9th Sunday after Pentecost: It is I, do not be afraid.

First Reading: 2 Kings 4:42-44

42A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to [Elisha,] the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” 43But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’ ” 44He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

Psalm: Psalm 145:10-18

10All your works shall praise you, O Lord,
  and your faithful ones shall bless you.
11They shall tell of the glory of your kingdom
  and speak of your power,
12that all people may know of your power
  and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
13Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; your dominion endures       throughout all ages.  You, Lord, are faithful in all your words,    and loving in all your works. 
14The Lord upholds all those who fall
  and lifts up those who are bowed down.
15The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,
  and you give them their food in due season.
16You open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
17You are righteous in all your ways and loving in all your works.
18You are near to all who call upon you,
  to all who call upon you faithfully.

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:14-21

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
  20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Gospel: John 6:1-21

1Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
  15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
  16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

SERMON

“It is I; do not be afraid.”

Our lectionary takes us over to the Gospel of John for today’s text.  The stories feel familiar as we have looked at Jesus being followed by hungry crowds and we have seen Jesus in a storm on the Sea of Galilee.  This text appears to fill in the details on last Sunday’s text.  There must be “something more” for us today so let’s put on our glasses and take a second look.  I want to filter our thinking through Jesus’ greeting to the disciples when he approaches their boat walking on water.  “It is I; do not be afraid.”  Commentaries say that this is one of the times when Jesus used his godly name, “I AM”.  I AM is here, do not be afraid!

         I don’t know about you but fear is my middle name and my most common enemy.  That little voice that sits on my shoulder and whispers in both ears will most likely be whispering a message of fear.  If I don’t eat now, I’ll be hungry later.  If I don’t do whatever, I will not be liked or safe or financially secure or healthy or whatever.  So these passages that say “do not be afraid” always catch my attention. Let’s take a minute and turn to a neighbor and share something you are afraid of.  It might be something silly like “spiders.”

          What kind of fear is Jesus helping the disciples deal with today?  I want to propose that he is addressing the fear of hunger, the fears surrounding political leadership, and the fear of the unknown.

The Fear of Hunger

         John has set the scene for us readers.  The Passover is approaching, the holiday and annual ritual that recalls the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai by Moses.  Jesus, unlike Moses, has gone up on a mountain to teach.  He is not receiving the law but giving the law.  Jesus has been doing miracles like prophets of old and the crowds are following him.  Jesus raises the question of hunger to test disciple Phillip.  “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” I do not think Jesus was asking where the nearest Walmart might be found!

         Hunger takes many forms.  There is the starving of refugees, like the sheer physical need for food that plagued the Israelites in the wilderness.  We hear about it daily in the news.  We hear about the hungry who cannot feed their families during this pandemic due to loss of jobs.  This is probably not the hunger for most of us.  Bethany Gardens helps address physical hunger.  For most of us, our hunger is subtler.  We hunger for affection, for the touch of a loved one who has passed, for a hug from a child who has grown up, or just a friend to help us deal with old age.  We can hunger for money, for meaning, for beauty, for peace and so many other things.

         “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus asks Phillip and us.  It makes me think of Isaiah 55:1,2,

          “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no         money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money   and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is    not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Listen    carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich          food.  Incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live.”

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  The hungers of the earthly kingdom will not be resolved by money or more of anything that can be bought or earned.

         Hunger can only be dealt with spiritually.  Even if Phillip had six months salary in his pocket, the shops would not of had enough bread nor could Phillip carry it all.  The question is a direct confrontation to Phillip and us about where we look for satisfaction and contentment – for our own lives but I think also it is a question about how do we feed others that we know come to us hungry.  I have always loved the saying, “Give a fish and you eat for a day, teach to fish and you eat for a lifetime.”  We do reach out to each other with support, encouragement, and vegetables but ultimately that which satisfies comes from God. Hunger is resolved by God and not by bread. “it is I, do not be afraid.”  I AM is present always.

Fear of Political Leadership

         Jesus feeds the people.  Are they satisfied?  I should hear a resounding “NO” from you.  Are we happy with our government?  Be honest!  We all have our concerns today no matter who we voted for.  The people in Jesus’ crowd are fed physically and they realize a king that could feed them would be good.  “15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”  Wait, I thought Jesus was on the mountain feeding the people.  But Jesus “withdraws.”  Jesus can no longer be seen.

         We have an ongoing “discussion” in the United States right now about our “king,” ok, presidential and governmental leadership system.  If we can pass bills with huge amounts of money, perhaps, we could resolve the issues confronting our society.  If we could guarantee the system for electing our leaders and make sure more people can vote…  If our leaders could rectify the sins of our past against whatever subgroup is in focus, then we would not have social hunger and discontent.  The discussion is not spiritual but political and has shifted our discussions to our social  “hungers.”  We hunger for justice.  We hunger for equality.  We hunger for freedom.  We hunger for the good life.

         We are standing on the mountain with Jesus right.  When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, how many of the commandments dealt with economic security, financial security or freedoms to be “me.”  The commandments dealt with spiritual and social relationships that will characterize the kingdom of heaven, starting with spiritual reality.  We are to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength.  Second, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Social and political leadership today is about creating a society that meets the needs of its citizens.  It is not about proper relationship to God.  The people have their priorities all wrong and Jesus “withdraws.”  When we have our priorities and wants wrong, Jesus “withdraws” and disappears because our focus is not on Jesus but on ourselves.  We can’t see him.

         “It is I, do not be afraid” are the words of Jesus speaking into our political and social polarization today. We do not need to fear who is king because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world as he testifies to Pilot at his trial.  We do not need to be afraid because our names are written in the book of life, because Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  He will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death and someday Jesus will return as the eternal King.  Leadership is not political but spiritual.  As Christians, we look to the kingdom of God, not creating a kingdom on earth with Jesus as King.  “It is I, do not be afraid.”

Fear of the unknown, the future, of death

         The third scene in our text today is in the evening.  It is dark.  We know those “dark” times when Jesus has failed to appear.  Great writers call it “the Dark Night of the Soul.”  We might call it a pandemic and we have lost our job or our savings in a stock market crash.  We might call it cancer.  Often it comes with the death of a loved one.  We flat-line in life and God seems oh so distant.  Tears fill our pillow and smiles are so hard.  The disciples are trying to cross the Sea of Galilee in the dark and the waters are rough.  Strong winds are tossing their little boat in the chaos.  “They saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.”

         I would suspect they did not realize it was Jesus and in the presence of darkness and tumultuous waves they were terrified.  I only have to see the blinking red light in my rear view mirror and my heart starts pounding.  A letter from IRS would probably produce a similar reaction.  A policeman comes to our door with a chaplain or for parents of military people the entrance of a government car signals horrible news.  The disciples and we become terrified, or at least afraid, in the presence of that which we do not understand and cannot control.  It is then that Jesus speaks, “It is I, do not be afraid.”  The disciples take Jesus into their boat and immediately they are at their destination.”  We get where we want to go when Jesus is in the boat and we do not need to be afraid.

         Let me close with the children’s sermon:

Aesop’s Fable, “Belling the Cat.”

“The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.        At last a very young Mouse got up and said:  “I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful.

All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.”

All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said: “I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?”

We are those mice, afraid of the cats in our life: hunger, political and social dynamics plaguing our world, and afraid of the unknown future that may well mean death.  That cat is big and dark and we feel like grasshoppers in our own eyes.  Many mice, people, suggest government solutions but in-fact they cannot agree.  And ultimately the question comes down to “Who can bell the cat?”  We do not need to be warned that the cat is near, we need security as we live with the reality of the cat, the evil in our world.  It is only as Jesus comes to us in the midst of our fears and we hear him say, “It is I.”  I am here with you.  “Do not be afraid,” I will bell the cat in your life!  Then we can live through all situations. Thank you Lord!  Amen.

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