OK. Here is what we need to learn from today’s text: Jesus often calls us to go into uncharted waters, but when we go in faithfulness, he will not abandon us. Take heart, then. You got that? Keep your eyes on Jesus and do not be afraid.
Now I have done my pastoral duty. I have told you what I am supposed to tell you according to the commentaries I read this week.
But that’s not the whole story—or at least I don’t think it is the whole story. Let me tell you what I know to be true. Dealing with fear is complicated. Overcoming fear is not as easy as having faith, and being fearful in certain situations—say an upcoming surgery, or the president’s threat of using force against North Korea, or almost drowning as was the case with Peter--those kinds of fears are totally natural and not a sign of faithlessness. Got it? You are not deficient in your faith if you are fearful in situations like that, no matter what the commentators say.
I want to share with you here, an example of what I am talking about.
I used to have a fear of heights. I have conquered that fear, but I will tell you now, that fear of heights was NOT overcome by my faith in Jesus.
When I was little, I refused to go sledding. I did not like the sensation of being up high and going down. I have never been downhill snow-skiing, same reason. In my early to mid-life years, I eschewed all climbing activities—ladders, rock climbing.
However, in the first church I served, I led a group of youth and adults on a Habitat for Humanity trip to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. It was a Habitat build for eight homes. We were going to be there a week. On Monday morning we arrived in Chambersburg fresh and in as yet, clean clothes, in our van caravan. We surveyed the site. The new homes were in mid-construction— The sides of the homes were up. The sub-roofs had been laid, and so too the tar paper that covers the sub-roofing. Bags of shingles lay poised on the apex of each of those eight roofs. The next step, our work in fact, for most of the week, would be laying those shingles! Oh joy!
What’s a youth leader to do? I could not send youth up on those roofs if I was not going up there, too.
Thank God for James. Truly. Dear, dear James. James was a youth in our group—16, maybe 17 years old. Soon after we arrived at the Habitat site, James pulled me aside. He confided, “I don’t do ladders.” And, I admitted to James “I don’t do ladders either.” So, we made a pact. We would support each other. We would be partners in crime, or in this case, partners in fear.
James went first of the two of us. I held his ladder at its base. As he reached the top of the ladder, where it met the roof, I saw James’ chest heave as he took a deep breath. That is the most terrifying part of roof work, as you know if you have worked on roofs—it’s when you have one foot on the ladder and the other foot, in the air, flailing, until it meets terra firma, or maybe better sub-roofa firma.
In an instant, another youth, already on the roof, had James’ arm, and James was up. Success! What could I do? I followed. I did as James had done. Took that deep breath as I swung my leg over. He took my arm as I placed both feet securely on sub-roofa firma. We gave each other high fives. That experience cured me of my fear of heights.
But climbing ladders, I realize, is a really insignificant fear in the grand scheme of things. Usually ladder-climbing is not life-threatening. So, as I sat at my desk this week, composing this sermon, my thoughts turned to people who deal with fear all the time. Police officers, fire fighters, soldiers. Aren’t they afraid? How is it that they are able to do what they do? Is it their faith in Jesus?
On Thursday, I telephoned Duane --Karr. He used to be a police officer and he is still at it, risking his life as a volunteer firefighter. I asked him, “Are you thinking of Jesus when you put yourself in harm’s way?” He said, and I wrote this down as we were talking, so I could share it today—Duane said, “I do what I do because I want to help people.” I think by that he means that his sense of responsibility to others outweighs his own self-preservation instincts. And Duane said that what motivates him too, is his “duty to the team” —and then he clarified—“by team I mean my fellow police officers and firefighters.” He said, “On the job, you are never alone.”
That actually squares with something I read just a few weeks ago. A psychiatrist interviewed soldiers to find out why they were able to do what they do on the battlefield. Turns out they are not motivated by some grand ideology—world peace, say, or states’ rights, or freeing people from oppression. They do what they do because they believe they are protecting their loved ones back home, or a way of life, or their fellow soldiers on the field. It’s personal. Again, though, Jesus wasn’t mentioned.
The upshot of all of this is, responsibility to loved ones, to a community, to a team, a squadron or a youth group can outweigh many of our fears.
Now lest you think that Duane does not have faith in Jesus, or that I do not have faith in Jesus, say when I climb ladders or Duane goes into a burning building. let me tell you this. Duane admits that he sometimes prays to Jesus for help, when he is in a difficult situation. So do I. Duane is certain that Jesus has pulled him through some really dangerous situations—and ditto for me. There are times in his life, in my life, and maybe in all of our lives, when Jesus has held out his hand and helped us walk across the raging waters. It’s just at the time, we’re not really thinking about Jesus. We’re too busy trying to keep our heads above water. It’s looking back that we realize Jesus was with us.
Here’s where I should quote that WAY cliché footprints in the sand poem, but I’ll spare you!
This week I have been dealing with my fear of the upcoming rally in downtown Charlottesville, it occurs to me, that if you align your life with Jesus, that you are in effect embodying him, it is not so much keeping your eyes on him, as it is channeling Him. So I guess that you could say that you do not fear, because you have a feeling of righteousness—not self righteousness, which is ugly and off putting, but Jesus-righteousness.
How about those fears that steal into consciousness late at night? You’re trying to sleep, but you can’t stop thinking about the evening news—the wars, the political insults exchanged by world leaders; earthquakes, the intentional drowning of refugees. Or maybe it’s fear of an upcoming surgery, or the fear of losing a loved one whose health is in decline. These are real concerns that invade our waking hours, too; they frazzle our nerves and rub raw, our patience and even our sanity.
I personally am helped at these times by a passage in Romans—It’s Romans 8:28: Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” In the end, all works together for good. We can believe that.
Finally, and I do mean finally, at the end of our days we fear death.
As a pastor, I have been privileged to be at the bedside of dying church members. These church members have been at various stages of decline. Most church members I have visited near the end of their lives, are too sick or too drugged to talk even. But that does not mean that these are not special deaths. You can feel God’s presence more in stillness—the stillness of a hospital room, or a darkened bedroom. Believe it or not, I do not talk much at bedsides. I usually bring a leather bound volume of prayers and scripture readings with me—a book for just these situations. I read from the Psalms. The 23rd Psalms is good. So too, Psalms 46.
I am told that of all of our senses, the sense of hearing is the last to go. So maybe these dying souls hear the Psalms and are soothed and relieved. Maybe, too, they are listening to that still small voice of God. I tell you that it is at these times, sitting by the bedside of someone who is dying, my own faith is strengthened. And I am not alone in this. Other pastors make the same claim.
So, regarding fear, what I can say with certainty is, what we all can believe and say with certainty is, we are held by a love that will never let us go—whether we be on ladders, in burning buildings, in a hospital room, in a courtroom, in the middle of a tornado,on a crowded street of militants, or walking on water and about to drown. We still fear, but maybe not so much as we would otherwise. We trust that in the end, everything will turn out alright.
And, at the end of our days, we believe that Jesus will lead us home. That is the ultimate reason, for us NOT to fear.
Let all the people say, Amen