The other day, I was running on the Capital Crescent Trail, when a runner coming toward me stopped me in my tracks. He was pushing a fussy toddler in a jogging stroller; a giant Labrador retriever on a leash pulling him along. He was holding an iPhone and texting awkwardly with his thumb. And at the same time, he was talking loudly to someone on a Bluetooth. He radiated anxiety.
“What is he doing?” I asked myself. And then, “I wonder what he’s afraid of?” Afraid he would feel tenderness if he engaged his young son? Afraid he’d lose his community if he stopped texting incessantly? Or his job if not available by phone 24/7? Afraid God might touch his heart if he noticed the beauty of the morning? Afraid if he doesn’t run he’ll gain weight or develop osteoporosis from lack of weight bearing exercise?
People express fear differently. Afraid, we clam up, close off, freeze out, steam up, tell a lie, inflict a wound, let a wound fester, run, hide, blame, judge. Fear makes people do funny things.
As Jesus and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee, a great storm arises. In the culture of the day, sea and storm represented chaos and the forces of evil. Waves hurl against the boat and brutal winds render their rowing pointless. This fierce and frightening storm terrifies the disciples. Feeling suddenly very small, very vulnerable, and very weak, they rouse Jesus from a sound sleep. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are going under?”
“Settle down” says Jesus “be still.” And the wind looses its breath, the sea its fury. Then Jesus turns to his disciples and asks “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Peterson)
The danger has passed. And yet, having delivered them from harm, Jesus recognizes their continuing fear; present tense. This little band of twelve has followed Jesus, the healer, with relative ease. They have soaked up his teachings and marveled at his knowledge and wisdom. But here—here, Jesus becomes someone else entirely. Someone with authority over nature and enough power to cause them, the Scriptures literally say, to “fear a great fear.”
“Who is this?” they ask one another. “Who can put evil in its place, still the forces of the deep, quell the threat of chaos? This one shares in the power of God.”
They cannot comprehend the mystery of this God-man in the boat with them. They have followed him, responded to his call, joined their lives to his. And yet, given what they have just seen—they cannot hide their emotion. This Jesus scares them.
When the World Council of Churches was forming, during the dark days of World War II, they adopted an early Christian symbol for their logo. They chose to depict the universal church as a storm tossed boat with a cross for a mast. (Williamson) So when we read this story, we read our story—as individuals and as church. And that feels right; because somehow, we know this story. It stirs something deep within. (Hunter)
Jesus stills the storm and we catch a glimmer of what Jesus has in mind for our living. We hear the questions he puts to us: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Our fear astonishes him. Jesus somehow expects that we can and will share the peace and power he has; that we can and will dwell with God and in God as he does.
I wonder if we can hear these questions as more invitation than accusation. Jesus invites us into a life bigger than we can ask or imagine; a life of serene strenuousness. Jesus invites us to live life large. Do we dare? (Bolz-Weber)
Fear paralyzes the entire nation of Israel. Two opposing armies gather on the hills on either side of the valley of Elah. Goliath—champion of the Philistines—dominates the scene. “The Destroyer”, Goliath’s moniker in Assyrian, stands 7—10 feet tall, depending on which interpretation you read. He twirls an enormous spear, sports a bronze helmet, and carries an additional 170 pounds on his huge frame when fully armored up. Goliath teases and taunts the armies of Israel, hoping to vanquish a Hebrew champion.
King Saul, who by all rights should take on the giant, sits immobilized by fear, his armies growing more anxious by the minute. Into this quivering crowd comes little David, youngest of eight brothers, keeper of sheep, bringing his brothers their lunch.
Quickly sizing up the situation, David asks “What does the guy get who slays that Philistine? And who is this brute anyway to defy the armies of the living God?” God enters the picture for the first time.
Here, we meet a little boy with a big imagination; a holy imagination. Based on his experience with lambs and sheep, lions and bears, slingshot and stones, David believes that God will grant him a victory
Remember the images from Beijing? How a lone, young, Chinese man faced down a tank; a line of tanks; no radiating anxiety; no quivering fear. Rather, courage; courage and strength; serene and certain. He seemed larger than life itself.
David’s brothers offer only ridicule. Funny thing about fear, it can so possess our imaginations; that we can no longer see the possibilities of God. The brothers—Saul—Israel’s armies—look at Goliath and register might and size and brutality. All they can imagine is the conventional way of the sword, spear, and javelin. David looks through the eyes of covenantal life with God, born of his experience in the fields, his songs and prayers, his practice of the peace, presence, and power of the living God. (Bruggemann)
So David picks up five smooth stones and goes out to meet the Destroyer. And in his own way speaks “Peace, be still” only it sounds like this: “I come at you in the name of the Trinity…God is handing you over to me…so that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you over to our hands.”
David faces the Destroyer and wins; one small boy in the hands of the living God, quieting the evil and chaos of a giant, a king, and two armies.
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks us. “Have you still no faith?” His questions are troubling. Because we have a suspicion that what God wants for our lives may be bigger than what we have in mind. It scares us. (Woods)
The invitation God extends to the human heart is to live life large. God seems inclined toward people who push the limits, use their talents, who live bigger than—just looking at them—you might expect. In hard working fishermen, in a little boy with a slingshot and a rock—God sees something to set to holy purpose.
We live in a day where many tend toward lesser living. We life an idea of a life; a generic life. We live in more of a shrivel than a stretch. What goes missing in smaller living is courage, adventure, imagination, mystery, curiosity, and a kind of holy outrageousness. When we live these knock off lives, the world is poorer for it.
In 1994, Nelson Mandela stepped to the microphone to give his inaugural address as the newly elected President of South Africa. For 30 years, he had faced the fierce giant of apartheid, the storm of violence, the evil of cruel imprisonment. In his solitude Nelson came to understand something about fear. (Quoting Marianne Williamson) “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.”
“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own Light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication.
Christian Century, 6-13-12, Nadia Bolz-Weber
“Captain, My Captain”, Perkins School of Theology Journal, Carol Woods, 7-21-96
Interpretation Series, Mark, Williamson
The Message, Eugene Peterson
David’s Truth, Walter Bruggemann
Lectionary Homiletics, 2003, “Pastoral Implications”, Rodney Hunter
Leap Over a Wall, Eugene Peterson