Wild Lectionary: The mixology of Faith and Fear

Erazo-Paris Family Archives, circa May 1969

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14 (19)

1 Kings 19:9-18 & Matthew 14:22-33

[Elijah] answered “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 1 Kings 19:10

26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Matthew 14:27

By Priscilla Paris-Austin

Faith and fear seem to reside right next to each other in our world. I don’t know about you but I find this to be true in my family story over and over again. While the two seem incompatible, as I look back I can see how closely they are aligned, one driving me to the other, or moving me through its companion, until I find my way back to God’s enduring and steadfast love.

History tells of the ways the Spaniards colonized the Caribbean islands, fearing rebellion of the native peoples they sought to exterminate and enslave them, all in the name of conversion to Christianity. This Doctrine of Discovery, has been repudiated by the contemporary Christian church, but the lasting impact of this fear-laced faith, remains part of our institutions. Yet God manages to work wonders in, through and despite our human frailty.

As the story goes, my mother’s maternal great grandmother was part of the colonizing household of Spanish royalty on the island of Puerto Rico, as their chef.  My mother’s paternal grandfather is believed to be the last pure Taino in our family. The union of my grandparents is a manifestation of this complex relationship between faith and fear. My grandparents marriage was one of deep and abiding love between the descendents of colonizer and colonized. The dark-skinned Taino-Borinquen man alongside the stout fair-skinned daughter of Spaniards taught their children about a different kind of fear, a fear of the Lord, born out of faith. The beauty of their love is made more poignant by their heritage. It’s depth and power to encourage and sustain me comes only when I hold on to the complexity of its context.

As we look at the texts for this week, we can see the frailty of our human fear laid bare to us in the lives of some bold Biblical ancestors. And coming alongside it, is God’s loving response of steadfast presence. It is a beautiful story of grace that can lose its significance and import when we take the stories out of context, not unlike our own encounters with faith and fear.

Elijah has fled to Mt Horeb, the place where Moses encountered God in the burning bush, to hide in a cave. He is fearful for his life because Jezebel has sworn vengeance after he humiliated her priest of Baal with a spectacular display of God’s amazing power (1 Kings 18). Alongside this story, Peter and the disciples are having a retreat on the sea, after having fed 5000 men plus the women and children as we heard in the Gospel last week (Matthew 14:13-21). These lifelong fishermen, are gripped in fear as their boat is tossed about in the sea and they see a shadow, or “phantom” on the water.

Context matters.

Jezebel is enraged at Elijah and one would think that after such a victorious display, Elijah would be fortified in his faith. But no. He crumbles in the face of Jezebel’s political power and runs away. His faith and his fear are all mixed up and confused.

In the Matthew telling of the feeding of the masses, Jesus turned the work of feeding over to the disciples. From Jesus’ hands they took 5 loaves and two fish, and they fed the people. Jesus then sends them off in the boat, so they can rest from the work they have done, an amazing deed of God’s power in the wilderness.  These lifelong fishermen find themselves being tossed about on the water, certainly not an unusual occurrence, and upon seeing a shadow in the morning mist, failing to recognize Jesus, they are gripped with fear.

Instead of rebuke, God responds to both Elijah and the disciples with a loving presence. For Elijah, there is wind, earthquake and fire that tear through the mountains and then the sound of sheer silence. For the disciples, it is Jesus, coming to them on the water, before they know their own need, immediately speaking to their fear.

Elijah responds to the silence by stepping out of the safety of the cave with his mantle over his face. Peter responds by asking Jesus to call him out of the boat. God continues to entrust these fear-filled followers with a calling. God instructs Elijah on a leadership succession plan and Jesus bids Peter “Come”.

As we bring this word to the people, context matters. What are the great works and amazing deeds of God’s power that have happened in your community, that have been forgotten in the face of fear? Where is Jesus already walking out to us on the water, even before we cry out in fear? And how is God continuing to call us as followers, to simply have faith?

In his later years, my grandfather became blind from diabetes, but still seemed to me to be a towering man of strength. In this photo he is holding me, as he and my grandmother bookend my family. Their faith and fear of the Lord, physically fortified us then and continues to spiritually fortify me now. When I remember all that God brought them through, I am reminded, the Spaniards may have intended to kill off the Taino people, but I stand here today as proof, that is not God’s plan. And through it all, God’s love sustains us.

Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin, is an urban nomad who currently pastors of Immanuel Lutheran Church (ELCA) in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle, a congregation that takes seriously their calling to be Open and Affirming of all persons of every gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, ability, age and status and humbly acknowledges that the historic building in which we worship resides on land stolen from the Duwamish people.

Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in scripture, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.


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