Grace to you all and peace from God the creator, and our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
“We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things” That is what I learned.
“We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Maybe that is what you learned?
„Wir sollen Gott über alle Dinge fürchten, lieben und vertrauen.“ This is what Martin Luther would have taught.
I’m sure that this phrase, that we are to fear love and trust God is familiar to many of us here. It is a phrase that is repeated over and over in Luther’s small catechism which I am sure many of you had to memorize for confirmation. And while it may be a phrase that sparks memories of learning the roots of our faith as Lutheran Christians, that idea of “Fearing God” isn’t always explained or understood. So, I ask, what does it mean to fear the lord, and how is that related to the fear experienced in our lessons today or the fears in our lives?
In the readings for today, fear is a consistent theme. In our first reading, Elijah was overcome by fear because of Queen Jezebel threatening to kill him. That fear led him to hide in a cave on Mount Horeb where he encountered the great wind, the earthquake, the fire and the sheer silence.
In the gospel, disciples thought they saw a ghost walking on the water, and were terrified and cried out in fear. Peter became afraid of the crashing waves around him and began to sink into the water.
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans feared that the gospel he was sharing would not be accepted by all who received it. That fear is what led him to speak so passionately about Jesus.
Even in the Psalm, fear was mentioned–but that fear was of a different nature than the others. We read together that God’s “salvation is very near to those who fear” God.
So within scripture, the concept of fear can appear in a variety of manners, leading to positive and negative results.
Fear is a very real aspect of our lives, and while many people learn how to manage it, there are some fears that can have a noticeable impact how people live their lives. The Greek word for fear is phobos, which one can recognize as the root for our word phobia. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than nine percent of, almost one in ten, Americans live with a phobia that can have physical effects such as chest pain, dizziness, and nausea.
And we know that it is not only folks who have diagnosed phobias that experience fear, but in one way or another we each experience different fears throughout our lives. While the Pixar movie Monsters Incorporated clearly made light of children’s fears of monsters in their closets, I was sure that there was something in my basement when I was growing up. And even though I was always a very logical concrete thinker who didn’t believe in ghosts, for much of my childhood I would always run out of the basement as quick as I could so that nothing would “get me.” I feared that which was unknown to me.
Reading and listening to news stories, this fear of that which is unknown appears to be the impetus for many of the challenges currently faced in the world. What will be the impact of students not returning to schools this fall or conversely what would be the impact of returning to school? For the more than four million people in China who have had to evacuate because of unexpected flooding, when will they get to return home? In Beirut, with more than 150 dead, thousands more wounded, and destruction across half the city, why them? I wonder of many have been crying out with the words of the Psalmist, How Long O Lord (Ps. 13)?
But as the Psalmist also spoke, “Salvation is very near to those who fear” God. So fear, in addition to being a response to the unknown and leading to anxiety, fear (in one way or another) can have generative possibilities. In fact, within scriptural tradition fear and faith are often linked to one another. As with fear, faith relates to that which is not fully known, which is shrouded in mystery. And yet as with fear, faith does not rely on certainty to guide our actions. Thinking of today’s gospel, Peter stepped out onto the sea, doing something that certainly would have been considered miraculous. While it is easy to focus on the fact that he began sinking almost immediately, and Jesus’ phrase that he is one of “little faith,” we need to remember that despite the fear the disciples were experiencing, Peter still desired to step out. He tried but, in the end, he still began to sink.
What makes this story good news is not that only Jesus was able to walk on the water (though that is no doubt a miraculous feat), or that Peter was able to walk on the water (if only for a few steps). No, the good news in this story is that Jesus extends a hand and brings Peter back to the boat, where surrounded by the faithful, Jesus is named as being “truly the son of God.” The Good news is that because of Peter’s faith, despite the fear he experienced in stepping out of the boat, Jesus returned him to a place where he could build up his faith and step out once more.
God’s good news to the community in Rome was that “there is no distinction between Judean and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” The generosity experienced by those who call on the lord is exactly what Peter experienced as he was sinking and cried out for Jesus to save him.
God’s good news to Elijah was that he was not alone, and that he needn’t fear because there were 7,000 faithful! And on top of that, Elisha was there to continue in Elijah’s prophetic call; a call to return people to worshiping the true God rather than the idols they had set up in God’s place.
One of the ways the church has historically been represented in artwork is in the image of a boat. Like the boat from the gospel reading today, the church has carried the followers of Christ from Jesus’ life and teachings out into the world. While the church has at times been battered about by the storms of life that surround it, there is a consistent call to still move forth from the safety of the boat and onto the waters. This movement requires faith in the face of fear, in the face of discomfort.
But this faith is not arrogant conviction, but is based on our recognition that it is Jesus out, present in the storms of life that surround the safety of our churches, of our lives and it is Jesus calling us forth. We are not being called out to the waters alone, but rather to join Jesus in his presence in the places that appear to storm filled from our boat. We are being called to join Jesus in the work of proclaiming that the dominion of God is at hand and that we are a part of making that dominion manifest.
“We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things” Often when people explain what it means to fear God, the words respect, and awe, and wonder are shared. And I think these are all valid ways to express the fear of God. Yet, in light of the ways that God is present outside the comfort we experience in the church, we should expect to experience fear when we follow God’s call into the world. Not fear that causes pain or terror, but that fear and discomfort coupled with faith assures us that we are following Jesus in the way that Peter, and Paul, and Elijah did.