Date: August 13, 2017
Text – Matthew 14:22-33
Title – Do Not Be Afraid
In 2006, I went to Nicaragua for a mission trip with both clergy and laity from New England Conference. We opened every day with devotion, visited churches, and served those who struggle with atrocities of poverty especially women and children. One day, we visited Masaya Volcano. There was a zip lining over the mountain with caldera and crater. Our group leader said, “Well, why don’t we have one of us do the zip lining?” People looked at me since I was the youngest of the group. One retired clergy said, “My insurance does not cover this.” After giving the instructions in Spanish, the staff asked me in English, “Ok?” Even before saying, “No,” I was pushed over to the top of the mountain, screaming all the way. You know what the worst of the story is? I struggle with acrophobia.
Some people feel thrilled when they deal with the fear that often risks their lives. That is why some people jump out of the airplane. Some people jump over the cliff with only wire hanging on their leg. My wife, Sungha, tells me that she did it in New Zealand. Some people will go to Woodstock Fair in September trying to enjoy some extreme rides. There is a TV show called Fear Factor that tests the participants with many gross things to eat. What kind of extreme activity have you done in your life that put you on the line between life and death? But not many of us would dare to jump into the water in the midst of storm because we believe that we can walk on the water?
The Gospel story tells us that people followed Jesus wherever he went. In seeing that they were hungry, Jesus performed a miracle of feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. After the miracle, the disciples got into the boat and went to the other side and Jesus stayed behind and went to the mountain by himself to pray. But the disciples struggled with the storm all night long. Peter, Andrew, John, James, they were all fishermen who knew the water. But there was nothing they could do in the midst of the storm just rocking from left to right and right to left. When they were stuck in the middle of the water, they saw Jesus walk toward them on the water. They were terrified and said, “It is a ghost.” They cried out in fear.
But Peter somehow took the courage and said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He got off the boat in excitement. One step. Two step. Three step. He started walking on the water. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became afraid and started to sink. As I imagine myself being Peter, I am even amazed that he even got off the boat in the first place. How many of us would say, “I am perfectly fine staying on the boat, Jesus.” But Peter responds to Jesus by asking him also to walk on the water. In zip lining, you hang onto the wire. When you jump out of the airplane, you have the parachute. But Peter has nothing to hold onto. All he has is his faith in Christ and jumps into the water.
And he is now sinking because he was terrified by the strong wind. Fear comes in and makes him fall from his trust in Christ. Although many of us were taught to have faith in Christ unlike Peter, how many of us actually sympathize with him as we recount many times when we felt like we were also sinking into the deep water with nothing to hold on? When I was a kid growing up in the countryside of Korea, we had many farmers that came to worship with us. One woman who was from Seoul married a local farmer. They were blessed with twin – boy and girl. One day, a hurricane came and swept the whole town devastating most of the farms. So devastated, the husband took his own life in front of his two children. I remember the wife came to the church every Sunday in tears as she just became a widow with twin children, not knowing anything about farming. I am sure that she felt like sinking in the water.
The Gospel of Matthew says that fear drove Peter to sink in the water. As I reflect on the scripture for today, fear came and drove Peter to death when he lost the sight of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and preacher said that fear drives us to the death of our relationship with God and our neighbors. He said, “Fear is, somehow or other, the archenemy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.”
And I believe that we are witnessing how fear can drive us to death not just personally but also socially and politically. The recent sanction by U.N is driving North Korea to threaten the U.S. with a nuclear war. And the U.S. government promises North Korea that any military threat will be met with the retaliation of fire and fury. Fear drives us to demonize North Korea that is ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world with 24 million living in extreme poverty. And the evangelical pastor is telling the government that it is the will of God to nuke the poorest country in the world. As there is the alteration of threats by the politicians, the people are the ones sinking in the water, drowning in the water of sins and brokenness.
Fear is also tearing this country apart from inside. Yesterday, there was a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville consisting of Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan armed with machine guns. We are talking about the 21st century in which many believe that we are living in a Post-Racial era where there is no racism or segregation anymore. White supremacists gather in a rally because of fear that they project on Jews, blacks, Catholics, immigrants, and women thinking that they are losing their power over to them and need to claim them. And as we remain silent thinking that this is free speech, we are all sinking in the deep water driving us to death of our morality and belief. This is not a bipartisan issue of whether you are Republican or Democratic. It is a serious challenge to our identity as a citizen, and as a believer in God.
Although Germany was labeled as the evil during the World War II, the country has been trying to confess its sin against the world and not to repeat it by establishing laws against Holocaust denial. It is labeled as a criminal law when anyone incites hatred against a national, racial, religious group, or assault the human dignity of others by insulting, or approves or denies an act committed under the rule of National Socialism. While some people see it as so called “free speech,” I am reminded of what George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher, said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” And when many Christians and churches remain silent today because of fear to stand up and raise their voice, I tell you that we are sinking in the ocean either because we are afraid of the strong wind that might threaten our lives, safeties, and privileges.
But the good news I hear in the Gospel is that when Peter is drowning in the water because of fear, Jesus reaches out and pulls him out of the water. And Jesus tells him later, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18) As Eric Elnes creatively describes in “Gifts of the Dark Wood”, I can imagine that other disciples are laughing at Peter saying, “He surely knows how to sink.” Jesus knows that it is by our nature that we sink all the time. When challenges come in our lives financially, physically, emotionally, when challenges come questioning our belief and morality, we often sink in fear. But Christ comes to us and says “Take courage.” Our courage comes not from ourselves but by staying focused on Christ.
A few weeks ago, people who volunteer at the Community Café were invited to Pastor Judy’s house for a pool party. I brought Daniel with me. He is usually very excited to be around the water and fear always gets in the way. He usually dips his toes in the water but would not go into the water. All he would do is just scream. As I was in the water, I stretched my arms to him and said, “Daniel, it is ok. I will not let you go. Come to dad.” All of sudden, he jumped into the water. That was the best feeling ever as a father. It was because I realized that although he was fearful of the water, he still trusted me as his father.
As the protests in Charlottesville progress, there are Christian brothers and sisters who interlock their arms in front of people with machine guns and weapons asking, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble, hardship, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” They proclaim in peace and love, “There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In the midst of fear and threat, I believe that they are not drawn by the fear of the strong wind but focused on Christ who reaches out to them.
I am sure that some of us are struggling with some forms of fear that pull us away from our relationship with God and others. And today, I believe that our troubled society reveals that we are struggling with the fear that leads to demonizing those on the margins of our society. And we Christians are struggling with the fear that makes us hide in the walls of the church and reserve from speaking the truth. But in the midst of our fear, Christ tells us to stay focused on him because our redemption comes from him. Yes, we might sink in fear from time to time. But Christ who calls us as his sheep would never let go of our hands. As he builds his Church on the sinking rock, he is also calling you and me, even though we are not perfect in our faith, in our words, in our actions, to follow him all the way. And how would we answer to him as God’s children today?
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sermon “Overcoming Fear”
 Laws against Holocaust Denial, Wikipedia