Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.
You know the story. They were battered by the waves, far from land and terrified for their lives. The disciples on the stormy Sea of Galilee were then inexplicably approached by their rabbi and Lord. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” Jesus said.
We all know aspects of being afraid for our lives, sometimes for the lives we used to know. The last five months have created a host of new fears for which few of us were prepared. Few of us have known pandemic in our lifetimes, stay at home orders and the closure of society have unsettled us in ways most unfamiliar, and the lack of the simplest daily intimacies leave us wanting. Economic uncertainty and societal upheaval add additional levels of stress and anxiety. We fear the ‘new normal,’ and we are uncertain of what life will look like when we come out on the other side.
We are battered by the waves of a coronavirus; we are far from the land of our old ‘normal’ and we genuinely do not know how this will all come out.
There seem to be no limits to the range of our fears.
Some of you remember Charles Schulz’ cartoon strip “Peanuts” starring Charlie Brown and his friends. In that little world the character Lucy had a freelance psychiatry business which she operated out of what appeared to be a repurposed lemonade stand.
In one episode, Charlie Brown goes to Lucy for a nickel’s worth of psychiatric help. She proceeds to analyze what it is that he is afraid of. Perhaps, she says, you have hypengyophobia, which is the fear of responsibility. Charlie Brown says no. In the next frame Lucy suggests that he might be afflicted with ailurophobia, which is the fear of cats. No, he says, he likes cats. Well, maybe you have climacophobia, which is the fear of staircases. No.
Exasperated, Lucy says well, maybe you have pantophobia, which is the fear of everything. Yes, says Charlie Brown, that is the one!
In the great story of God active in human history, the messengers of God, prophets, angels and apostles, urge the people of faith to not be afraid. Whether it is a word of comfort to the people of Israel in Babylonian exile, the ‘good news of great joy’ announced to the shepherds in the fields watching over their flocks, or the very presence of Jesus calming the storm, we have received a God-given directive. “Be not afraid.”
Yet we people of faith know fear. We may not be on a literal boat being tossed by the waves, as were the disciples in the gospel story in last Sunday’s text, but our lives are often rocked by the circumstances we experience. Sometimes the howling wind that buffets our boat is a terrifying health diagnosis. The waves that batter us about might be financial ruin, marital struggles, the demands of caregiving, or a myriad of other issues. We are not strangers to feeling out of control or scared. And the journey of pandemic in our time brings a whole new level of fear to our lives.
Some of us barely make it through the day. We are out of energy and exhausted by living in fear. Therapists have coined the diagnosis “pandemic fatigue” in our day, a growing experience of deep, enervating exhaustion that is infecting many of us. Jesus meets us in the midst of our worry and collapse and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matt. 14:27) He sings it to us in the hymns of our faith, speaks it to us in scripture, and feeds us with it in the meal.
As we turn to a beloved hymn or praise song and open our weary lips to sing (yes, we will do that again one day), Jesus is present in the words and melodies that God’s people have been singing for a very long time. We sing these hymns and songs in the chapters of our lives when the seas are calm, and when we are certain we are about to capsize.
When someone stands to read a piece of scripture, even one we have heard dozens of times, Jesus comes to us afresh as we hear that word with troubled or peaceful hearts. Christ meets us in the ancient texts that never get old, offering us stability when our little boats seem dwarfed by the raging sea.
Some of us will gather for communion at the outdoor service next Sunday. We will approach the table, steady or perhaps trembling, feeling beloved or perhaps deeply aware of our captivity to sin. Each time we reach out with our cupped beggar hands and Jesus offers himself to us: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
The raging seas in our scriptural record were often a metaphor for ‘cosmic chaos,’ the vast and overwhelming power of the chaos which can drown us. With a word God creates dry land to separate the waters, creating order to still the chaos. With his very presence, Christ Jesus calms the seas.
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” My sisters and brothers, I pray that you know peace this day, especially if you have recently known upheaval or division in your life. I pray that you know hope this day, especially if you have recently known deep fear or loss. I pray that you know love this day, for ours is a God of love.
Blessings to you, O people of Trinity. May you be safe, may you be well, and may you be held in love.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Robert Linstrom