A couple of years ago, Melissa and I took the kids to the Grand Canyon for spring break. It was a great trip. As one of the highlights of this adventure I was talked into taking a helicopter trip over the canyon. Being usually as tight as a tick, it took some lobbying on the part of my family but looking back I am very glad we did it. I will never forget loading up onto this chopper and taking off. I had never been in a helicopter before and for several minutes as we flew across the desert a couple of hundred feet off the ground any anxiety I had began to melt away and I just sat back and enjoyed the scenery. That was until we reached the edge of the canyon. As we flew over the canyon rim and that great abyss opened up below me I suddenly realized how high we were and how far we had to fall if something went wrong. I was terrified. For the first several minutes I couldn’t appreciate the majesty of that incredible hole in the ground because all I could think about was how vast and deep the canyon is and how small we were floating there on the breeze in that helicopter.
How often are you afraid? How often does life seem to take you over the edge where you realize that there is very little keeping you aloft, very little keeping you afloat? Fear is a part of the human condition. We can calm our fears but rarely are we ever truly free of them. Many people are fearful about their work. Sometimes we are brought up short when we realize just how dependant our livelihood is on the success of a specific case, the renewal of a certain contract, the performance of a major fund, or the constant need to bring in new patients or customers. Many people are fearful for their own health. All you have to do is stop to consider your family’s medical history, the seemingly unrelenting appearance of cancer among friends and peers, or the way that heart attacks seem to come out of nowhere, to realize how vulnerable we all are. Many of us are frightened every day for our children. Regardless of their age, if you are a parent, do you ever stop worrying about your children? The fact is, in spite of the angel’s counsel to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, to “fear not” (a message that lies at the heart of the Christmas story), fear is a difficult thing to master. It is easy to say, “don’t be afraid,” but is it possible to live without fear?
In one of his books, Marcus Borg describes faith using the Latin word “fiducia.” Faith as fiducia, Borg says, is faith as trust in God. Borrowing from a metaphor used by Soren Keirkegaard, Borg writes, “faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float. It’s like Matthew’s story of Peter walking on the water with Jesus – when he began to be afraid, he began to sink.” Borg goes on to say, “To help an adult class see the meaning of faith, my wife asked them, ‘How many of you have taught a small child to swim?’ Many of them had. When asked to describe the experience, all said that the biggest hurdle was getting the child to relax in the water. They kept saying over and over again, ‘just relax, you’ll float, it’s okay.’ Faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Trust in God as the one upon whom we rely, as our support and foundation and ground, as our safe place.”1
Today we baptize three beautiful children, two at the 9:00 service and 1 at 11:15. As we sprinkle the water of baptism on their heads we begin the process of teaching them how to spiritually swim. In a sense, they get wet for the first time. The goal is that they and all of us should learn how to float in the midst of life’s struggles. Perhaps we cannot rid ourselves of the fear that the bottom may drop out, the fear that life may fall apart, but we can learn to trust in the buoyancy of God. Sure life can be scary, and sometimes incredibly difficult, but the God who blessed Jesus in his baptism blesses all of us in ours with the promise that no matter what happens God will not let us go.
Did you read in the Times Dispatch this past Thursday about the two men in West Chase who rushed into the burning building in order to save a badly burned woman? Two men, Brian Gordon and Barry Martin who did not know one another, ran through the heat and black smoke of a burning home to pull a woman they did not know to safety. Then, as she lay badly burned on a charred rug they held her hand and prayed with her until help arrived. What impressed me most, besides the bravery of these two men, was their faith. They had a sense that God was with them, a faith that gave them support. Some people might say they were heroic; others might say they were reckless and foolhardy. I think they knew something about what it means to float. I think they knew something about the buoyancy of God. Even though they must have been terrified, they still took the risk to help. Their faith didn’t save them from fear. Their faith enabled them to act to save another in spite of their fear.
In closing, I want to share with you part of an email I received from a member of this parish whose mother died this past week. Traveling home to be with her at the end, I spoke with him a couple of times by way of email and cell phone to offer what pastoral support I could. After she died, he emailed me to say thanks. As part of that email he wrote, “It has been a whirlwind – exactly 24 hours. I am stronger than I thought I was, but I have a great deal of help and support. Last night I found the Bible that belonged to my Grandmother, the only item of hers my Mom wanted when she passed. Mom was reading Luke last week, specifically Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. There is a prayer that my Grandmother wrote on the leaf, which both she and my Mom practiced in their own quiet, personal way: ‘Every morning lean thine arms awhile upon the windowsill of God and Heaven and then with the image in thine heart turn strong to meet thy day.’ I do not know where my Grandmother found it, but it describes perfectly the well of strength from which my Mom drew daily. She was the strongest person I have ever known.”
A legacy of faith passed from mother to daughter to son. A legacy of reliance on God. A legacy of strength that rests in the knowledge that even though the waters may be deep and the way difficult, we can trust in the buoyancy of God. Amen.
1. Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p.31