Why We Need Not Be Afraid – Part One / Pentecost 8A – Presence

please read Matthew 14:22-33

“Don’t be afraid!”

My reaction to this command ranges from downright denial to a self-amplified machismo to blatant disregard for the truth: “Afraid of what?” “Me, afraid? Nawwh!” “There’s nothing to be afraid of!”

“Don’t be afraid!” A direct command proclaimed from holy writ some 365 times — once for each day in the calendar year. What is easy is to keep this command at arms length. What is challenging is to receive this command personally, and not just a message given to its original hearers and readers thousands of years ago.

“Don’t be afraid!” It’s not that fear is altogether a bad thing. I can remember times in my life where a bit of fear kept me from doing some dangerous things. But if fear remains chronically the main catalyst behind all the decisions I make, then is there any room for faith in my heart? “Love casts out fear” John reminds us from the Bible (1 John 4:18).

So, what are you afraid of?

uuhhhhh, hmmmm, okay –lot’s of stuff. Where should I begin?

Maybe by a simple affirmation. Acknowledging my fear is a significant first step towards healing and transformation. I won’t get anywhere with all my fear unless I confess it, stay awhile in the feeling of it, embrace it, own it, name it for myself. This is the first learning I receive from the Gospel story given to us today.

I suspect this needs to happen as part of experiencing the profound transformation offered by the saving presence of Jesus — as was the case for at least Peter, individually, and the disciples, collectively, on Lake Galilee.

So I need to define the fear. Define what it is, precisely, that I am afraid of. And very likely the source of my fear germinates within me! Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “What people don’t seem to realize is that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.”

Often we point at something or someone out there that is the cause of our fear. Consequently we end up not accurately nor truthfully defining the problem. A man went to the doctor complaining that wherever he touched his body, it hurt — his head, his arms, his chest, his stomach, his legs, even his toes! What is wrong with him? The doctor’s diagnosis: a broken finger.

Sometimes the problem is not what we at first assume. Sometimes the source of our fear is closer to home than we think.

The teaching from the Gospel story is that I won’t experience the grace, renewal, and positive change in my life unless I commit to move towards and touch those places that generate fear in my life.

Admitedly, this calls for courage and risk-taking. Because I suppose the disciples could have avoided the lake that day. They were professional fishers. They could read the sky, the water and air temperature. I am sure there were some among them who counselled against going out on the water that day. They could have put it off for a day on account of the discernable threat of storms.

But they had a higher purpose. There was something more important about their lives than simply taking the easy path to avoid-any-difficulty-at-all-cost.

I learn from this Gospel text that I need not be afraid to tackle those more hidden, perhaps shameful and uncomfortable aspects of my life. I need not be afraid to be by myself in order to overcome my fear. And even though I read that Elijah discovered God’s presence not in the high energy places of life but in the “sound of sheer silence” and that Jesus wasn’t afraid to be by himself on some hillside to pray — I find this so hard! I find the inner journey challenging and difficult.

Because my fears are larger-than-life when I’m alone, or cut off from others. When I’m focused solely on self, without a broader context of people with which to relate to and love, fear grows.

I like to be on the river paddling. As you can probably guess, I’m not a white-water kind of guy. I like being on a relatively calm stretch of water. If I can get out on the river once a week for an hour or so, I’m happy meandering around the islands off Petawawa Point. And each year I look forward to participating in the annual Paddlequest event organized by the Miramichi Lodge Foundation.

This year as over a hundred of us paddled down the Ottawa River as a group from Petawawa Point to Riverside Park in Pembroke — more or less together (it wasn’t a race, thank God!) — it came to me that I’ve never felt brave enough to do that stretch by myself. Partly because it would be a commitment of several hours. But mainly because the river is wide and long. And the thought of me paddling by myself in the middle of that broad stretch of river frightens me.

But paddling with Jessica in the canoe and a hundred people around me — it didn’t bother me at all!

My fear dissapates and I have more courage to do what I will when I’m with others and love for them and from them keeps me going. Loving awareness of others around me gives me courage to take the higher ground and do things I would otherwise avoid, despite my fear.

The final learning from the Gospel story is the most poignant: Jesus comes to the disciples in the storm. This is the promise of the text. Whether working through personal issues, or considering what faces us in the relationships of our lives — Jesus will be present to us in the storms, in facing the fear, of our lives.

After all, Jesus has been there, done that. He experienced the full gamut of human pain, fear and suffering. Out of his self-giving love on the cross comes a deep sympathy for each of us. Consequently there is no pain, no fear, no suffering too large that will keep Jesus away from us in our fear. Jesus will come to us in the storm. Because of his love.

We need not be afraid. We need not lead fear-based lives. We need not let fear guide all our decisions. Why?

Because Jesus is there. The love of Jesus for me, and you, and everyone. The Psalmist sings: “Call on the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 105:1) There is power in the name of Jesus — to affirm the presence of God amidst the evil, when assailed by Satan, when burdened by sin — call on the name of the Lord!

My first memory of being really afraid was from my nightmares as a child — when I dreamed of a scary, evil, satanic character. And I would dream of this night after night. Part of the problem for me was I was afraid to fall asleep. I would keep myself awake, vigilant, as if by my effort alone I would keep the evil dreams away. I exhausted myself. This want on for a while until I confessed to my Dad what was happening. And he gave me good advice: Say the Lord’s prayer.

I tried it. When I next woke frightened from my dream, I began: “Our father in heaven, holy is your name … ” And usually by then, I was already asleep. It worked every time I had that dream until the bad dream no longer had power over me. “Our father in heaven, holy is your name….” Already at peace. Jesus was with me. I was no longer afraid. I was able to let go in trust into the Lord’s love for me.

From the heart, then, I believed. Not from the head! The New Testament is about a heart-felt experience of divine relationship with God.

Paul in his letter to the Romans (10:9) is clear about that: Believe from the heart — and you will be saved. Believe from the heart that Jesus comes to you and is with you in the storm — and you will be saved.

Courageous presence with self and others. Trusting presence of God with us. Presence — the first reason why we need not be afraid …

Amen.

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