Friday, 5 October 2012

on learning to manage our fears

What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?

Supposing we were to stage a theatre production of the entire Bible we would need a number of sets and backdrops against which the great biblical narrative could be told. Like many plays, we would revisit the same scenes from time to time throughout the production - a garden, the wilderness, a city, the temple and so on. One of our sets would have the backdrop of the sea. Here we would watch the stories of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea, Jonah being thrown overboard, the mythical sea dragon Leviathan, St Paul being shipwrecked, Jesus calling fishermen to be his disciples -- and, of course, our gospel reading this evening (Matthew 8.23-34) where Jesus calms a storm.

The sea is more than just another backdrop to the events of scripture. Rather than simply serving as a geographical setting for some of the Biblical narrative, the sea in the Hebrew scriptures is a place of mysterious forces and dangers. It serves as a code for all the chaos and evil in the world, for forces that one moment might seem harmless and tranquil but then blow up suddenly into something far more tumultuous that can overwhelm us and even destroy us.

Those for whom Matthew wrote his gospel would probably be familiar with this chaos motif in stories about the sea. The sea storm that Jesus and his disciples find themselves caught up in stands, then, for more than just bad weather. This man who can command even the winds and sea, has power over all the forces in life that threaten to overwhelm us. This important theological point once found expression in an old Sunday School song, 'With Jesus in the boat you can smile a the storm.' (I had hoped the choir might sing that tonight as an anthem - with actions - but it was not to be...)

But everything is not alright in the boat. For while Jesus restores calm on the waters, within the vessel he fires off a rollicking rebuke to his disciples for their lack of faith. Even their question, "What manner of man is this...?" reveals just how far the disciples have yet to go in understanding who Christ is.

This passage isn't here to tritely reassure us that with Christ in our hearts we can smile at the storms of life, it challenges us to think about how as Christians we should handle and confront our fears.

Trading in our fears has become one of the commodities of modern life. Politicians play to our fears when they seek our vote and develop manifestos. Horror is a popular genre of both literature and cinema. Sometimes we like to scare ourselves by flirting with the fear that comes from a ride at Alton Towers (or listening to a debate in General Synod...)

The media have learnt that fear - like sex - sells. It is one of the primal instincts in human behaviour, and the sheer volume of scare-mongering headlines is testament to how effective playing to our fears can be in shifting papers off the news stands. One enterprising teenager got so sick of the number scare stories about cancer that he read in his mother's mid-market tabloid that he posted a list of them on the internet. He documented almost 150 supposed causes of cancer reported by that paper over the course of several years. These included such unlikely carcinogens as flip-flops, till receipts, and hugging. It truly is a scary world out there.

Learning to handle our fears is certainly not a new aspect of living but the manipulation of them in modern times has arguably reached unprecedented levels - this, in spite of us living in a safer society than at any time in history. The theologian Prof Scott Bader-Saye has written a book entitled, 'Following Jesus in a culture of fear.' He outlines the way in which our fears are being manipulated by those with a vested interest in doing so. But more importantly, he discusses the impact of this on the Christian imperative to reach out in love to those around us. Because fear causes us to withdraw into ourselves, and becomes an obstacle to offering hospitality, generosity and peace-making.

800 years ago, when Europe was a far bloodier and more precarious place to live, Thomas Aquinas wrote that fear causes a contraction in our appetite so that we extend ourselves to fewer things. We don't have to look far in 21st century London to see that kind of behaviour in public places. Just observe the body language of commuters on a rush hour underground train.

There is plenty of fear around in the second part of our gospel reading. On safe arrival at the other side of the sea of Galilee, Jesus and his disciples encounter a town gripped with fear by two people possessed with demons. So alarmed are the townspeople that they take a different path to avoid encountering them. Whatever these demons are, they have overwhelmed and taken control of these two people. Demons stand for all those things in our lives that can grip us and control the way we behave - obsessions, compulsions, addictions, appetites. Even fear itself can overtake a person in such a way that their behaviour becomes monstrous.

A story is told of a Lutheran pastor in wartime Germany, who took a stand against Adolph Hitler when many Christians in Germany did not. On one occasion he had the opportunity to meet the Fuhrer as part of a delegation of religious leaders. The pastor stood at the back of the room, not participating in the discussion but quietly observing what was going on. On returning home his wife asked him what he had learned from the trip. "I discovered," said the minister, "that Herr Hitler is a very frightened man."

Jesus casts out the demons into a herd of pigs who rush down into the sea and perish. Christ takes the forces of evil and chaos that can overwhelm us and casts them back into the place where such forces belong. This is the gospel writer's answer to the question, "What manner of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?" He is the Christ, come to reclaim God's world from all those things that run counter to the will of the Father.

So what then of our fear? Does it simply vanish? Isn't it in fact a useful instinct for self-preservation? Of course, it is, but like many of our instincts and natural impulses we must (and can) learn how to understand and master it appropriately. For the townspeople who hear of Jesus' power over the demons their response is not grateful relief. They are panicked by it, and they ask Jesus to leave. Are there moments where our clinging to the familiar and the comfortable, the status quo, mean that we back away from the work of God in the world? Are there people in our society, on our streets, whom we avoid by choosing a different route - the drunk man with spittle in his beard ranting at the traffic? A traveller woman selling lucky white heather? The Big Issue seller? A group of noisy young people? When do our fears cause us to withdraw, take a different path, or prevent us reaching out and touching the lives of others in love?

The counter to fear is not fearlessness, which can lead to recklessness. The answer lies in a difficult phrase used by Jesus earlier in Matthew's gospel. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Poverty of spirit is not a monetary poverty, but means learning to live with a reliance on God. Being poor in spirit means we don’t try to control everything in our life, to make everything well in our own strength. We cling to nothing within, or outside of, ourselves other than our faith in God. It opens us up to an acceptance of the way things are, not in a passive or que sera sera kind of way. In the same way that humility is not about faking modesty, but being real about ourselves, poverty of spirit is an acceptance that we can't do everything - that there is much that is not in our power to change. When we accept those things that are out of our control we can leave them to God. This is a very joyful freedom that releases us from the despair that comes when you believe you can only rely on your own efforts. Here is the faith that Jesus desires of his disciples in the boat.

Poverty of spirit releases us from the compulsion to manipulate situations that are driven by our fears or to give in to a sense of hopelessness. Instead we accept the reality of our situation, and can then discern not what our fearful instincts tell us to do, but open ourselves to discovering the will of God in that situation. 

One of the great saints who lived this kind of poverty of spirit was Edith Stein. Her story takes us back to the second world war. Edith was a Polish Jew who became a Carmelite nun. She was living in a convent in Holland when the country fell to the Nazis. When the Gestapo arrested all Roman Catholic Jews, Edith - or Sister Benedicta as she became known - was sent to Auschwitz. She was not to live long, but survivors of the camp testify to her incredible composure. According to one account, amidst the indescribable misery of the camp she:

“walked about among the women, comforting, helping, soothing like an angel. Many mothers were almost [out of their minds] and had for days not been looking after their children, but had been sitting brooding in listless despair. Sister Benedicta took care of the little ones, washed and combed them, and saw to it that they got food and attention. As long as she was in the camp she made washing and cleaning one of her principal... activities, so that everyone was amazed.

Another prisoner remembers Edith’s contemplative side showing itself:

“The great difference between Edith Stein and the others lay in her silence. My personal impression is that she was most deeply sorrowful, but without anxiety.”

Here we see what it means to live in faith, to set aside the fears that causes us to retract and instead reach out in love to others, clinging not our own strength but to our confidence in Christ.

What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?

He is the Christ who says to each one of us, why are ye fearful? 

Sermon preached at Choral Evensong, St Peter's Vauxhall, on Sunday 23rd September 2012 at a service of farewell and thanksgiving for The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Rowan Williams, The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury.