Sermon – August 13, 2017

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 13, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess
Readings: Gen. 37:1-4. 12-28; Ps. 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Rom. 10:5-15; Matt. 14:22-33

This past week, and especially over the last twenty-four hours, my thoughts have frequently returned to a conversation that President Obama shared with the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson near the end of his final term in office. The conversation took place in Des Moines, Iowa and was later published in the New York Review of Books.[1] It seemed like a radical idea then: the leader of the free world taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down with a celebrated author to reflect on race, democracy, and the state of our republic. It seems even more radical now. Both President Obama and Robinson were astutely aware that sometimes having such conversations is one of the most important things we can do, especially in the face of the challenges that presently confront us.

Obama had been a fan of Robinson’s novels, especially her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gilead. But what had recently caught his eye was a new essay she had written. It was called, “Fear.” In it, she writes: “There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”[2]

For Robinson, the signs of America’s fearfulness are not hard to find. They are there in our gun culture, our anxieties about terrorism, our fear of immigrants, our race relations, our obsessions about our declining stature in the world, and the pervasive conviction that our safety at home is only as secure as the next military venture abroad. Obama picks up the point: “[T]here’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time… I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.” Robinson underscores the perils of this resurgent outlook: “I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people… But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seems as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with.” This is when people stop talking and start shouting.

In her essay, Robinson admits, “There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day.” For many in our country, fear is a real, warranted, and everyday experience. But legitimate fear and fearfulness are two different things. “Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. It is clear enough, to an objective observer at least, with whom one would choose to share a crisis, whose judgment be trusted when sound judgment is most needed.” “Granting the perils of the world,” she continues, “it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism.”

This brings Obama and Robinson to the second part of her thesis: fear is not a Christian habit of mind. Christians, Robinson points out, pray, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” “Christ,” she affirms, “is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved… As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.” Yet both Obama and Robinson pause over the fact that it is often Christians who are the ones losing their souls, the ones most prone to fear a loss of their material condition, and thus the ones most prone to stoke a fear of the other who might take it away from them. Obama asks Robinson, “How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy, and our civil discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Robinson responds, “Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk… I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves, and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously.” “Christianity,” she concludes, “is profoundly counterintuitive—‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”

This morning’s Gospel passage does not hide the fact that Christian disciples are prone to fear, and it has something to say about the particular kind of fear to which they are especially vulnerable. Jesus has just finished feeding the five thousand when he sends the disciples on a boat across the Sea of Galilee; meanwhile, he retreats to pray on a nearby mountain (14:23). In the evening, a storm comes and tosses the boat about the waves. Strikingly, the passage says nothing about fear at this point. If the disciples are not fearful, they should be. It is a fierce storm and their lives are endangered. Yet it is only in the early morning, when a mysterious apparition appears on the water that the disciples become “terrified,” mistaking Jesus for a ghost (14:26). Notice the difference between real and indiscriminate fear. What they should fear they don’t, and what they do fear they shouldn’t. Their fear is based upon a profound, and tragic, misapprehension. Here is the one they have been journeying with the entire time, the fulfillment of their every desire, yet they don’t recognize him. Worse, they take him for something to be feared, something shunned, rejected, turned away from. They fear what they most desperately need.

This, of course, is not the only time that the disciples mistake the identity of Jesus. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples walk with Jesus discussing all the details of the crucifixion and resurrection, completely unaware that the one with whom they are walking is Jesus himself (Lk. 24:13-35). They think Jesus doesn’t want to be bothered with children, and they are firmly rebuked (Matt. 19:13-14); they think he shouldn’t suffer, and Jesus declares, “Get behind me, Satan” (16:21-23). Jesus says that in the last judgment, when the righteous come to the throne of his glory, he will say, “Depart from me… for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (25:42-43). The surprise of the Gospel is that Jesus is constantly appearing in the guise of the stranger, upending our expectations, throwing out our assumptions, calling us, pushing us, compelling us beyond the boundaries that we have set for ourselves, into new relationships, new constellations, new possibilities. That is the good news of the Gospel: that what is strange and what initially might seem off-putting or even worthy of fear is in fact what we most want, what we most need, the basis of redemption, the continuation of our perfection.

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (14:27). Those are Jesus’ words of assurance to his fearful disciples in the boat. There is nothing to be afraid of here. On the contrary, he is saying, “I’m here to help you through the storm. I’m here to help calm the wind. Step out of your indiscriminate fear and walk with me.” In this story, it is always the miracle of walking on water that gets our attention, but for me, the real miracle here is that for a moment, Peter actually overcomes his fear. It may only be for a moment, but there he is, not perhaps ready to walk with Jesus, but at least ready to sink for him. And I sometimes wonder if that is all Jesus wants from us: not to walk on water, but to get over our fear of sinking, though sink we may and sink we will. Indeed, maybe getting ourselves wet is what we need; deep down, maybe that is what we really want. It is what Jesus wants for us, and he does not want us to be afraid of it.

In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul quotes from Isaiah, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (10:11, quoting Isa. 28:16). That is the promise of those who are willing to risk everything they have to encounter Jesus wherever he will lead them, in whatever guise he assumes. In him, there is no distinction between Jew or Greek (10:12). Those familiar boundaries, those bearings that limit our interactions with one another, are no longer the map or compass for our feet. Jesus is leading us into wonderfully new alliances and partnerships, possibilities that we would have dreamed of like Joseph if we had not the fear of his brothers. Paul says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (10:13, echoing Joel 2:32), and that is what Peter does in his fear: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (14:28). And Jesus says, “Come.” Just stepping out of the boat, venturing the possibility that what we indiscriminately fear may be what we need, is what discipleship with Jesus is all about.

We are no doubt living through a storm. It feels like the wind is against us. There is a real risk that in these uncertain times we might lose our souls. God knows we have lost them before. I think the loss of one’s soul is something worth fearing. And so I think we should be very alarmed by what we are seeing in this country, by what transpired yesterday in Charlottesville, and what is happening in many other cities and towns. This is a storm worth fearing. But in the midst of this storm, we must also look out into the stormy waves and try to recognize and hear the call of Jesus, considering how Jesus may be calling us to weigh our fears, to examine our habits of thought, to re-assess our identities and privileges, and discern among our fears which may in fact be gifts, invitations to step into new waters, to step outside the existing limits we have set for ourselves.

This is a season in which we have the opportunity to re-assess the legacy of the past, and the particular the damage that racism has done in our country. It is a season in which we have the opportunity to revisit the meaning of historical events and figures, and challenge old myths that have survived too long. For white Christians such as myself, it is a time to confess and repent for our continued complicity in systems of oppression. It is a time for prophetic outrage, for denouncing resurgent forms of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate. As Christians, we have the opportunity to challenge the very fear of addressing these issues, asking these questions, and saying these things. We have the opportunity to model what frank and honest conversations can look like, and in doing so, we have the opportunity to model the sound judgment and peace that Jesus brings to each of us as the author of our salvation, the one calling us from the deep into new identities, into a new memory of the past, a new experience of the present, and a new dream for the future. Let us not fear that call. Let us help each other embrace it. Amen.

  1. The conversation took place on September 14, 2015. It was published in two parts in The New York Review of Books, Nov. 5 and 19.
  2. Marilynne Robinson, “Fear,” published in The Givenness of Things (New York: Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 2015), 124-140.