Things that Go Bump in the Night

October 26, 2014

Text:  Isaiah 41: 10 & Matthew 14: 22 – 32

Remember back a few years to your childhood.  I know , for some of us that is ancient  history!   I remember the game “truth, dare, consequence, promise or repeat.”  Remember that!? We used to dare each other to do scary things.  Run up and knock on the neighborhood grouch’s door and then run!  Put a whoopee cushion on the teacher’s chair… and so many more. We would challenge each other to see who could climb highest in a tree, hold our breath longest underwater….and we loved to call each other “scaredy cat” when we “chickened out” and refused to do it.  

“ Do not be afraid” or “ fear not.”  The scriptures make this announcement over and over again.  These are usually the first words out of angel’s mouths.  Abraham, Moses, Mary, Joseph, shepherds tending their flocks, Paul sitting in a jail cell, the women looking for Christ’s body at Easter and disciples rowing a boat in the strong wind all hear these words.  Be not afraid…. fear not! In all, these words occur almost 100 times in the scriptures.  Apparently, we humans are very fearful creatures  who are in desperate need of faith in a Higher Power to function properly in the world.
Isn’t that why you are all here?!

We tell our children that when we are encouraging them to try something new,  when they go to the dentist or doctor or on their first day of school.  “ Don’t be afraid”.  It’s going to be OK! It just may be that that is the assurance we all need when we embark on a journey of faith; to hear and be able to believe the words:  Don’t be afraid. It’s going to be alright.

Why did I choose this text today? Am I hoping to convince you that you will be able to walk on water if your faith is strong enough?  Is it to prove that Jesus is a superstar, capable of defying the laws of nature?  Neither.  I chose it because I sense that people are afraid of many things right now on our planet…and our fear makes us especially vulnerable to fraud and exaggerations….to hasty decisions and undue stress.

How can we not be afraid when we listen to the news about terrorist attacks in Canada, another school shooting in Washington state, about a virus that claimed the lives of over 5,000 people, about impending natural disasters, when we have to have surgery or a dreaded root canal!  I am terrified of those!   Fear is a normal and often helpful emotion that keeps us alive.  We don’t have to feel guilty for feeling afraid!  There are some things that we are wise to fear, for our own protection and there are many who prey upon our natural fearful instincts.  We struggle to discern the truth when these waves of fear wash over us.

I feel that we all need the spiritual assurance that there is a Divine Presence in the midst of all the chaos, that is offering a calm place to be.

In the powerful verse from the eloquent  book of Isaiah we read these comforting words,

So do not fear, for I am with you;
  do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
 I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Do not fear!

Throughout the ages, God has been revealed as a source of refuge and strength…. a Spirit of healing and comfort.   As tragedy threatens or strikes, the majority of people I know, request the comforting, strengthening support of prayer…..even those who have not sought a relationship with God previously.  When we are afraid and don’t think we can face this alone, we hope and pray that a Higher Power will intervene and make it alright.   And, just how this Divine Presence intervenes is food for theological discussion which some of us have shared in the past, and we can share it again anytime.

You may know the old story of a hiker who comes too close to the edge of the Grand Canyon, losing his footing and plunging over the side. Yet, amazingly, the hiker is able to grab hold of a small bush. Filled with fear, the hiker calls out, “Is anyone up there? Can anyone help me?”

A reassuring voice promptly answers, “I’m here; I’m the Lord your God.” Overjoyed, the hiker responds, “I’m so glad you came along, God. I can’t hold on much longer.”

 “But do you really believe I can help you? Do you believe in me?” questions God.

Growing more and more desperate, the hiker shouts, “Lord, you can’t believe how much I believe in you! I really believe!”

Good,” says God. “Let go of the branch.”

“But, God. . .” protests the hiker. Once again God responds, “If you really believe in me, let go of the branch.”

The hiker is silent for a few moments, then shouts, “Seriously, God?  “Is anybody else up there?”

Isn’t there another option, God?

How strong is your faith in times of crisis? Is mine?   Will God intervene by defying the laws of gravity, allowing us to float to safety….or does God intervene by helping us to find the strength and resources to hang  on until help comes….until we discover another option.

In one of American culture’s movie classics, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we find a scenario that reminds me somewhat of our gospel lesson that Laura read today. Do you remember the film? Indiana Jones is trying to find and save his father, who has been seeking after the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Indy’s father is a man of faith, but Indiana himself is a realist, and has no use for what he considers his father’s superstitious beliefs. However, his father is severely hurt near the end of their journey, and Indiana’s only hope is that water sipped from the Holy Grail will heal his father. Indy must travel through many obstacles to get to the grail, which he handles well. But there comes a point when Indiana has to literally take a leap of faith. Upon coming to a deep wide chasm, Indiana must simply step out over the void, trusting that something will stop him from falling into the pit. He has a choice to make: take a step of faith, and get a chance to save his father, or stick with what he knows to be real, turn back, and watch his father die. When pushed to the edge, literally and figuratively, Indiana takes the step, despite his fears, and finds himself supported across the hole.

Notice if you will, that the the resource was there for Indy…the means of support to allow him …..and us….safe passage into the scary unknown. The proverbial leap of faith!

In her wonderful book Sacred Spaces, one of my most faithful literary companions, author Margaret Silf has a section entitled “ Crossing the anxiety threshold” in which she discusses how difficult times of transition and change can be for most of us…..anxiety and fear producing.  It’s so much less stressful to stay in our comfortable ruts….. as individuals or as a church community….or as a corporation.  We may long for the adventure of new, crave the freedom to step out in new directions, but we are just too fearful, unsure of the outcome.

She writes:  Mathematicians and scientists are exploring ‘chaos theory’, and discovering that the natural world reveals a mysterious, pervasive pattern of regeneration and growth out of what appears to be a point of    near destruction.  We sense when we are approaching such a point in our lives, when we must cross an important threshold, that this is the only way to evolve to new levels of growth and maturity. We are afraid to cross over that point of no return. …It takes a great deal of trust in ourselves and faith in our Creator to cross that threshold. “

There is a character in the classic work Don Quixote named Sancho Panza. Sancho Panza hangs in fear from the ledge of a window all night long, too frightened to let go. When morning dawns he discovers his toes are only an inch off the ground.  Too frequently we are paralyzed by fear that is unfounded, false or exaggerated.

It’s amusing to think of Simon Peter climbing out of the boat trying to imitate Jesus by walking on the water. Then, like a cartoon character, he makes the mistake of looking around. “What in the world am I doing?” he asked himself and suddenly he begins to sink. How often that happens in life. People are charting a successful course in their business, in their marriage, in their spiritual walk, and then they begin to listen to their fears. “What if I fail? What if the market fails? What if my faith is misplaced?” and they begin slowly to sink.
   When Jesus told those early disciples to fear not he was not telling them to seek safety and security. Rather he was telling them to move forward, but to always trust in the Divine Spirit that he revealed so powerfully.

  Be not afraid.  You are not alone.

Years ago there was a little comic strip that spoke to this quite beautifully. The comic strip “B.C.,” set in cavemen days, had its hero, B.C., sitting in his fur loincloth, opening a box. A letter in the box says, “Congratulations! You have just purchased the world’s finest firestarting kit!” The next picture shows him reading on, “The flint is of the finest stone imported from the Orient. Your striker has been handcrafted by Old World craftsmen. The kindling has been carefully selected by screened lumberjacks. Your kit was packaged and inspected by little old grannies working in a dust‑free environment, and your fire kit dealer has sworn an oath of devotion to customers.”

The next picture shows B.C. rubbing two sticks together in time-honored fashion, trying to start a fire. One of the cave women comes by and says, “What’s with the sticks? Where is your new firestarting kit?” B.C. looks up, smiles and says, “I built a shrine around it.”

The temptation is great to say, “Oh, yes, I trust in God,” and then sit passively in our little comfort zone, with a shrine surrounding our faith experience. It is another thing to step out of the boat, to attempt to walk on the water, to attempt the thing we have never attempted before in order to participate in the work of God’s kingdom of peace and justice love.

I’ll bet every one of us this morning can think of some remarkable water-walkers we have known and we currently know…who have taken the leap of faith, who have climbed out of the boat, who have crossed the anxiety threshold.   What about those of us who have recovered from devastating loss of loved ones and moved on to live productive lives….to love and laugh and find joy again..  We are water walkers.

What about any of us who have refused to be victims and  remain hostage to negative energy and poor me attitudes….and have attempted a new path of being and doing.  We are water walkers.

What about those of us who are following our dreams, writing books and songs and plays and taking on new business ventures and careers in order to make a difference in the world…. who are trying to be positive forces for peace and kindness by giving hours volunteering every week.  We are water walkers.

Remember that old song…  “sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down you’re rockin’ the boat”?

I was told that I was rocking the boat at a church I was serving early in my youth ministry career…..and I resigned from that position shortly thereafter.  I got out of that boat!  Have you ever been or are you now in a boat that is drifting in a direction you don’t want to go?  Get out!  Walk on the water with Jesus!   Storms may still assault us, but we do have a compass in Jesus, whose lifestyle, teachings and presence give us what we need to stay afloat. Amen.