Faith or Fear?

A response to the ISIS terror in Paris.

Note: I don’t usually like to reprint my sermons on my blog. But I am making an exception in this case because of prevailing concerns in our country. It is a sermon I preached today to a congregation at The Colonnades, a retirement community in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Scripture text: Matthew 14:22-33

In the aftermath of ISIS’ horrific attacks in Paris last weekend, panicked fear has been sweeping across Europe and America. As I watch this fear engulfing our societies, I think of the image of a cloud of noxious gas that swoops down a mountainside and envelopes the plains below when a massive volcano erupts.

Can our Christian faith say anything to this cloud of fear? If it cannot, then Christianity is proven to be what the prophet Isaiah calls a “broken reed.” (Isaiah 36:6) It cannot sustain us when we need support the most.

So that is the question I want to explore this afternoon. And to do so, I turn to that story from Matthew that I just read. Let us look at it in some detail because it may speak to us both personally as well as to our troubled world today.

When we hear this story read, we are immediately struck by what seems to be an astonishing miracle. Jesus walks upon water. Now that seems unbelievable. Human beings simply do not have that capability.

So if this story is true, then it raises all kinds of questions about who is this Jesus. Is he who we think he is? Certainly at the end of the story, the disciples have revised their opinions. They say to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God?”

A Multi-Layered Story

Now why do they say that? It is a result of more than just a stupendous miracle that seems to upset nature. It is in part because this particular incident resonates with a wealth of association that comes from the Old Testament.

In the ancient Hebrew world, water is essential for life, but it is also a serious danger. In fact, when it surges out of control, as it does in a hurricane, for example, water becomes a symbol of all the forces of disorder and chaos that destroy human life. To the ancient Hebrews, the sea is in fact a symbol of evil.

In the creation story, when God begins to create the world, the world is a dark, watery chaos. God starts his creative work by asserting control over this chaos. (Genesis 1:1-5)

When the flood waters rise in the story of Noah, they destroy all of life on the earth, both human and animal. In fact, no life would have survived if God had not intervened and ordered Noah to build his ark and gather in the animals. (Genesis 6:11-9:17)

When the psalmist describes his life in peril, he turns to the imagery of flood waters and the sea. For example, Psalm 69 begins in this way:

              Save me, O God,

                        for the waters have come up to my neck.

            I sink in deep mire,

                        where there is no foothold;

            I have come into deep waters,

                        and the flood sweeps over me.

            I am weary with my crying;

                        my throat is parched.

            My eyes grow dim

                        with waiting for my God. (Psalm 69:1-3)

 And when we get to the end of the Bible and the book of Revelation talks about the new heaven and new earth that God will create at the end of time, significantly this new earth has no sea. (Revelation 21:1)

So when Matthew tells us that the disciples in the boat are in trouble because the sea has become tempestuous, he sees this story as pointing to more than just a simple sea storm. This storm stands for all the storms of life that can assault us, whether personally or as a society.

When Jesus comes walking on the sea, this is saying that in some way, Jesus is lord over the sea, just as God in the Old Testament is master over the chaotic waters.

This is awesome new information about Jesus for the disciples. But things that evoke a sense of awe in us are often things that also create fear in us. When the disciples first see Jesus coming to them on the water, they are terrified. It must be a ghost. We sometimes want God to come to our rescue in peril, but when God does, we can also be terrified.

Words that Ring through Scripture

So the first thing Jesus must do for his terrified disciples is speak to them. And his words are words that ring out like mighty cathedral bells throughout the pages of Scripture.

“Take heart,” he says, “it is I; do not be afraid.”

We might paraphrase that as “Buck up. I’m here. Do not be afraid.”

Now I say these words ring out throughout Scripture because they do. Time after time in the Old Testament, God directly or through his prophets speaks this same word to Israel. One of the most magnificent examples comes in the prophet Isaiah when God proclaims these words to the despairing Israelites who live in exile in Babylon:

             … 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. (Isaiah 43:1-2)

And when the angel proclaims the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds on Christmas Eve, the first words out of his mouth are: Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy…. (Luke 2:10)

The message of the Bible is never pollyannish. It does not deny that evil exists and that it constantly disrupts our lives. People get sick. People are ruined by forces beyond their control. People die.

But it also declares a bracing message of good news. That message is caught in the phrase Jesus uses. “It is I.” In Greek, that sentence is simply, “I am.” And those two words recall the very name of God that God reveals to Moses on Mount Sinai. “My name is I AM.” (Exodus 3:13-14)

Our Rock Is a Presence

When we confront the evils of our lives or of our world, we must remember that we live in the presence of one who is always I AM. The first message that Christianity proclaims to us in dealing with evil is that evil does not exist unchallenged in the universe. Evil does not reign alone.

There is in the world a presence, a mysterious presence that is at work to overcome evil. We may not understand this presence’s ways. We may find its ways excruciatingly slow. But this presence is real. It is our rock and our fortress in the storms of life.

This, too, the psalmist assures us when he sings out:

             God is our refuge and strength,

                        a very present help in trouble.

            Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

                        though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

            though its waters roar and foam,

                        though the mountains tremble with its tumult. (Psalm 46:1-3)

It is because of this confidence that Peter is able to say to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus responds, “Come.”

Now notice, the storm has not calmed down when Jesus issues that invitation. The wind is still blowing, the waves are surging. When Peter steps out of the boat, he exercises courage. He steps into the storm.

When the Scriptures issue their message, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” they are not telling us that everything is going to be immediately all right. Instead they summon us to live our lives with confidence and courage, because we trust in that divine presence that is always with us.

That confidence and courage may enable us to do some amazing things in times of peril, just as Peter walks into the storm. That is until he lets his faith sag and the storm distract him. He then begins to sink into the waters.

How so much like us is Peter. For when we let panic and fear so blot out our sense of the divine presence that is with us, then we do indeed get ourselves into deep trouble. We lose our sense of balance. And we are likely to do rash things that may only make our peril worse.

The Seductive Temptation of Revenge

Now that is a prospect that we face as Americans as we react to the challenge of ISIS terror. One temptation is to respond to ISIS out of a spirit of revengeful retaliation. Let us rain down on ISIS the same kind of violence and terror that they have rained down upon us. And so we talk about bombing the hell out of them and cleansing the Middle East of their terror by marching armies into their territories.

I am not advocating that we not respond to ISIS at all. Bullies continue to bully until someone stands up to them and dukes it out to bring a stop to their behavior. Armed resistance may be one necessary part of our Western response.

But I am convinced that a strategy of violent revenge alone will not work. What it will do is trigger a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge that will go on endlessly until one side defeats the other or both sides sink into exhaustion. We see what the strategy of revenge delivers in the endless cycle of violence that we have watched in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the last 60 years.

We will need to respond to the evil ISIS ideology by offering up a vision of life that is more positive and attractive than the one ISIS offers. I am not convinced that our Western culture obsessed with consumerism and celebrity worship is up to that task. Part of the appeal of ISIS for young people is its spiritual vision, twisted though it may be. We need to offer a more appealing spiritual vision in response. That will be no easy task until we reclaim some of our own wholesome spiritual heritage we have been largely writing off.

Buying Security by Sacrificing our Values

The other great danger I fear in our present response to the ISIS threat is that we will sacrifice some of our own deeply held values in our demand for security. I fear that is what many Americans are doing in their demand that we slam the doors on admitting any Syrian refugees into our country.

We are a country of immigrants. Many of them were refugees from past centuries of European religious persecution. Our Statue of Liberty has stood as a beacon light of hope for millions of displaced people seeking a better life. That is America. Are we going to throw over that character of America because of our fear of terror?

Certainly we must be cautious in whom we accept from the many refugees that are fleeing the Middle East. But to slam the door on all of them is to sacrifice an important value of who we Americans are.

A Testimony from the War in Sierra Leone

And in doing so, we may be closing the door on an important resource we may need someday as individuals or as a country. That was brought home to me three years ago by a story I read in The Washington Post.*

The newspaper carried a column by Samuel Koroma, who was working for the global humanitarian agency Mercy Corps. He wrote about the 10-year-long civil war that had raged in Sierra Leone during the 1990s. In that war the rebels made a policy of kidnapping young boys to turn into ruthless warriors.

The boys were often forced to kill their own fathers, mothers, and siblings. In other cases the boy soldiers maimed people in their villages, chopping off arms and legs indiscriminately. They acted much like ISIS fighters today. It was a time of unbelievable horror.

Before the war began, Koroma’s family chose him among his six siblings to go to school. Korona became a teacher and repaid his parents’ generosity by teaching other young, poor boys in the village.

One of them was a young boy named Vandie. One day Vandie stopped attending school. Koroma visited his home to find out why. Vandie told him that the other boys in school were making fun of him, because he wore beat-up pants and no shoes.

Koroma bought the boy some clothes and shoes. Vandie returned to school still poor, but proud.

Seven years later the rebels invaded Koroma’s village with their band of ruthless child soldiers. Koroma’s sisters, brother-in-law and grandmother were all brutally murdered by the boy ruffians in front of Koroma.

One day Koroma used a distraction in the village to escape into the jungle behind rebel lines. He lived there for seven months until hunger forced him to emerge. The rebels captured him, interrogated him, tortured him, and accused him of being a spy. The order was given that he should be executed.

The rebel leaders asked which of the boys in their band would volunteer to do that deed. One of the young men eagerly stepped forward. He would do it, he said. And so he drove Koroma out into the woods around the village.

Koroma’s heart was pounding, as he expected the executing bullets. But once they were out of sight, the young man said to him, “Teacher, do you remember me?” The young man was none other than Vandie, as he removed the covering from off his face.

“I will not kill you,” Vandie said. “You are a good man. Do you remember that you bought me shoes and pants so I could go to school?”

Vandie drew his teacher a rough map with charcoal showing him the way to a village outside of rebel control. He shot his gun into the air, as Koroma crawled through the brush to safety.

After the war, Koroma sought out Vandie. Asking him how he could repay him for his kindness, Vandie said he wanted to go back to school.

Koroma supported Vandie financially and emotionally as Vandie made his transition back into society. He ended up finishing not only high school, but also university.

“Rebuilding can start only with a purposeful, daily decision to forgive and forge a common future,” wrote Koroma in conclusion. “It is possible—just ask my former student.”

Taking the Message to Heart

In this story we see an example of the power of reciprocity at work. Kindness and generosity for one person in need was returned in kind when the other person was in need.

I want to contend what is true for individuals may also be true for nations. And so we need to be cautious when public voices call upon us to sacrifice our deepest values for the sake of security.

Now today’s gospel story does not promise a magic and instantaneous solution to the storms that assault us in life. Those storms are real, and all of you have lived through such storms throughout your long lives.

But what the gospel does offer us is a message. It is that message: Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. That is a message of hope and good news, if we can indeed take it to heart. Thanks be to God. Amen.


­­­­­­ * Samuel Konkofa Koroma, “Finding forgivesness: How Sierra Leone can move on from Charles Taylor,” The Washington Post, May 20, 2012. PageA23.


Remember Lot’s Wife

When memory does not serve us right.

Every now and then, another reader of the Bible calls my attention to a small detail in the text that I have never noticed before. Often that happens with a text that I have read many times.

One blog I follow regularly is A Monk’s Chronicle. The author is Fr. Eric Hollas, a Benedictine monk with St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. I enjoy reading it, and I commend it to you.

In his most recent posting Fr. Hollas notes that in Luke 17:32, Jesus tells his disciples, “Remember Lot’s Wife.” It is an admonition within Luke’s telling of Jesus’ eschatological discourse, where Jesus responds to a question on when the Kingdom of God will come. I’ve never noticed this sentence before until Fr. Hollas called my attention to it.

The line alludes back to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah told in Genesis 19. God rescues Abraham’s nephew Lot, his wife, and his two daughters by commanding them to leave the city hastily before God destroys it. They are also ordered not to look back as they flee. Lot’s wife, however, does, and is instantly turned into a pillar of salt.

Is there an insight for us in this tragic story? Fr. Hollas believes there is, and I found it an interesting take on the story. I suggest you read his whole posting.

For All the Saints

Churchyards bear witness to the unity of believers in Christ.

Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Esmont, Virginia

Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Esmont, Virginia

This past week I attended a clergy retreat at a charming 19th century Methodist church in the Virginia countryside. The church sat alone in a forest clearing. A cemetery surrounded it on three sides. Gravestones crept up close to the church walls. Dates on the stones dated back to the early decades of that century.

As I strolled through the churchyard, I began to reflect that every time the congregation gathers in this church for Sunday worship they do so surrounded by all the faithful dead. The living do not, therefore, worship alone. The congregation includes the generations past and presumably the generations to come.

Most Christians today do not realize that this custom of burying the dead around the church or even inside the church (as in many great cathedrals) is a distinctly Christian practice. This becomes clear when we compare the Christian practice with the burial practices of the pagan Romans.

The ancient Romans both buried and cremated their dead. But whether they were burying a body or simply placing an urn of ashes in a tomb, the rule was that the dead could not be interred inside the city walls. This is the reason why we find the ancient roads leading into Rome lined with tombs. The construction of the tombs, however, ends at the city gates, And no tomb would ever be constructed inside a temple. The realm of the living and the realm of the dead were kept distinctly separate.

That all changed when Christianity became the religion of the empire. Christians began to bury their dead in the same locations where they worshipped. So tombs began to be constructed inside churches. Shrines to the martyrs and saints became part of the church furnishings. And cemeteries were arranged near or around the church. As a result we got those picturesque churchyards surrounding parish churches that we see scattered all across Europe and often in America.

I find this Christian custom a strikingly visible way of affirming the Christian belief in the communion of saints.

Orthodox church interior

The Eastern Orthodox affirm this same communion in a different way. They line the walls of their churches with frescoes or mosaics that represent the whole cloud of the blessed who join in their worship. When the liturgy begins, the saints in heaven and the saints on earth become mystically one.

When we join in our worship, we Christians need to remember that we never worship alone. We are united with believers across the world geographically and with believers in all the ages. Together we constitute one body and one voice in raising our praise to the Lord.