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Do Not Be Afraid

Matthew 14:22-33
Len Scales
August 13, 2017

Our passage from Matthew begins with “Immediately.” Immediately coming after what though? Immediately following the feeding of the five thousand, which Rev. Davis pointed out last week only happened following Jesus being filled with compassion.

It is Jesus who is filled with compassion. It is Jesus who finally gets a chance to go off alone and pray. It is Jesus who walks toward the disciples on the wind-tossed waters. It is Jesus whom Peter sees and wants to imitate in the storm. It is Jesus who pulls Peter from danger when the doubt rises. It is Jesus who is worshiped as the Son of God.

It is Jesus on whom this story turns. He is the one who proclaims “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

“It is I” or “I am”—that great statement of God’s existence—I am who I am, I will be who I will be.

I am speaks to Abram promising safety and future. I am speaks to Isaac of blessing. I am appears to Jacob in a dream. In the same voice, joining the chorus of “do not fear.”[1]

I am speaks too from the burning bush calling Moses to lead people out of slavery.

Jesus, the Son of God, echoes “I am” in this Scripture passage in Matthew.

For some reason though, it is Peter who features much more prominently in my memory of hearing this story told over and over again in childhood. I’m not sure how or why Peter became the main character in my memory. In review, I either focused on celebrating Peter’s faith or lamenting Peter’s doubt. Both are present in the story—Peter’s courage to step out of the boat, and Peter’s failure to remain faithful and afloat.

But in rereading this story, I see now it is really about Jesus. The faithfulness of the Son of God, who is filled with compassion, stayed in prayer, making haste to meet us, to offer courage rather than fear, to keep us moving in community after we doubt.

In response to the grace of God, we have no excuse but to step out, even though we will encounter conflict, terror, and failure. Even then, God has proven in Jesus to be present immediately. To speak again the words heard throughout God’s covenant relationship with humanity—“It is I. Do not fear.”

A white supremacist rally was held yesterday in Charlottesville, VA, a fellow university town. There were counter-protests. The National Guard was called in eventually. At least one counter-protestor is dead and many are injured.

A smaller, significant group of clergy was also present, even if you didn’t see them in the media this weekend. Clergy gathered in Charlottesville for prayer, nonviolent training, and silent and sung protest. As they were concluding their time of intercession and preparation for nonviolent resistance on Friday evening, torches lit by hate blocked the entrance to the church.

Seeing photos and videos of this come up on my social media feed Friday evening was like watching a ghost appear from a time before I was alive. My mind flashed to black and white photos of the KKK in history books. But it was not a ghost. There has been no reappearance of something that has died. Because white supremacy in America is alive and well and always has been since its founding.

I’m white. I had the privilege of growing up able to turn away ignorant of how insidious it is in our systems and culture. Well, I am not turning away anymore, and to see a desire to annihilate the rise of diversity and richness of what we have to learn from one another across race and religion is devastating.

And yet, I see the work of Jesus because what is being preached in that chapel of nonviolent counter-protestors is love. Lisa Sharon Harper, Chief Church Engagement Officer for Sojourners, following Friday night’s prayer gathering posted a video on Facebook sharing her experience. She concluded calling for love saying, “May our country come to a place where we are able to look each other in the eye and see that we are all, all of us, all of us, made in the image of God, worthy of the protection of the law, worthy of the right and the capacity to steward this world together.”[2]

This band of nonviolent clergy counter-protesters stood on Saturday morning singing “This Little Light of Mine” to drown out the chants of hate being spewed from Nazi-inspired white supremacists.

This is an image of modern-day Peter, the rock on which the Church is built, stepping out of the safety of the house of worship into the violent water. They are keeping their eyes stayed on Jesus.

If it was just about a small band of clergy, or if it was just about Peter, there would not be hope to carry us forward. I’m afraid fear would still win the day, because the storm is not stopping and doubt will creep in along the way. But Jesus is there, is here, and says, “Take courage, it is I; do not fear.”

And so we gather together and prepare to step out again. To continue to follow God’s command to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

I am still wrestling with exactly how that looks for me, and I hope each of you are also wrestling with how you “do” justice. I know there are groups at Nassau that seek the welfare of immigrants, partner with Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton, advocate for the rightful release of those wrongfully imprisoned. Perhaps it is amongst one of those groups you will find your way of doing justice. Perhaps you are already at work doing justice elsewhere.

God calls us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly for our lifetime, not just for a season, and to nurture communities that are sustainable in the work of justice even beyond our lifetimes.

I turn to Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé Community in France, for wisdom on how to sustain the work God calls us to. He says, “Enthusiasm, fervor, is a positive force, but it is by no means enough. It burns itself out and vanishes if it does not transmit its momentum to another force, deeper and less perceptible, which enables us to keep on going our whole life long.”[3]

This less perceptible force, “continuity” as Brother Roger later names it, or perseverance in hope, can come from knowing it is not about us (it is not about Peter). It is about Jesus. It is about the great “I am.” It is hope in a God who shows up in Jesus, healing and feeding and saving.

We see this in Taizé, an ecumenical monastic community, as they first housed Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. They later welcomed former child soldiers from the Third Reich. These were young men trained to brutally wage a war of hate, taken in by a community that daily prays for reconciliation.

The brothers of Taizé where somehow able to remain present to God’s Spirit and extend it in hospitality even when it took strangely different and heart-wrenching forms.

This is one way the Church has historically followed Jesus into tumultuous waters. How will we follow Jesus in today’s storms?

We respond to the consistency of God’s love, presence, and courage. We respond by stepping out to follow Jesus to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. We step out praying not just inside this building but on our sidewalks and in our workplaces and around our homes. We step out, with full knowledge that sometimes the waves and wind will be too much for us to bear. We step out anyway, for God is there and proclaims, “Take heart, it is I; do not fear.”

[1] See Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew A Commentary: Volume 2: The Churchbook Matthew 13-28 (Eerdmans, 2004) p.75-76.

[2] https://www.facebook.com/lisasharonharper?hc_ref=ARQya1pnBitrQBoVpzUkw-c1RmeUsHplrtWxAs7NjvTL5C_0vFuo7SCTPEW4cH_ljJg&pnref=story

[3] Brother Roger “The Dynamic of the Provisional” (les Presses de Taizé, 1981) p.68-69.

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