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Sermon: Courage or Fear?


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

I Samuel 17.1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49; Psalm9.9-20; 2 Corinthians 6.1-13; Mark 4.35-41

Today’s readings contain several allusions to fear and terror. In I Samuel, we have the David and Goliath story. Goliath, as was the custom, was taunting the Israelites: “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. . . I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man that we may fight together” (I Samuel 17.8, 10; NRSV). The account then tells us, “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid” (Vs. 11; NRSV). The author reiterates this fear in verse 24: “All the Israelites, when they saw Goliath, fled from him and were very much afraid” (NRSV).

Psalm 9 is a song of thanksgiving which begins with these words: “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds” (Vs 1; NRSV). But this psalm contains several allusions to troubles, which are usually accompanied by fear: “The Lord will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in time of trouble;” “The Lord will not forget the cry of the afflicted;” “Have pity on me, O Lord; see the misery I suffer from those who hate me, O you who lift me up from the gate of death;” “Put fear upon the ungodly, O Lord; let the ungodly know they are but mortal” (Psalm 9.9, 12b, 13, 20; BCP).

In the reading from 2nd Corinthians, St. Paul gives us quite a list of things which could be accompanied by fear: “As servants of God, we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (6.4-5; NRSV).

And in the reading from Mark, we encounter fear and terror. Many of the disciples were seasoned fishermen – this was no ordinary windstorm. The waves were filling the boat; they feared they were perishing. And since Jesus was sleeping, they likely feared Jesus was not concerned about their ultimate safety: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4.38b; NRSV). Jesus rebuked the winds and the waves; dead calm ensued. Then Jesus put the question to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4.40; NRSV). Mark then tells us the disciples were filled with great awe – this was fear to the Nth degree. “Terror” may be a better translation. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4. 41b)

They had seen Jesus perform some miracles of healing; they had seen him command demons to depart. But commanding the wind and the seas! Who is this man? I suspect there was a dawning realization that they were in the presence of none other but the Son of God. This might be a bit like engaging in some pretty wild behaviors at a party only to realize your priest has been witnessing your antics and will see you at the communion rail on Sunday! Imagine their thought: If he commands the wind and the waves, surely, he knows who I really am and what I really think. How on earth did I get asked to be one of his disciples? This was a time when the expression, “Oh, my God!” was legitimate and terrifying!

Mark begins this narrative with the words “on that day.” What is special about that day? Jesus had been teaching about the kingdom of God. He employed the parable of the profligate sower who sowed on a path, rocky ground, among thorns, and in good soil. He spoke of lighting a lamp and putting it under a bushel basket, of how the earth produces of itself once seed is sown, and of how the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. “On that day” tells us the events of the storm were a continuation of Jesus’ teaching and revealing.

We, too, have our deep fears and concerns. Some may fear the loss of a job or economic hardship or uncertainty. Some may have been striving to get more education and a better job yet be fearful of making so little headway. They may be asking themselves, “Is it always going to be this way?” Some may fear for their children’s health and safety. The days when children could play all day long virtually unsupervised appear to be a thing of the past. And even when we send them off to school, we fear what might happen.

Some may fear critical illness – either in oneself or in their loved ones. Some fear the prospect of aging or death. And what about the loss of self-esteem due to changing circumstances? Think of all who fear war and displacement – of those who fear drought and famine.

And what about the angst of life in general – existential dread? Many fear making fundamental change in pursuit of greater meaning and happiness. Living well demands that we confront our life courageously.

This past week I have talked with many who have shared their fears and uncertainties related to our country’s policy on immigration. We have seen the videos of children being taken away from nursing mothers. Fourteen hundred boys are being housed in an old Walmart that has been renamed Casa Padre – the Father’s House! Could they have thought of a more ironic or sacrilegious name?

Regardless of one’s political stance on immigration, are such actions humane? True, the policy has been reversed, but what about those who have already been separated and dispersed throughout the country? When will they be reunited with their parents – or will they be reunited? The problem remains unresolved. These are unsettling times – fearful times. The actions call to mind the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. Is this what our country is becoming?

How does the gospel relate to this? When Jesus stood up to read in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, he turned to Isaiah and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4.18-19; NRSV). After having read these words, Jesus rolled up the scroll, then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4. 21; NRSV).

As Christ’s disciples, we are called to bear witness, to call to account the actions of our government which violate human decency. Last Wednesday I was among several clergy who met and drafted a statement which appeared as a Letter to the Editor in Thursday’s (June 21st) edition of the Brookings Register:

We, the undersigned faith leaders in this community, call the people of God to recognize that the current US policy of immigration enforcement is devaluing lives and denying the image of God in humanity. We worship a God who, in flesh, said, ‘As surely as you do this to the least of these you do it to me.” (Matthew 25.40) Families are being torn apart, and children will bear the wounds of this moment for the rest of their lives. We reject the notion that in order for this country to be safe, we need to wound others. Therefore, we call upon our community to contact and challenge our elected officials to end the immoral and non-Biblical practice of tearing families apart. Further, we call upon our elected political leaders to recognize the value of all lives and to lift up the sacred value of the family. #EndFamilySeparation #KeepFamiliesTogether

This statement was endorsed by nine faith leaders of our community; I am sure more would have endorsed it if not for an impending deadline for submission.

Three members of St. Paul’s community bore witness by taking part in last Wednesday’s demonstrations. Our witness accomplished two things: First, it further emboldens and empowers us. If you sit on the sidelines and do not engage in the battle, your fears are far more likely to persist and to overwhelm you. When we act, when we call or write our legislator, when we write a letter to the editor, when we protest, when we help fund a campaign, when we campaign for a candidate, we realize we are not powerless victims standing on the sidelines of history. We are part of the change process. As Christians, it is important that we always ask if we are acting in love. Jesus expects us to work toward the implementation of the kingdom of God; Jesus equips us with the skills, the power, and the courage to do so! Like St. Paul, we may suffer some hardships, some adversities, as a consequence of our actions, but God is with us.

Second, our witness serves to encourage others! Following the publication of the above letter, a member of the community e-mailed me expressing thanksgiving and joy in seeing faith leaders speak out. Thursday afternoon I attended a meeting of the board of the South Dakota World Affairs Council. Several members commented on the letter and expressed their appreciation.

How do we respond to these times? We get involved, we study the gospel and seek to apply it, we encourage and exhort one another, and we pray for wisdom and guidance. We become the salt and the light we are called to be!


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