“Do not give in to fear”

A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on August 13, 2017

Texts: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Matthew 14:22-33

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

August 13, 2017—Proper 14A

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Matthew 14:22-33


          “Do not be not afraid,” Jesus says, which is one of those phrases that occur over and over in the Bible. “Do not be afraid.” To which we can either nod, if we’re feeling pious and agreeable that day, or—on those days we’re ready to take things a little more seriously—we can turn around and ask, “Why not?”

          Why not be afraid? Why not be afraid when there is clearly so much to be afraid of? Why not be afraid when you’ve faced raging seas all night and now there’s a mysterious figure walking across the freakin’ waves towards you? Why not be afraid when your own family members are so overcome by jealousy, annoyance and greed that they choose to sell you into slavery? Why not be afraid when white supremacists march in our streets chanting Nazi slogans? Why not be afraid when we are apparently ALL afraid that our most dearly held values are under attack? Why not be afraid when megalomaniacal world leaders whip out their nuclear missiles and wave them at each other?

          Why not be afraid? It’s certainly not because there is nothing to be afraid of. Even if we take all those national and world events off the table, there’s enough uncertainty in our own lives to justify our fear. There’s health, there’s jobs, there’s the emotional and social well-being of ourselves and our loved ones. There’s. So. Much.

          That image of the disciples fighting those rough seas all night? We feel that one. So, why not be afraid? After all, Jesus doesn’t promise us it will all turn out okay, that God will wave a giant sky hand if we pray hard enough. A half-drowned Peter can attest to that. You might, in fact, go under. The risk is real. So … why not be afraid?

          As it turns out, I think it’s less an assurance that you don’t NEED to be afraid, than it is the advice that being afraid is a terrible plan. You are torturing yourself, hobbling yourself, perhaps even endangering yourself by allowing yourself to be overpowered by fear. 

          Do not be afraid. Why not? Because fear is the worst. Seriously. We have this response system, devised to activate in situations requiring either fight or flight. But it tends to overreact, facing every situation as though it’s an emergency, and swamping our system with an overblown sense of urgency. It has an extremely important evolutionary function, but as it plays out in our lives, most of the time it is counter-productive at best.

          For one thing, it feels … awful. Gut-clenching, heart-pounding, stomach-turning, system-flooding awfulness. It’s also like getting shot with a paralyzing agent. Faced with a fight or flight impulse in situations that don’t require or allow either, we often end up incapable of functioning. Fear shuts us down; shuts down our ability to act; shuts down our ability to think creatively, our ability to listen and understand, our ability to consider new information and different perspectives.

          Which is why fear makes us so easily manipulable. Why people can use it (even people you mostly admire and agree with, yes, even YOUR people) to gain more power for themselves. To get things done that might have been difficult to reach actual consensus on. Because fear makes us more reactive than reflective; fear makes us more desperate for an answer, more grasping for something (anything) that will take away this horrible sensation.

          So, Jesus urges us, do not be afraid. Do not give in to this impulse that kicks your endocrine system into hyperactivity. Do not be afraid.

What might help you accomplish this? A little more faith. Faith, Jesus tells us, is somehow the opposite of fear, the antidote to fear, the balance (perhaps) to our instinct to free-fall into the fear response.

          Faith, he suggests, is the flip side of our fear of the unknown. Notice that the disciples weren’t afraid because the seas had been rough all night; that they were used to, though they knew rough seas could be dangerous. No, they became afraid when they saw a figure moving over the surface of the seas: their terror was rooted in the sight of something unfamiliar and inexplicable, which sent their imaginations to the worst case scenarios.

We fear such things. They put us off-balance; we feel uncertain, and thus threatened. So we might well ask: how can faith help? What is a faithful response in such a situation? Faith, Jesus suggests, promises that we can remain calm in the face of the unknown and the unfamiliar. We can trust. God’s creation is wide and powerful and mysterious, and there are so many things we haven’t encountered, so many things that aren’t like us, but they are still just as likely to be of God. Difference does not automatically equate to danger, just as familiarity and sameness do not necessarily mean safety. Do not default to fear. Our deep-seated fear responses can make the wisdom of your gut unreliable. So take a deep breath in, and let it out. Then add some faith; that is, add some trust, some courage and some openness. Add some Jesus! And see if that helps.

Be not afraid. Sometimes things get overwhelming. Sometimes we, like Peter, find ourselves out beyond our abilities. We flounder in self-doubt. We face a sea that sends wave after wave after wave, and we can’t believe they just keep coming. There are days like that. Sometimes there are months, years, decades like that. When we are swamped by the volume of it all, swamped by the difficulty of it all, swamped by the pain or the boredom or the loneliness of it all.

Sometimes, we feel like we’re going under. Sometimes, to be brutally honest, we long to do just that. On better days, we just long for something that will stop that next wave from coming. But if neither of those is an option, what does faith offer?

Perspective, I suppose. The larger view that comes when we face the inconvenient truth that bad things happen. That the unknown will break into our well-defined world. That we might be responsible for how we face into them, but we are not actually in control of the events of our lives. We aren’t, and the first step in being able to deal with that reality is to stop trying to pretend that we could be. Faith lives grounded in that reality. Faith connects us to the larger picture, the broader scope. Whereas panic and despair live stuck in the Right Now: where the significance seems huge, the pain seems endless, and all the damage is clearly insurmountable.

          Faith is what reminds us, through the promise of the stories, that what seems irredeemable can be redeemed. That what seems a valley of dry bones can return to life. That shattered relationships can be repaired. That things fall apart … and then, with enough time or effort or hope or all three, they come back together again. Embarrassment fades. Hard hearts soften. Anger is transformed.

          Then, of course, the cycle begins again. Things fall apart, and then come back together again, over and over, until the end of time. So do not give in to the powerful lure of the Right Now, to the fear that will paralyze you and drag you under. Be not afraid. Have faith. Have courage and openness. Have perspective. Only then will you be able to act, to think creatively, to listen and respond with the fierce love and trust that such times (all times) require. May it be so, Amen.

Clare Hickman