The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Proper 7B-21, June 20 2021
1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Into the Heart of Christ
Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
In the whole of the Bible the most commonly repeated phrase is fear not, or some variation of, such as have no fear or be not afraid. Repeated well over one hundred times, and often as a divine directive, underscores that God knows us well—and that the Bible is full of stories about fearful things! In my own life, there have been times when I’ve had good reason to be adrenaline-pumping heart-palpitating afraid. But there have also been times when I’ve felt my chest tighten and anxiety loom large for seemingly no reason at all. Moreover, and more than once, I’ve stared into the abyss of existential dread, my soul teetering at its edge of unanswerable questions about the meaning of life and death.
I would bet there’s never been a person, dead or alive, who hasn’t felt at least momentary fear, if only the good survival kind that’s meant to keep us from harm. For example, growing up in Miami, Florida, my parents taught me to be afraid of alligators, lightning, and hurricanes. I learned that if an alligator were to chase me—and they are surprisingly fast—I was to run away but in a zig-zag pattern as it was harder for the alligator to track. I thought this was delightfully fun and practiced often. As for lightning, my parents warned: if you hear thunder,k Kathleen, get out of the water immediately! And if you feel the hairs stand up on your arms, drop to your knees immediately!
Hurricanes were both scary and thrilling to me, and I had this notion that if there was a hurricane named Kathleen, I’d be able to play outside in its lashing winds and rain and fly through the storm unscathed. Much to my parents/ relief, there never was a “Hurricane Kathleen,” and I didn’t have the opportunity to test out my theory. But this idea of mine had grown out of what I had observed, which was that often something outside had somehow remained unmoved and untouched during the hurricane, while everything around it had been destroyed—aha! I thought: there’s a still point in the storm.
Our gospel passage this morning is indeed about fearful and stormy things. It is evening, and Jesus is weary from teaching and healing, and of dealing with conflict and dispute. He needs a break from the crowds and the controversy brewing around him, and says to his disciples: Let us go across to the other side, giving himself into their hands, at least four of whom are experienced fisherman. They take Jesus into their boat, just as he was; not specially equipped for the journey but simply tired and in need of some rest.
The rocking of the boat and rolling of the waves lulls him into a deep slumber. But a great windstorm arises and waves begin to swamp the boat. The disciples are terrified and quickly reach the limit of their experience and expertise—they can’t manage the heaving boat and crashing waves, let alone their faith— because when the disciples shake a sleeping Jesus awake, they are more accusatory than pleading, saying: don’t you care that we are perishing?! Jesus answers them by rebuking the storm and commanding it to be silent: Peace! Be still! At his words, the winds and waves cease to churn, and the great chaos becomes a great calm. But the disciples don’t respond in kind; they are not soothed by Jesus’s power and authority over creation itself. Rather, as the Greek renders: they were afraid with great fear. The great storm, transformed into a great calm, became great fear rather than great faith.
And so Jesus asks them: why are you afraid? have you still no faith?
What I find curious is that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples not to be afraid, but asks them why they are afraid, to which they give no explicit answer. Yet implicit in the silence and our text is that they/we are afraid because they/we have little or no faith. How can that be? Just last week we heard Jesus tell us that all we need is faith the size of a tiny mustard seed. In our Old Testament passage from 1 Samuel, we hear of faith but the size of a small stone in the face of a monster storm named Goliath. David goes out to face the Philistine giant just as he was—without a helmet, sword or coat of mail—armed only with the small stones he had picked up from the ravine. Saul and the ranks of Israel were alarmed but David is confident—he goes into the storm, not with bravado and swagger as we’ve come to understand confidence today—but with faith as the word means. Let no one’s heart fail, David says; in other words, have faith.
What we have learned thus far is that God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called. And that miracles don’t produce faith; rather, faith yields the miracles of hope, trust, and possibility in God.
But there is yet a deeper point of understanding to reach. Jesus doesn’t ask the disciples why they are afraid in an accusatory way; he really wants to know why, and why our faith wavers. He wants to assure our trembling hearts. I began to wonder myself, yes, why am I afraid? I took this question into prayer, alongside with Jesus, and spent some time reflecting, listening, and writing about it. I was led to a place that I think was similar to that of the disciples. Deeper than the fear of losing control or dying is the fear of abandonment, that Jesus didn’t care; that God doesn’t care: Don’t you care that we are drowning?! the disciples cry out. Don’t you care? Don’t you love us enough to save us?
God’s unequivocal “yes” to this accusing fear was accomplished on the cross, and is fulfilled in Christ as St. Paul articulates: see, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation. Now is the time to open our hearts wide to the saving power of Christ.
Most of us come to know Jesus’s saving power through a shocking event, a hardship or trauma, something that often happens out of the blue, like lightning, and brings us to our knees. Yet the healing light of Christ enters through these very cracks and crevices of our armored hearts and hurting flesh. Like Jesus, we bear the scars of our wounding, sometimes visible to others, sometimes only to ourselves and God. But each of us and all of humanity is crossing to the other side just as we are: some possessing everything, some having nothing, some with open hearts, some with tried and tired faith and shut-down hope. As we sit here in the nave or boat of the church, making our way to the other side of our personal tempests and the superstorm of the pandemic, we navigate the same powerful waters of the world as did the disciples. But wherever we may be on our journey, we are first miracles of God’s creation, and then of God’s transforming love.
When my brother was dying and making his way through the terrible last storm of his life, near the end, he told me that he had come to an understanding that brought him peace, and into a place of peace and stillness. He had prayed to God to take away his pain. When that didn’t happen, he began to realize that wasn’t the point. He kept praying though and soon knew God’s presence with him: before the storm, during the storm, and after the storm.
Christ was personally and intimately praying with him and in him, as were the angels surrounding him. This was the great gift he was given and received: of Emmanuel, God with us.
Why are you afraid, Jesus asks. For as the Psalmist sings:
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also (139:7-8).
St. Paul affirms this throughout these writings, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. But he also urges us, as in our Epistle today, not to accept the grace of God in vain, but work t ogether for the good of all and open wide our hearts.
We live and die, and have faith and hope, in partnership and communion with God. All of life is sacred, even the scary parts and its terrible beauty. A sacramental life is one of dynamic trust in God and participation with ourselves and the world at a level deeper than fear. When you come forward this morning to receive the bread and wine, or a blessing, open wide your hands and heart and offer to God the one thing that God doesn’t have: fear (SSJE). Offer your fears, and whatever it is that separates you from the peace of Christ. Be nourished by God’s all-powerful and sustaining mercy and love. How great is thy faithfulness!
Fear not, for God is with us. Amen.