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The Kingdom Parables: Fear and Trembling

August 8, 2011

A Sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

The 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, August 7, 2011


The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28          Matthew 14: 22-33


I love ghost stories. I love reading them. I love hearing them, telling them, and watching them.   And I’m not the only one. Clive Barker, author of the best selling Books of Blood, once said, without being too far from the truth I think, that “There are apparently two books in every American household – one of them is the Bible and the other one is probably by Stephen King.”[1]

Why do we like ghost stories so much? What is it about stories of fear that thrills us? Or terrifying tales that holds our gaze fast and makes us listen, unable to put a book down?  Stephen King himself once suggested an answer. He said, “…all ghost stories presuppose a life after death . . . no matter how scary the ghosts are, isn’t that optimistic? I’m not really sure, and I think Stephen King has his tongue in his cheek when he said it.

The disciples in our boat this morning, whether they trusted in a life after death or not, surely were terrified by the winds that were torturing their boat, and knew that a wind tossed death on the sea was not something to look forward to, no matter how glad they would be to see God.

And then Jesus appears – it’s a ghost! – they cry. Finally they realize it’s him; their friend, their teacher, someone who they’ve given up everything to follow; someone they trust more than anyone in the world.  “Come” he says.

And Peter steps out.  He steps toward where Jesus beckons.  He feels that initial rush of fullness and joy that comes from when you know you’ve made the right decision about something.  How many times have we in our own lives make some bold first steps and thought “yes!”  That sense of freedom and purpose and hopefulness!  But then fear sets in and he falters.  What were his fears?  Who knows?  But they cause him to sink. 

And as he sinks, we too feel, yes, we’ve known that feeling.  That feeling of fear that makes us stop thinking creatively and freeze.  You know, rethinking something is not bad.  Critical thinking is very important.  Revisiting choices and weighing how they are going is healthy and helpful.  But then there’s the fear that breeds paralysis in thinking and action.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often referred to “the paralysis of analysis!”  That unhelpful cycle of thinking and rethinking that feeds on anxiety and craves information. That kind of thinking and rethinking that makes it impossible to make or to stand by any decision.  It’s like wheels turning in the mud, spinning faster and faster and just ending up more stuck.  I’d wager that it doesn’t take us each very long to identify times when this fear-based paralysis has happened in our lives or even perhaps in the life of this church.

Our fears can cause us to sink if we don’t face them head on.  And they’re slippery little buggers.  They’re not only hard to face, they talk back.  Our fears lie. They question our ability or authority: “You can’t do this. You’ll fail at that. It won’t make any difference anyway.” Or “Just who do you think you are? Nobody want to hear what you have to say, or see you do what you want to do.” Perhaps the most debilitating lie is not the one that keeps us from action but the lure of a quick fix. “If only you do this, everything will work out.”  But God doesn’t promise everything will work out all right.  God promises that things will work for the good for those who love God.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t falter, won’t suffer, won’t fear, won’t stumble.  It means that God keeps on calling us, when we do falter, when we do suffer, when we do fear, when we do stumble.  Across the water comes Jesus tender voice, speaking our name, (here I mentioned particular names of people I saw in the congregation). As Barbara Brown Taylor has said,

When we sink, as Peter does, as we all do, our Lord reaches out and catches us, responding first with grace, and then with judgment – “Why did you doubt?” – but never with rejection.  He returns us to the boat, knowing full well that the only reason we are in the boat in the first place is because we believe, or want to believe, and because we mean to follow him through all our doubtful, fearful days.[2]

To the extent that we know what we fear, we can face our fears and learn from them.  But some of our fears we won’t know until we’ve already set out on the journey of faith.  This morning in our prayer we admitted we struggle with many things, and we named the struggle between love and fear, and we confessed that too often fear wins over us. These are not the primitive fears with which Stephen King can entertain us, but profound fears that interrupt our relationships and God’s hopes for us. What fears should be confronted in our confession? Fear of trusting? Fear of ridicule? Fear of death? Fear of making ourselves vulnerable in a relationship of love? Fear of helplessness? Fear of confronting power and losing? Fear of risking faith without proof? Fear that there will not be “enough.” What are your fears?  How might we orient ourselves toward Jesus voice, coming to us over the water, and move forward with our fear but certain of God’s love?

We must remember that in our reading, Jesus has sent the disciples across the waters. The last time this happened, a storm arose while Jesus slept, and the terrified disciples were only saved by waking their resting master. And now they were alone. (Fear of being alone, there’s another one for our list.) When the winds rise and the wave beat against the boat, the disciples fear for their lives. But when Jesus was coming to them, all they could see was a ghost. Perhaps they were already filled with a vision of the dead coming to take them down below the waters, perhaps their lives were flashing before their eyes – certainly this ghost was not a good omen.

Christians have always read the stories of the sea crossings as parables. As with the earlier gospel story, so here “the boat seems to represent the church, buffeted with temptations, trials and persecutions. In both, Jesus appears as the church’s champion, who is strong enough to save those who call on him in faith.”[3] It seems to mean that to face our fears, is to find ourselves in the boat with other pilgrims, on a journey through which Jesus himself has sent us. To find faith is to realize that we are not left alone with our fears. That our fears can open us to newness. That the first step of faith often requires more courage than surrender.

The 13th Century mystic Julian of Norwich once wrote, “fear and love are sisters; our fears can lead us to the fear of God, which is love.”  As we step forward in love and fear, may we hear Jesus’ voice across the water, calling our name, beckoning us forward as well as lifting us up from the cold waters of paralysis and fear, and placing us into that boat of faith, together.

[1] Edward Ingebretsen, S.J., (1996) Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King. New York: M.E. Sharpe. pp. xi.

[2]Barbara Brown Taylor. Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1983. p. 60.

[3] Douglas Hare (1993) Matthew – Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Barbara Jenkins permalink
    August 8, 2011 12:33 pm

    What a timely sermon for me. We were just on vacation and we did 2 hikes both with very steep parts. At one point I was paralized with fear walking over a bridge over a 40 foot drop. I was trying to analyze what exactly was my fear perhaps I should have been listening for Jesus calling my name or accepting my fear while forging on. This is a sermon I will read over and over again, thanks for the inspiring thoughts.

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