January 28th – Steve Jungkeit – with audio
Texts: Matthew 14: 22-27; I John 4: 16b-21
Faith Against Fear
I’d like to begin this morning with a famous story about Jesus. It’s a story about fear, a story that I’ve been reflecting on over the past several weeks, as 2017 came to a close, as I thought about the previous year in the life of our community, and as we traveled through the Middle East on the Tree of Life journey. I’ll come to each of those things in due time. But for now, the story.
Jesus is dealing with crowds of people who require healing, and he winds up sending his disciples ahead, while he finishes up. The disciples get in a boat, and begin sailing across the Sea of Galilee, where they encounter a powerful storm. At some point in the middle of the night, after spending time in prayer, Jesus suddenly appears to them, walking to meet them on the water. The disciples see the figure walking toward them, and they’re doubly dismayed: first by the storm itself, and then by what they believe must be a ghost. Trapped in their little fishing boat, the disciples believe they’ve already crossed into the land of death, consumed as they are by fear. But then the words of Jesus come to them from across the waters: “Take heart,” he says. “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
Take heart. Don’t be afraid.
Those might be some of the most important words in all of the Bible. They recur again and again, a constant refrain, what we might think of as a basso continuo underlying the entirety of our faith tradition, the deep bass note hum keeping our spirits aloft “Fear not. Don’t be scared. Be not afraid.” So say the angels to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. So says Jesus to his disciples that night on the water. So says Jesus again when those same disciples are huddled and alone after his crucifixion. He appears to them in a locked room and says, “Be not afraid.” I suspect that admonition recurs so often because the biblical writers understand just how susceptible human beings are to the ravages of fear.
It’s a refrain that the writer of I John takes up as well: perfect love casts out fear, the text says. But if that’s true, the reverse must also be true: it’s fear that crowds out the ability to love. Fear chokes, stifles, and smothers love, with its nagging and persistent drumbeat of mistrust and suspicion. To cite one more biblical text, in the 26th chapter of Leviticus, we find an apt image of a people trapped and defined by fear: “the sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight,” the text reads, “and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.” Those who forget the workings of faith, in other words, those who forget that it is God in whom we live and move and have our being, are liable to respond to irrational fears with irrational decisions, driven to paranoia by the sound of nothing more than falling leaves.
I’m bold enough to say that while fear is a human emotion, one from which we all suffer from time to time, it has no proper home within Christianity. Perfect love casts out fear. Fear may be human, but I don’t think it’s Christian, which is a way of saying that I don’t think it belongs to the spirit of Christ.
In C.S. Lewis’s final installment of the Narnia series, he offers us a perfect metaphor for the way that fear can imprison us. A group of dwarves sit in a field surrounded by splendor, but somehow their imaginations are clouded, so that all they can see is a dank and foul stable where they once had taken shelter. Meanwhile the world was transformed around them, but the dwarves are so lost in their discomfort that all they can perceive is filth and dirt and darkness. They lash out at those who draw near, thinking they will be harmed. When Aslan, the great lion approaches the dwarves to invite them out of their isolation, they refuse, mistaking him for a monster. And so, even in the midst of so much that is good, so much that would call forth the best in the dwarves, they remain trapped within their own hell, caught up within their own fear and mistrust. They are shrunken, the story suggests, not only in stature, but in spirit.
Shortly before Christmas, I read an article that exemplified how fear is powerfully afflicting those of us who live in the United States. The article described a gathering of evangelical young people in North Dakota. They were there to view a film on gun culture in America, and the film’s director, also an evangelical, was there to make a case before these young Christians that the Christian faith was incompatible with a policy of unrestricted gun access. They weren’t buying it. The writer of the article says this:
“I was both astonished and troubled…by the visceral sense of fear that gripped these young adults. But these students in a town with a population of some 1,200 saw the idea of a home invasion or an Islamic State attack that would require them to take a human life in order to save others as a certainty they would face, not a hypothetical…The students around me agreed unreservedly with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, who was seen in the film asserting that “in the world around us, there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers.”
It’s an upsetting portrayal of just how deeply a culture of fear has embedded itself in our collective psyches. But of course, it’s not only young people in North Dakota who are hunkered down in fear. We know something about that as well, I think – or at least, I do. There’s the big stuff, rolling over us from the news – fears of a new Cold War, of nuclear brinksmanship, of climate disasters, you name it. But there’s the smaller stuff, hitting closer to home – gnawing fears about our children, or our aging parents, or about our own aging selves. We harbor fears about our work, and whether our jobs will continue to exist. We have fears of abandonment, finding ourselves lonely and forgotten in the world. It’s not that we don’t often have legitimate reasons to feel uneasy or afraid. It’s not that threats to our well-being don’t exist. Like the disciples in that storm tossed boat, there are moments that the waves around us feel scary indeed. But to respond to the world in fear is ultimately to become like those dwarves huddled in their imaginary stable. The greatest consequence of fear is that the world becomes precisely as cramped and squalid as we imagine it to be, whether it actually is or not.
Which is why Aslan appears to the dwarves in that story to call them out of their imaginary prison. It’s why Jesus appears again and again throughout the pages of Scripture to say to each and every one of us: Snap out of it. Be not afraid. You have a choice, and you do not have to live your lives defined by fear. There also exists the possibility of living a life defined by faith, born of the assurance that in life and in death we belong to God, rooted in the conviction that our lives were never our own, but were given to us as gifts from God. There exists the possibility of confronting the world with courage and resolution, confident that, as Psalm 118 puts it, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. There exists the possibility of enacting peace amidst distress, of maintaining calm amidst the storms, of discovering joy in the midst of pain. There exists the possibility of reaching out, rather than crouching in fear in our unsteady boats or the dark stables of our mind.
I saw that powerful stance of faith against fear all over the place as we journeyed through Palestine. Person after person that we met with exemplified what it means to confront adversity with a sense of faith, rather than fear. But it’s something that happened to some members of our own group that I’d like to share with you today, for that story lives as a powerful reminder to me of what it means to live from a sense of faith, rather than fear.
It was a Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, and we were waiting to board our bus in order to head to Bethlehem, about ten miles away. That’s when we received word that several of our Muslim friends were detained by Israeli soldiers after praying at the al-Aqsa Mosque. We were understandably alarmed, and a few of us raced to the place where they had been taken. After pounding on some doors and talking to several guards, we learned that they had already been transferred to another police station in the old city of Jerusalem. And so we made our way there, and stood outside the gates of the jail, trying to find out whatever information we could. No one would tell us anything. No one would even confirm whether our friends were being held in that location. It’s hard to convey the disdain and disrespect we encountered as we sought information. One guard simply stared at me, and after a long pause, said contemptuously, and dismissively: “You wait. Go wait.”
We did wait – anxiously, apprehensively, fearfully. For seven hours we waited outside the gates of that jail while the police did their best to ignore us. Meanwhile, every so often we were able to see our friends through the gates, as the police moved them back and forth across a courtyard, and we shouted words of encouragement to them. We made phone calls – to the US embassy, to an Israeli lawyer, to family members. We grew cold as the shadows lengthened, and so we arranged, through the lawyer, for warm drinks and food to be sent into the jail. After about five hours, some Palestinians, also detained following prayers, were released. One of them was a boy, about ten years of age, who wandered outside, looking for parents or relatives who might be there to greet him. I thought of my own kids, and pictured Sabina, or Elsa, or even Augie, being subjected to that form of imprisonment, and I was gripped by – what else, fear. We watched a tour group cluster just to the side of the police station, transfixed by some historical detail from thousands of years ago. They stood there for ten to fifteen minutes listening to their guide, but they were absolutely oblivious to any of the human drama that was occurring right beside them. It was as apt a metaphor for the occupation as any I can imagine – dwelling within a bubble of historical curiosity, while failing to recognize or respond to the struggles occurring just several yards away. Their indifference, our invisibility filled me with – what else, a gnawing kind of unease, born of fear. Is this really the world we live in, I wondered?
The hours crept along. And a feeling of deep unease, born of fear, worked its way into my gut and through my chest, as we began to wonder if the ordeal would last all night. Eventually, the police grew tired of the games they were playing with our friends, and with us, and one by one, they set each of our five travelers free.
It was Reza Mansoor who lifted the mood. When he was released, I gave him a hug, and expressed my relief that he was out. “Are you OK,” I asked?
His response was priceless. “Oh, I’m fine,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “In fact, I was actually enjoying myself.” “What do you mean?” I asked in response. “I spent the time praying, and thinking about the example of Jesus and the prophets,” Reza said. “Even as they were detaining us, and marching us away, I was thinking what an honor it was to undergo this kind of humiliation in the very same place that they humiliated Jesus and the prophets. So,” Reza continued, “I felt encouraged by thinking of their example, and by praying to God throughout the whole ordeal.”
Reza’s faith ran deep enough that he was able to practice faith against fear in that moment. But I think his words also take us back to the dwarves in the stable, crouching in fear. Because sometimes, our fear prevents us from seeing the goodness and splendor of the world around us, just like those dwarves, perpetuating their own misery. But sometimes, the opposite can be true. Sometimes, we really are in a cramped and dingy stable, a place of mistrust and anxiety. Jails exist, detentions take place, routine abuses happen with frightening regularity. Those are real. The power of faith, the wisdom born of God, has the power to transform those dark stables into the very splendor of Narnia, peopled with encouraging voices who uphold and strengthen us in the midst of trouble, in the midst of struggle, in the midst of darkness. Through the practice of prayer, Reza somehow transformed a very real jail into something like Narnia itself.
There’s a lesson there for us all. Each of us have moments when we dwell in the stable with the dwarves. We all have moments in which fear and gnawing anxiety about very real concerns govern our actions. But I believe our faith provides us with a choice. We can allow ourselves to become as shrunken and miserable as the dwarves in Narnia, or we can tap into the deep wellspring of the faith traditions we belong to. In prayer, in meditation, in the reading of Scripture, in the words and example of courageous and wise voices among us, we can encounter the presence of Jesus, walking to meet us on stormy waters, casting out our fear and making room for works of love. It can happen. I believe that it does happen. But we have to risk opening ourselves beyond the fear that can sometimes hold us.
The same is true for our entire community. It’s important to remember the lesson of the disciples and the storm on this day of our annual meeting. It’s important to reflect on C.S. Lewis’s image of the dwarves in the stable as we think about the previous year, and prepare for the year to come. And it’s important to be inspired by the faith of one of our congregation’s dear friends, reminding us of the path of courageous witness offered by Jesus and the prophets, a path available to us all.
What kind of community shall we be? What kind of lives shall we lead? Those are questions we must confront not once, but daily, sometimes hourly. Shall we be governed by fears of this or that, tossed about like blown leaves? Or shall we be people governed by faith, strong in our resolve, holding fast to what we know to be true, steady in our trust of the one who appears on the water, calling, “Don’t be afraid.”
The choice is ours. It’s always ours. Who, and how, shall we be?
 Insights found in Marilynne Robinson’s article entitled “Fear,” The New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015.
 Also found in Robinson.
 See Amy Sullivan, “America’s New Religion,” in The New York Times, December 15, 2017.