Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sermon: “When Christ Turns Away”, Psalm 27:1, 4-9/Matthew 4:18-23 (January 26, 2020)


“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?...Of whom shall I be afraid?” Sometimes, it seems like scripture is telling us that the mark of true faith is a lack of fear. There’s even a rumor that the Bible says “Do not be afraid” 365 times, one for each day of the year. While that’s a pretty dramatic exaggeration, this phrase certainly is a common refrain throughout scripture. It’s no wonder, then, that we fall into the pattern of thinking that as long as we follow God, as long as we live a life of faith, we will never be afraid. We’ll have everything we need: safety, shelter, victory, comfort…a life entirely free from fear!

But I doubt that any of us can honestly say that we’ve never been afraid, and it’s not because we’re lacking in faith. I promise. Even the psalmist, the one who begins our reading by saying, “Whom shall I fear?” ends by pleading, “Lord, do not hide your face from me! Do not turn me away! Don’t cast me off! Don’t leave me alone!” This is one of humanity’s greatest and most persistent fears, regardless of our faith: being on our own as we stumble through life. Somewhere deep inside us, we know that we definitely DON’T know what we’re doing, so we desperately crave God’s presence to keep us from messing up. That’s why we turn to religion, after all—to provide guidance and direction in a confusing and terrifying world. Of all the things that we could be afraid of, our greatest fear often turns out to be God turning away from us, leaving us on our own.

This has nothing to do with a lack of faith. We wouldn’t desire God’s presence so desperately if we didn’t have complete trust that God alone could save us from ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with fearing God’s absence. It makes perfect sense. But we must be careful not to let this fear color our understanding of what God actually may be doing in our lives. We mustn’t default to the worst-case scenario when we feel like we can’t see God’s face anymore. It doesn’t necessarily mean that God is leaving us behind, as we may fear. Sometimes, when someone turns their back on you, it’s not because you’re being abandoned. Sometimes, someone turns from you so that they can lead you somewhere new. And that’s a good thing: you wouldn’t want to follow someone who’s not looking where they’re going, would you?

Picture this scene: it’s a clear day on the Sea of Galilee, and the fishermen are out on their boats, practicing their trade like any other day. They aren’t expecting anything out of the ordinary. Suddenly, a man appears along the coast and calls to them: “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people!” What a strange thing to say! Stranger still, this man doesn’t stick around and wait for an answer. He turns on his heels and continues along the coast, calling to other fishermen in their boats. No explanation, no justification, no follow-up. He just turns around and keeps going.

What would you have done if you’d been in Peter or Andrew’s shoes? They didn’t have much time to question or deliberate. They had to make a split-second decision. They could have decided that Jesus didn’t care whether they followed him or not. They could have decided that Jesus was already abandoning them before they even got started. But something in them recognized that this Jesus wasn’t leaving them behind, but was urgently leading them to something meaningful, something powerful, something bigger than them or their boats or their fish. They somehow knew that this stranger wanted to change the world and that they were being invited to take part. So they dropped their nets and they followed the man who had turned his face from them.

This is the psalmist’s worst nightmare. It’s scary when the one you trust to lead you turns away from you, offering no reassurance and no promises. Yet this is the trust that a life of faith demands. This is what it means to follow Jesus. It’s not as easy as we sometimes pretend it is. It’s not just a matter of attending church, reading scripture, and believing the right things. It requires absolute trust, even in the face of the unknown, and it requires us to act on that trust. We wouldn’t be reading about Peter and Andrew if they’d said, “Great work, Jesus; keep it up!” and continued with their fishing. It’s the fact that they dropped what they were doing and followed him that makes this story important. The fact that they chose to trust him even as he turned away from them. It’s a hard and scary thing. But it’s part of what we sign up for when we decide to follow Jesus. Our choice is to trust him even in the face of our greatest fears.

In our congregational meeting following worship today, you’ll be voting on whether or not you, as a community, want to call me as your permanent, installed pastor. I know that there’s great excitement and anticipation around this vote, and we’re all eager to find out where Jesus is leading us next. But the path to this moment has been long, and while every step has been undertaken with great faith, fear has also been a constant companion on this journey. When Jesus called out to you to find a new pastor after years of struggle, it took a tremendous amount of faith to follow him without knowing where he was leading you. He asked you to place your trust in someone you didn’t know, to make a commitment to a pastor after having been hurt in the past, and to be led by someone who had no experience as a solo pastor. Of COURSE fear was a part of this process!

As for myself, I was fearful, too. I felt keenly that Christ was calling me to this new adventure, but he seemed to be expecting me to follow him while carrying my unanswered questions as baggage: could I afford to work part time? Did I have the knowledge and experience to be a solo pastor? Would I be up to the task of preaching every week? What would I do without a long-term job guarantee? I was afraid. But no matter how long and hard I looked, I found no answers to my questions, just the back of Jesus’ head as he continued to lead me onward.

I can’t speak to your collective experience of discernment in the midst of your anxieties, but I know that I wrestled long and hard with the fact that this job wasn’t able to be what I thought I needed it to be. It felt like God had turned from me just when I needed reassurance and affirmation the most. Yet somehow, in the midst of my fears, I recognized that if I were just willing to trust Jesus, he would lead me where I needed to be. And—thanks be to God!—it turns out that Jesus had turned his back on me because he was in a hurry to lead us to one another. He knew that together, we could begin a ministry of healing and learning and love that continues to grow every single day.

In our past year together, we haven’t managed to fix the entire world (yet!) but we’ve done a lot. We’ve built a strong relationship of love and care for one another. We’ve given this community back a sense of stability and hope. And we’ve gotten to a place where we’re willing to make a long-term commitment to ministry together. Those are by no means small accomplishments, and I believe that even as Christ continues to lead us into the future, he’s smiling about what we’ve achieved in spite of our fears.

Faith and fear can (and do) coexist. The things that faith asks of us ARE scary. God’s determination to bring us into the future that God has planned for us requires us to trust that even when we can’t see his face, Jesus is guiding us onward. As FDR famously said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Likewise, faith isn’t the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that trusting God is more important than fear. This is what Peter and Andrew discovered when they abandoned their families and livelihoods to follow this strange man. And it was a discovery that they made again and again as they continued to follow that man to the foot of the cross and to the empty tomb.

Assuming that we choose to embark on this next phase of our ministry together, we would do well to consider where God might be leading us even now. As the fears that accompanied this new relationship begin to fade into distant memory and we become more and more comfortable together, Jesus will turn away from us again, leading us towards more and more scary things. We’ve begun to tackle our immediate fears, like the ongoing existence of our community and our financial stability, but the more success we find, the more God will challenge us to start confronting bigger and bigger fears.

I’m not talking about the fears that we already recognize. I’m talking about fears that are uncomfortable for us to admit to. Fears that keep us from telling others about our faith. Fears that keep us from standing up to evil. Fears that keep us from fighting to bring Christ’s justice to humanity. Fears that cause us to inhibit God’s Kingdom from entering this world. We won’t want to face these fears, because everything’s much easier when we ignore them. But it’s the inevitable evolution of our faith, the thing that God has been preparing us for all along. The better we prove at following Christ, the more challenging places Christ will lead us to. We’ve passed the first test. Now we have the privilege of following God into the next level.

My hope for us is that Jesus will continue to turn his face from us. I hope that we’ll always see the back of Christ’s head, because that will mean that he’s actively leading us forward, towards new, more challenging, more holy things. I hope that we always choose to follow without hesitation, even when we’re afraid (because we WILL be afraid). I hope that, like the psalmist, we can always exist in the tension between fear and faith. And I hope that, like the fishermen, we’re always willing to drop everything to seek the future that God has planned for us, no matter how difficult it may be. Amen.

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