August 9, 2020 /10th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading 1 Kings 19:9-18/ 2nd Reading Romans 10:5-15 / Gospel Matthew 14:22-33
Grace Under Pressure
Desmond Doss was born in 1919 in the rural community of Lynchburg, VA. His mother raised him to be a devout Seventh Day Adventist – and he embraced the church’s values of observing the Sabbath, non-violence and a vegetarian diet. When World War II broke out, he could have had a deferment as an essential worker because of his employment in a naval shipyard. But Desmond wanted to serve his country, and he enlisted in 1942. He quickly ran into trouble because his faith convictions caused him to refuse to even touch a rifle. He was harassed for his beliefs by his superiors and fellow recruits. He was nearly discharged. However, he asked to be able to serve as a combat medic. After considerable deliberation, the Army decided to classify Desmond as a conscientious objector and trained him to be a medic. Desmond preferred the title “conscientious cooperator”. His unit was sent to the South Pacific, and he distinguished himself by his diligent service in combat – being awarded two bronze stars.
In 1945 his unit was involved in the Battle for Okinawa. A key moment in that fight came in the American assault on a heavily defended part of that island that the soldiers named Hacksaw Ridge. The Japanese troops held their fire until the Americans had all climbed to the top of that ridge – and then commenced a withering barrage of artillery and machine gun fire. Many soldiers were killed or wounded, and the rest withdrew down the face of the cliff of that ridge. Desmond Doss did not withdraw, however. Seeing so many wounded soldiers on that exposed field of fire, he began tending to their wounds, carried them to the ridge, and lowered them down the cliff, one at a time. For 12 hours he continued that laborious and dangerous mission, while constantly under enemy fire. By the end of that day, no wounded soldiers were left on that ridge. Desmond Doss had rescued 75 soldiers. He went from being scorned by his fellow soldiers as a cowardly weakling to being regarded as a hero. Desmond was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. His story is the basis for the movie, Hacksaw Ridge, released in 2016. It’s worth watching.
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Only a fool or a crazy person is never afraid. Fear is a natural, instinctive response to danger and looming threats. The surge of adrenaline and the rapid heartbeat that come in the face of danger are the body’s way of preparing for action. Fear is an impulse for self-preservation.
Courage, then, is not the absence of fear – it is acting in spite of your fears. Courage is recognizing the threat, feeling appropriate fear, and still doing the right thing.
To be afraid is not the same as being intimidated. To be intimidated is to be made timid and faint-hearted by threatening circumstances. To be afraid is to recognize circumstances that are threatening – one can then be either timid or bold in response. I have never forgotten the definition given to courage by one of my seminary professors: “Courage is the capacity to rise to meet any occasion.” Courage is what’s required to keep doing the next right thing. St. Paul writes in 2nd Timothy: “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control.” Desmond Doss drew on that God-given power, and so can you and I.
In these past months, doctors and nurses and other essential workers have been models of courage. Those who work in hospitals are acutely aware of the real risks involved. They have seen colleagues get sick – and even die. Nevertheless, despite their appropriate fears, they continue to show up and carry on with their vital work. They choose not to be intimidated.
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Today I remind you that it takes courage to live as a follower of Jesus Christ. This world has always been a dangerous place. There are threats to our physical health, to our financial security, to our mental and emotional well-being. It is tempting to always play it safe and avoid taking any risks. Yet following Jesus has inherent risks. Living in faith and hope and love means sticking our necks out and being vulnerable. When you think about it, it is apparent that courage is an essential ingredient in those Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.
What is faith, after all? Faith is going boldly forward in the darkness. Faith is trusting what can’t be seen or proved. Faith is betting your life on a promise.
And what is hope? Hope is what empowers us to persevere – in spite of whatever headwinds, dangers or uncertainties we face. It takes real courage to be hopeful in dark and troubling days.
And what is more courageous than to love? Love dares to care for persons who don’t love us back – even enemies. And consider the courage required to engage in the risky business of forgiving one who has hurt you.
Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure”. Christians are called to be gracious under pressure – to be instruments of God’s grace in this stressful and pressurized world.
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In today’s gospel story, we see the fear of the disciples. They are caught in a sudden storm out on the Sea of Galilee, battered by the wind and waves. Then they see a ghostly figure coming toward them in the storm – walking on the waves. They are absolutely (and appropriately) terrified. We witness the disciples in fear on other occasions – especially when Jesus is arrested, tried and crucified. They are quite intimidated.
All that changes after Christ’s resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Those fearful disciples become courageous and bold apostles – almost reckless in their proclamation of the gospel. Those first followers drew their courage from Jesus – and they did so in two ways.
First, they were inspired by his courage as a human being. We don’t often speak of the courage of Jesus, because, well he’s God, after all – and God can do anything. Jesus was also fully human – vulnerable to all the same threats that we are. Consider what courage it took for Jesus to continue his ministry, in spite of such fierce resistance and opposition. We know that Jesus did not want to suffer and die on the cross – he prayed for another way. Yet in the end, he boldly prayed: not my will, but thy will be done.
The disciples also drew on Christ’s gracious power as the Son of God. What calms their fears in the midst of that dark and stormy night on the Sea of Galilee? It is Jesus, the Living Word of God, saying to them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” The root word of courage is the French word “coeur” – which is heart, from the Latin “cor”. We know coronary refers to your heart. Jesus says “have courage”. Why? “It is I.” It’s me, God’s Son, the Messiah, your Savior. In the original Greek, what Jesus says is: “Take heart, I AM” – “I AM” being the name God claims as his own.
A couple weeks ago we heard St. Paul ask the question: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Jesus reminds his disciples – and us – that he is with us and for us.
On another occasion, Jesus said to his friends: “In the world you will have tribulation; but take courage, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
Friends, in these troubled and uncertain times, God is calling us to boldly live the gospel: “ . . . to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but confident that God’s word is leading us and God’s love is supporting us.”