Take Heart, it is I, Do not be Afraid

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Today I had the joy of filling in for my friend, Pastor Andrew Dietzel, leading worship and preaching at the congregations he serves- Edensburg Lutheran Church in Malmo, Nebraska and Alma Lutheran Church in Mead, Nebraska. The sermon for today was based on the gospel reading for Lectionary 19A, Matthew 14:22-33. The majority of the manuscript I preached from is below. 

Grace and peace from God in Christ who is with us, for us, calls us, and says to us, do not be afraid. Amen.

Last week we heard the story of God’s miracles and abundance with the Feeding of the Five Thousand. This week we pick up right where we left off in the story of Jesus walking on water.

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Edensburg Lutheran Church in Malmo, Nebraska

Well, it’s good to be with you again today, having been here earlier this spring. It’s a privilege to be with you on this Sunday, after spending a wonderful week at the first ever ELCA Rostered Ministers Gathering in Atlanta with nearly 900 other pastors, deacons, and bishops from across this church. It’s also a joy to be able to help fill in for my friend and your pastor Andrew, as he spends some time on parental leave.

Today’s Gospel Story
Today’s gospel story is packed. It begins with Jesus going off by himself to pray. He tried to do this earlier, but the crowds followed him, so instead they had a huge feast and God’s miracles of abundance were shared. To try and get some rejuvenating alone time with God, Jesus then sends the disciples out on a boat. I doubt the disciples thought much about this, after all many of them were fishermen in their vocations before following Jesus. But perhaps Jesus knew all along that this might present an opportunity?

After Jesus sends them out, and they are far off shore, it seems like the perfect time and place to display God’s power in action. Jesus showed it by multiplying the resources of bread and fish to feed five, ten, fifteen thousand, depending on how you do the math. Today Jesus does it by walking on water. God has power over the sea, obviously, because how else could you walk on water? (Unless of course you are ice-fishing in the frozen winter of Minnesota or perhaps around here during a very cold winter. Then you could probably say that you too have walked on water, at least scientifically.)

But, unexplainably and miraculously, Jesus comes out to the boat and meets them. And, as is often the case in the gospels, the appearance of God or God’s messenger, means people are going to get scared and nervous, especially when showing up in a way that defies explanation and should be impossible.

To alleviate the fear he knows they are feeling, to put aside any human nature ideas that this might be some kind of ghost or evil spirit, Jesus greets them in his usual fashion of peace and assurance by saying, “do not be afraid.”[1]

Reminders of God’s Presence
With these words, “do not be afraid,” the disciples, and we too are reminded of God’s presence with us. This puts the disciples’ fears, doubts, and anxieties at ease. It’s also a message for us, that Jesus wants us to hear today.

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The sanctuary at Alma Lutheran in Mead, Nebraska as people begin to arrive for worship.

Some of you might be stressed and busy, hurrying to finish up everything as you or your kids or grandkids go back to school. Others of you, like me, might be trying to hang on to summer as long as you can, which means packing in the fun in the sun and taking advantage of it, and getting the last day in at the pool before the Nebraska winds change, the temperatures start to drop, the leaves fall, and the crops are harvested.

Many of you might be hoping anxiously for more rain for the crops to have a good harvest this year. Some of you might be hoping for good news from a doctor, or waiting as patiently as you can for a diagnosis. Some of you might be worried about the community around you. Many of you might be worried about the powers that be, the thought of war, the sin and evil of racism that reared its ugly head in Charlottesville, Virginia and the uncertainty, reality, horror, and pain of it all.

All these feelings are normal, natural, and understandable. To be perfectly honest, today is not an easy day to preach. But it’s especially for times like these, and for whatever else might be on your hearts and minds today, that God in Christ again says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.[2]

Take heart
To take heart, we take a moment to take stock of where we are at. We give ourselves permission to stop and get a deeper sense of what’s going on. We take a step back. We take a deep breath, and in that breath we hopefully collect ourselves and remember the peace, hope, and promises we know in God in Christ. It might be just enough that we feel ready to take a step, to say okay, or to say, “you know what, I’m going to give this a try.”

This I believe is what fills Peter with enough confidence or craziness today. When Jesus says, “take heart,” Peter offers himself up to be commanded to come to Jesus, by walking out on top of the water himself. And you know what, he almost makes it too.

It is I
“Take heart, it is I…” We are reminded today again, that God is with us, “Emmanuel.”  The one who created us, calls us to follow, and entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are, is also the one who loves us and is with us, just as God promises. These promises and presence of God, give our life meaning. They provide comfort and peace. They are words of a God who always comes near to us– not a God whom we have to go near toward.

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The sanctuary at Edensburg Lutheran Church in Malmo, Nebraska as people begin to arrive for worship.

These words from Jesus are also an invitation to live a life of interesting adventure. Perhaps for some of you it might even be like Peter, going out and walking on water? Perhaps for others it might be doing something totally outside of your comfort zone? To travel or visit someplace that you might not have necessarily gone? To move away from home to Nebraska like me, or from home in Nebraska to someplace far, far away?

This invitation from Jesus is also an invitation to a life of deep meaning; challenges; and the good, bad, and ugly of living the life of the cross as a disciple. It’s an invitation to abundant life, but one that’s also a risky, sometimes uncomfortable, and very vulnerable life. Because when we follow and live this kind of life, we are admitting that our life isn’t just about us. It’s about each other, and it’s about this God who gives us life. When we do this, we are vulnerable because we give up our human tendency or belief that we are in control. We admit that this is about God.

“Do not be afraid!”
As much as all of this might feel challenging or scary, Jesus completes his invitation, “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid!” These are four words that God, angels, and Jesus himself say many times throughout scripture, not just today.

These are words which usually accompany an important moment. Sometimes this is a moment of change in the story, like when the angel meets Mary and Joseph, telling them about what God is doing and will do with and through them.

Other times, this “do not be afraid,” accompanies a moment of deep faith formation and discovery, like perhaps today, where Jesus says, “do not be afraid” from on top of the water and outside of the boat.

Still other times, these words, “do not be afraid” might mark a moment where God is calling us to take notice. Perhaps around Jesus’ baptism, or when God’s voice even accompanies an action like that saying words like “This is my beloved… listen to him.”

These four words, “do not be afraid,” are so important. But I doubt they always take the fear away, at least at first.

Who do we identify with in this story?
We all fall into times of doubt like Peter. If we are honest, I think we could all easily identify as Peter in this story.

I think most of us, including myself, could also identify with any one of the other disciples who would never even make or think to make such a crazy offer to walk on the water towards Jesus in the first place. Maybe they’re a little more sane, or play it a bit safer? Maybe they are more aware of the weather, and bracing to stay upright as the waves continue to rock the boat uncontrollably? Peter was just crazy enough to seemingly put God to the test in this way, and had the courage to follow Jesus’ call to “Come.”[3]

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached on this text this past week, and I loved how she described this. It’s like Peter is so excited to see Jesus that he commands Jesus to command him to come, and Jesus is probably like…. “Ummm…. Okay, I’ve got you.” It’s like a parent in a pool, trying to catch their child who jumps in or is just learning to swim, who says, “Catch me, catch me.”[4]

But as Peter gets out of the boat, and takes notice of the wind and what’s happening around him, doubt starts to creep in. This is true for us too. Doubt creeps in when we think about things that are out of our control. Doubt can creep in when we start to worry about finances, assets, and money; fearing that we don’t have enough, and that we aren’t enough. Thinking we don’t have enough, in terms of stewardship, that’s called scarcity.

Doubt creeps in when we let scarcity dictate what we can do as people, communities, and congregations. Doubt and scarcity creep in when we let our fear have power over us, and limit us, especially when we think it’s all up to us. They creep in when we think, there’s nothing we can do, and so we decide to do nothing.

This is precisely when we need to remember that it’s not about us. It’s about God!

We hear today that “When Jesus got into the boat, the wind ceased.”[5] God has power over the wind. God has power over nature. God has power over the mystery, fears, and unknown of the deep.

The disciples were amazed as usual, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.'”[6]

The wind ceases because God has power over it. Jesus walks on water, because God has power over it. These things, these miracles, are all possible because of God.

Taking a step back, last week the multitude was fed because Jesus said so, and God had power to do that. All were fed, and there were even doggy bags of left overs. The disciples helped to do this work, and were the hands, feet, and even offered some of the food to make it happen. But it was God working with and through them that fed the crowd.

It’s God’s Work that we’re all a part of
Feeding the hungry, serving our neighbor, seeing the needs of the strangers all around us, working for justice and peace in all the earth… these are things we can do, and things we are also entrusted with the abilities and capacity to do, because of God.

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I found this in the sacristy at Edensburg Lutheran. I think it’s a beautiful reminder of our identity as a Child of God

They are things we are called and created to do. They are things that flow from our being baptized as Children of God, disciples, and stewards. But we don’t do them alone. We do them together as God’s people, but most importantly, we do them together with the one who says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” We do them together, as God’s hands and feet in this world. We do not, nor can we, do them apart from God.

We do these, because “God in Christ is right there. Holding us. With us. Right there in the boat with us,”[7] amid the storms, our fears, and all that seems to keep us from being in community with one another.

When we think it’s about us, that’s exactly when we run into problems, just like when Peter noticed the wind while on the water. When we think it’s just about us, it’s when we the church turn inward and focus on what’s happening only here, and not on what’s happening outside these walls, in the neighborhood, out on the farms, at school, in our work places, at the grocery story, and everywhere else we find ourselves.

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Some of the care packets that were assembled today to be shared and delivered out in the community.

But there’s another word of hope here for us today. When we get like this, when we have our blinders on, and think it’s just up to us, God in Christ is right there to reach out his hands and to bring us back up on top of the water, just like he did for Peter in today’s story. God is right there to tenderly say, “O Little One, I have you. It’s okay. I’ve got you.”[8] God isn’t scoffing at Peter today. God is showing God’s love, and reminding us that it is always God who comes near to us. This is most certainly good news.

This is who the Son of God is. This is what God does. For us, and for all people. God creates us each in God’s own image. God calls us to follow and join in this abundant and challenging life as a steward and disciple. God entrusts us with what we need to meet the needs of our neighbor. God loves us, even to and through the point of death. And through it all, God is with us, with hands out stretched, and sharing a message of hope, peace, and challenge: “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” Amen.

Citations, References, and Sources:
[1] Matthew 14:27, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 14:27, NRSV.
[3] Matthew 14:29, NRSV.
[4] Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Sermon, 10 August 2017, ELCA Rostered Ministers Gathering, Atlanta, Georgia.
[5] Matthew 14:32, NRSV.
[6] Matthew 14:33, NRSV.
[7] Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, 10 August 2017, ELCA Rostered Ministers Gathering.
[8] Ibid.

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