When Fear is All Around – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David VryhofMatthew 8:23-27

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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  1. Karen Martinez on June 17, 2024 at 20:46

    I have written out the quoted verses from Psalms and Isaiah and posted them on my bathroom mirror and in my car. I’m ready to have them tattooed on my arms. Six years after this was originally presented, we are still living fear-based lives in our country, and it only seems to be getting worse. I pray that God replaces the fear of humans in our hearts with an abiding trust in Him.

  2. Beth Drew on June 9, 2024 at 06:26

    This is powerful! THank you for your words…

  3. Cathy Terrell on June 8, 2024 at 07:53

    Br David,

    Thank you for your inspiring message that inspired so many comments. This message is especially meaningful and timely in June of 2024. It may be a part of the human condition, but that’s no excuse for not taking heed to what our fears come from and what to do about it.

  4. Carney Ivy on June 8, 2024 at 07:02

    Thank you Brother David and thank you SSJE “Word” for putting this sermon back in the cycle. I may need to read it daily for the next several months to rid myself of my dis-ease with our country’s situation. The political/social climate effects relationships tremendously and that saddens me. The quote from Ghandi has helped me in the past. I will pull on it again.

  5. Virginia Whitmire on June 10, 2021 at 15:33

    I recognize many of the fears that Br. David speaks about in the fourth paragraph. There are fears that we stoke and allow to take up too much room in our hearts and minds. My mind fixates on them. And then there are concrete fears. The fear that our black brothers and sisters have about being killed by people who are paid to protect them is not manufactured or blown out of proportion. It is reality for them. Jesus spoke to calm his disciples’ fear. We, too, must speak on the behalf of our brothers and sisters, As Br. David said, there is power in speech. Let us rise up and confront this storm of hatred and bigotry so that my friends no longer have to teach their sons and daughters exactly where to put their hands, how to sit, and what to say and do when they are stopped by a police officer. Let us work for the common good and perhaps we will enable change and my friends’ fears “will be calmed and they will have reason to hope that at some point they will come through this storm.”

  6. Sharon Stanfill on June 10, 2021 at 10:58

    Still true. I see people being pushed by the extremes into camps that they don’t really want to be in. I’m one – I am far too liberal for the far right and far too conservative for the far left – both in politics and the church. We have to keep talking to the other side, realizing that it is not always even the other side.
    Fear – I have been more afraid and sadder lately. I am very concerned about China’s intrusion into free speech. And I have spoken out about that and I have supported the Hong Kong freedom movement. So, today, when a package arrived from HK, I was a little bit afraid. But , to my amusement, it was merely something I had ordered , coming from a source I had not expected. So, all was well.
    Fear is not always something we can control. But we can act bravely, even when we are afraid.
    I have a lot of sympathy for Cara L.

  7. Rhode on June 10, 2021 at 08:25

    Thank you for this 2018 message. All fears ever existing or imagined will somehow assault us in some form if you live long enough and also own a television. Sickness and death in all of its’ gruesome forms, hatred in all of its aggressive or passive aggressiveness along with deceit, deviousness and betrayal… throw in some UFOs and fear will raise the age old cry….where is God?
    He was not hiding inside closed places of worship. He was not behind a gun or in front of a screen looking for hidden conspiracies. God was working in the hospitals, in the homeless camps, walking the desert with abandoned children, in our own homes while we made banana bread, read scripture and prayed for a cure. God held George Floyds manacled hand. God raises up yet another great cry for justice. God sat with our kids staring out windows and at their homework. God was with my 36 yr old nephew and walked him to heaven on Good Friday last year – followed by a million others. God is with the young man who paid for my groceries when my credit card failed. God is sitting on sick beds with families in India.
    We fear so much because we know there is much to fear. But, God offers a way to live now and after we die through Christ and the Resurrection. Once again, ‘the enemy comes in like a flood and the Spirit of God raises up a Standard against him’. Praise God.

  8. Michael on June 19, 2020 at 10:58

    The opposite of love is not despair, but rather it is hopelessness. Words and action are the antidote we all need as we face uncertainty and the fear that accompanies it. Your words and the words of others offer us hope and a path towards peace. Listening with and open mind, talking with respect for ourself and others, and acting for the good of all concerned will see us through the chaos. If this was an easy fix, it would have already been done so we must continue to work in the dark until the light break through. Probably not fast enough for most of us, but it will shine once again

  9. Kitty Whitman on June 19, 2020 at 09:03

    Thank you, Br. David. In the quiet moments of my limited days here, I, too, rely on the strength of such powerful scripture, though set in a different time of history, still relevant and speaking today. So much fear and oppression and anger, suppressed for years, is surfacing in very ugly ways. I believe the real difference that we each make is person to person to person in our own communities and families. The angry demands and actions of mobs is very effective in tearing down, attracting the public media, and giving notoriety but to what end—another pile of rubble. In our hearts, in my heart, that is where the real wrestling and change must take place, then on my knees before God (not man), next with humility and faith comes conversation and quiet acts of kindness and empathy with my neighbor. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. Lord, what will you have me do this day?

    • Rick Porter on June 19, 2020 at 11:55


  10. Diane on June 19, 2020 at 08:50

    Amen. Thank you for this timely sermon as I struggle with the Stay at Home because of the pandemic. I miss my church (closed) until things change. But I also struggle with what is happening in this country, and to all people (whatever their color). Personally, I don’t notice color. It just doesn’t matter. People can be purple, green or whatever. I say that I’m color blind – not because that is my physical condition. I just don’t care. In my little 4 Mile square area of Township Roads, I notice that I’m surrounded by political signs. There is only one sign that with which I agree. And that sign shows that I’m surrounded by people who hate the other. I can only hope that things will change for the better.

    • Anne on June 19, 2020 at 23:32

      Dear Diane, your longings and your struggles are dear to the heart of God. We are made to be in community, and it is hard when we seem cut off from people and places where we find life and hope. Still, I would like to share with you a cartoon which spoke to me. God and the Devil are sitting together, with the globe in between them. The Devil says with a smirk, ‘With this virus, I’ve closed all the churches!’ And God, with a smile and an expansive gesture, replies, ‘And I’ve opened one in every home and family!’ You, and every one of us, are the church in action, praying, remembering others, reaching out however we can, seeking to become the change we long for. God’s peace be with you.

  11. Rick Porter on June 19, 2020 at 07:48

    Thank you Brother David for this reminder that we are people of this world and the next. There are always threatening storms of one kind or another. Right now the world is going through a washing machine experience that will turn everything we know of this world inside out and upside down. There is turmoil almost everywhere on the planet. And if I knew more perhaps it is everywhere. But that is just life.

    Jesus is with us. Jesus lived through and died in the midst of the social and political storms of his day. It was fear of social change that drove the Jewish leaders to demand his death. I don’t know how anyone in our world today can be without fear of the pandemics of the virus, the unleashed anger of the black community and the the coming of a new economic order. Our world as we know it will be significantly different 5-10 years from now when things settle down. But Jesus promises peace right here right now. Just not peace as the world knows it. We must accept these frightening times and rely upon that promise. We are God’s beloved children. We will each go home to him. We can have His peace in our hearts.

  12. Pat ells on June 19, 2020 at 05:35

    Thank you br. David your words resonate here in June 2020 . As they did down through the ages.stay .

  13. JoAnn L on July 31, 2019 at 15:45

    Thank you Brother David for words of hope at this time when it feels like the world, as I have always thought I knew it, is collapsing about us.

  14. Darrell Johnson on July 31, 2019 at 13:27

    Br. David, your words fed me today in a most beautiful way. Your willingness to speak to the divisiveness that grips US society (your litany of “betweens”), to reflect analytically on its roots in fear, and to speak timeless Scriptural truths about the only real antidote, inspire me to face our broken society with a smile again – in quiet confidence that all will be well. Perhaps not in my time but in God’s time. If I can carry that confidence in my heart from day to day, I think I can make it through the swirling storm that threatens to capsize my tiny, battered, and leaking boat daily.

  15. Annette Cook on July 31, 2019 at 10:31

    Your messages and all the messages from SSJE are so exceptionally meaningful. I look forward to them everyday as I read them to my husband and then we talk about the message of the day. It has brought a dimension to our marriage and our spiritual lives that is so deep and meaningful. Thank you for each and every word.

  16. Sally Baynton on July 31, 2019 at 10:18

    I so needed this sermon today! Thank you, Brother David, for an exquisite and enlightening homily on fear. I have found myself, just recently, caving in to fear, and I needed these scripture verses to lean on during those times I felt like darkness was upon me. I really cannot tell you how much your words today have soothed my soul. I shall, “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).

  17. Jeanne DeFazio on July 31, 2019 at 09:36

    Beautiful! Sharing this excerpt:

    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.”

    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!”

  18. Margaret Dungan on July 31, 2019 at 09:10

    Dear Br. David. Thank you you for these wise words at a time when they are sorely needed. How we look at life makes such a difference.

  19. Cara L on July 30, 2019 at 16:33

    Thank you, Br. David. Here in New Zealand we rely on China for a lot of trade and international students. I’ve just read a news item about pressure on a university here to cancel a Tiananmen Square commemoration. Failing to comply can affect trade and/or funding for Chinese students in NZ. The university complied. Threats are all around us and Gandhi’s words are sorely needed. Bless you.

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