Dean Hollerith: Why Are You Still Afraid?
O Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
At the beginning of this section of Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus teaching beside the Sea of Galilee. Large numbers of people came to hear him. In fact, the crowds were larger than the disciples could handle. As a quick fix, they put Jesus into a boat and pushed off from the shore so that he could teach from a distance, so that the crowds could better hear him.
Late in the day, the people were tired, and Jesus and the disciples knew it was time to leave. Since Jesus was already in the boat, they decided to sail across to the other side and find shelter for the night. But, as they headed out, a summer storm came up, (my father who loved to sail the Chesapeake Bay would have called it a “squall.”) The wind raged, the waves grew and the storm threatened to swamp Jesus and the disciples. Their little boat, that had been full of wisdom and grace only a short time before as Jesus taught the crowds, was now full of something else—it was full of fear. Now fear is infectious, it can take over a group of people in a very short amount of time—and fear was all over that boat. Shouting at Jesus the disciples asked: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” They were terrified, and they wanted to know why Jesus wasn’t helping. Frustrated and tired, wiping sleep from his eyes, Jesus reached out his hand and said, “Peace! Be still!” Immediately the wind died down, the waves subsided, and calm returned. Then Jesus looked at his friends with sadness and disappointment and said, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Well, my friends, as I look out across the landscape of our nation, it sometimes seems like all of us are being tossed to-and-fro in a boat full of fear. So many people are afraid these days. In recent months, I have had numerous conversations with people who shared with me how anxious and afraid they feel. Anxious and afraid because in some places around the world there is growing frustration with democracy and an increasing tolerance for authoritarian leaders. Anxious and fearful because we are increasingly uncivil to one another in our national conversations. Anxious and fearful because some of our leaders demonize others and promote fear of the stranger. Anxious and fearful because there is a growing nativism that sees American interests as the only interests worth considering. If you look around it does seem that fear, and the reactionary consequences fear produces, are indeed on the rise.
In Germany in 1933, shortly before Hitler came to power and during the time when the German republic was crumbling, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon entitled, “Overcoming Fear.” Referencing our gospel for this morning, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Fear is in the boat, in Germany, in our own lives and in the nave of this church – naked fear of an hour from now, of tomorrow and the day after.” But, Bonhoeffer reminded his listeners, “God stands above all, his thoughts unswayed, his Word unstayed, his will forever our ground and hope.” “We name the One who overcame fear …Who nailed it to the cross and committed it to oblivion . . . Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Living One… Believe that he is with you now and helping you. …Then fear will grow pale and fade away…”
My brothers and sisters, I do not believe we are living in 1930’s Germany; I am not attempting to make that kind of comparison. But, we are living in an age of rising fear. And Bonhoeffer is correct to remind us that, as Christians, faith is the only antidote for fear. Faith in the risen Christ. Faith in the promise that God’s love and grace, God’s justice and mercy, are ever present, and that, as Dr. King said during his sermon here fifty years ago, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
As Christians, I believe it is our duty to fight fear because fear makes us turn inward, hunker down and cling too tightly to our possessions. Fear causes us to think that we will never have enough. Fear makes us push away those who are different from us. Fear looks for scapegoats and convinces us that the only way to be safe is to build higher walls. This is not what God would have for us. This is not the way of love, it is not the way of Jesus.
Faith is the opposite of fear. Faith gives hope and allows us to see that we can be generous and still have enough. Faith gives us courage to welcome the stranger and see our story in their story. Faith gives us love to see beyond our own needs and take seriously the needs of others.
But make no mistake about it, having faith does not free us from feeling afraid or anxious. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “Faith is not an electric blanket.” Faith won’t save us from these emotions. Rather, living in faith means knowing, that while we may feel afraid or anxious, we need not be controlled by those feelings. Living in faith means acknowledging the fear and then stepping out and acting in the world in loving and compassionate ways in spite of the fear.
This past Wednesday, John Meacham was here for a discussion on his new book – The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. During his talk he said, and I paraphrase – “The more generously we have interpreted the American proclamation that All men are created equal, the more we have thrived as a nation.” These words from the Declaration of Independence, that serve as the core of the American experiment, are not words of fear, they are words of faith. Fear says that in order for me to have what I need, what I want, I must make you less. It took faith and courage for our founding mothers and fathers to declare that all people are created equal; it took even more faith and courage to make this lofty idea a reality in this country, even if that reality is still not completely fulfilled. In his book, Meacham reminds us that while we live in difficult times, we have come through similar periods in our history and we will come through this period as well, if we have the courage to restrain our national demons and give free rein to the better angels of our nature.
We saw a glimpse of those better angels this past week when the voices of so many in our country were heard. Politicians and pundits, first ladies and former presidents, teachers and students, fathers and mothers, spoke out against the separation of children from the parents of immigrants and the policy was reversed. A policy that sought to use fear as a tactic was stopped. We stood against the fear and demanded better from our country and our leaders listened.
Friends, as Christians we must always remember that politicians will never save us. Regardless of the political party they come from, they should not be objects of our faith. Many deserve our trust, our help and our support as they go about the hard work of governing our country, but they do not deserve our faith. Only the one who overcame death on the cross and thereby defeated the ultimate source of all fear deserves our faith. In Jesus we have the living embodiment of love itself. He is our hope, our place to stand, our source for good, our source of love.
Karl Barth once said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Well, it is time to rise up Christians. Time to rise up and be what our country, what our world needs most—agents of hope, seekers for justice, instruments of love—determined to fight fear. Our culture might say we don’t matter anymore, that religion has been made irrelevant by the modern age in which we live. But I say we are needed now more than ever. God acts through us. Each act of kindness, each act of courage, each time we witness with our lives that light and truth make a difference, the darkness is pushed back and fear is overcome by love. We are needed as voices that lift up civility, that demand integrity, voices that speak against hatred. We are needed as faithful witnesses who proclaim that there really is right and wrong, that everything is not relative. But most of all, we are called to be the ones who push back fear by standing up for the love of God in Christ, a love that is so strong not even death can stand against it. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus said, “Have you still no faith?” Amen.