Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Alan Watt
Two of today’s readings have to do with the theme of fear and
trust—of doubt and faith. First will be the account of Jesus and Peter on the
sea. Second will be the encounter between God and Elijah on the mountain. Here
is now a personal story to get us started.
The first weekend of my seminary internship—my vicarage—a family
invited me to go water skiing. I had never done that before, but, feeling
adventurous, decided to try it—even though I was a poor swimmer. So we all
went out on a boat into the middle of the lake, where one of them gave me a few,
brief instructions. After putting on the skis, I lowered myself into the water,
and, after that, was given the handle attached to the rope. The “captain,”
so to speak, revved up the motor, and we were off!
Really, I had no idea how to hold on properly, let alone flex my knees
to keep the front of the skis up out of the water. I had to let go of the
handle, which meant that immediately I saw nothing but the underside of the
lake. A moment or two later, I popped back up to the surface.
When the boat had circled and returned, someone threw the handle out to
me, and I tried a second time—with the very same results. That’s when I
decided water skiing was probably not for me—that maybe even trying it in the
first place was a bad idea, a rash thing to do—at least without taking lessons
from a certified instructor. It also was a somewhat scary experience,
In that I realized the only thing that kept me from sinking to the
bottom of that lake was my life jacket.
In my opinion, what Peter did—getting out of the boat and on the
water—wasboth a courageous and a rash thing to do. But then, that’s the kind
of person he was—impulsive, often acting before thinking. It’s not all that
surprising when, in today’s gospel, he almost literally got in over his head.
Suddenly he panicked. He feared for his life. It wasn’t the first timehe had
become frightened,and it wouldn’t be the last.
For us humans, fear is among the most basic of emotions. It’s part of
who we are, and sometimes it can be a very handy thing. It can help keep us
alive. It can help keep us from getting hurt.
But fear can also paralyze us. It can keep us from things that need to
be done, that should be done. So, sometimes fear can almost be characterized as
a sin. For Peter, it was the sin of lacking trust in God. When he began sinking
down into the water, Jesus said to him: “You of little faith, why did you
doubt? ”The disciple had begun doing a new thing, but out of fear, failed to
One other occasion Peter was gripped by fear was during the
Transfiguration—when, on a mountaintop, Jesus’ face and clothes had suddenly
begun shining. Then also Moses and Elijah appeared—the two greatest prophets
in the history of Israel. At the time it didn’t occur to Peter that those two
men themselves—as spiritually strong and faithful as they had been in their
earthly lives—still had fallen far short of perfection. They too had had their
moments of fear and dread.
Regarding Elijah, that’s exactly what we see in the first lesson. He
had just demonstrated how helpless the prophets of Baal were in the presence of
the one, true God. After his mighty display of power, Elijah ordered the people
to kill them all. After that, he was riding high, tasting, breathing in the
sweetness of victory.
But when Queen Jezebel found out—she who herself worshipped the god
all those prophets had—she vowed to do the same to him. And so, afraid for his
life, Elijah fled into the wilderness. Then seemingly to make matters worse, God
visited upon him a mighty wind, followed by an earthquake, and finally by a
fire. Yet Elijah was not harmed, for a cave served as a refuge for him.
Have any of you ever faced one or more of those destructive forces of
nature? Fortunately, I haven’t, although once almost the first of them. It was
twenty years ago this past May, when we were living in a community at the
southern end of Texas’ Tornado Alley. That particular morning a huge storm
system had developed in Oklahoma.
By mid-afternoon, about three hours south of Dallas, it began spawning
what would be a number of tornados, the largest of them reaching winds of over
260 mph. At one point, the base of it grew to a width of ¾ of a mile. That’s
when it hit a subdivision in a small town just a few miles away from us.All the
homes were ripped off of their foundations. The destruction was so complete all
that remained were bits and pieces of debris. Just one person survived.
The one-story parsonage we lived in had no basement and no interior room
away from the windows. In the event that one or more tornados would come through
later that season, we chose as a potential place of refuge a closet in the
church building. Fortunately, we never had to use it.
Getting back to Elijah, we need to be aware that, unlike Peter, he had
finished the task God had set before him. Yet he too was guilty of the sin of
fear. After his mighty deed was done, a price was put on his head. And so
naturally he hightailed it. A sign of faith would have been to stay put,
trusting God either to protect him or give him courage to face the prospect of a
violent death. So outside the cave, God confronted him, asking, “What are you
doing here, Elijah? Why aren’t you back in Israel?”
For the next few moments, I want you to think about at least one person,
thing, or set of circumstances that you have reacted to with a great fear, maybe
even a sense of dread.
Has it been someone or some thing that kept you from doing what you knew
was the right thing to do? Like it was for Peter? Might it have been…
Disapproval from someone important
in your life?
The likely pain of some other kind
Fear of losing a thing of great
I remember a woman suffering from a loveless and harmful marriage. But
she would not seek a divorce, because then the house would have to be sold. And
she couldn’t bear to part with it.
Or, like Elijah, think about something right that you did do, that you
completed, but then trying to avoid the possible consequences. What comes to my
mind is a person who has witnessed some wrong being committed in, say, an
organization, such as a company.
On one hand, a whistleblower shares that information it in a very public
way or at least reports it to the proper authorities. On the other hand are
those who leak the information anonymously. Is the second way as moral, as
ethical, as the first?....Maybe it depends on the circumstances. One thing is
for sure: It’s likely the safer way to go. At least a person has a better
chance of keeping his or her job. But being transparent, owning up to it shows a
willingness to suffer any consequences—if not losing a job outright, maybe
being pushed out over time or, at the very least, trying to function in a
hostile working environment
Maybe the fears that have dogged you the most bear no relation at all to
whether you failed to do the right thing or, in doing it were then unwilling to
suffer the possible blowback. Maybe your worst fears have had to do with things
you have little or no control over whatsoever. Like…
A serious illness or a progressive
Or, on a larger scale, the national
economy and how it may affect you
a negative way.
Or the worst of all, the long-term
threat of climate change
the likelihood of two or more nations resorting to weapons
mass destruction—maybe even to the point of no return.
In the end, no matter how much or how little courage we may have, no
matter how much or how little we may trust in God at any given time, still God
stands ready to help us, to reassure us. All we need to do is what Peter did and
cry out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus will give us what we need. He will be
the life jacket that keeps us from drowning. He will be the place of refuge that
sustains us during the storms of life.
In this world, none of us is spared from at least one major hardship, if
not several. Also, some of us are certainly no strangers to personal tragedy.
But come what may—in spite of our anxiety, in spite of our fear—God will be
here for each and every one of us.