I grew up in a small town in south Florida during a very idyllic time. We rode our bicycles around town with abandon, never fearing for our safety. Our parents knew that we would not get into trouble because the whole town kept an eye on us. Everyone, from the one telephone operator who could see all of Main Street from her switchboard atop the A&P Grocery Store to the fire chief who was a deacon in our local church, took personal responsibility for us.
The bicycle was my ticket to freedom. Riding it with a pack of other boys on their bikes was sheer joy. One day after I had lubricated the chain and sprocket, we took a shortcut through a building site with nothing on it but sand and half-built houses. Now sand in south Florida has a life of its own. If you get it on you, it is difficult to get it off. If it gets in your hair, it's hard to wash it out. When you play in it, even though it is white, it will get your body very, very dirty.
On this day I hit a piece of wood at the construction site and fell into a large pile of white sand. I was OK but the freshly greased chain and sprocket on my bike were covered with the white menace. The grease held the sand and would not release it. When I tried to ride the bike the machinery worked OK, but the sand started grinding in the gears, making a terrible noise. The bike would function, but its efficiency was greatly diminished. It was noisy, hard to pedal, and the sand was destroying the gears. When I rode it, all I could hear was grind, grind, grind. For two Saturdays in a row, I tried in vain to get the gears free of sand. But I failed. I could ride the bicycle, but it was a very unpleasant and destructive task.
As a pastor, I see a lot of people who tell me their feelings. I don't see people whose lives are broken as much as I see people whose lives have sand in the gears. They are overwhelmed by life. As hard as they try to prevent it, life grinds away at their gears as sand did in that old bicycle of mine.
I never will forget reading a speech Franklin Roosevelt made. He said that there are four freedoms: the freedom from want, the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, and the freedom from fear. Most of the people facing the culture we live in have a sense of fear that everything is going to fall in on them. As far as I'm concerned, fear is the sand in our gears.
Fear is not all bad. A healthy fear will keep us alive. Fear is built in. It is a warning signal; it is a light inside of us. It is a smoke detector that tells us that there may be something wrong. But fear gone too far becomes anxiety. Fear is a reaction proportionate to the danger one must face. Anxiety is a disproportionate reaction to an imaginary danger. Note I said disproportionate reaction to an imaginary danger.
If we fear bad health, we take care of ourselves. We exercise, eat right, and do things as we should. We see the doctor to get a check-up. We take care of ourselves if we fear bad health. If we fear poverty, we work hard and make sure we plan for the future. If we fear we are going to have moral wreckage in our lives, we live by a set of ethics. Most of us fear we are going to be victims of our own worst selves.
In this sermon I am talking about fear that has become toxic. For our purposes today, fear and anxiety are synonymous. Sigmund Freud said that there are three basic fears that we bring into adulthood from our childhood. One is that our bodies are going to decay. If you don't believe it, why do we have contact lenses, toupees and Clairol? Why do we wear hearing aids? Why? Because our bodies are beginning to decay. "The second fear," said Freud, "is that external forces will overwhelm us without mercy." Have you ever felt that you were going to be taken over by forces you cannot control? If you don't have that fear yet, watch the evening news. The third fear we bring from our childhood to adulthood is the fear of relationships with others. We think that somehow others can hurt us. This is the fear that bothers us more than the other two because we need people, but we're afraid of them.
I must say again that proportionate fear is helpful. You wouldn't fly with an airline pilot who did not have a healthy fear. I wouldn't go to a doctor who did not have a healthy fear, nor would I take medicine from a pharmacist who didn't have a healthy fear. I think it is normal to fear a speeding car; it is not normal to fear crossing the street. It is normal to fear disease. You wash your hands frequently to prevent the spread of germs, but it is abnormal to wash your hands every 15 minutes during the day.
I walked by a mountain pond that had been created for erosion control. In the middle of the pond a drain had been installed to take off surplus water after heavy rains. The pond was full, and I noticed a whirlpool around the drain. As I walked across the dam at the end of the pond, I noticed some leaves and twigs floating toward the drain. They were calm until they reached the whirlpool of the drain in the center of the pond. Then they went faster and faster, and, suddenly, they were gone as they were sucked into the drain.
That whirlpool is the anxiety that dominates most of us. We get closer and closer to it, and then it envelops us. Someone has noted that fear and worry eat up human flesh. Have you ever felt that you were being eaten up? We are all prone to irrational fear that plagues our journey through life, and this irrational fear can leave life in ruins. It becomes sand in the gears that destroys any quality of life.
It is interesting that the Bible says "Fear not" 365 times. Fear must be a universal issue in our lives if the Bible could spend so much time encouraging us to "fear not." In the opening pages of the Bible, we see Abraham called to go to a new place. He was told "fear not." We see also that Isaac was given the assurance that Jacob was safe down in Egypt - "fear not." Moses crossing the Red Sea was surrounded by a congregation that really didn't want to do what he was calling them to do. He had Pharaoh chasing him, and God said to him, "Fear not." And Moses said to the people, "Let's go forward."
Jesus had spent a long time teaching and healing. The story I read a moment ago comes after the feeding of the 5,000, and Jesus' teaching on the shores of the Galilee. When He had finished, He was depleted, exhausted, but the people went away satisfied. He had told the disciples to get into the boat, and He had said to them, in effect, "You take the boat and go home. I'm going to walk for a while. I'll meet you there."
So they got into the boat; they went 3 to 3-1/2 miles, according to the Scripture, and a storm blew up. The Sea of Galilee is notorious for very quick and furious storms. It is surrounded by mountains that funnel the winds down into the sea, and it can be dangerous. One of those storms came up when Jesus was on the shore. When He realized that his disciples were frightened, He began to walk to them on the water. As He drew near to the boat, He said to the disciples, "It is I. Do not be afraid." Immediately after that, the scripture says that they invited Him into the boat. The scripture goes on to say that they came to the shore. Other gospels tell us the storm went away when Jesus was invited into the boat.
What we need to understand is that we are going through life scared to death. Yet we keep Jesus at arms' length. We won't invite Him into our little boats. As a parenthetical thought, let me note that we are never promised that there will not be storms. We are never promised that there will not be sand in our gears; even if we are believers, we are not promised this. But we are given the assurance that when the storms come, when the sand grinds at the gears, that we have the presence of God with us to help us through these times.
What the Bible tells us is that when Jesus is in the boat with us, we can go through any storm that comes. We will have storms, and there will be sand in the gears of our lives. It will grind away until we think that life is absolutely impossible. No one is promised that life is going to be easy. We all have our bag of rocks. None of us comes through life without scars, but we can endure. With Jesus in the boat, we can be more than conquerors through Him who loves us.
Remember, "Perfect love casts out fear." Invite Jesus into your little boat, and He will take you safely to the shore. He is the only One who can take the sand out of our gears.
Let us pray.
Eternal God, let us understand that even when life is difficult, you are there. And even when life is difficult, you walk with us. Let us invite the Christ into our little boats. For we pray in His name. Amen.