God’s Presence in Our Fears

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Year A- August 10, 2014

David Hathaway Knight, Priest Associate


Father-like, he tends and spares us;
well our feeble frame he knows;
In his hand he gently bears us, rescues us from all our foes.
Alleluia, alleluia! Widely yet his mercy flows. Hymn 410, stanza 3

 At one time or another there are those things that can strike a note of fear in most, if not all of us.  I begin with a story about a young boy who lived in the neighborhood where I grew up.  Twice a year it seemed, he experienced fear in its purest form, at least its purest form for a young child.   This fear occurred every six months in March and again in September.  It came in the form of a little envelope in the mail box out by the entrance to the driveway to their home.  In that little envelope was a note on crinkly paper depicting a little bear in a blue jacket.   The little bear had a friendly message but it struck a note of terror in this little boy.   The note was the same every six months. On each page there was that little brown bear in a blue jacket.  On the cover page the little bear was saying these words, “Now I know you must go…” turning to inside page, “Before delay causes decay…” facing page on right, “T’would be a shame to have a pain…” back cover,  “Dr. John F. Keller, DMD”.  His mother always opened it because she knew what it was and what to do.  Every time that little envelope with that little card on crinkly paper depicting that friendly little bear came in the mail box, it meant that this boy was due for a trip to the dentist.  Few things in his young, innocent, protected life struck more fear than a trip up those long linoleum covered stairs and around the corner through the frosted glass door to Dr. Keller’s office where he would sit on one of those green vinyl chairs until summoned by name into the dentist chair.  One day as March that year was rolling in, he had an idea!   You see, his little mind had been working overtime on a solution to escaping from his trip to the dentist.   It was time once again for that little envelope with that card on crinkly paper with the little bear and his friendly reminder to arrive in the mailbox.  He had a solution!  He, and he alone, would get to the mail box before anybody else and he alone would screen the mail.  Well, behold, in a few days, there it was, that little envelope with the card on crinkly paper and the little bear in the blue jacket with his friendly message. “Ha!”  He removed the mail from the mailbox, carried it through the garage and paused, paused where the trash can was located. Thus, it came to pass that on that day not all of the mail made its way into the house where his mother would sort the bills and letters, for you see one piece of mail was now at the very bottom of the trash can. It had been shredded into tiny little unrecognizable pieces.  All was now well.  His mother would never see the little envelope with the card on crinkly paper and the friendly little bear in the blue jacket with his friendly reminder, and she wouldn’t have that reminder to call Dr. Keller. The little boy, his fear now gone, went off to sleep that night cuddling his own teddy bear  and very proud of himself..

Several days later after school he came through that same kitchen door where he could smell those delicious fruit tarts that his mother often made on Wednesdays.   A batch was fresh out of the oven and she offered him one for his after school snack.  As he was munching on this delicious treat all was well—well—until my mother said, “Now Davie, tomorrow you have to come right home after school.  You have a dentist appointment with Dr. Keller at 4:00.  My heart sank.  The fear struck once more.  My solution had… had…well, you get the drift.  You see, my mother did not need that little card with the note on crinkly paper with the little bear in the blue jacket with his friendly reminder, for her to remember to pick up the phone twice a year by herself and say to the operator “730, please”. (That was Dr. Keller’s  phone number and it is etched in my brain forever even though I can’t remember last Tuesday.  In 1962, in the event that you are even interested, it became 637-0730 when we went to dial phones.)  Bless her heart, my mother had a built in timer that went off in March and again in September like clockwork.  In fear, the next day I was destined to climb those linoleum covered stairs and open the glass door to Dr. Keller’s office and sit in fear on that green vinyl sofa until I was summoned by name to sit in his dentist’s chair.  That was then.  Now is now.  I must say that now I have absolutely no fear of the dentist.  Dentistry is very different today as we all know.  My current dentist is gentle, kind and skillful and with today’s procedures and her incredibly wonderful chair side manner, an appointment in her office is both pleasant and painless.  I actually look forward to my appointments. Isn’t that crazy?

What were some of the fears that you had as a child growing up?

And more to the point for our purposes this morning, what might be your fears now?  What worries do you have now? Fear is something we all have to face in one form or another and at one time or another.  Rational fear can protect us.  Fear of lightning keeps us from going out in a storm.  Fear of getting burned keeps us from touching a hot stove.  Irrational fears can be more complex and troublesome until we can name them and come to terms with them.  In our present time as in every age we each have our worries in the midst of complex circumstances in our personal lives, in the midst of such things as violence in our nation and in the world.    It is not unusual to have a number of worries on our minds at any given moment.

You and I can fear many things.  We fear uncertainty that might lie ahead for us in some way.  We fear an illness or a diagnosis.  We can fear death, our own, and death of the ones we love.  We can fear for our children that they might come into harm’s way.  These are very real fears and they are often based on our experience or upon what we have seen in the experience of others.  We can fear retirement as it approaches, though sometimes it’s hard to know who fears retirement more, the one retiring or the spouse!  How well I remember returning from Saint Michael and All Angels in Dallas back in August of 2007 and having the crazy notion that I might retire.  After four days at home, Jeannie, bless her heart, put her hands on my shoulders one afternoon as I was sitting at the computer and she said,  “Honey, you need a job.”

Fear can indeed grip is in many ways and at unexpected times.

Here’s another fear.  A very real one, and one that occurs often.  What about our fear of those conversations that need to take place, but ones we are afraid to have because we don’t want to stir any feathers, rock the boat or face controversy of any kind.  To do so might signal changes that we might need to make, and we fear what those changes might be.  We would rather continue with things as they are even if these conversations might lead to a better understanding of one another and perhaps a better outcome for the future.   These necessary conversations that we are afraid to have can be ones that should take place in a marriage, in our families, or in our places of work.  They can be ones that should take place in those relationships you and I have that matter.  They can be ones that should take place in the church.  There will for certain be from time to time those conversations we need to have, but because we are often fearful, these conversations don’t take place, and that can be unfortunate.  The question we might ask is, “Of what might we be afraid?”  Why do we avoid these conversations at all cost?  You see, the deal is this:  If we have the trust and the faith to initiate those necessary conversations, and if we do so in love and with respect for one another, and in a spirit of prayer, then the Holy Spirit will be present in the midst of those conversations and we need not fear the outcome.  The Holy Spirit will never, ever abandon us.

Fear so often comes when we are facing troubled waters, or when we even think we might be facing troubled waters.  It can be fear of things imagined or of things that are very real.  Today’s gospel passage we hear this familiar passage:

“…early in the morning (Jesus) came walking toward (the disciples) 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.’”

This is a passage filled with rich and vivid images of how Jesus was there for his disciples in their fear in the same way that he is here  for you and me in our fears and in our worries.  This is a passage from Matthew that has given comfort, encouragement and challenge to God’s people for a very long time now.  This is a passage that paints a picture in which we see the disciples attempting on their own to navigate on the troubled seas and of Jesus coming toward them to save them from sinking as he calms the waters.  There is the image of how Jesus has the power even over forces of nature and how he can be very present with us and can conquer our fears as well as the evil forces that can cause even our worst fears.

There is the image to which most of us can relate.  It is that of the disciples who, because of their fear, could not even recognize Jesus even as he was in their very presence.  How often might the spirit of Jesus come to us and yet, because of our fear we do not, perhaps cannot, recognize that Jesus is there with us?  Happens all the time.

There is the image that as Jesus calms the troubled waters for his disciples so he can calm our troubled waters as well.

There is the image of the choppy seas and the reality that whenever you and I set out on the mission to which Jesus has called us, though we will often find ourselves in troubled waters, Jesus will never, ever abandon us.  He will come to us just as he came to the disciples.  And he will come to us when we need him the very most.  We have reason to take heart.  We might not for some time be able to recognize him, yet in time he will make himself known to us in ways we might not ever suspect and sooner or later we will know that he is with us and we are not alone and we find that we can face our fear in ways we’d not thought possible.  That’s the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. And it comes to you and me as a gift.

I find the words of Clifton Kirkpatrick helpful.  He says that the key to faith and fullness of life in Christ is to follow Peter’s example and be willing to step out of the comfort and security of the boat and head into the troubled waters of the world to proclaim the love, mercy, and justice of God that we find in Jesus Christ.  Being a disciple is risky and exciting business, but that is exactly what God calls us to do and to be, and God assures us that if you and I get out of the comfort of the boat we can count on the fact that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will never, ever abandon us.  God invites you and me to step out beyond our fears in faith that God will never abandon us.

What are your fears this day?  To have those fears is a normal thing.  Some of our fears are real and are warranted.  We know from life’s experience what might happen.  If this gospel reading tells us nothing else, if countless passages of scripture tell us nothing else, if the experience of so many who have gone before us tells us nothing else, it is that the Holy Spirit will never, ever abandon us, and that at some point along the path, in the midst of our fear something will happen and we will discover that we are not alone and that God is with us no matter what.

The disciples cried out in fear, but Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” As you and I face our fears, Jesus speaks to you and to me and says, “Take heart, do not be afraid.”