June 25, 2006

Immanuel Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell

I Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49

II Corinthians 6:1-13

Mark 4: 35-41


    Facing Down Fear:

    Both of Death and Of Living


            Good Morning.  I suppose I should first report on the success of the PrideFest parade and picnic yesterday morning and afternoon – and Immanuel’s participation therein.  We were a proud band of Immanuelites:

            Patty Collins, Sarah Collins, Arlene Lidbergh, Jenni Mason and her friend Lynda, Max Tidwell, Lynne Sangster, Chuck and I marched in the parade along with Sarah’s pup Todo and our puppy Mac.

            Gale Smoke and Norm and Jane Schlittler marched nearby with PFLAG.

Back at the Park Strip, Barbe’ Neeson, grandson Stevie, Chris Neeson, Devin Compton, Jesse Crocker, Lynne and Jenni hawked ice cream bars and popcycles for five hours.  We also passed out fliers about Immanuel.

            Immanuel’s presence was well noted.  And while our adventure may not have been a great economic success, we made lots of friends and had a great afternoon.

            Periodically through the afternoon, someone would ask whether or not I should really be home writing a sermon.  I figured I was where I was supposed to be – and had faith that with a little help from my friends, I’d come up with something of some significance to share with you this morning.

            My friends, it turns out, are a worldwide bunch.  Having gotten home from the picnic, I decided to see what other ministers had had to say about our Gospel Lesson for this morning, the one about Jesus Calming the Storm, or more to the point, about the disciples getting quite riled up because Jesus hadn’t calmed the storm for them quick enough!

            I poke around on the Internet and found a website put together by the Rev. Rex Hunt of the Uniting Church of Australia, presently serving  a church at Canberra.  Rev. Hunt refers to his church as Progressive, Post-Liberal – and his website expounds the same Eight Principles of Progressive Christianity that Immanuel has adopted as part of our Mission Statement.  I liked Rev. Hunt already.

            Rev. Hunt had done some thinking already regarding the passage this morning from Mark – and it had a slightly different slant from the interpretations I’d heard preached in the past regarding not having enough faith in Jesus to get us through the storms of life.

            Hunt’s perspective was that Jesus was not bawling out the disciples for not having enough faith in Jesus, but rather for not having enough faith in themselves.

            What were the disciples so darned scared of?, Hunt asks.  These experienced fishermen weren't just surprised by, or afraid of, a storm. They’d been there. Done that. The Sea of Galilee was notorious for storms. Every day they ventured out, they ran the risk of some sort of bad weather.

            Okay, this might have been a particularly furious storm.  But again, Jesus was a carpenter, not a sailor.  He’d gone out on the Sea of Galilee expecting that his friends could handle whatever came up.  He was so confident in them that he dosed off to sleep.

            Lo and behold, they wake him up screaming – “You let us down!  You’re going to let us die!  Don’t you care anything about us?  Wake up and calm the storm!!!”

            Sleepy and exasperated, Jesus wakes up and says “Quiet!” and the storm goes away. Then he turns and rebukes his friends saying, “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”

            Hunt suggests that the disciples had developed an unhealthy dependency on Jesus and had lost all courage, all faith in themselves and their own abilities.

            Okay, the disciples were afraid.  Perhaps we should cut them a little slack. Fear is a very powerful thing in our lives. Fear of Death. It prompts us to seek protection in times of very real danger. It serves as a constant reminder that we are fragile, limited, human. This kind of rational fear can be a good thing.
            On the other side of these impulses, we know fear also prompts us to lock the doors of our lives from the mystery and wonder of the unknown and can force us into isolated hiding. Fear of failure.  Fear of ridicule. Fear of just not being as good or as competent as someone we respect or with whom we are in serious competition.

            I read in another book this week with a story about an old Jewish man named Akiba. Akiba was on his deathbed.  The rabbi came to be with him at the end and the old man whispered to him, “I am not worthy. I die a failure. I fear God’s judgment.”

            The rabbi asked, “But why, why are you afraid?”

            Akiba replied, “Because I have not lived a life like Moses.”  And he began to cry.          The rabbi whispered gently, “Akiba, the Lord God will not judge Akiba for not being Moses.  God will judge Akiba for not being Akiba.”

            Like Akiba, we can be so obsessed with trying to be Moses,  that we miss out on the grand adventure of being ourselves.  But what holds us back?  Fear.

            Very few emotions are stronger than fear. It can paralyze our every action. What is it that we are really afraid of? What were the disciples really afraid of?

            Was it really fear of the storm?  These men had weathered many a storm before.  They had the resources within their own experience, within their own psyche to do this thing.  They could bring this boat to shore.  But somehow they were afraid to do it.  They wanted Jesus to do it for them – with some miraculous words that would relieve them of any need to even try. 

            There was a newspaper cartoon once portraying an old, bearded street prophet with a sign:

THE WORLD IS NOT COMING TO AN END.                                                                     WE WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO COPE!

Hunt suggests, and I guess I am suggesting as well, that Jesus wanted the disciples to confront their fears.  Not to be unduly dependent upon him, but to draw upon their own God-given resources.  Jesus was still in the boat.  He hadn’t forgotten them. But he wanted them to exercise their faith in themselves, as well as in Him!

            I’m going to leave Rev. Hunt and his insights here and compare the Mark story with the David and Goliath story from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning.  From all accounts, young David was a scrawny little goat and sheep handler from Bethlehem.  He also played a mean harp.  He’d already made the acquaintance of King Saul, if you remember, before the Philistines gathered their forces for war.  The youngest of eight sons, David was running back and forth from his father’s sheep farm to the war zone where his brothers were stationed with King Saul.  He brought food and drink to his older brothers on a daily basis. 

            For forty days, this hulking Goliath person would come out and taunt the Israelites – no need for a full-fledged war, he’s say, just send one man out to fight me.  No one in forty days had taken up the challenge.  It is safe to say each and every one of the Israelite soldiers was afraid of this nine foot tall Hulk, clothed in a coat bronze armor from head to foot.

            David assesses the situation.  He talked to a few of the soldiers.  He learns that part of the reward for slaying Goliath would be exemption from taxes for his father’s family, plus marriage to one of the king’s daughters.  No Taxes!  Now that’s worth considering.

            David assessed himself. Once a lion had run off with a sheep from the flock.  David ran after it, struck it, killed it, and presumably brought the lamb back alive.  He’d killed both bears and lions on a regular basis – and not always in hand to hand combat.  You see he had this little contraption he’d been working on for a long time.  He knew his skills; he had a plan; he had a purpose; and he was willing to face the risks. 

            Furthermore, David – unlike Akiba -- did not try to be someone he wasn’t.  He was not an armor and sword sort of guy.  Such stuff would just trip him up.  He picked up his familiar slingshot and five smooth stones – and the rest is history.  David had faith in God.  But David also had faith in himself.

            So the storm was calmed and the disciples were “saved;” David clobbered Goliath and married Michal; but sometimes we don’t always get away unscathed, no matter how much confidence we have in ourselves.

            And this brings me to the Apostle Paul.  In his second letter to the Corinthians this morning, we get a pretty good idea that Paul has both confidence in himself and in his mission.  But my goodness, that does not protect him from hardships.  Quite to the contrary. 

            Paul recalls his beatings, his imprisonments, the riots, the sleeplessness, the hard work, the hunger, the deaths, the sorrow, the attacks upon his good name and reputation, and the attempts to discredit his ministry.

            Somehow Paul prevails. And prevails with a sense of love, joy, and possession of all that is necessary for a meaningful, purposeful life.  How can that be?  Why on earth didn’t he throw in the towel after the first time he was kicked in the gut, spat upon, and thrown into prison?  Why didn’t he just get a job, settle down, and go fishing on weekends.

            It can only be because Paul had a sense of a greater purpose than his own personal comfort at the moment.  Ask any mother or father who struggles to raise his or her children on their own – or even together, it’s sometimes very hard.  Wouldn’t it just be easier to leave those kids on somebody else’s door step – and go on and make a life without them?   Heck no.  Those children ARE her life; they ARE his purpose.  They are what makes the struggle all worthwhile.

            Making the struggle worthwhile.  This reminds me of the news from the Presbyterian General Assembly this week. A small number of people, with confidence in their understanding of the Will of God for themselves and their church, have been fighting a battle for 28 years against what appeared to be an unassailable Goliath of public opinion and conservative church theology and tradition.  These folks – we’ll call them More Light Presbyterians – wanted the church to embrace all persons of all sexual orientations within the church.  Not providing just “tolerance”, but “acceptance.”  More than just “acceptance,”  they wanted the church to open the offices of Deacon, Elder, even Minister to all persons called by God; those persons confident in this calling; those persons not only confident in themselves but who also have the confidence of their congregations.

            Well, this week it happened.  By a solid 77 vote margin, the Presbyterian Church USA voted to allow each congregation to decide for themselves, after a intense reflection, just who they believed were called to the offices of Deacon and Elder and to ordain such persons to such office.

            In the same manner, ordination of Ministers of Word and Sacrament will be up to the individual Presbyteries – again after applying this intense reflection and prayer to the individual situation. 

            It’s not a total victory.  But the compromise has kept the church together – and has allowed individual churches, such as Immanuel, to live faithfully as they understand the Word of God.   Keeping the church together was a major concern.  We didn’t want to KILL Goliath – we just wanted to learn how to live with him and for him to learn how to live with us.  This would be a veritable miracle, we all thought.  Some miracles take longer, but they happen nonetheless.       

            So, Paul’s journey was a long one. And the Presbyterian Church’s journey has also been a long one. Jesus has been in the boat with us; we can be sure of that. But he wanted us to figure it out for ourselves.  We can and have call upon him to calm the storms inside our brains so that we can more effectively navigate the storms around us. 

            By giving us the faith, courage, determination, skills, and self-confidence to face life, and ultimately even death – Jesus provides us miracle enough.     Amen.

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