When I was a boy growing up here in Washington, I was able to take advantage of several of the many cultural and social opportunities that only a beautiful and diverse urban environment can give its residents. But this city also can give a child much to be afraid of—crime, traffic, air pollution, politicians — and other potential hazards that ought to scare the daylights out of any impressionable young mind. But I was not afraid of any of those things. In fact, the only thing I remember being afraid of growing up was the dark.
You know the dark, don’t you? When your parents insist that the lights go out, not knowing, or not caring, that it’s only in darkness that the night creatures come out to terrorize young children. My brother and I shared a room, and we would race to get to the bed first when the call came up from The Management downstairs, “Okay, boys, lights out!” I cannot overemphasize the importance of getting to that bed first. Coming in second in that race afforded one the unenviable prize of having to get up to turn off the light switch, and thus expose oneself to all of the night terrors unprotected by the covers! Bedcovers have that important ability, you know, of giving you “blanket protection” against ghosts, goblins, monsters, and all things that go bump in the night.
And that’s why, I suppose, that I don’t understand those disciples of Jesus out there in the middle of the sea at night, not being able to see very much of what was going on around them, but certainly able to feel their boat being knocked around by the waves, and they could feel the cold sea water covering first their feet, then their ankles, now their calf, at an alarming rate. And yet, the gospel of Mark says, they weren’t afraid of that. They just pushed on, rowing and rowing and rowing against the wind, trying to make it to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Why were they out there in that danger in the dead of night? Because our Lord Jesus Christ commanded them to go there. He sent them into that danger.
Earlier that day, Jesus had miraculously fed a crowd of over 5,000 people whom had gathered for his teaching and healing. He had commanded his disciples to feed the people, but they balked, seeing only the scarcity of the desert they were in. They begged him to send the crowd away, but instead he sent the disciples away as the evening came. He directed them to get into their boats and put out to sea. Now, the Sea of Galilee was not the place where you wanted to be in the dead of night. Storms could come at any time, and at night you couldn’t see what was around you, you couldn’t navigate. Jesus stayed behind to go up on the mountain to pray, as he did frequently.
Later that night, opening his eyes from his deep prayer of communing with God, Jesus gazed out upon the sea, and was able to see that his disciples were in trouble. A storm had arisen, so he came to them, walking upon the waters. It is important to note the gospel lesson does not record them being afraid of the sea; several of them were, after all, professional fishermen. Nor were they particularly fearful of the darkness. But seeing their master coming to them on water? Now fear gripped their hearts. They were afraid of Jesus himself, thinking that they were seeing a ghost.
Are you afraid of Jesus? Now I know that that is a ludicrous question to ask of a gathering of American Christians worshiping at the National Cathedral in the nation’s capital city. Many of us are in here, I’m sure, precisely because the world out there is a scary place without Jesus. We come here to be comforted, soothed, healed and forgiven; we come here to be reminded that we have nothing to fear and that everything’s going to be all right. We want to be tucked into bed here, and be read nice stories from the Bible that leave us feeling warm and fuzzy all over. We do come here to hear scary stories, and to be told that Jesus sends his disciples on dangerous missions, given impossible tasks, and directed to dangerous seas in the middle of the night — completely exposed, vulnerable and unprotected against the prevailing winds that buffet them to and fro.
And so, I ask the question again: are you afraid of Jesus? Maybe you should be! Are you fearful of where he may be directing you to go…to the place where you do not want to be…perhaps in a dangerous sea, in the dead of night? And when the going gets rough, when the winds of change begin to sink your boat, are you happy or are you scared when our Lord comes to you, walking on water?
Andrew Greeley, in his novel White Smoke about choosing new papal leadership in Rome for a fearful church, has one of the potential candidates for pope saying:
“The present is one of the most exciting and challenging times in the last 1900 years. It is a …chairos, an appropriate time, a pregnant time, a time of great grace and promise…we must be open and sensitive to the signs of the times…we must listen to the voice of the Spirit whenever the voice of the Spirit is to be heard…we must listen always and everywhere to discern the work of the Spirit in the world…Above all, we must not be afraid…of the artists, scholars and thinkers…who can teach us so much…we must not be afraid of the new cultures, from all over the world, that we are only now beginning to appreciate…we must not be afraid of the new insights into human nature that science has made available to us…we must not be afraid to make ourselves the patrons of social justice all over the world. We must not be afraid to change…we must not change in order to remain the same…we must not confuse that which is essential in the church with that which is mutable…The church has presented itself to the world in many different forms since it lift Jerusalem…we must be willing to experiment to refine before we change…We must be open, sensitive, and above all, hopeful…we must listen to our critics, to those who hate us…because God’s Spirit may be telling us, through them, something we desperately need to hear…we are a church of love… God is love, and we are those who are trying, however, badly, to reflect that love…we want our church to be…a church of [that] radiant love.”
I say, send up the white smoke would go up for that candidate! We desperately need that kind of visionary leadership, for the church today is in troubling seas. As you are well aware from numerous news reports, our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church are facing the troubling seas of a crisis of trust in their ecclesiastical leaders, many of whom have failed the moral test of protecting their children from the hands of abusers. That’s a rough sea! Our brothers and sisters in the mainline Protestant churches are facing the turbulent seas of declining church membership as people are leaving in droves, not seeing evidence of the presence of God in their worship services nor in the churches’ practices. That’s a rough sea. And this week my own denomination, the Episcopal Church, meets in Minneapolis for its triennial General Convention. Many of us dread what may occur this week, fearful that the Episcopal Church may come apart at the seams as we wrestle and wrangle with each other on the issues of human sexuality.
We are in a rough place. Some of us want to turn this boat back to the shore. “Let’s hide under these covers,” because we don’t know what’s out there in the dark, but we know that it’s threatening us. No doubt, many of us are thinking, “Why can’t we just turn back to the way things were in the 1950’s, when we were able to trust all our leaders, when everybody went to church, and we all knew what we believed and what God wanted us to do?” And yet I know that there are several in this service today who do not remember the 50’s as such a rosy time when all was well.
When I was a seminarian in a fairly conservative and evangelical theological school, I went there knowing that in the 1950s you would not see more than one or two black or brown faces in the graduating classes in that decade, as many of the seminaries were quite comfortable with the belief—supported by the culture, tradition and the interpretation of Scripture—that racial integration was not an important matter for the church. In fact, many institutions defended segregation as a moral and Christian duty. The 1950s were a rough sea for my people.
When I entered the seminary, about 95 percent of my classmates were men, and about 90 percent of us were absolutely convinced that God only wanted men to be ordained. By the time of graduation, however, most of us changed our minds about that issue because for those three years we had witnessed the power, love, ability and commitment of the women students who faithfully preached the Gospel of Christ and lovingly ministered to people in His name. A few of us, however, never opened themselves to this change, saying that, “Who knows what might happen in the church once you let women in the leadership?”
And when I entered graduate school, I was absolutely convinced—as many of you no doubt are today—that persons of homosexual orientation—even those in committed loving relationships with those of the same sex — were damnable sinners and unfit for any leadership in the church of Christ. I knew this, bolstered my interpretation of holy Scripture and the traditional teachings of the Church. But again, my theology could not hold up in that sea with what I was directly experiencing: the power, love, ability and commitment of faith-filled homosexual Christians in my classes who powerfully preached the Gospel of Christ and lovingly ministered to people in His name. One of my colleagues at the time confessed to me privately that, “Eugene, I’d like to believe that too; it’s a wonderful image of the inclusivity of the gospel, and my heart wants to reach out in loving acceptance of these people, but my head and my theology won’t allow me to do so.” And yet I knew, as he did, that our theologies are man-made attempts to understand the ways of God; they come and go, but our Lord remains the same. I imagine our Lord coming to him in the muddle of his confused night, fearfully appearing to him at first as a ghost, but finally consoling him by saying, “ It is I, do not be afraid, do not fear. Trust in me, do the right thing. Things will be okay.” And the seas were calmed.
That kind of trust to follow your heart calls for courage. Courage. We are all afraid sometimes—and we need to be—for there are many things out there that can harm you and others that you ought to be afraid of. But courage is that amazing ability to act with integrity and conviction, even in the face of fear, and even when one cannot see the horizon ahead of them. In this Cathedral, in the west narthex, you will see a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the great inspirational figures of the 20th century. She once said:
“Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run, it’s easier.”
Yes, it is more exhilarating, more uplifting, than fear because in the long run fear takes so much out of us. It takes so much energy to live out our lives when we are afraid. We are afraid for our children, our lives, and our nation; we are afraid of what the winds of change will bring for our churches. But the Scriptures teach us that in these moments our Lord comes to us, just as he did to his disciples on that cold scary sea, saying, “Fear not…I am with you always.”
In the church, we have a theological term for courage; we call it faith. Here at the Cathedral, we are not so much concerned about what church you belong to, but we are very concerned about your faith. Do you place your faith in something that will hold up for you, that will stand the test of time? We believe here that faith in Jesus Christ will set you free from fear. A generation ago, a prominent minister, Harry Emerson Fosdick, once preached these words (in The Hope of the World, Harper & Bros., 1933, p.61).:
“Fear imprisons, faith liberates; fear paralyzes, faith empowers; fear disheartens, faith encourages; fear sickens; faith heals; fear makes useless, faith makes serviceable; and most of all, fear puts hopelessness at the heart of life, while faith rejoices in its God.”
Well, if you are like me, even as an adult you sometimes want to get under those covers, because it’s dark out there and we don’t know what the seas will do to us. But what we know is our Lord Jesus Christ, and we have faith that as he sends us out into uncharted waters, he will lead and guide us. In the words of the Collect of the Day that we prayed at the beginning of this Holy Eucharist, let us pray:
“O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” Amen.