When I read the gospel lesson for this Eucharist, my first response was ‘how timely!’
This story feels particularly helpful and relevant to me right now because it deals with our response to fear, and while fear can be a threatening presence in our lives at most any time, it seems to me that it is particularly present in the current age. Our country is more polarized than at any time in recent memory.
We are witnessing the gaps widen between the rich and the poor,
between the privileged and powerful and the weakest and most vulnerable;
between the “right” and the “left,” between “conservatives” and “liberals”,
between Republicans and Democrats,
between viewers of Fox News and viewers of CNN;
between white people and the structures that support their place of privilege in the world and people of color who are fed up with being the victims of racism and xenophobia;
between government officials and the people they represent, and even between our country and other nations of the world, many of whom have been our allies in the past.
Fear seems to be at the heart of so much of the conflict and distrust: Some of us fear that our culture is changing in ways that threaten our values and beliefs. Some of us are afraid that others will take what we have – whether that be our property or our security or our way of life or our rights as human beings worthy of respect and equality with others. Fear is often at the core of our response to our “enemies,” real or perceived; we fear individuals and groups of people who have power over us and who seem willing to take us to places where we do not want to go. For many of us, fear has been the unwelcomed companion who forces his way into our lives against our wishes, and remains stubbornly in our midst while we try to imagine how we will ever get him to leave! It feels as if we are in an age of strife that is threatening our ability to live peaceably together and to work towards clearly-identified common goods. It feels like we are caught in a storm, partly of our own making – a perfect storm in which fear has been a primary catalyst.
Which is why tonight’s gospel might be so helpful for us now. Matthew is writing to and for early followers of Jesus living in the latter half of the first century, who themselves were battered and tempest-tossed by their circumstances. Many of them were facing hardship and ostracism and alienation from their families, friends and neighbors because of their commitment to Christ. They were undergoing discrimination and persecution, sometimes even to the point of death. The story of Jesus calming the wind and the storm resonated deeply with them. It calmed their fears and gave them reason to hope that not all was lost, and that they would at some point come through this storm.
Like them, we may ourselves be in places of distress and fear – if not because of the political and social climate, then because of our personal experiences: a life-threatening illness, or the break-up of a marriage or friendship, a damaged career or an uncertain economic future. Fear is all around and has many causes.
Matthew is speaking to believers. He applies to them a Greek word which is commonly translated as “you of little faith.” Jesus seems to be chiding his disciples for their lack of confidence in God, for their wavering trust in God’s power. Faith is present in the disciples’ lives, but it is inadequate. Doubt and fear have crept in and undermined their assurance that, in God’s time, evil will be overcome and all will be well.
This story reassures them. Jesus is the image of God at work in the world. He is Emmanuel, “God with us.” He is the Son of God, the Messiah, and able to quell any storm or calm any tempest. Our ancestors in the faith drew on this story, and stories like this, to re-orient themselves in times of fear and distress, to remind themselves that God was God, and that God alone could calm the chaos of our world. The story can be just as comforting for us, especially in those times when we feel the need to call out, “Lord, save us!”
So what exactly can we take away from this story?
First, the need for faith. We are not talking about faith as it is commonly understood in our world – the intellectual act of assenting to certain beliefs or doctrines, but about faith as it is understood in the scriptures – as a willingness to trustin God, to put our confidence in God, and in God’s love and truth and power. The faith that is needed is not a faith that exists only in the mind, but a faith that has taken hold of the heart – the unshakeable conviction that God is, and that God loves, and that God can and will deliver us and see us through any trouble. Faith is embedded in relationship, and reflects commitment and trust and fidelity. We believe in God!
There is a verse in Isaiah that the Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates this way: “Thou dost keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusts in thee” (Isaiah 26:3, RSV). I’ve always loved that verse because it reminds us to keep our minds stayed on God, our eyes ever looking to God our Savior, always trusting in God’s power and love. “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,” the psalmist tells us, “which cannot be moved, but stands fast forever” (Ps. 125:1).
Secondly, this story teaches us to speak to our fears. Jesus rises up and rebukes the winds and they cease at the sound of his voice. We may not have the power to calm waves and storms, but there is power in our speech, and speaking boldly to our fears can help us overcome them. St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, said that “the Enemy” was like a bully or a coward, depending on how we responded to him. When we give in to a bully, when we hand over our lunch money without protest, we further empower him. He gains strength from our cowardice and dominates us all the more. But if we resist, if we stand firm and do not allow him to get his way, he becomes a coward and goes off to find a more agreeable target. How important it is to name our fears, to challenge the inner voices that are urging us to run away, or to hide, or to freeze and try to blend in with our surroundings until the trouble has gone by. When Jesus rises up to confront the storm, he offers us an example to imitate. Engage your deepest fears. Name them, confront them, push back at them. Take up the battle cry: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?… Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; and though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him” (Ps. 27:1, 3, 4)
God’s love and God’s truth will always prevail.
The great spiritual leader of India, Mahatma Gandhi, put it this way: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it – always.”[i]
Do not be afraid. Keep your heart and mind stayed on God, and on God’s love and truth. Live and work as if everything depended on you, but trust and believe as if everything depended on God. Hearken to the psalmist’s words and bury them in your heart:
“Whenever I am afraid, I will put my trust in you.” (Ps. 56:3)
[i]Gandhi, Mahatma. The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
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