life of the town as much as the plague itself.

          Engagement is the antidote to fear. Whatever happens with this pandemic, whether things start returning to something like normal in a few weeks or in several months, we will have used this time more meaningfully if we have found some way to stay engaged, to offer comfort, hope or assistance where we can. This doesn’t mean we should disregard the CDC directives to stay at home so that we avoid potentially spreading or contracting the virus. But there are some things we can do. We can make donations to organizations that provide assistance to the neediest among us – and as our economy falters, there will be more people in serious financial need, as workers are furloughed or laid off. The food banks and other groups that provide relief from hunger need our support now more than ever. We can support the local businesses that are most in danger of having to go out of business for good. We can reach out to those who are having to shelter in place alone, especially elderly people and immune-system-compromised people who may need help getting groceries or other household items. We can use our imaginations to find ways to help minimize the distress.      

And if we start to think we are going to capsize and sink, that the demons will be out of the water and fear will have its way with us, there is Jesus walking toward us through the tempest, skimming over the raging waters, saying, “Take heart; it is I; be not afraid.”

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

March 22, 2020

           

 

[i] I am indebted for this phrase to Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Mineapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).

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