There is a lot to be afraid about these days, even from our relatively stable vantage point here at Gethsemani. The world out there seems like a chaotic place. Things are happening which we don’t understand. We don’t have control. There is a virus going around which no one seems to have a handle on. Why does it kill some people and have little to no effect on others? How is it spread? We don’t know. Some political leaders keep trying to minimize the danger, repeating that they are doing a great job containing the virus, yet people are dying at an increasing rate. There are demonstrations in cities across the country and around the world demanding change regarding our attitudes toward racial inequality. Some of these demonstrations have turned violent, sometimes with the police as instigators. The demonstrations were sparked by charges of brutality against young black people by the police, the very force that is supposed to protect them. We might suspect that the people we have trusted, the laws we have trusted, may not be trustworthy. Or, on the other hand, we may see some of the protesters using the demonstrations as an excuse to loot and destroy property, with police and local governments unable to stop the violence, and fear that the rule of law is breaking down. The virus has broken the most ordinary social customs, going out for dinner, to see a movie, to watch a baseball game, or even to visit friends for a summer barbecue. And the demonstrations make us wonder if the streets of our cities are even safe for a solitary walk. And even here, our parking lot is empty, our guest house remains deserted, Sunday mass lacks the usual crowd, and our entranceway is blocked by yellow caution tape. The once familiar is looking uncomfortably strange. We wonder if the world will ever return to normal, or if there is even a normal to return to. The ground is shifting underneath our feet, as if we were in a boat in a storm.
Fear is possibly the most destructive of human reactions. There is, certainly, such a thing as salutary fear – fear of crossing a busy street, fear of a growling dog, fear of falling from a great height, or even a not-so-great height as we get older. These healthy fears help to keep us safe, to keep us from taking unnecessary risks. Destructive fear, though, tends to focus on less tangible things. Fear of change. Fear of losing what we have. Fear of other people, particularly those who are different from us. Fear of the unknown. Such fears are the bedrock on which dictatorships are built. Fears have started wars, fuel prejudice and hatred, and are the root cause of much crime. In a fairly recent incident, a man was slowly driving his truck toward a demonstration and was approached by another man on foot carrying an AK47 rifle. He thought this man was threatening him, so he pulled out his own pistol and shot him, killing him on the spot. The one man was carrying a rifle because he feared for his safety, the man in the truck was carrying a pistol because he feared for his safety. The demonstrators are tired of living in fear for their lives at the hands of an unjust justice system, the police are afraid for their lives at the hands of an unruly mob. Fear feeds on fear and almost always results in violence. It destabilizes the ground under our feet, as if we were in a boat in a storm.
The disciples were already afraid because of the storm. The wind and the waves were preventing them from crossing the eight miles to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They’d been trying to get across all night, and it was now the very dead of night, about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. But when they saw Jesus approaching, their fear turned into panic. “They were terrified,” Matthew tells us. He seemed to them like a manifestation of the storm itself, an apparition rising from the wind and water. He added to their fear rather than dispelling it. Jesus came to them walking on the water, on top of the raging waves, against the powerful winds. He didn’t calm the water first in order to stroll along undisturbed, he walked in the midst of the storm, in the dead of the night, while it was at its worst.
This is not perhaps where we might look for Jesus. We look for him in church, in prayer, in the calm of ritual and meditation. We look for him in friendships, in consolations, in love and gratitude. When we are disturbed, when we are threatened, when we are afraid, we tend to look to ourselves – how do we get out of this one? We do not look to find Jesus in the very center of the pandemic, in the midst of the demonstrations. Yet we can be sure he is there. I mean, we know this intellectually, sure Jesus is everywhere, particularly in trouble, Scripture tells us this, we know lots of stories that tell us this, but we may not trust it entirely, especially at first, when the trouble happens to us. Our first reaction to fear is inevitably fight, flight or freeze, and Jesus asks us to counter all of these natural reactions. So we may see Jesus as an obstacle, or, more likely, we might look right through him as if he wasn’t there.
Elijah also sees God in an unlikely place. From his hiding place in a cave, he is waiting for God to manifest. A mighty wind cracks mountains, an earthquake shakes the ground, and a fire ravages the forest, all obvious signs of divine activity. But God is not in any of them. Instead, God is in the still, small voice, the “tiny whispering sound,” in our translation. Elijah had to be attentive, to be really listening, to hear it. God comes in unexpected ways, in this tiny whisper, and walking in the very midst of all our confusion and turmoil.
And what does Jesus tell us? “Do not be afraid.” He asks us to give up our fear. Peter wants to walk on the water too, and Jesus surprisingly agrees. And what is more astonishing, he actually does walk on water. Peter has the ability to walk on water. At least for a moment. Then fear returns, and he begins to sink. Notice that he doesn’t just plop into the water as he might if he just stepped out of the boat on an ordinary day. No, he sinks slowly enough that he has time to cry out to Jesus for help and there is still time for Jesus to take his hand and catch him. It is faith that gives Peter the ability to walk on water, and fear that causes Peter to sink.
Across the world today, and particularly in the United States, fear is causing people to sink, to sink into despair, loneliness, and even violence. Jesus asks us to give up our fear. This is hard for us to do – we think our fear is keeping us safe. People are buying guns in record numbers out of fear, to keep themselves safe. But fear is its own biggest threat. Without fear, there is no need for violence, we don’t need to feel that we are in constant danger, our neighbours don’t turn into enemies, our brothers and sisters are not a threat. That’s not to say that bad things won’t happen to us, they most certainly will, but if we follow Jesus and give up our fear, we don’t even fear death, because we know that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us.
Fear is the opposite of love. Fear closes us off from others, love opens us up. Fear leads to mistrust and hatred, love leads to trust and faith. Fear leads to violence, love leads to peace. But we cannot give up our fear entirely on our own, just as we cannot know love entirely on our own. We must recognize our helplessness, recognize that on our own we can only sink, and call out to Jesus for help, and to reach out our hands so that Jesus us can catch us and take us back to solid ground.