“Stepping Out in Faith” Colchester Federated Church, August 13, 2017, (Matthew 14:22-33) Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Often we hear news reports about fear in America.  And years ago, I assumed when the news anchor started in on the topic of fear in America it was going to be the latest update on terrorism.  So it was surprising to hear the reporter relate that the number one fear of the American people is public speaking.  This is true according to the National Institute of Public Health, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and plenty of other sources.  The fear of public speaking or glossophobia tops the fear of spiders, snakes, closed in spaces, heights, and flying which are always near the top of the fear list in our country.  The fear of public speaking even surpasses the fear of death, which is usually number two.  In response, comedian Jerry Seinfeld once remarked, “In other words, at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

Glossophobia is hardwired into our systems.  We human beings are big on groups. We’re social animals.  Early humans were hunted by predators and a common defense became living in groups and collaborating to survive (and avoid becoming a midnight snack.)  So this whole notion of being out on your own and performing for a group can trigger this deep-seated fear of rejection, vulnerability, feeling defenseless, and being thrown to the wolves.  It ends up that this fear is hardwired into our systems from an evolutionary perspective.  It’s part of how we survived as a species, there’s strength in numbers and all.[1]

Knowing this reality reminds me of the Oscar winning movie The King’s Speech about King George VI of the United Kingdom.  (That’s the current queen of the U.K., Queen Elizabeth II’s father.)  The poor man stuttered and his speech impediment was severe.  Public addresses filled him with dread.  He wasn’t supposed to be king, but accepted the crown after his older brother abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson (a socialite and divorced American woman.)  King George worked with an unorthodox speech and language therapist from Australia named Lionel Logue, who helped him handle his stutter and they became friends.  Logue was present at King George’s speeches throughout World War II, offering support and encouragement behind the scenes.

“The royal stammer” was a painful topic for the royal family.  David Seidler (who wrote the screenplay for The King’s Speech) was asked to wait until the Queen Mother died before developing his film.  You see, being a good Englishman, Seidler wrote to the Queen Mother directly to ask permission to tell her husband’s story.  In response, she asked him to wait until she was gone because the memory of these events was still too painful.  Now Seidler wanted to tell the king’s story because as a boy he himself stuttered until he was sixteen and looked up to the king as a hero.  Thinking that if this man could overcome his fear of public speaking and work on his speech impediment (delivering those war-time addresses to his terrified people), then Seidler could overcome his speech impediment too.  Though the years it took to make the film shows just how much “the royal stammer” and King George’s fear of speaking publicly lingered for the royal family.[2]

So fears—fear of public speaking, death, spiders, snakes, heights, closed in spaces, flying.  We all wrestle with fear on some level.  This week on a national level we’ve heard statements from leaders in our country and from North Korea.  One could argue that fear is present on both sides.  No one is going to say that because it could make somebody look weak.  But there’s fear of staying in power, of nuclear weapons, of the consequences of aggressive words and actions, of further economic sanctions.  Fear for the innocent people of Guam and South Korea, for civilians living under a brutal regime in North Korea.  There was a white supremacy rally yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia meant to intimidate the University of Virginia community and those who gathered for a peaceful counter-protest.  Some of their chants included “Jews will not replace Us” and “One People.  One Nation.  End Immigration.”  Yes, these are scary times in which we are living.  And Jesus has a whole lot to say about fear.

In our Gospel story today of Jesus walking on the water we hear that the disciples were terrified, exclaiming, “It is a ghost!” and crying out in fear.[3]  Jesus reassures them by saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”[4]  Their fear is understandable.  Because we still fear what we don’t understand.  Just like the story of Feeding the Five Thousand from last Sunday there’s several interpretations of the miracle here.  Perhaps the most compelling line is Jesus saying to his disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Those words must have given Peter some courage to even take that risk of stepping out of the boat in faith, going toward his teacher and friend.

Living into Jesus’ words to take heart and to not be afraid seems counter cultural.  Because fear is everywhere.  For my part, I have a terrible fear of heights.  To celebrate turning 30, my sister Maureen and I went to Glacier National Park in Montana.  It was our grandparents’ favorite National Park and after our grandmother died, I wanted to experience this place she loved.  My fear of heights was so debilitating that I couldn’t drive much inside the park.  There’s an engineering marvel that Glacier is known for called Going-to-the-Sun Road.  It’s fifty miles long and literally spans the Continental Divide.  The road was completed in 1933 and had taken more than two decades of planning and construction to build.[5]  For part of the journey, your car winds along mountain passes with sheer drops.  My sister got frustrated that I was too afraid to drive because she was missing some of the incredible mountain views.  Meanwhile I was too scared to look at said views and just stared straight ahead pumping my imaginary break because she drives even faster than I do.  At one point, Maureen asked if I could at least take some pictures so that she could see the views she was missing.  And I snapped that taking decent pictures would require me to hold the camera out the window and that was not happening!

The physical effects of fear were real: hands shaking, sweating, obsessive thoughts.  At one point I did look down, contemplating how many times our car would flip over before we plummeted to our deaths.  Only later did we both read in a park brochure that the worst side of the car for someone who fears heights to sit on while traveling the Going-to-the-Sun Road is the passenger side because one may have the sensation that one is falling off the side of mountains.  Now our trip to Glacier National Park was one of the best vacations ever (minus the debilitating fear.)  Should the chance ever come to go back, I totally would.  Though for that part of the trip, you’d find me in the backseat behind the driver with a blindfold on.  Learned that lesson the hard way.

When we become afraid, we’re not our best selves.  We can’t even think straight.  We behave in ways that are irrational.  Now there are times when fear is a good thing, fear in certain situations saves lives.  But today’s story gives us pause because the disciples are afraid of Jesus at first.  Afraid of someone who is pure compassion and love, someone who came that we may have life and have it abundantly.  The disciples are afraid because they mistake Jesus for a ghost in the wee hours of the morning on the Sea of Galilee.  They don’t recognize him for who he truly is.  Jesus reassures them, giving them courage.  Peter takes his words to heart and steps out of the boat in good faith only to notice the strong wind and all of a sudden becomes frightened again.  That’s when he begins to sink.  Take it literally, take it metaphorically—it’s still true.  When fear seeps into our hearts, it is a sinking feeling.  That feeling that we can’t overcome obstacles or achieve peace in our lives or in our world.  That feeling that we’re never getting to the other side of that mountain.

Yet as Christians, deep down in our bones we know that fear is the opposite of faith.  That lesson comes home in a myriad of ways because being afraid is all over the Bible.  You would be hard pressed to find any Biblical book where everyone is fearless throughout the whole story.  Think of the famous 23rd Psalm, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.”[6]  Fear seems to be part of our humanity.  Admitting we are afraid and trying to overcome whatever scares us with God’s help is what people of faith constantly try to do.  The disciples dealt with fear as we can see today in this story of Jesus walking on water.  Or think of the Transfiguration and the disciples falling on their faces in fear atop the mountain.  As a human being, Jesus dealt with fear in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed to God, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”[7]  In that moment, faith overcame fear.

These can be scary times.  It’s crazy to pretend otherwise, and it’s equally crazy to pretend for one second that overcoming fear is easy.  That’s why Jesus tells us to take heart in the same sentence as reminding us to not be afraid.  Using our hearts is essential for overcoming fear.  Somehow keeping an open heart in the midst of scary situations enables us to come out the other side with lessons learned at the very least.  Because when our hearts are open, even in the midst of the fear, that’s when we can experience that moment of Jesus reaching out and catching us like Jesus caught Peter.  We can step out in faith with the best of intentions, experience some stormy seas and sink with fear.  We’re human and it happens.  Though with open hearts, we can accept that grace of an outstretched hand—and come back to God, to one another, and to our best selves.  So thanks be to God for persistent love, a love strong enough to overcome our fears.  Amen.

[1] Glenn Croston, Ph.D., “The Thing We Fear More than Death” in Psychology Today, November 28, 2012, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-real-story-risk/201211/the-thing-we-fear-more-death
[2] “Colin Firth and ‘The King’s Speech’” 60 Minutes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHTZWMr0xn8
[3] Matthew 14:26, NRSV.
[4] Matthew 14:27.
[5] “Going-to-the-Sun Road – An Engineering Feat,” National Park Service PDF,  https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/news/upload/Going-to-the-Sun-Road-An-Engineering-Feat.pdf
[6] Psalm 23:4.
[7] Matthew 26:39.