This sermon was preached on June 23, 2024, and was part of a livestream that can be viewed here.

Good morning, Christ Church! It’s good to be with you for worship today and to get to preach and lead the service while the staff is away on their Guatemala mission trip. 

For anyone I don’t know, my name is Bill Walker, and I used to serve as the Director of Vocation here at Christ Church. I now lead a campus ministry organization at UT called Hill House, where we also talk about vocation with students. In addition, we host dinners, discussions and lectures on a variety of topics that are confronting Christian students at a University like UT, and try to resource them for the integration of faith and their education. For example, this Fall we’re doing a series on “Faith & Reason,” and there may be opportunity at least once or twice for Christ Church to participate as well.

Last weekend, on Sunday evening, many of you were part of Father Matt Dampier’s installation service as the new rector of Christ Church, which I attended as well. And I did so gladly, but I didn’t come with an expectation necessarily to be so moved by it. I guess I thought, this is an important but mostly formal inaugural induction ceremony of some kind. But wow, I found it to be much more than that.

Of course the backyard party afterward with everybody was fun, but the service itself especially was quite touching and challenging in many ways. And I won’t mention everything that could be remembered, but several things in particular stood out from Bishop Todd’s sermon that speak prophetically and pastorally not just to Father Matt, but to our church in particular, and to Christian in our time in general.

The passage that he most drew from was Joshua 1:7-9. That fairly famous and almost cliche coffee mug or Christian t-shirt verse: 

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. DO not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” 

Bishop Todd commented that another way to understand the sense of the Hebrew phrase for “be strong and courageous” is, “do not be alarmed.” Why? Bishop Todd further commented: Because you are in the care of another. You are in the care of another. Do not be alarmed. Be strong and courageous. Because you are in the care of another. 

Let’s pray. Oh God, as Christ Church, and as your followers, we do wish to be people of strength and courage who are not afraid and who are easily alarmed by the many threats and challenges we may face. Teach us, Lord Jesus, to trust you, and guide us into truth through your word this morning we pray, Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Recently I read as part of a book club I’m in The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle for the book is, “How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.” 

Now, I know I just quoted Bishop Todd and Scripture basically saying, “do not be alarmed.” And yet, admittedly, this book is trying to sound an alarm – but for good reason, I think. And the alarm is being sounded for reasons that many of us probably already recognize. But research and the evidence in the book confirms even more what some have feared, which is that, indeed, our smart phones and screens are doing something harmful to all of us, but especially to our young people. Our smart phones and screens already have done harm, unfortunately. 

Now, that’s a very serious topic that deserves our attention, but that’s not what I want to focus on this morning. Rather, another part of this book, The Anxious Generation, takes time to diagnose our current cultural moment a bit more. Not just the technological and virtual features of it, but other things as well. And this builds on to a previous book by Haidt called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. 

See, the thesis of Haidt’s The Anxious Generation could be summarized this way: “parents have underprotected their kids in the virtual world and overprotected them in the real world.” And this needs to be reversed. 

Isn’t that interesting? Because it’s not something that we might all immediately recognize. The underprotection in the virtual world, sure, but overprotection in the real world – that’s perhaps less obvious, and where I think I think we and I have some more learning to do. 

The basis for this claim of overprotection is that kids, by and large, especially between the ages of say three and ten, very much need what Haidt refers to as “free play.” And free play is characterized by a few things: regular experience of relatively unsupervised, relatively unstructured, and relatively risky play and activity with other children – preferably of different ages, and preferably outdoors. 

As soon as you hear that, if you’re like me, you’re thinking, oh yeah, of course that’s what they need. It’s almost like I knew that already. But for a variety of reasons, we’ve taken more and more of this play time and free time away from kids in the last few decades. 

And so this isn’t just about smart phones. Actually this trend of decreasing free play, Haidt argues, started largely in the 80s and 90s. And there are many reasons he gives for this. I’m not going to list all of them, but it has to do with things like families having fewer children, not trusting or knowing their neighbors as much, a lot more undue focus on kids’ achievements, grades, college readiness, and so on. 

It’s worth mentioning, and you can probably tell that this doesn’t describe everyone’s situation, but more so the majority middle and upper-middle class demographic. But it is a major trend.

And Haidt’s point here is obviously not to say that we shouldn’t be very watchful and careful when it comes to our kids’ safety. There are all kinds of appropriate and wise measures that should be taken to protect young people and all people. This is not a call away from that responsibility.

We live in a sinful and broken world where very bad and awful things happen all the time. The problem is, we hear about so many of these bad things all the time. We hear about bad things, and know about bad things, much more than people in the past – because of our technology, our news, our information. And because bad news does sell, and it’s addicting. 

Bad news is addicting because it’s hardwired into human psychology to be alert to threats. To be alarmed. It’s how we have survived in many ways over millennia – by being aware of and avoiding danger. 

Haidt gives this addiction a name for our own time. He calls it “safetyism.” Here is a definition:

“Safetyism refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people are unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”

Does this sound familiar to us? Does it describe our culture? I think so. Not everyone. But it is a major trend that we’re seeing and we’re experiencing. 

Hopefully it’s not too soon to use this example, but it seems like COVID really did illustrate this as well as anything. There were necessary and good safety measures put in place, especially when we had such little information. Protecting the most vulnerable was a proper and good concern. But in some instances, people and institutions really might have taken things too far. 

“Be safe”, “Stay safe,” almost become the new standard greeting used in conversations and salutations. Which again, is not all bad. And there were reckless responses to COVID, and many people did die. So it’s not easy. There’s a balance here. 

But I think you get my point. Safety is one of our absolute highest values and even what you could call an addiction or an idol, for many in our culture

If the goal of human life were simply to survive, and be safe, then this might be ok. But we all know that life is about much more than that. Certainly the Christian life is. And we can’t live in a state of constant fear and alarm. 

Maybe you’ve heard this cited before about commands in the Bible, of which there are many, and of course we know the Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes. But what is the most frequent command in all of Scripture? It’s something like, “Do not be afraid.” “Fear not.” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” “Do not worry.” “Be anxious about nothing.” And on and on I could go. All of these commands fall back on one single principle. “Have faith, for you are in the care of another.”  

Look, we all know, the world is not safe. It’s not a safe place. It’s somewhat safe in this part of the world than in other places. It’s probably safer here than in Ukraine, Sudan, Gaza…

But we’re not.. We’re not that safe either. There’s clearly a strong correlation between cancer and living in advanced industrial societies like ours. Much of the food that we eat and the air that we breathe is less safe than it used to be. From heart disease to car accidents, there are many dangers. And yes, there are steps you can take to eat better and drive more safely or drive less, and those are good things to do. But we absolutely cannot ensure our safety or the safety of those we love. 

So what really is the lesson that Jesus is giving here, and that God would have us head when it comes to fear and anxiety and safety and insecurity. And faith? How exactly are we supposed to be strong and courageous in a dangerous world? I mean, the disciples had Jesus himself in their boat, and they were still very afraid. I’m sure I would have been too.  

And you know, unfortunately, the answer does not appear to be: if you’re in a storm, cry out to Jesus, and he will calm it down. He will rescue you. That is of course what happens in this story. But it’s not often what happens in our stories. Sometimes the storm persists. Sometimes the storm gets worse. Sometimes it even overwhelms and overtakes us or our friends. Our loved ones. So no, I don’t think the takeaway is that Jesus is merely our rescue boat. 

There was one more thing that Bishop Todd promised to Father Matt last week that is worth mentioning here. He said, and I’m paraphrasing: “Matt, if there’s one thing I wish for you, it’s that you would look back on your time as rector at Christ Church, hopefully many years from now, and be able to say that, you were companioned by God. And that there was a strength and a courage that was available and that you enjoyed, but that it was not yours. It was from another.” 

So I think that’s the first truth here. First, Jesus is with us in the storm. He has been in every storm that any of us or anyone else has experienced. And he is closer to us than we are to ourselves in our own storms. 

And secondly, Jesus is more powerful than any storm. He has power over the storm. He will outlast the storm. He has outlasted the storm. One that bore the consequences of all the storms we’ve caused or been cast into. So yes, we too can outlast any storm. 

I turned forty this week. And I mention this because any birthday, any aging milestone, even any anniversaryit has the potential to of course prompt reflection, and reflection that is based on gratitude. And truly that is where most of my reflection has been directed. It’s directed toward that for which I am grateful in my life. 

But there’s another part of the reflection that points to places in my life and heart where I do not yet fully trust and reflect Christ to others, you know? And where I want to. But I think there’s still some fear in me. Fear of failure, fear of not having enough, fear of the disapproval of others. 

I would have liked to be able to say that by age forty, I have overcome these fears. But in truth, they are still there, however small or big sometimes. 

And that’s where this story challenges me the most. Because it’s one thing to try to trust that Jesus is ultimately going to rescue us and calm the story. And that is comforting. It is part of our faith to hold to that. But I think even more profound than what Jesus offers to us, is what Jesus can offer to others and to the world through us when we trust him, and when we live with deep, abiding trust in him. 

When we live with a confidence that Jesus is with us and more powerful than whatever circumstances we are facing – when we are unalarmed in the face of threats and insecurities – we invite and we empower others to live with that same confidence. And then you begin to imagine what is possible when a whole community does that together. The good news that can get proclaimed with that sort of love and peace and care for God’s justice and purposes in the world. It’s astounding, and it’s what we’re being called into through the story to us this morning. 

And while Jesus is the source of our faith amid the storms, he’s also the model for our faith. He too had to put full trust in the care of his heavenly Fand walk by faith as fully human. And he did this for us for our own inspiration and instruction.

So let me leave you with this question: Are there any places in your own life where inordinate fear is holding you back and keeping you from the life of flourishing that God wants and has for you? Has fear grown too powerful? 

Imagine Jesus asking you the question, “Why are you afraid?” And let yourself feel safe enough to give an honest answer. And then, consider how you might respond to the invitation to redirect your faith toward the one who is always with you in every storm and stronger than any storm. 

I want to close be simply reading the words of Jesus from elsewhere in the gospel:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”– John 16:33

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Also published on Medium.