Drowning in a risk-averse world

Text: Matthew 14:22-33 (Jesus calms the waters)

What are we afraid of? In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells his friends to “not be afraid” — one of the most common statements of his ministry.

He offers his friends this reassurance in the middle of the night while a storm lashes their boat on the Sea of Galilee. As he speaks to them, he walks on top of the water, which makes them think he is a ghost. There is nothing to fear in all of that, is there?

The frequency with which Jesus tells his friends to not be afraid underlines how often they do fear. And things are about to get worse. Soon, Jesus will tell the disciples that they are leaving Galilee to go to Jerusalem to confront religious and imperial power, which will lead to his betrayal, arrest and death. And yet, Jesus continues to say, “Do not be afraid.”

Today, a key task of ministry remains confronting fear. We live in a world that has much that we fear. Rapid growth in population and economic activity leads to habitat destruction, as in the massive spill of mining waste from a tailings pond of a gold and copper mine in central British Columbia this week.

Competing nations and factions confront each other while they are armed to the teeth with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Poverty and political chaos in the Global South breed disease, including epidemics that sometimes threaten to spill into the Global North, as with SARS in China 11 years ago and the Ebola virus that is spreading panic in parts of West Africa this summer.

There is also the human condition – we are all mortal individuals with disease- and injury-prone bodies.

Sometimes, our fears lead us to take extreme measures. Take parenting. In my lifetime, there has been an extraordinary shift in attitudes towards childhood autonomy. 50 years ago, it was common for children to spend the long days of summer playing outside without adult supervision. Today, the contrast is evident in a news report in July about a mother in South Carolina who had her nine-year-old taken from her custody when she let her play in a park while she was at work at a McDonald’s restaurant.

This change in parenting has occurred even though the incidence of stranger abduction has always been tiny and is becoming rarer over time. And yet we fear.

So, what is the riskiest thing we do in a world filled with so many scary things? Love, I think, puts us most at risk.

Anyone who has ever married knows that marriage involves not just caring and mutual support. It also includes disputes about a million issues big and small, which can lead to painful disagreements and sometimes separation and divorce.

As children grow up, they learn that parents are not only objects of their adoration but also the source of disappointment and sometimes neglect. Parents learn that loving children involves moments of searing pain and loss as well as ones of joy.

The more we love and the longer we live, the more likely we are to have also suffered loss. But despite the risks of love, we cannot avoid falling in love and creating families. The impulse to love is part of our genetic makeup. We cannot survive without each another, and so love remains our central value.

The path of Jesus can help us to refine our love. This summer as we commemorate the start of World War One, we remember that millions of young men enthusiastically marched to war 100 years ago for love for empire. They did so because church and state misled them.

In contrast, Jesus walks to Jerusalem to stand non-violently against empire. He arrives in Jerusalem as the king of the Jews, but is raised to new life by God in the heart of every person regardless of their nationality.

The leaders of this broken world call us to love empire or nation. Jesus calls us to love family, friends, and all of humanity. The first is a path that leads to war. The second is a path that leads to the struggle for reconciliation and peace.

The path of Jesus doesn’t avoid pain and death. Instead, it confronts them directly. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Jesus’ death so that we might be raised with him to new life.

In today’s reading from Matthew, Peter has a second baptism. With courage, he answers a call from Jesus and steps onto the waves. When his faith retreats, he sinks and almost drowns. But Jesus takes his hand to raise him to new life.

Peter’s ordeal outlines the life of all baptized Christians. It moves from fear to faith, and from ordeal to new life.

After this second baptism, Peter will still have to suffer the shame of his betrayals on the night of Jesus’ arrest. He will still witness the pain of Jesus’ death the next day. He will still endure his own crucifixion, which according to church legend occurs in Rome many years later. But by accepting Jesus’ hand in this second baptism, Peter accepts, if only for a moment, that death is not the last word. By facing his fears, he accepts the tough reality of life, which also means that he can accept love and all the glory that love entails.

Yesterday on a news site, I saw a picture of a banner on a truck owned by a Pentecostal Church in Sierra Leone that said “Jesus — the answer to Ebola.” I disagree with this statement, but I would agree with it in a modified form: “Jesus — an answer to our fears about Ebola.”

Fighting a disease like Ebola requires nurses and doctors with adequate equipment, training, medicine, and protective clothing. It requires public education campaigns on how to prevent the spread of the disease. It requires great organization and collective effort. If our fears are to mean anything, they should move governments, charities, and other institutions into action along these lines.

The path of Jesus provides us with reasons to be less afraid in the face of epidemics like Ebola. A disease may painfully rob us a loved one. But Jesus calls us to stay awake to life and love in the face of inevitable loss and death. He shows us how to love without neurotic attachment. He shows us how to love lightly — so lightly that one could almost walk on water, one might say.

Jesus says “Don’t be afraid” not because injury, loss and death won’t befall us. He does so because he knows that God’s Love is with us through all of our injuries and losses. This does not mean life is without pain – far from it. It does that we can better trust life and love despite the pain.

When we remember that life is fleeting, we can also love with less painful attachment and so accept the wonders of life despite its risks, its losses and its brevity.

Fear and pain are part of life. But grace and love are a bigger part, and they always win in the end.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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