Sermon for 9th Pentecost -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
In 1987 I attended a global convocation on theology and technology and science on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. The conference was a grand gathering of folks from all over the world, mostly at that time under age 40, all of whom had interest in the intersection of science and technology and theology.
After the conference ended I was able to extend my visit there by one day and, with others from the conference, toured the island and saw some of its many ancient historical sites. One interesting site was the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus’ friend whom Jesus raised from the dead at Bethany near Jerusalem. Orthodox Christian tradition has Lazarus travelling to Cyprus and later dying there. I saw the place where, according to this tradition, Lazarus body was once buried. Now all that is left is an empty space, Lazarus’ remains having long been stolen and certainly turned to dust.
In our gospel text from John, we hear of two miracles by Jesus, two of Jesus’ best known miracles – the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water.
We have heard many miracle stories in the Gospel lessons these past number of weekends: Last week we heard that “all who touched” Jesus “were healed.”
Earlier we read of Jesus bringing a little girl, the 12 year old unnamed daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, Jesus bringing this little girl back to life after her death.
These are miraculous and wonderful stories. Thousands of people are fed. Many are healed of all sorts of afflictions and diseases. A dead young girl is raised from death.
And Jesus is also often calming people’s fears. When Jesus is walking toward the home of Jairus and Jairus receives word that his daughter has died, “some people” suggest Jairus not bother Jesus further. Jesus tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” Do not fear, only believe. Jesus’ words are similar to his counsel to his disciples in today’s lesson as they are astonished to see him walking on water toward them – “do not be afraid.”
And that made me think of others Jesus’ raised from the dead, like Lazarus, and the reality that they, too, like all of us, lived for some years more and then they, too, like all of us, died. Jesus did not raise Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter from their earthly death a second time. They both died and their bodies ultimately turned to dust as we all will.
And Jesus tells them, as Jesus would tell us, “do not fear, only believe” and “do not be afraid.”
It usually happens to me very late at night, when I am over-tired but can not sleep. I think about my own death and the end of my earthly life and I have my own doubts about eternal life. What if this life is the end? And, when this happens, I literally get a chill.
Now, I am a pastor, a person who preaches and teaches regularly about the eternal life promised to all believers. Every weekend I say these words, “The body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will strengthen and preserve you in true faith unto eternal life.” I have pronounced those words hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times. And, I believe them, I really do, most all of the time.
It is more than a bit frightening for a pastor to admit that he or she has doubts of this magnitude. But, sometimes, not often, I must admit that I do.
In my former life working for the ELCA Presiding Bishop, I spent a lot of time with many of our wonderful synod bishops around our church in the USA and the Caribbean. One visit sticks out for me. I was travelling by car with a bishop in central Pennsylvania, one of the then senior and most respected bishops. He even looked like my image of a bishop – mature and wise with glasses and gray hair! We were talking about faith and eternal life. I guess because I admired this bishop so much, I felt comfortable enough in that conversation to admit that I sometimes doubted eternal life and that that doubt scared me. Do you know what happened next? This respected bishop stopped the car (we were on a deserted, rural road), looked at me and said simply, “me, too.” He then proceeded to admit something that he said he had not shared with many others, that he, too, had doubts about eternal life and struggled with those doubts.
I felt, and so did he, surprisingly relieved. We could admit our doubts to each other. And, somehow, admitting these doubts strengthened our faith in the promise of eternal life.
Do not be afraid.
In my last congregation I had a retired pastor on my staff part-time, someone to minister to our nearly 100 shut in members. This pastor was well known and highly respected from his many years in ministry. And he was my closest friend in that congregation. He had also spent many years at the edge of death with major health issues nearly killing him a number of times.
Near the end of my friend’s life, close to the time he did die, we spent many hours together as he struggled to accept the reality of eternal life. When I let him know that I also struggled with this acceptance, he smiled. Then, he showed me a huge pile of cards and letters and printed e-mails he had received over the past weeks and months. There must have been hundreds of them. When I have my doubts, he said to me, I think about the communion of the saints and all those saints who have reached out to me in this time of my own great sadness, all those folks who have told me that they are praying for me and, somehow, their belief sustains me even when my own does not. We went on to speak of the importance of a faith community and how we realized we could not easily be Christians outside of a faith community.
I know that many of you also experience times of doubt and low faith. When our faith is at its lowest, when we even question God’s promise of eternal life with him, a promise we believe is guaranteed for us by the life, death and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ, at those times we rely on the faith of others to sustain us until our faith can regain its strength and we can help sustain others. At those times we again realize the importance of the Christian community, the one we call church, and this Christian community, the one we call Mt. Olive Lutheran Church.
And Jesus tells us, do not be afraid.
My dear friend and former ELCA Presiding Bishop, the Rev. Dr. H. George Anderson, lost his first wife, Sonny, to cancer when she was young and they had young children. This was a very difficult time for Bishop Anderson. He told me that when his faith was the lowest, he would still go to church but could not sing or even say the liturgy at the congregation where he was a member. But, Bishop Anderson said, he continued to attend worship to let others sing and pray for him.
And that, somehow, was enough and that, somehow, helped get him through.
And, Jesus tells us, do not be afraid.
In my own times of low faith, I find certain hymns helpful. I am sure you have your favorites. Mine include this one: (ELW #773)
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
When my way grows drear, precious Lord, linger near, when my life is almost gone, hear my cry, hear my call, hold my hand lest I fall. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
When the darkness appears and the night draws near, and the day is past and gone, at the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
When my own faith is at its weakest, the faith of others and the hymns of the church get me through. They literally and figuratively take my hand and lead me home so that I, too, as Jesus suggests to us in today’s Gospel lesson, so that I, too, should not be afraid.
The promise of eternal life is ours. It is guaranteed for us as believers by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Guaranteed once and for all times and for all believers.
Sometimes in our lowest times, we, you and I, may doubt this. Sometimes we need to rely on the faith of others in person and via hymns and in prayer, in cards and letters and e-mails and visits and telephone calls. And, somehow, this gets us through our doubts and confirms our faith. That is how it is for me and, I suspect, it is for many of you.
And Jesus tells us all, “do not be afraid.” Amen.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Do Not Be Afraid
Sermon for 9th Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
July 25 / 26, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California