Sermon – August 13, 2017 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

 

Stepping out in Faith

In his January, 1933 inaugural address, President Frank Delano Roosevelt issued those famous words, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” As a new president of a country reeling from the Great Depression, banks had failed, the dollar had dwindled, pessimism and uncertainty reigned.  It may be overstating it a hair by saying that we share today some of the same anxiety.  I don’t want to go too far down that road, but I want to share the rest of that quote, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself; nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

He was naming a sort of existential spirit of fearfulness that had come to prevail upon people, where they began to doubt and fear almost everything.  And it was his call, as he articulated it in his first inaugural address, to encounter and overcome that fear through cooperation and action.  In that speech he invoked the constitution and our trust in the system that things could get better.  He invoked the American spirit of interdependence and cooperation.  And it is not very debatable whether he succeeded in helping the country overcome that fear.

Nameless, unreasoning unjustified terror which paralyzes.  We can hear that echo in our time, as racist, neo-Nazis and white supremacists gathered in Charlottsville, Virginia to spew hate, laud division, and advocate violence.  The result.  A women challenging that hate is murdered.  Two police officers killed.  Ours is a political climate that is divided and suspicious, seemingly endless war in the Middle East, mistrust of our leadership, and a world economy that seems surprisingly integrated in its dark side has brought among us a sort of angst and fearfulness.   And so the every day, garden variety fears of whether or not we will have enough to retire, or whether our health will hold out, or whether our jobs are secure or whether our family is safe, becomes compounded and we turn in on ourselves and we experience a sort of siege mentality.

In C.S. Lewis’ story, “The Screwtape Letters,” Screwtape writes to Wormwood, “Hatred is often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of fear.  The more he fears, the more he will hate.”  That is one of the consequences of fear, that we scapegoat, that we become suspicious of others unlike us, who have different names, who live out of a different culture, who practice a different faith, or follow a different creed.  We become insulated.  As Viroslav Wolf writes, “We exclude anything that blurs our boundaries or disturbs our identities, or disarranges our symbolic cultural maps.”  That is the fear that is driving the events in Charlottesville.  Fear of the other that morphes into hatred.

Fear unravels communities and relationships.  It is the language of retreat.

None of us is exempt, of course, all of us have, from time to time, reason to fear, but in the midst of that we are called to act, to do something.  Bob’s law number 3 is ‘when in doubt, do something.”  Change does not happen in idleness or retreat.

That day on the lake, the disciples were caught in a terrific storm, the waves were against them.  These were sailors.  They knew the consequences of losing a battle with the winds and the waves.  In the midst of that, Jesus is  out strolling on the water.  Seeing him, they refused to believe their own eyes, “It is a ghost!” the cried.  But Peter, bless his heart, who seems always willing to step out, wanted to do something.  He says, “Jesus, if it’s you command me to come to you on the water.”  And Jesus says, “Come on.”   And Peter does, but when he marks the storm, when he takes his eyes off the Lord, he becomes frightened and he begins to sink.  “Save me,” he cries, and Jesus does.

History has given Peter a heavy burden to bear in that story, because Jesus’ next response is, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Peter is saddled with the charge that he was not faithful enough, that his doubts sunk him and that he should have done better.   I think that’s a little unfair, he had reason to be afraid.  He was going to drown.  Yet he had had the courage to try.   I think Jesus’ words were simply an observation, that his faith was in process and that doubt interrupted his advance and his good intentions.  Maybe it was practice for Peter.  No doubt Peter stepped out of the boat countless more times as he took up the mantle of discipleship, and no doubt he began to sink from time to time.  But now he knew to call out to Jesus.

How we deal with our fear as faithful people determines whether it overcomes us or whether we work through it and get beyond it.  How many of us are paralyzed by the circumstances of our lives or the prospects before us.  Today, Jesus says, “Come, and if you sink or slip or stumble, I will be there.  Get out of the boat.  Step out in faith.  Leave behind that paralysis, that fearfulness that skews your vision and undermines your confidence.  Trust me.

But sometimes, isn’t that the most scary thing of all.  Trusting Jesus, stepping out.

I suppose you heard the story about a fellow who was walking along the edge of a deep canyon.  He slipped and began to fall and in the nick of time he grabbed a root protruding from the side of the precipice. He cried out, “Help me!  Is there anyone there!  Help!”  And he heard a voice from above, and the voice said, “I am here.  I am the Lord.  I will save you.”

What?

“It’s the Lord.  I will save you.  Do you believe me?”

“Oh, yes Lord.  I believe you.  I believe.  Help me.”

“OK,” says the Lord, “I’ll save you.  Let go.”

“What!”

“Just let go of that root you are hanging on to and I will save you.  You can trust me.”

And the man paused for a minute, and then he shouted, “Is there anyone else up there?!”

That’s funny, but the answer is no!. We look for an out when are call is to trust deeply.  No.   There is not anyone else. Not who can save us from our fear and out anger and our rejection of the other.  Not our politics, not our ideology.  There is only Christ.

Sometimes trusting in the midst of our fears, stepping out to risk with Jesus, tempers and mitigates our fears because there is no time when he does not stand by with his hand extended lest we fail or fall.  And we will.   The paralysis that Roosevelt named, the paralysis that threatened the advance of the disciples and all believer was the fear of failing, falling, sinking.    We will.  We will make mistakes.  We will sin.  We will break covenants.  We will violate trust.  We will demonstrate our unfaithfulness, even if we step out with good intentions.  And Jesus will be there, not to save us so that we might cavalierly repeat our mistakes, but because he loves us and he needs us.  He saves us that we might do better, and leave these fears behind.

Peter’s faith was tested and he got it about two-thirds right, but he lost his footing and there discovered Jesus’ hand pulling him up.  There he discovered Jesus in a way he may never otherwise known.

Our faith is tested, not because Jesus does not believe in us, but because he needs us to live the gospel, to save the lost, to bear mercy and justice, to build and not tear down.  We cannot do that if we live out a fearfulness that isolates us as individuals, as a community as a church.

Challenge and uncertainty are real, but more real for the believer is the promise and the truth of the risen Christ.

Where do need to step out today in your life, in your faith, in your family, in your vocation?  Where has fear paralyzed and turned you back, bound you in?  Where do you hear the call to step out of the boat and trust that Jesus, the faithful one, stands by for you?    Where do you fear to step out to give or receive forgiveness, speak for mercy, to act for justice, to condemn racism, to boldly advance your faith and your witness?   “Come,” he says, “I am waiting.”

President Roosevelt demonstrated keen insight when he warned the nation that fear is paralyzing and undermines our communities and relationships.  How much more true is that notion in the lives of the believer and in the life of the church?

No, fear and challenge are real.  But they wither against the power and purpose of Christ’s cross.

As we close, please take out your hymnal and turn to page 317 in the front of the book.  We will read together that wonderful prayer that expresses our faith in the midst of our fear.   “Lord God, you have called you servants to ventures of which we cannot see the endings, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.