Text: Matthew 14:22-33
In an innovative test of what people fear the most, Bill Tancer, General Manager of Global Research at Hitwise, analyzed the most frequent online search queries that involved the phrase, “fear of….” He was working off the assumption that people tend to seek information on the issues that concern them the most. His top ten list of fears consisted of flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, success, and driving. In a 2005 Gallup poll, a national sample of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 15 were asked what they feared the most. The question was open-ended and participants were able to say whatever they wanted. The most frequently cited fear, mentioned by 8% of the teens, was terrorism. The top ten fears were, in order: terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war, heights, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war. Fear is real, it is universal, we all deal with it, and it is often shaped by the times in which we live.
With the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, American’s collective fear intensified to a level unparalleled in my lifetime. And with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 upon us and the fear of a government shut down barely avoided—thus dodging a national and potentially international economic meltdown—it seems like a good time to reflect on fear and what fear does to us.
The Bible talks about two kinds of fear. Repeatedly, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Israelites are admonished to “fear God.” The most common terms used in the Hebrew Bible for “fearing” God are words related to the Hebrew word, Yirah. There is no one-to-one correspondence between any two words from two different languages. But the Hebrew word Yirah usually is translated as “fear,” and its usage suggests a meaning that might also be translated with the English word “awe” or “reverence.” The Hebrew Bible’s concept of “fearing God” can be compared to the feeling of looking at the nighttime sky and being awed by the immensity of space, and simultaneously terrified by the thought of our smallness in such a vast expanse. It is the feeling of standing in the presence of a reality greater than oneself and greater than that encountered in ordinary life.
The idea of fearing God in Judaism is a different experience than the anxiety one has in the course of everyday life—although they are not unrelated as human emotions. What is clear in Hebrew thought is that “fearing God” is not a compulsion that makes you cringe or causes you to make poor choices. Rather, fearing God is living life with a trembling awareness that life has meaning—that the choices we make have consequences of significance. To “fear” God in the Jewish tradition means to nurture within yourself an awareness of the divine Presence that is around you all the time.
In the New Testament we read of another kind of fear. In the Greek, the word for fear is “phobus,” meaning phobia—the kind of fear that produces worry and an anxious spirit. It is this kind of fear about which Jesus and the gospel writers repeatedly caution their listeners. I have read that the phrase “do not fear” is mentioned some 365 times in the Bible. Most familiar, in the New Testament, God used angels to speak those words to Mary and the shepherds keeping watch, to Joseph and Zachariah, and to Paul. “Do not fear.” In another familiar passage, the writer of Matthew reminds us, “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?…So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” While it is tempting to interpret this as a shift from the Old Testament to the New Testament (from fearing God, to not fearing God), that is not the case—these are different root words, that invoke very different meanings. Do not fear. Do not worry. Do not be anxious.
Our lectionary text for today is another story from Matthew in which Jesus tells the disciples to not be afraid. It is important to set the context for this story in order to understand why the disciples are in a fearful state. In the verses that precede the text that Stephanie read to us, we read that Herod had just had John the Baptist, one of Jesus’ closest friends, beheaded. When Jesus heard of this news, he withdrew in a boat from where he was to a deserted place to be by himself. But fearful, the crowds followed him. Seeing all the people, Matthew tells us that, “when Jesus saw the great crowd, he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” As evening set in, the people became hungry. The disciples became concerned about what this mass of people would eat, and were ready to send the crowds away to the surrounding villages for food. They were not prepared for what Jesus did next. Jesus said to the disciples, and I paraphrase, “You don’t need to send them away to eat. You give them something to eat.” To which the disciples replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And you know the rest of that story.
Having set that context, we come back to our story. Once again, while everyone was eating, Jesus tried to withdraw to be alone. The story tells us that he went to a mountain to pray while the disciples retreated in a boat to the other side of the lake. Let me read to you again what happened next.
When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me.”
And then comes my favorite part of this scripture:
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him….
I know Peter. He is familiar to me—maybe to you, too. You take that first step, risking in something that you believe in or want to believe in, only to become fearful when you realize what taking the risk might actually mean. The winds of resistance become strong. You panic. You begin to sink—to sink into anxiety, worry, mistrust. It happens to all of us. But what I realized in reading this story again is that the important thing in our lives is not so much to lack fear, but to have the ability to overcome it so that we may live full and meaningful lives.
Fear, the compulsive kind that causes us to make poor choices out of our anxiety and worry, has controlled the consciousness of our nation for the last ten years. What does such fear do to us? As a nation, it has caused us to isolate, to shrink, to live small, to be suspicious of others, to act out of a place of scarcity rather than abundance, to maintain the status quo rather than risk something new. It has made us a less compassionate people. It has further divided us as a people along old lines of racism and classism. It has made us a less welcoming country where a growing intolerance for the “other” has diminished us all. Sadly, this is the reality of what fear does to us.
But for people of faith, fear does not have to have to last word. There is always the possibility to be like Peter. To look fear in the face and take that first step, risking that we might become frightened or fearful, but also trusting that if that happens there is a Presence—something larger than ourselves—that will reach out and catch us.
Yes, it seems to me there are two options for how we can choose to live—as individuals, collectively as a nation, and as people of faith. We can choose to be a people of fear or we can choose to be a people who risk trusting in a Presence that is stronger than our fears.
I am reminded again of an old Native American wisdom story. I have told it to you before. A Native American grandfather was talking to his grandson about how he felt. He said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, jealous, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.” The grandson asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?” The grandfather answered, “The one I feed.”
We, too, have a choice of what we feed. We can feed our fear or we can feed a spirit of trust within our hearts. We can choose to live small, suspicious of others, protecting only our interests, or we can risk taking that first step toward doing what is right, trusting that we will be held by something larger than us when we do become fearful or doubtful. In these times when our culture bombards us with messages that feed those fearful places within us, it is important to reflect on what fear does to us—how it controls us and diminishes us. But maybe, more significantly, it is important to acknowledge that we have a choice; that the important thing in our lives is not so much to lack fear, but to choose to trust anyway; to feed the loving, compassionate one within us; to grow the ability to overcome fear so that we may live a full and meaningful life.
As so I ask, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, which one will we feed: fear or trust?