Given our proximity to the ocean, we might imagine a vast body of water when we read in the Gospels about the Sea of Galilee. But the Sea of Galilee is no ocean. The Sea of Galilee is a lake, a large fresh-water lake in northern Israel/Palestine. The lake is 33 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is fed by the Jordan River which flows from north to south, and also by underground springs.
The Sea of Galilee is as dangerous as it is distinctive: distinctive because it is the lowest freshwater lake on earth – it’s surface almost 700 feet below sea level, with a beautiful shoreline, pristine drinking water, and a plentiful stock of fish. Anddangerous because of its surprising and violent storms. From the Golan Heights in the east, fierce, cool winds meet up with the warm temperatures of the lake basin, sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been tranquil and the sky perfectly clear.
This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples. They had set off in their small fishing boat in seemingly tranquil waters, when suddenly a violent storm arose. Their tiny boat was being battered by the wind and the waves, and there seemed to be no possibility of safely reaching the shore. They were swamped by fear. They had fished on this lake for a living. They knew this water, they knew these storms, and they were terrified!
And you? You probably know how it is to be sailing through life in radiant sunlight when swiftly and unexpectedly a storm arises and you suddenly find yourself swamped by mighty waves and tossed about by terrible winds. Perhaps something tragic or frightening has happened to a family member or friend, or to you; maybe it’s a health issue, a financial disaster, an accident, some kind of assault, or some other unforeseen suffering. There is so much to be afraid of in life, and our fears can seem so great when we feel so small. Fear is no respecter of age, or gender, or social standing. Fear may be the most common experience we share with all of humankind: the consuming, crippling, sometimes-irrational visitation of fear. We can experience fear when we face impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined does not matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to swamp our lives and make us sink. Whatever its source, our fear is real.
Jesus speaks a great deal about fear and anxiety, which is quite revealing. He would have learned his lessons about fear from two sources, one being the Hebrew scriptures. The scriptures which he would have known – what we call the “Old Testament” – are replete with messages about worry and fear. We are told very plainly that we do not need to be afraid, and this is because of God’s promise and provision, God’s steadfast love and unfailing faithfulness. Fear’s tight hold on us is loosened, the Bible assures us, when we put our trust in God.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me,” the psalmist says, “and delivered me out of all my terror.” (Ps.34:4)
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” another psalmist declares. “The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom 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)
“Whenever I am afraid,” the psalmist says to God, “I will put my trust in you.” (Ps 56:3)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” writes another, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult…. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” (Ps 46:1-3,11)
Jesus would have known these words, just as he would have known the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“But now, thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isa 43:1-3)
Jesus would also have learned about fear from his own life. I am not talking about the fear he observed in other people. I am talking about his own personal fear, what he experienced. We don’t know the specifics of what Jesus feared, but we do know that Jesus lived a fully human life, and therefore he must have been acquainted with fear, undoubtedly. If you want to imagine what Jesus feared, use your own life as an example. Of what have you been afraid? If you went back in memory to your earliest childhood, then your adolescence, then coming into your twenties and beyond into adulthood, what has caused you to fear?
Were you afraid there would not be enough of something, or afraid there would be too much of something? Were you afraid because you might be excluded from something, or afraid because you might be included in something? Were you afraid because you might be asked to speak, or afraid because, when you spoke, no one would listen, or no one would understand? Were you afraid because you might be left alone, or afraid because you would not be left alone? Were you afraid because of too much work, or afraid because there was no work, or no meaningful work? Were you afraid because you stood out, or afraid because you felt unnoticed, lost in the crowd, forgotten, invisible? Were you afraid because you were bullied, or because you faced prejudice or persecution? Were you ever so afraid that you feared for your life? Or were you afraid because of your own temper? Some of our fears are pathetic: tiny, tedious, embarrassing to even admit… and yet they are very real. We suffer with our fears – which are the kinds of things Jesus must also have been afraid of, because these are the kind of fears that visit us in life.
When Jesus talks about not being afraid, he is not speaking clinically, nor is the source of his teaching primarily from external observation. He is rather speaking from his own experience. He is speaking about fear from the inside-out, autobiographically. He had as much to be afraid of as you and I have. And then, something slowly happened to Jesus. Something shifted in Jesus in the nearly 20 years between when he was, at age 12, discussing theology with the elders in the Temple in Jerusalem, and when appeared before his cousin, John, to be baptized in the Jordan River. These 20-some years are often called Jesus’ “hidden years,” and we are not told where Jesus was or what he was doing. The scriptures are silent on this period of Jesus’ life. I am certain he was making peace with the terms of his life, and that included facing his fears.
When Jesus finds his voice – at around age 30 – he speaks a great deal about fear, worry, and anxiety: he tells us that we need not be afraid, that we need not worry, that we need not be anxious. Why is that? Because of God’s powerful presence and provision; and because of God’s enduring faithfulness. Jesus learned this. In facing his own fears, he discovered he was not alone.
Going back to the Gospel lesson appointed for today: When a violent storm descends upon the disciples in the boat, Jesus appears to them. The disciples are terrified. Whatever we make of Jesus’ walking on the stormy water, we can see that he is not afraid. Had he ever been afraid of storms on the Sea of Galilee? I’m sure he had. He had grown up in Nazareth, which is not far from the Sea of Galilee. He knew storms, inside and out. But he is no longer afraid of storms. And he tells his disciples, he tells us, not to be afraid. He isn’t scolding us; he is reassuring us not to be afraid, because we don’t need to be afraid. He has come to know this, from the scriptures and from his own experience. And he promises us his power, his provision, his presence to be with us always, to the end of the storm, and to the end of life.
If your life now is swamped with fear, or if you are afraid about an incoming storm in your life – and I presume that all of us are acquainted with fear – remember this: our fear is not an obstacle to God but rather an invitation from God to take Jesus at his word. We need not be afraid. Jesus will know every reason why we could be afraid because he’s been there. He assures us not to be afraid, not to have anxiety, because he is with us: his presence, his power, his provision. For us, fear can seem such an inmovable impediment. But for God, our fear presents an opportunity to show forth God’s presence, and power, and provision; and an opportunity for us to learn to trust. Our fear is God’s invitation, and Jesus will make good on his promise to be with us always. There is so much of which we could be afraid in life, but Jesus assures us not to fear.
Saint Francis De Sales, a 17th century Bishop of Geneva, who lived during a very stormy time in history, left us with these words of assurance:
“Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life;
rather look to them with full hope that as they arise,
God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in his arms.
“Do not fear what may happen tomorrow.
The same everlasting Father who cared for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
“He will either shield you from suffering,
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.”
Jesus has the last word: “Do not fear, for I am with you, always.” (cf Mt 28:20)
We would be hard pressed to find anyone in scripture who suffered more setbacks in life than Joseph. His brothers were jealous of him and, finding an opportunity to do away with him, sold him to slave traders who were passing through the land. He was brought to Egypt and purchased by Potiphar, a wealthy and powerful Egyptian, who eventually recognized Joseph’s intelligence, honesty and hard work, and put him in charge of all that he had. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him and, when he refused her, she accused him before her husband and he was imprisoned. Even in prison his character and his deep insight continued to impress others. He interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants and was promised freedom, but was then forgotten and left to languish in his prison cell. Finally he got his opportunity, when Pharaoh himself had a troubling dream and Joseph was called to interpret it. This he did, saving the land and its people from a deadly famine. He rose in Pharaoh’s eyes and became a powerful ruler, second only to Pharaoh himself.
And then we read that his brothers, experiencing famine in their own land, came to Egypt seeking food. Joseph recognizes them, but conceals his identity from them. He sends them home with food, but arranges for his younger brother to be brought to him. In the touching passage we read today, he finally breaks down and reveals his true identity to them. “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into slavery,” he says; “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5).
“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (v.14)
Fasting was a commonly accepted spiritual practice among the Jews and had been for centuries. It was recognized as an effective way to express sorrow for sin and a means, hopefully, to avoid God’s judgment. John the Baptist and his followers and the Pharisees regularly practiced it, not only for their own sakes, but vicariously for the nation.
Jesus stands in contrast to them. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking,” the Gospel writer tells us (Mt 11:19). Jesus and his disciples do not fast – which naturally raises the curiosity and suspicion of those who do. Jesus’ nonparticipation in this particular spiritual practice points to its theological weakness. Fasting, as it is often understood and practiced, emphasizes not what God is doing, but what humans must do in order to humor God into behaving favorably. Jesus claims this is unnecessary because God is present and active now; the Good News of God’s reign is here! “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (v.15a) The “bridegroom” is Jesus himself: through his ministry of healing and reconciliation, as well as through his association with outcasts and sinners, Jesus is proclaiming the arrival of God’s rule. God is not distant and threatening, but present and active, here and now, bringing forth new life! And that is cause for celebration!
I Timothy 6:7-10, 17-19
It is a rare person who cannot be tempted by wealth. Most of us believe that if we were wealthier our lives would be easier and more enjoyable than they are now. We envy those who are rich enough to satisfy not only their “needs” but also most of their “wants.” We imagine that they are free of worry and can rest in the assurance that they have what they need to face the future with confidence.
But appearances can be deceptive. The passages we have before us today warn us that the desire for wealth can be extremely dangerous. “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Desiring to be rich is dangerous. It can easily lead us into bad choices, which damage our character and our reputation, wreak havoc with our relationships, and result in ruin and destruction. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus warns us.
This spring we’ve watched as a pair of morning doves built a nest on the outdoor crucifix located in our cloister garden. Nestled on the shoulder of the crucified Jesus, the mother sat motionless on her eggs for days and days. At last the chicks emerged.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to be watching the nest this past Monday evening. The two chicks are now adolescents, about 2/3 the size of their adult parents and darker in coloring. They were sitting side by side in the nest, eagerly looking out on the world. Their mother appeared and, standing on the head of the crucified Jesus, she fed them. Then she flew off and perched nearby where she could keep a close eye on them.
You could tell there was something happening. The young birds began rocking back and forth in the nest, as if working up their courage to leave the warmth and security of the nest. Finally, one of them took the leap. It flapped wildly around the cloister, unable to control its flight, banging into the walls and ceiling until it finally fell stunned to the floor. The second one readied itself for its first flight, rocking in the nest before finally launching its body into the air. Like the first, it flapped wildly about, crashing into the ceiling and walls, and then landing on the floor. It waited for a bit, then took off again, this time successfully navigating its way through the arches and out into the garden.
Poet and author Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best known for the words she wrote in a letter to her future husband: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Her father, Edward, was a controlling man who forbid any of his twelve children to marry, and when Elizabeth defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert Browning, her father never spoke to her again.
Elizabeth wrote weekly letters to her father in the hope that they might be reconciled, but for ten years there was no response. Then one day, after a decade of silence, a box arrived in the mail from her father. Her excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when she opened it and found that it contained all of her letters – unopened. Edward Barrett’s heart was so hardened towards his daughter that he didn’t open a single one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to him.
Unforgiveness does that. It hardens the heart. It magnifies the perceived offense to the point where we can no longer appreciate a person’s value because all we see is how they have grieved us. If forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for redemption in the Christian faith, unforgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for destruction. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a parable that speaks to us about forgiveness and unforgiveness.[i]
All of us have secrets: secret thoughts, secret feelings, secret fears, hopes and desires. All of us know more about ourselves than we care to share with others. We allow others to think we have pure hearts, but we know that we harbor impure thoughts. We hope others will notice how unselfish we are, yet we know that selfishness still resides in us. We want people to see us as strong and courageous, but we know that often we are weak and afraid.
We live with secrets, all of us. We’re sometimes shocked when we learn something about a person that we never would have guessed, something that had been hidden from us. But the truth is that we will never fully know even the closest of our friends and companions. We are mysteries to each other, like icebergs of which we can see only the tip. And we are mysteries to ourselves. We will never fully understand why we think and act in the ways we do. Only God knows the secrets of our hearts.
Jesus often exposed the secrets of others. He perceived the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He discerned the true motives of the crowds that followed him. He saw into the hearts of his disciples. He knows our secrets. He knows that what we do on the outside does not always match up with what is going on within us. We may appear to be seeking God and trying to do what is right, and yet inwardly we are preoccupied with the impression we are making on other people. We may give the appearance of serving God, but it may not actually be God’s approval that we are seeking, or God’s purposes that we are trying to advance.
Do you remember what it feels like to be at the threshold of something new in your life?
Imagine you are a student preparing to go off to college. It’s new and exciting and full of possibilities – (what courses shall I take? will I meet someone and fall in love? will I make lifelong friends? how will these years shape my future?) You’re excited, but it’s also a bit daunting because you can’t fully imagine the challenges ahead (will I get along with my roommate? will I experience heartbreak or disappointments? will I fail?)
Or imagine a young couple awaiting the birth of their first child. They’re thrilled, of course, but they’re also wondering, “What will it be like to be responsible for this tiny human being? Will we be good parents?” They anticipate the joys and possibilities of parenthood, but they also know it won’t be easy, and there is at least a possibility that it won’t as go well as they hope it will.
I reckon that most people, reading this story for the first time, would find it quite strange. It certainly is unusual, and describes a scene most of us would never have imagined. We would likely attribute the man’s condition to severe mental illness or trauma, rather than suspecting demons at work. Casting out demons – and sending them into a herd of swine – would be a very odd cure in our minds, and probably not one that we could imagine or recommend. The story is odd, but let’s take a closer look at it to see what insights it might provide.
The gospel writers recorded the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his divine nature, and this story certainly reveals his amazing power. But one thing that sets it apart from other miracle stories is that it takes place in the country of the Gerasenes, and it involves people who were not Jews, as Jesus was. It is remarkable that Jesus would deliberately cross over the Sea of Galilee to reach this place and bring himself in contact with a person who was ritually impure, to say nothing of being possessed by evil spirits. But Jesus, as we know, had a habit of setting aside the religious laws and practices of his day in order to show compassion – which is what he does here.
We are just two days past the Feast of Christmas on which we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world as a tiny babe in Bethlehem. The familiar stories bring comfort and hope: the young girl and her husband searching for a safe place for the birth to take place, the shepherds in their fields surprised by choirs of angels in the heavens; the wise men guided by a mysterious star. Each story bears a promise, a promise from God.
To Mary God’s messenger proclaimed a son, to be named Jesus, which means “savior.” He would be great, the Son of the Most High, and would receive from God the throne of his ancestor David. He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
To the shepherds the angel announced “good news of great joy for all the people,” namely that the child born this day in the city of David would be “a Savior… the Messiah, the Lord.” “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” the choir of angels sang, “and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:8-14)