In this day and age, it is vital that our children receive a proper education and upbringing. We can no longer count on our institutions to provide the necessary moral and cultural education so vitally important to the development of our children. Our children need to be educated in the classics. That is why, for the last few weeks in our household, I have been insistent that the kids become familiarized with the entirety of the Star Wars saga. Even the bad ones.

About This Sermon

Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
August 9, 2020
Genesis 37:1–4; 12–28; Romans 10:5–15; Matthew 14:22–33

And while the kids have now taken to practicing their lightsaber skills and wishing that we could have a Wookiee or an R2 unit around the house, I’ve been paying particular attention to the lessons that the saga presents: hope, courage, determination, and the terrible consequences of fear and hatred.

Indeed the whole downfall of Anakin Skywalker as he turns into Darth Vader, and the subsequent fall of the Republic into the Empire, is precipitated by his fear—in particular his fear of loss.

He ignores the guidance of the Jedi master Yoda who warns him, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Anakin didn’t heed Yoda’s advice and neither do we.


Part of that is because fear is hard-wired into us. It is a function of biology that we should be afraid. Very often, the things we are afraid of are the kinds of things that can kill us.

We dread the dark for fear of what predators might emerge from it. We jump at sudden noises for fear of the danger that seeks to surprise us. We feel our hearts race as we move toward the edge of a precipice, sensing our lives are in danger. We grow anxious when we lack certainty about our surroundings, because unfamiliarity and uncertainty often bring danger and death.

Fear is a powerful and motivating emotion. And so, we have spent a fair amount of time trying to vanquish fear. It is a recurring theme in our fiction. In another science fiction saga, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune, we encounter the Litany against Fear:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

But that’s why this beautiful litany is in a work of fiction. In real life, in spite of such noble efforts, fear is always with us, it seems. The hard-wired nature of fear, coupled with the reality that we rarely are able to banish our fear, makes our fear an attractive target for those who would seek to harm us. Because we all know that deep down, we have fears that govern us. No matter how much we might wish to allow our fear to pass through us and be gone, it is there to be exploited, manipulated, and twisted by those who want something from us.

Fear is a powerful motivator for political or military ends. Striking fear into the hearts of the people, demoralizing them and reducing their will to fight. This is the strategy of terrorists and tyrants, both greatly outnumbered by those they seek to destroy or those they seek to rule. Fear is a powerful tool wielded with the aim of manipulating entire populations.

And this use of fear is not even limited to military or political enterprises. All you have to do to realize that is watch prime time television.

Our news is marketed to us with terror. “This common everyday object, likely in your home right now, can kill you! Details at 11!” Those always make me so angry—if there’s something in my house that can kill me, tell me now! Don’t make me watch your subpar newscast. But the news promoters know that fear will draw eyeballs, and so they keep using it.

In the summer of 2001, a young Congressional intern named Chandra Levy went missing. Chandra lived across the street from me, her apartment visible from my own. Her disappearance had all manner of intrigue: an affair with a congressman, a mysterious cover-up. But even before the tragic reality of her disappearance was fully known, the news stations made full use of the fear it engendered. One station teased its 10 p.m. newscast: “A wave of abductions has one D.C. neighborhood living in fear. Tonight at 10!” That was my neighborhood and so I watched. Only to discover that they were grouping together Chandra’s disappearance with two car-jackings of two different women in Shaw and Columbia Heights. Both of whom were now safe, neither of whom lived in the same neighborhood as Chandra and me. I’d fallen for it. The fear sucked me in.

And the fact that it sucked me in is the reason they keep using it. And why in a post-9/11 world, why fear is our number one theme on most newscasts.

But it’s not just our news programs that make use of fear. Our advertising is full of fear. Subtle fears that you didn’t even realize you were supposed to have: fear of bad breath, fear of off-white teeth, fear of not getting the girl or the boy you like, fear of not being able to match the status of your neighbors, fear of a loss of sexual potency, and on and on. Fear is a powerful motivator.

And everyone knows it.


Which is why it is so disappointing to find fear at loose in the people of God. But fear has been with us for a very long time.

A. The Sons of Jacob

Joseph may have been an annoying little brother. But lots of little brothers can be that way; on some level, that’s what younger siblings are supposed to be like. And sure, he can be arrogant, but we all have arrogant members of our family—heck, sometimes we’re the arrogant member of our family—and it’s not enough to sever family ties.

No, what motivates his brothers first to plot to murder him and eventually to sell him into slavery is fear. The text makes it clear: 

But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him. Genesis 37:4

Now, in Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic, the words love and hate often mean more than simply the emotions of the same name. They often mean to prefer and to reject respectively. We see this in a verse like “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated.” 

The brothers are not concerned that Jacob has stronger feelings for Joseph than he does for them—after all, Joseph was born to Jacob’s favored wife Rachel. Their concern is that because he is the firstborn to Rachel, that he not only will have Jacob’s affections, but Jacob’s inheritance. That is, they’re afraid that his favor in their father’s eyes will leave them with nothing. Those feelings of insecurity, those feelings of dread of loss—that’s what motivates the brothers. That’s the real seat of their jealousy, not his long-sleeved coat, not his arrogant dreams.

Fear plays a central role in that story. And in many. Including the gospel lesson for this morning.

B. Walking on Water

Lluís Borrassà, St. Peter Walking on the Water

Jesus has dismissed the multitudes after feeding them from five loaves and two fish and takes some time to go up the mountain by himself to pray. By the time he’s done, the boat is far from the land, being battered about by wind and wave. Jesus decides to walk toward them. . By now it’s the middle of the night. Our English text says “early in the morning” but the Greek says τετάρτῃ δὲ φυλακῇ τῆς νυκτὸς tetartē de phylakē tēs nyktos “the fourth watch of the night,” that is, it’s between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. when he comes walking toward them on the sea.

Their first response is one of terror—they’re greatly troubled and the respond in fear, shouting, “It’s a ghost!” Jesus responds, “Have courage; it’s me. Don’t be afraid.” Peter calls out “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus responds, “Come.” Whereupon Peter gets out of the boat, starts walking to Jesus, but then:

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Matthew 14:30–31

Now, it’s worth pausing here to note that this is not a story focusing on Jesus’ ability to defy gravity and the surface tension of water. All of the elements of the story, from the turbulent sea, which usually represents the forces of chaos, which Jesus ‘puts under foot’ and conquers, to his statement “It’s me,” which in Greek is “I AM” point to Jesus as God’s agent in the world. He’s doing God things: subduing chaos and being present. 

But when Peter—and thus the church—are invited to join Jesus and to be Christ in the world, Peter, in the words of one commentator, “sees the violence of the world and begins to sink.”[1]

Jesus rebukes Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” But it’s important to note that Jesus isn’t criticizing faithful doubt—the skepticism that can make faith more meaningful. The word used here is a different word—this word, διστάζωdistazō means “vacillate,” to fail to commit. To react out of fear.


How often is the church reminiscent of Jacob’s sons and of Peter? 

A.   Fear of Loss

For a very long time, we Christians have had it good in the West. It didn’t start out that way, when the Church was persecuted by the Roman Empire and Christians were routinely targeted for being unpatriotic and hateful because we refused to worship the emperor or the symbols of the imperial cult. 

But after Constantine came along, we generally had it pretty good. The church became enmeshed with the imperial apparatus and then when the Empire collapsed it became embedded in the feudal structures that governed Europe for nearly a millennium. Even when we were disestablished from official status, as we were at the founding of our republic here, we still had a tremendous influence and presence in the culture. It wasn’t written into any document formally but the United States of America was a pretty good place to be if you were white and Protestant.

But when that began to change—and it began to change early with Irish, German, and Italian immigration into the country—far too often the church’s reaction was one of fear and loathing. Catholics were feared and so the Irish were denigrated as spreading violence and drunkenness. The fear of loss of Protestant identity led to the burning of convents, churches, and the outright killing of Catholics. It was argued that Catholic immigrants were anti-democratic because of their fealty to Rome. It was argued that they would destroy the essential character of the United States. A nativist group called the “Know Nothings” even stole a stone meant for the Washington Monument and threw it in the Potomac because it had been donated by the Vatican.

Today, with growing Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, non-affiliated (the “nones”), and secular populations, the church is once again fearing its loss of privilege. It gets unreasonably angry at anything that accommodates the existence of other religions, to harassing people who wear headscarves, to the point of denouncing retail clerks because they dare to wish you “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” We talk about legislative solutions to entrench our place in society as if we’re afraid that if it’s left up to our ability to actually persuade people to embrace Christian faith we’re doomed to fail.

In all of this, we’re just like Joseph’s brothers, willing to destroy or sell out our brothers and sisters because of our insecurity and fear. 

B.    Fear of Consequences

Or we’re like Peter and afraid of the wind-tossed sea. 

Perhaps the greatest failing is seen in our complacency and complicity. We know what is right. We know what we’re supposed to do. But then we climb out of the boat and see that it’s really scary to take on the forces of injustice and violence and hate. 

A colleague of mine was visiting Gettysburg cemetery on the Fourth of July to visit the graves of his ancestors. A number of individuals had been lured to the cemetery by an online hoax that Antifa was going to hold a flag burning there. When they came across my colleague, who was wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, they assumed he was part of the flag-burning plot and surrounded him, menacing him. He identified himself as a Methodist pastor but that did not seem to garner him any good will. Finally a Park Police officer escorted him out of the park for his safety. A few days later his SPRC decided to end his student pastorate at his church because, it appears, they felt that they weren’t ready to deal with issues like racial justice. They later offered him his job back when, it seems, they feared bad press even more. He declined.

It’s scary to step out of the church/boat and walk on the turbulent waters with Jesus. All too often we just stay in our little boat, hoping others will come to find us here.

Fear is a powerful weapon. Even against the church of Christ.


But we do have an antidote to fear. And it’s one sitting right in front of our noses.

For nearly a decade and half, I led a spring break trip down to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in western North Carolina. On our first year there we had the privilege of participating in a sweat lodge ritual there. And during that ritual, as we sat in contemplation and reflection, our host, Curtis, said, “There are two great powers in the world: love and fear.” I remember being immediately struck by that—we are so accustomed to thinking of hate as the opposite of love. He continued: “All that is good in the world—compassion, justice, mercy, charity, peace—comes from love; everything bad comes from fear: hatred, violence, greed, injustice.”

It’s an interpretation of a statement by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss-born psychiatrist and author, who said:

“There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt. It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear.”

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross

This is not a new sentiment, limited to the Native Americans or to modern psychiatry. It is an ancient sentiment, found even in the New Testament in the epistles of John, where we read: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18 NRSV)

A.   The Courage of Love

Love is not soft. It is not weak. It is much more powerful than any of us realizes.

In May 2015, about 250 mostly armed anti-Muslim demonstrators showed up at a mosque in Phoenix, Arizona to protest. Many of them wore T-shirts bearing profanity-laced messages denouncing Islam and defaming the prophet Muhammad. A counter demonstration was opposite and each group yelled and taunted the other across police lines. There was, at least, no violence.

Members of the mosque indicated that they were not surprised by the event and that anti-Muslim sentiment had been around for a long time, as had hatred, bigotry, and racism. But their response was not fearful, or violent, or hateful. Instead, it was loving. The president of the mosque invited anyone to join him and the 800 members inside for prayer.

One man, wearing a profanity-laced shirt, accepted the invitation and was profoundly changed:

“It was something I’ve never seen before. I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along. They made me feel welcome, you know. I just think everybody’s points are getting misconstrued, saying things out of emotion, saying things they don’t believe.”

Another man, who was invited in had earlier declared that he didn’t care whether the shirt he was wearing was offensive or not. Afterward, he assured a small group of Muslims that he wouldn’t wear it again. “I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt,” he said to one man, as he shook his hand, smiling. “I won’t wear it again.”

That is what love can do.

Don’t let anyone tell you that love is “fuzzy” or “soft.” It takes guts to love someone.

Love is literally fearless. Now, that’s not saying it’s not scary. Being willing to love is being willing to be vulnerable, whether it’s in opening your heart to someone you care about or in extending an invitation into your mosque to a gun-toting protestor with a profanity-laced T-shirt. These acts of love risk much—but because they go ahead anyway, they are fearless. They don’t deny the fear, they simply refuse to let it define one’s actions. And thus, acts of love “cast out” the fear.

Love is such a powerful ally against fear. Not because it drives our fear out, but because it robs fear of its power to control us.


St. Paul reminds us that our task is to share Christ with a broken and hurting world, as he writes in his epistle to the Romans: 

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

Romans 10:14–15

But if that church that is sent to proclaim is paralyzed by fear—fear of loss of privilege, fear of change, fear of the other, fear of loss of respect, fear of taking a stand, fear of rejection by others—how are we going to avoid sinking? How can we ever join Christ, standing astride the wind and wave, and witness to God’s power and mercy?

The hopeful note is that we don’t have to do this alone. At the end, Christ gets in the boat with us, having met us where we were, having rescued poor vacillating Peter from sinking. Christ brings his impossible presence into our midst as promised.[2] And that presence of Christ gives us the grace, the courage, and the strength to love in the midst of a world of fear and hate. To go forth into that world, singing the words of the hymn we sing today:

“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
for I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand.”

The Texts

Genesis 37:1–4, 12–28

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. 

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. 

He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 

Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

Romans 10:5–15

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Matthew 14:22–33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, p. 328.

[2] Ibid.

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