Fear in the Midst of the Storm

Below is my sermon from August 13th, 2017. While it is based on the Gospel text for the day (Matthew 14), it also focuses on the white supremacist march and riot in Charlottesville, which happened the day before. The theologian Karl Barth once said, “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other…but always interpret the newspaper through the Bible.”

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

Two weeks ago, Tim and I spent the week at Bear Creek Camp, as their resident chaplains. One of the cool things about being chaplains is that we had the opportunity to spend time with all of the different age groups. Each night we would rotate around the camp, leading devotions for one group or another.

Friday, our last night there, we were with the seniors—those who had just finished tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade. That night, the counselor had already planned devotions, so we were able to just participate. She had four paper lanterns that we were going to light and release into the night.

But first, we took time as a group to name and write down some of our fears. For a lot of the campers, it was fear of the unknown: they were heading off to college for the first time, there was fear of what it would be like, would they fit in, would they be successful. My fears that night were my standard, Type-A Perfectionist ones: some variation of whether or not I’m good enough, successful enough, or accomplishing enough.

And so, we took these fears, rolled them up into tiny scrolls and tied them to the lanterns. Then watched, as they were carried off high away into the distance, until all we could see was a tiny speck of fire, and then even that went out. We named our fears and then we let go of them. It was liberating and cathartic.

We all have fears, worries, anxieties, that plague our lives. Maybe it’s a fear of an illness returning or getting worse. Fear of loneliness. Fear of a lack of acceptance—of who we are, or what we have to offer. Maybe, like those graduating seniors, a fear about whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives.

This past week, though, I wish I had a hundred lanterns. We all have seen the stories and images coming out of Charlottesville. Where the KKK and white supremacists gathered to celebrate fear and hatred for their fellow human beings. A storm was descending upon that small college town.

And watching it through my newsfeed, I was afraid. Maybe you were, too. I was afraid of the amount of hatred. I was afraid for the future of our country. And on a more personal level, I was afraid for friends of mine, pastors in Virginia who purposefully went into the storm. Who left safe houses and neighborhoods to show up in Charlottesville and confess that racism is not Christian. Racism is not from God. Who went into the storm to call white supremacy what it is: evil and sinful.

I saw images and posts telling me that the church they were worshipping in, sharing love and peace in, was surrounded by the KKK and they were unable to leave. And I was afraid.

These friends of mine, and many, many others, not just clergy but college students, people of all faiths and no faith, people who had come together to proclaim love—they went into the storm.

Our reading from Matthew this morning couldn’t be more timely. Jesus sends his disciples out on their own, and they find themselves caught in the midst of a terrible storm. But just when the waves were at their worst, just when the disciples were terrified, there is Jesus. When Peter desires to follow Jesus even further into the whirlwind, he begins to sink. But then there is Jesus, to lift him up again.

When fear in the midst of the storm causes us to sink, Jesus will grab hold of us, just as he did with Peter. Jesus doesn’t give up on us, even when we are overwhelmed by fears and anxieties and doubts. Even when we are not sure that Jesus is even there. Jesus is there, with us in the storm to restore us to the community, to the shelter of the boat.

It would be really, really nice if I could stand up here and say that Jesus brings an end to our fears. No more fear; God takes away all our worries and anxieties. God takes away the evil in the world for us. That would be awesome, and it would mean pretty good things for my own life.

But you’d know as well as I do that it just isn’t true. Life, and the life of faith especially, involves fear. It involves confronting evil and hatred with the love of God. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have been threatening enough that people felt they had to kill Jesus. It wouldn’t still be threatening enough that people of faith are silenced and vilified when they speak out about oppression and injustice. It wouldn’t be threatening enough that white supremacists had to surround and intimidate Christians worshipping in a church.

But those are the things we are called to. Roman Ciarlello will be baptized in just a few minutes. He, and all of us, in our baptisms are called to trust God God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.

Such a calling, by its very nature, means that there will be moments of fear. There will be times of uncertainty and confusion, when the right choice is the hard choice, when living a Christ-like existence—loving our neighbors, welcoming strangers, serving the poor—means walking into the storm and braving the winds.

But Roman doesn’t just receive that calling this morning. He also receives a whole boatful of people to share it with him. One of my favorite parts of the baptismal service is when it is the congregation’s chance to join in and say: We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share; join us in giving thanks and praise to God.

The call to step out into choppy waters, into unknown areas for the sake of God comes alongside the promise that we are never alone. Through baptism, Roman enters this community that we are all a part of. The community of disciples that is there to console one another, uplift one another, and support one another through difficult times.

More than that, though, God is there, too. God is there in the midst of our fears, showing up when the storm is at its worst. God is there in the midst of our anxieties and uncertainties, walking with us through the stormy waters of life. God is there to lift us up when we fall down, to walk with us until we are once again safe and calm.

May God’s arm hold us fast, and God’s presence be our guide, now and always. And may the love of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

More than enough

Below is my sermon from August 6, on Jesus’ feeding the 5,000. With such a familiar story, I thought it would be interesting to pull out the details we could easily overlook. What stands out to you in this story? Have you ever been in the position of the disciples, facing an overwhelming problem and unsure of what to do?

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

Jesus feeding the five thousand is one of the best known stories from the gospels. It’s a lot of people’s favorite story about Jesus and it is one of the only stories to appear in each and every gospel. Because it’s so well known, though, it’s easy to listen to it but not really hear it.

So I’d like to take some time to re-read the story and to take note of some of the things we might frequently gloss over. “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” We’ve jumped into the middle of a narrative, and so are left wondering—what did Jesus just hear?

Well, he has just been told that John the Baptist has been murdered by King Herod. Jesus’ cousin, friend, forerunner, is now dead at the hands of the state. And so it makes sense that he withdraws: he is grieving, he is tired, he wants just a little bit of space to be by himself and process his emotions.

“But when the crowds heart it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Jesus may want space and some alone time, but he doesn’t get it. The crowds, hearing about the death of John, are drawn even more to Jesus. And there’s two little details here that we might not notice: Jesus sees them, and has compassion for them.

To truly see someone is more than just to look at someone, or take in their outer appearance. Rather, Jesus acknowledges them, takes notice of them. And then he is moved to compassion. What is compassion? Compassion is not just feeling sorry for someone else, it is truly feeling with them. It is understanding another’s troubles or situation from the inside out—and then acting on it. One definition I read said that compassion is empathy in action. And Jesus acts on that feeling, healing the sick in the crowd.

But by now, the sun is setting, and “when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’” The disciples can come off looking a little bit callous here. Maybe they were a little.

But I also hear something else in their statement: they were overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and the expanse of the need. When faced with need beyond what we think is in our power to deal with, how often are we paralyzed? Large-scale need can cause us to feel powerless in our ability to help. Maybe they were being a little callous, too. Maybe they thought if they sent the people away, at least it wouldn’t be the disciples’ problem anymore.

Not so, according to Jesus. “They need not go away,” he says, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples reply, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And the truth comes out. The disciples have not acted because they think they don’t have enough. That what they have to offer will not be enough to make a difference to so great a need.

But Jesus doesn’t hesitate, and simply tells them to bring him the loaves and fish. He looks to heaven, blesses the food, and gives it back to the disciples. And the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. All ate and were filled. In the hands of Jesus, the disciples’ meager offering becomes an abundance of riches.

What can we take from this story? I think the first point is that God is love. That sounds cliché, but God isn’t love in a cliché way. God isn’t love in the abstract; God isn’t love in a good-feeling kind of way. Jesus sees the crowds and has compassion for them. Compassion is love that cares deeply about the most basic needs of all. Jesus, and by extension God, isn’t merely interested in how we feel or what we think or our spiritual life. Our whole being matters to God. Our ability to be healed from sickness matters to God. Our physical hunger and needs matter to God. God is love in the active, all-encompassing way that sees and wants to tend to our needs.

Secondly, we learn a lot about being disciples. Being a disciple sometimes means being overwhelmed by great need. I am overwhelmed sometimes. When I see a world that has so much need: so much poverty and hunger, so much hatred for fellow humans. And the news seems to pile up faster than we can respond to it; it is easy to get overwhelmed.

But as Jesus’ disciples, we are given a responsibility to care for God’s people. Jesus doesn’t feed the 5,000 in this story. Jesus gives what is needed to his disciples and tells them to do it. To follow Jesus is to express our faith in concrete acts of love, justice, and compassion. We don’t get the luxury of turning our heads when faced with need and injustice—whether because we feel overwhelmed or because we’d just rather not see—Jesus demands that we see, and that we act.

But we do not act alone. The third, and probably most important, learning that I see in this story is the true miracle of the loaves and the fishes. God provides an abundance. God takes what we have to offer—it might seem meagre or insufficient—but in the hands of God it is more than enough. It reminds me of the quote from Mother Teresa: “In this life, we cannot always do great things; but we can do small things with great love.”

It is such love that is at the heart of this story. Jesus’ compassion for the crowds sets the whole thing in motion. May we know that love and compassion in our hearts—know that God sees and knows and has compassion for us. And may we show the riches of God’s abundance in great love towards others. Amen.