Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
St. Matthew 14:22-33
St. Matthew 14:27
Immediately Jesus spoke to them and said “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
I am, as some of you know, a fan of the Harry Potter books and movies and from the beginning I read in them an underlying Theology that was much like that of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books. A theology grounded in our own Protestant beliefs that postulated alternate worlds – Middle Earth, Narnia and Hogwarts - where the same familiar Reformed themes of good and evil, destiny and faithfulness were lived out by Hobbits and talking animals and wizards and witches.
Only recently did I read some stories about the author, J K Rowling, and her determination to present the central moral and ethical issues of Christianity – the Scottish Protestant version which we are familiar and comfortable - with the clarity of Lewis and Tolkien and I believe that future generations will view Potter as a worthy companion to Aslam and Gandalf.
And during a summer which has been, for many, a time of tragedy, discouragement and sorrow, I have heard myself – on several occasions - say, “I wish I had some magic words to give you.”
Well it occurred to me, as I prepared this sermon, that I do! I have a magic word, one which actually sounds very Harry Potterish: Phobeo.
And I will explain it in a few minutes, just hold onto it: Phobeo
I don’t know if anyone but me remembers one of the loveliest songs from my younger years. It was written by Leonard Cohen, and first recorded by Judy Collins and entitled “Susanne”, a song that has always reminded me that our Lord was a man of water and waves and boats, the very things that give me so much pleasure, Cohen wrote:
And Jesus was a sailor When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then Until the sea shall free them"
Most of us, if not all of us, share a fascination with water, we are attracted to seas and rivers, bays and lakes, they calm us, they focus us, and I find it spiritually comforting to know that the same sights and smells and movements that captivate us, captivated our Lord.
For some it is the swimming, for others the fishing, or the boating, but I think for all there is simply a sense of peace, a serentity. There is a channel that Debi and I go through to get out boat out to the open bay and it runs alongside the public docks and there are always people, just sitting, watching, connecting to something deep within us.
I get that and so does Jesus, for he was a sailor, often found in and around boats and boaters, familiar with their fears, their respect for the weather and the water and the ways they can so quickly change.
And on that day, in today’s gospel, when he needed some time alone to think and to pray and to dream, a storm came up and it found the boat with Peter and the others and filled them with fear.
Don’t take this lightly; their very lives were in danger as the small ship floundered in the waves. Their entire world – at that moment – was in chaos, uncontrollable and unknown powers were threatening them, and they even saw the presence of God and screamed in fear, thinking him to be a ghost.
And for Joseph, in our OT lesson, things must have been about the same on that day when his normal routine was replaced with Chaos. His world was shattered as he went from being Papa’s pet, the dreamer, the special one, the golden boy, the one who wore the best clothing to being an animal trapped in a pit and then sold off as a slave to the Midianites and, ultimately, to the Egyptians.
We have days like that, don’t we?
Perhaps not as dramatically, but just as traumatically.
Times when – as with Joseph – the people we thought were most concerned with us turn their backs on us, betray us, abandon us.
Times when – as with the disciples – the whole universe seems to have united against us, driving us deeper into fear, driving us deeper into panic, driving us deeper into despair.
And there is much to be afraid of in this world!
We continue to live, 10 years later, with the threat of terrorist attacks, we struggle for financial stability, we worry about the future for our children and our grandchildren, we fear the phone call that follows the annual checkup and sometimes all of these things create storms in our lives that threaten to swamp us and overcome us.
We get so caught up in the pushing and shoving of our lives, the schedules and the bills and the deadlines and the worries and the illnesses and the misunderstandings and all of the storms and the chaos of our lives, that we just want to scream and shut off the volume.
And that is where our magical word, Phobeo, comes in!
Phobeo is the word that Jesus spoke to those in the boat in the middle of that great storm.
Phobeo is the word that angels spoke, to Mary, to shepherds, to women at the tomb, in the middle of their sorrow.
Phobeo is no mere suggestion or piece of advice, it is the imperative, the command, the single word that must define our response to the things that threaten us and we translate that single word that Jesus used triumphantly with two words: “Fear not”! Phobeo!
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Phobeo shakes us free from the doubts that limit us, it allows us, like Peter, to step out with confidence knowing that our God is stronger than the storms, knowing that we are God’s beloved and nothing can separate us from him.
But, of course, we also have our moments of doubt, don’t we? And they can emerge as quickly as they did for Peter, and we can sink into self-pity and needless worry and panic and fear.
And I have heard enough sermons on this passage that encourage us to have faith and not doubt but I’m not sure that they have helped me when the winds are blowing and the waves are swallowing me.
Just having you tell me, or me tell you, to not be afraid simply isn’t enough, we need a reason to not be afraid and that is exactly what Christ gives us: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Take heart, it is I;
What has helped me – and so many others whom I have known - is the sure knowledge that in times of faith, and in times of doubt, my God stands ready to reach out and take me by the hand and get me to safety. The point of the story isn’t that Peter walked on the water, as remarkable as that may be, or that Peter sank, as unsurprising as that may be, the point of the story is that Christ was there for the glory and the failure!
You see if God is only available to me when my faith is strong and shining pure, I’m in big trouble because there are too many questions out there, there are too many dangers out there, there are too many illnesses out there, there are too many deaths out there, there are too many failures out there, there are too many storms and waves and winds out there for me to sustain that strong and shining pure faith at all times.
But if I can believe in God’s presence in the middle of those storms, if I can believe that when the disasters and betrayals occur – as they did with Joseph – God will work with a horrendous situation and make a blessing from it. If I can believe that at the very moment that my faith is weakest and my doubts are strongest the hand of God reaches out to me, that is a faith that will carry me throughout my life in this world and the next.
You see I don’t have to believe that I can walk on water, I don’t have to believe that I can do the impossible. I may, there have been any number of things that I have done over the years that I would never have thought myself capable of, but only hindsight reveals that. What I do believe is that wherever I am, flying with faith or sinking in doubts, wherever I am my God, your God, our God is there with me.
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
To God alone be the Glory, today and forever. Amen
Clover Hill Reformed Church
Sunday August 7, 2011