06 October 2008

Faith and Fear

By the Rev. Arabella Meadows-Rogers, Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of New York City
Stated Meeting - September 27, 2008
2 Timothy 1: 3-7 and Mark 4: 35-41

Pioneers. Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of clergywomen, and we named, Katie Cannon and Blanqui Otano and Peg Howland and Elizabeth Ehling, and Idalisa Fernandez, Pioneers in the faith, who risked and dared and faced hostility and fear.

This afternoon we talk about issues that divide us: race, class gender, language, country of origin. Difficult conversations, fraught with fear.

This summer I have been privileged to be a part of many leave-takings and many arrivals.: Jo Cameron, Ch Brewster, John Smucker, Scott Black Johnston, Charles Johnson….And part of my work every week is meeting with pastors, candidates, who want to be a part of the life of a congregation here. Each COM meeting, several annual reviews, several arrivals..times of change and times of hope and times of anxiety. And at each of them I was so aware of fear, and excitement, and hope, and expectation.. and fear, and fear, and fear.

I gave Charles Brewster a Russian doll to celebrate his retirement, one that opens to reveal another doll and another and another, and what I said was that I hoped his retirement would be about more mystery, more excitement, more new experiences.

But we all know that change, that is, mystery and excitement cause as much fear and dread as they do hope and expectation.

You know how children love the scary houses at amusement parks.

My cousin Will was about 4 when his mother took him to the scary house at the State Fair. And the car was careening around those dark bends, and scary things were tickling their necks, and monsters were rising up from corners, and Will was sitting, frozen and still and thrilled and scared, as each new shock came at him, . . . . .and then their car rounded a bend and 3 big musketeer-types rushed out the darkness and shouted, “Fire at Will!”

And 4 year old Will leaped up in the car, and quakily shouted back, “Not me! I’m your friend!”

We all want to make friends of what scares us, of what’s coming around the next corner. We all want to know that what’s ahead is more about hope and expectation and good things, and not about fear and churning stomachs, and scary times.

The disciples in the boat were afraid.

“Teacher, teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

How quickly they forget! That very day, Jesus had been teaching them in parables: on sowing good seed in good soil, on not hiding your lamp under a bushel, on the faith the size of a mustard seed.. He had been teaching them all day.

And now they got in the boat and forgot all he’d been teaching them. No faith like a mustard seed, no disciples acting like good soil, no bringing their lamp out from under the bushel to show them the way, very much afraid. This storm will undo them!

We want to make friends of what scares us… and how quickly we forget, when we’re afraid, of the good news we’ve been given. We do not see Jesus in the boat.

Our new stated clerk of the General Assembly, Gradye Parsons, this summer, preached on this passage, and he said this:

Get in the boat
Go across the lake.
There will be a storm.
You will not die.

A week later he was having heart surgery. I wonder if he remembered the words he’d preached.

I think I’d express it another way, but the primary sentiment still is:

You are not alone.
Jesus is there in the boat.

Get in the boat
Go across the lake.
There will be a storm
No matter what happens, you are not alone.

God is your friend.

Julian of Norwich said it this way:

Jesus did not say
You will not be caught in storms
Jesus did not say
You will not struggle
Jesus said you will not be afflicted
Jesus said, “You will not be overcome”. *

Friends, having spent much of the last year thinking and praying about this passage about fear, I want to say that I believe this presbytery, this denomination, is awash, and in danger of capsizing, because of its own fear.

Let me say it again, this presbytery, this denomination, is awash, and in danger of capsizing, because of its own fear. How do I know this? Because instead of meeting fear with friendship, we batten down the hatches, armor ourselves with platforms and positions, draw our wagons in a circle with those who agree with us, and we stop listening. We only lift the hatches to aim and fire wildly. We sing words of love one minute and shout words of anger as soon as worship is over. That’s fear.

I do not say that to blame, but to sympathize. I am a part of the problem as we all are. I don’t think I would have stood up in that scary car like Will did. I too have been too often stuck in my own fear, of what would happen if I really said what I thought, if I reached out across some invisible chasm and spoke vulnerable words, if I … I too have blamed others without telling them, have thought ill of people because of my own assumptions and perceptions without checking them out; I too have quit listening when I get afraid.

We are stuck in our own fear, and we do not see Jesus in the boat with us.

 We fear that we do not have all the answers.
 We fear that we will step out in faith and God will not be there.
 We fear that we cannot save our little churches, the churches we love.
 We fear that the church will not be there for our grandchildren and that we somehow have failed them.
 We fear to tell the hurting truth to each other and we cover up the hurt with anger.
 We fear that if we told the truth to each other, we might look ugly in our own eyes, or in theirs
 We fear we are alone.
 We fear we are alone.
 We fear we are alone

We are mired in our own fearfulness, and cannot even see that Jesus is there in the boat with us.

And let me say this about fear: fear freezes. It doesn’t flow. Fear CAN capsize that little boat. I’m a canoeist, and I know: the more afraid I get, the more I tremble and quake, the more the boat is likely to capsize, and the less able I am to trust the oars, the water, the boat, myself, or my partner behind me. I can’t see ahead of me to the other side, to the promised land, all I can see is the deep dark frightening water opening like a chasm right in front of me.

Fear freezes, doesn’t flow, creates distrust, and lack of vision.

We are mired in our own fearfulness, and cannot even see that Jesus is there in the boat with us.. with ALL of us, not with part of us, not with the people we agree with, or the people we’ve been talking to this week, or with just the others. Jesus is there in the boat with all of us, hoping and praying even while he’s asleep that we’ll quite our quarrelling and get about the business of being the church.

The popular saying is that ‘faith conquers fear’ or that God never gives you more than you can handle.

Frankly, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t found that to be the case. I would rather say that ‘faith attends fear’, and that God comes to meet you as you face the storm, sort of like little Will when he stood up to those musketeers. That’s when the unknown becomes your friend. You take a risky step, you waver and hover, you doubt and quake and then faith attends you like Jesus waking in the boat, and slowly the waters don’t seem quite so stormy.

This summer I read t he biographies of some of the early explorers—Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus, and Balboa,… who somehow found the courage to overcome their fears of the unknown and venture out into uncharted territory…and what I was looking for was, what gave them that courage? What got them over their fear? It wasn’t always faith, it wasn’t fear, it was courage to try something new. Courage is when faith meets fear, faith attends fear, and becomes its friend. Trying to go south along the coast of Africa to round The Cape of Good Hope, they kept failing when out of fear they kept close to the coast. It was when they took a risky step despite their fear and ventured farther out into the waters of the Atlantic that they found the warm friendly winds to help them go south.

We want to make friends of what scares us… and how quickly we forget, when we’re afraid, of the good news we’ve been given. We do not see Jesus in the boat.


It was a dark day in December, right before Christmas last year, when I got the initial cancer diagnosis, cancelled my plans to go see my grandchildren, and lay in a hospital bed waiting for more tests. It was a difficult three days and several months as the storms and the doubts and fear hovered near.

And I have to say this: my faith didn’t immediately conquer fear. I didn’t immediately see Jesus. I was frozen. I thought I was alone.

But as I cried out internally and tried to face the terror I felt, and as I prayed and heard others praying for me, I heard slowly, in the darkness, over and over again, a loving presence, a loving word, “I will be with you; I have called you by name, You are mine”.

Faith attends fear.

Let me say it again,

Faith attends fear. Jesus is in the boat with us, in the storms, in the dark.

The Spirit of hope, the Spirit of love, the Spirit of God will be there for you in your fear, the Spirit will be there for me in mine. It will be there for us, if we take a risky step together, if we commit ourselves to lift the hatches of suspicion and offer friendship instead.

Our faith grows as we take risks, act with courage, try new things, as w e quakily face the fears and doubts that assail us, and then at some point, we realize Jesus was there all along.

God is our friend, our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble, even when we cannot see God or think Jesus is asleep at the wheel.

Take risky steps.
Speak the truth in love.
Reach out across the aisle.
Trust a little more.
Trust God a little more.

The promised land is still ahead, and we are not alone.

We can face the future together, if we acknowledge the friends around us. God is with us.

Try this with me:

I have advanced cancer,
but God is my refuge and my strength!
I’m worried about the economy,
but God is my refuge and my strength
We worship in a small church,
but God is our refuge and our strength!!
We’re not sure about the future,
but God is our refuge and our strength!
Sometimes we cover our fear with anger,
but God is our refuge and our strength!
We yearn for a future filled with hope and faith,
God is our refuge and our strength!
I know that I am not alone.
For God is our refuge and our strength.
We know that we are not alone…
for God is our refuge and our strength!

Turn to your neighbor and say: God is our refuge and our strength!

Jesus has been here all along…

Thanks be to God. Amen.

* This quote was given to me by Presbytery Teaching Pastor Steve Shussett, Lehigh Presbytery, right after I was diagnosed with cancer. I have not been able to locate the exact location of the quote.

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