The Sea of Galilee is notorious for its surprising and violent storms. The Sea of Galilee, which is actually a fresh-water lake, lies 700 feet below sea level. Immediately to the northeast are the hills of the Golan Heights, reaching 2000 feet. The large difference in height and temperature between these cool, sometimes snow-covered hills and the semi-tropical sea causes large air pressure changes. Strong winds funnel down from the Golan Heights, sometimes creating the perfect storm over the water. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been calm and the sky perfectly clear. This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples and Jesus who are in a boat on the sea. Aside from the wind and waves coming at them, there was something else that surfaces: fear. They are terrified. You will probably know how it is to be sailing through life on the sunniest of days, where all is calm, all is bright… and then a storm hits.
In the Scriptures, nothing is talked about more often than fear. Fear is a dis-ease of the soul. The psalmist writes, “Do not fear, though the earth should change, the mountains tremble and shake in the heart of the sea, fear not.”[i]The prophet Isaiah says: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Do not fear.”[ii] In the scriptures, we hear about fear from the very beginning: in the Book of Genesis, the story from the Garden of Eden. The angel of God comes to Adam and Eve, and they are terrified.[iii] We hear again about fear much later in another garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, where the women have come to anoint Jesus’ body. Once more the angel of the Lord appears, and the women are terrified. Fear is a very costly, distressing emotion when we’re in touch with impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to overwhelm us. I imagine that all of us here know about fear, either in a particular situation or perhaps recurringly. What are you afraid of? What causes your heart to tremble?
Are you afraid that you might be wrong, or afraid that you might be right? Are you afraid that you might be excluded, or afraid that you might be included? Are you afraid that you might fail, or afraid that you might succeed? Are you afraid that you might never finish, or afraid because you’ve come to the finish? Are you afraid of making a commitment, or of not making of commitment? Are you afraid of being sick, of dying? Are you afraid that you’re going to have to face being well again? Are you afraid of someone? Are you afraid of yourself? Are you afraid that you might be sent, or might not be sent? Afraid that you won’t get the attention, or maybe that the attention will be on you? Are you afraid of being discovered, or of never being discovered? Afraid of heights, or depths, or something else between? Most of us will know something about fear, maybe even right now. If so, why? Why are you afraid? That’s Jesus’ question for his disciples, and it’s his question for all of us. If you are afraid, why?
To be sure, there are therapeutic protocols to address our fears, and phobias, and anxieties. And there are medicinal ways to address fear, to chemically lower fear’s looming capacity to inundate us. And there is physical training and stress-reduction techniques that may enable us cope with or conquer fear… These may be helpful, even necessary. But what is it about fear that is a “spiritual issue” for you?
Rather than presuming that fear, our own fear, is a sign of the absence of God, our fear actually gives witness to the presence of God. Our fear often arises out of something that is bigger than we are – perhaps concerning our health, or family, or vocation, or endurance. And we find that in-and-of ourselves, there isn’t enough: not enough strength, or patience, or hope, or encouragement, or provision. Our life is unmanageable. We come up short. And we’re afraid that our boat is going to sink, that we’re dead in the water. Fear raises issues that may well need to be dealt with on many levels; one of those levels being spiritual. Where is God in your fear? What is the invitation from God in your fear? Fear is like a beam of light pointing to that deepest place of need within your heart. Fear is very illuminating. What is the your fear exposing, where you are too small, too powerless, too needy to go on? What is it? Why are youafraid? Because in the fear is an invitation from God that God wants to be God in your life, to claim the ultimate authority and highest power in your life. We cannot live our life and be our own God at the same time.
We don’t need to be afraid, not because fear is “wrong.” We’re supposed to be strong and resilient. No, it’s not that. It’s not that we don’t need to be afraid because we shouldn’t be. This is not a de jure statement: “Don’t be afraid because strong people are not afraid.” No, it’s not that. This is a de facto statement: “Don’t be afraid because you don’t have to be afraid.” It’s Jesus’ promise that he will meet us in the experience of fear. He tells us, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[iv]
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks us all. Jesus longs to hear why. Jesus longs to be invited into your fear. And if you’re afraid that you are going to lose your life, or lose some part life, you don’t need to be afraid even of that. Why is that so? Because it’s going to happen. We all are going to lose our lives; we’re all going to lose the life that we now recognize. But Jesus assures us that in losing our lives we find life. Not to fear.[v] The Scottish philosopher John Macmurray writes of an old adage about fear, an adage which some of us were probably taught… The old adage is: “Fear not; trust in God, and God will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.” That’s not true, in Macmurray’s view. On the contrary. Macmurray rephrases the old adage to say, “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.”[vi]Why not? Because Jesus tells us, “I am with you in this… This is the way into life. Trust me.”
Tell Jesus about your fear. This may be your most honest prayer. Tell Jesus about your fear. And if you’re afraid even to talk with Jesus about your fear, then start there: why it is that you are afraid to talk to Jesus about your fear. Tell him! Go ahead. Try it. Jesus is all ears. Jesus has an open heart. And he is waiting.
Here, an ancient Celtic prayer:
Jesus, from this world’s stormy seas
Give your hand for lifting me.
Jesus, lift me from the darkest night.
Jesus, lift me into the realm of light.
Jesus, lift me from my body’s pain,
Jesus lift me up and keep me sane.
Jesus, lift me from the things I dread,
Jesus, lift me from the living dead.
Jesus, lift me from the place I lie,
Jesus, lift me that I never die. Amen.
[v]Matthew 10:39; 16:25.
[vi]John Macmurray (1891-1976), a Scottish moral philosopher, writing in Persons in Relation (Humanity Press, 1998), p. 171.
“They begged him to leave.” With this, the townsfolk in today’s Gospel reading confess that there are more than two demoniacs among them.
Jesus comes to the country of the Gadarenes and encounters two men, possessed. He rebukes the powers that ensnare the men, allowing them to flee into a herd of pigs. The animals are driven mad and throw themselves into the water to drown. This terrifies the swineherds, who rush into town, recounting the whole story. At this, the townspeople come out to meet Jesus, and beg him to leave.
This story is consistent with Christ’s promise to bring not peace, but a sword. Christ is a calmer of storms for the afflicted, but a harbinger of upheaval for communities built on and preserved by sin. By begging Christ to leave, the people have preferred livestock to humans. They have preferred to abandon and exile the afflicted, selling their neighbors to purchase stability. For the sake of peace, they have preferred pigs to men. But this is a false peace, a veneer that serves to obscure the brutality of their society. And it is into this peace that Christ, God’s right hand, thrusts his sword.
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.
The Sea of Galilee is notorious for its surprising and violent storms. Fierce, cool winds blow off the Golan Heights to the east and meet up with the warm temperatures of the sea basin sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been calm and the sky perfectly clear. This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples and Jesus. Aside from the wind and waves coming at them, there was something else that surfaces: fear. They are terrified. You likely know how it is to be sailing through life on the sunniest of days, where all is calm, all is bright… and then a storm hits.