“Be Afraid”

We’re grateful to share an excerpt from Rev. Monica Beacham’s Sunday sermon at Cedar Grove United Methodist. Monica reflects on God’s call to face fear and discomfort, to respond to racism — in Charlottesville, in our daily lives, everywhere. Monica became Cedar Grove United Methodist Church’s new pastor this summer.  Her self-introduction: “I do pray before each sermon that God will speak through me or perhaps in spite of me…”

We will link to the full sermon once it’s posted online — and you can also request a copy by emailing anathothgarden@gmail.com. The Gospel for the sermon was Matthew 14:22-23.

…As far as the news goes this has been a sad and exhausting week. All week the threat of nuclear war with North Korea has been looming large, and now in the last few days, the white-supremacist rallies and resulting protests not so far away in Charlottesville, Virginia have defied words. I’m sad and exhausted. Sad because that kind of hate is still so present in people’s hearts, the kind of hate that shouts “Go back to Africa,” and other hate speech at passersby and wears t-shirts quoting Adolph Hitler. Sad that that hate doesn’t even have to wear a hood anymore. Sad that many of those people rallying for white power are my age, and many of them probably call themselves Christians, too. Sad that they don’t realize we are all made in God’s image. Sad for the violence that resulted in death and injuries. Sad for the ways I’ve allowed racist things to be said and done in my life and not spoken up. Tired of listening to the news, because I might hear something else sad. Sad and exhausted.

Finally, Jesus, sad and exhausted like me, gets away for a minute. He dismisses the crowds, and sends the disciples on ahead in the boat to the other shore. He stays and goes up a mountain to pray…First thing in the morning, Jesus comes down from the mountain, walks on the water, and goes out to meet them. He walks out to his disciples on the water, and his disciples, thinking he’s a ghost, are afraid. In fairness to them, walking on water is not normal behavior, and they were probably either asleep or just waking up. In any case, they are so afraid, they cry out in fear. And Jesus says to them – take heart, or be of good cheer, do not be afraid.

Now, Jesus says this a lot, you’ll notice. In John’s gospel, it’s kind of a refrain – do not let your hearts be troubled, do not be afraid. Jesus says it to the disciples when he appears to them after the resurrection. Don’t be afraid, it’s just me. The Bible actually includes this phrase many, many times. And we can tend to take it prescriptively, meaning, OK, Jesus says not to be afraid to his disciples, so we’d better conquer all of our fears. We’d better start not being afraid. We don’t know how we’re going to accomplish this, but we think we’d better get to it. A good Christian does not fear. Right?

Maybe not. Look at most of the times God or Jesus says “do not fear,” or “do not be afraid” in the gospels. I’ll give you a hint – it’s when scary things are happening! Angels are appearing left and right in the beginning to tell people that awesome, scary life-changing things will happen to them. And they all start with “do not fear.” You know, thanks for the advice, Mr. Angel sir. I wasn’t afraid until you got here. When Jesus finds his disciples and tells them to leave their homes, families, and professions to wander around homeless with him for a few years he says – wait for it – do not fear! When Jesus walks out on the water – again, not a totally normal thing to do – he says do not be afraid. When a few disciples go up with Jesus on a mountain and see him glowing white and hear the booming voice of God, Jesus says – do not be afraid. And then after Jesus has gone through the torture and painful death of a Roman crucifixion, he reappears in the middle of his already scared disciples, who are afraid they might be the next ones the Romans make an example of, and he decides to just apparate in to the locked room, and appear among them, and he says – you guessed it – do not fear. A dead guy suddenly reappearing. Do not be afraid. Sure. Notice, every single one of these times, Jesus says “do not fear,” or “do not be afraid,” when some really truly scary stuff is happening.

We hear these various “do not be afraids,” and we think a good Christian needs to be without fear. Perfect love, scripture says, casts out fear. But let’s face it, who among us has perfect love? Anyone? If we did have it, we probably wouldn’t need to be here listening to a sermon. We’re not perfect. We all have fears. And we sometimes read these kinds of passages, hear Jesus say, “do not be afraid,” and we hear it as “never be afraid again.” We hear it as some kind of command. When really, in all of these cases, it is Jesus’ way of saying, I know you’re scared. It’s me. It’s going to be OK. I’m here with you. It’s not a command to make us feel guilty about being afraid. It’s a reassurance that God is with us always, in spite of our real, justified fear.

That’s clearly how Peter hears it, because he is reassured enough to try something bold. Lord, he says, if it’s really you, tell me to step out of the boat and onto the water and walk to you. And Jesus says, come. So Peter steps out of the boat, and starts to walk on the water towards Jesus. But Peter loses his focus, because of the wind. He starts to sink a little and gets really frightened. He yells for help. And Jesus reaches out and grabs him, and says, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And they both climb back in to the boat. And the wind dies down and the disciples worship Jesus, because of what they saw.

Peter is probably sad and tired too…But Peter in that moment of seeing Jesus on the water, in the middle of his sadness, fear, and exhaustion, does something bold. He hears Jesus’ reassurance not to be afraid, and he steps out of the boat. He takes that big step out onto the water. Now, his sadness and fear don’t go away. He’s still afraid. So afraid that he loses focus and sinks a little. He’s not perfect either. But he takes that big first step, even though he’s afraid. He leaves the relative comfort and safety of the boat. Even though he’s the only one. Even though he has no idea what will happen. Even though he’s still afraid.

Our small kernel of good news today, our mustard seed of hope, is found in Peter’s one big step off that boat. It doesn’t matter that he was tired, sad, and afraid, before he took the step. It doesn’t even matter that he was afraid after he took the step. Jesus had him the whole time. He was afraid – so what? He did it. He took that first step towards something new. And if Peter can do it, so can we. We can be sad, tired, and scared after this week’s news. And we can still take at least one step towards something better. For ourselves, our community, our country, our world. When we take a faithful step out of our comfort zone, even if we’re afraid before that step and afraid right after that step, still Jesus reassures us that he’s got us. He’ll catch us. That’s the real meaning of “do not be afraid.”

If Peter can take that one step, even though he’s afraid before and afraid after, so can we. One of the ministers who was in Charlottesville this weekend, holding a worship service and standing in opposition to hatred and white supremacy, is also one of my favorite Christian writers (Dr. Cornel West). He wrote these words, long before the events of this week, but they seem meaningful now: “The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

Stepping out on nothing, hoping to land on something. Wrestling with despair, but never allowing despair to have the last word. In other words, being sad, tired, and afraid, but stepping out of the boat anyway. Just taking that one step. Doing that one next thing. Being impatient with evil but patient with people. Fighting for justice and equality for everyone. Praying for our enemies.

I don’t know what’s made you sad, tired, or afraid this week…And I don’t know what will make you sad, tired, or afraid next week. I definitely don’t know what that one step is, for you. I don’t know the ways God is calling you out of your comfort zone. Maybe, in this week, it’s just admitting the times you’ve been prejudiced or allowed prejudice to operate without challenging it. I know that’s one of my steps, for sure. Maybe your step is different. Maybe it’s listening to someone else who is hurting. Maybe it’s giving yourself permission to step away from the noise to take time to pray or rest, even if it means some other things won’t get done. Maybe it is praying for your enemies. Maybe it is some other kind of loving action, some other act of justice, peace, or mercy. I don’t know what that step is for you.

All I know for sure is this. When Jesus says, do not be afraid – what he really means is, it’s me. I’m here. I’ve got you. He doesn’t mean you have to cease all fear and be immediately perfectly calm. Jesus is holding out his hand, saying I know you’re sad. You’re tired. You’re afraid. I’ve felt all those things too. But take this next step, just one step, and I’ll catch you. Step out of your safe and comfortable place, and I’ll be there with you. I’ve got you. You’re mine. I won’t let you sink. I can’t promise you that you won’t be sad, afraid, or tired. But I can promise you that whenever you take a faithful step, I will be there. God will be there.

So be sad. Be tired. Be afraid. But step out anyway. And God will be there. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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