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Ordinary Sunday 19,  Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
August 10, 2014

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Matthew 14:22-33

‘Don’t be afraid’

How does it feel to be on your own? The simple refrain can serve to draw together some of what’s taking place in our readings today. How does it feel to be on your own? Vulnerable to discrimination, persecution? Lonely, vulnerable to paranoia and despair? God be with you ...

Matthew’s Messianic-Jewish/Christian community is on its own, no longer (after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70) a part of the Jewish institution, no longer enjoying the security of mainstream Judaism, vulnerable to forces of chaos and violence within and without. Economically, physically, spiritually. Including waves of state-sanctioned persecution (in the late 90s).

Matthew’s story likens the situation to that of a boat and its crew tossed about in a storm (a familiar predicament for biblical readers/hearers, familiar predicament for coast-dwelling people). The church as a boat is a prominent symbol in early Christian art. The anchor was one of the first symbols of Christian faith long before the cross came to symbolise the religion.

The Gospel, in short, is about a minority group out in the open (afraid, paranoid, persecuted the Greek word (basanizomenon) translated “tossed about” is also the word for “persecuted”) and Jesus/God appearing as an initially frightening then comforting figure.

Peter, representing the pilgrim church that often misunderstands Jesus, struggles with doubt, and even abandons Jesus in time of trial, is called to tread upon the chaos. For a moment he succeeds. When he fails, Jesus saves him (we might imagine, with a smile, with understanding). His words to Peter are words to the bold and frightened of every time and place: “You have so little faith! Why did you doubt?”

Walking on water ... certainly it’s about daring to believe ... it’s about daring to trust in a God more powerful than the chaos and violence; daring to trust that this God more powerful than the chaos and the violence is the God of Jesus Christ the God embodied in a passion for justice, and in compassion the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

It’s striking that Jesus is not so troubled by the chaos though his confidence, it’s important to note, is hard-won, is born of solitude and prayer (the night before time for prayer he sought upon hearing news of John’s execution).

Matthew is teaching that there is security in relationship with this God (in the face of chaos and violence) it is possible to cling to love, to nonviolence. It is faithful to resist intimidation, brute force and bullying ... A very contemporary message for small congregations, small churches. (On a run along the Princes Highway one time I noticed a billboard outside a certain “Bible-based” church that featured the head of a roaring lion with teeth bared, and the words “Fear the Lord!” emblazoned across it. The citation from Proverbs 1 and Psalm 111 is problematic for several reasons, namely in that it fails to account for context, biblical or personal. Is it about the teaching of wisdom, upbraiding the arrogant, fostering a due reverence for creation and for the Creator or is it about scaring people into submission?)

It is possible to cling to love, to nonviolence. How difficult this appears in the context of minorities at risk in Iraq and in Gaza and in Israel. Christian, Muslim and Jewish minorities. Minorities bearing the treasures of their respective traditions.

It is faithful to resist intimidation, brute force and bullying. How difficult this may appear to those who have known torment and torture, whose identities and choices have seen them punished and pushed from support, stability, safety, sanity ...

I was talking with a friend about the 19th-century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose works, including The Anti-Christ, articulate a belief in the "will to power". Nietzsche calls for a new way to be human that embraces natural forces (forces beyond good and evil) the strong over the weak and refuses to complain, whine, or decry the fortunes of the powerful. Nietzsche saw Christianity (and Judaism for that matter) as a religion of the weak of poor lambs, cry-babies, and resentful slaves. He argued for a return to something more heroic.

I recall that conversation because, as unlikeable a belief as I’ve made it just now, Nietzschean faith represents a real challenge. It’s the modern world-view of an indifferent universe blind chance, survival, self-promotion. One commentator writes: “Nietzsche replaces ‘redemption’ whether by God or by revolutionary social movements; for Nietzsche it is a matter of indifference how we prop up ‘morals’ with amor fati, love of the earth as it is, without allowance for line-item vetoes. It is not the Lord Jesus that he prays come again, but the eternal circulation of life, with its endless wheel of joy and sorrow.” [John D. Caputo, More Radical Hermeneutics: On Not Knowing Who We Are, Indiana University Press, 2000, p. 243.] The endless wheel of joy and sorrow. Wave after wave after wave …

How does it feel to be on your own? It can be exhilarating, sure. Reading Nietzsche can be exhilarating. But it is also terrifying. The more so, the more that one is vulnerable to persecution the poorer one is. And as one online commentator points out, in a consumer culture of increasingly older workers and a withering welfare sector, in a “culture of reciprocity” I’ll read to these kids until their parents frustrate me; I’ll visit the nursing home for as long as it’s “rewarding” efforts toward community-building are seriously undermined more and more people are vulnerable to paranoia and despair [Dave Fagg (http://davefagg.com.au)].

For which coming, for which event do we pray? For the eternal circulation of life, with its endless wheel/waves of joy and sorrow, or for the coming of the Lord Jesus, the Crucified and Risen Saviour? Faith in the forces of nature, the strong over the weak, or faith in the impossible love of God for all the crucified and oppressed?

For me, it’s never an easy choice. I feel the waves hitting the boat. I am anxious for the world, for the church, and for myself. And I see that the Christ who appears is strange, scary. I see Christ as a threat to my self-centred ways the strange, religious One (from a time and place so different from my own) who takes time out for prayer, the One not so troubled by chaos, and the one who then makes accessible the healing presence of love. I see this Christ in all kinds of places: in people, in art, in politics, in songs and stories. (Joseph, for instance, is a Christ figure in that he is the threatening younger son who ends up a saviour ultimately forgiving the violence of his frightened brothers. Joseph the beloved, in a coat of many colours, is a Christ figure in that his peace-making, his ministry of healing, participates in the Wisdom beloved of Abba-God.)

How does it feel to be on your own? Sometimes it’s lonely. And yet there is a solitude and intimacy prayerful, however that comes about and faithful wherein you may hear the words of comfort: “Don’t worry, it’s me; don’t be afraid.” These may also be the most exhilarating words of all, for they call us out, with trembling others, upon the water. They call us to community service, to life in relationship, with trembling others in a world teeming with life, to Christ. Where the impossible may be, just may be, possible.

When or where have you heard such words of comfort: “Don’t worry, it’s me; don’t be afraid.” … Amen.