Grace, With Skin On

Genevieve Zetlan, Licensed Lay Preacher

1 Samuel 17: 32-49
Psalm 9:9-20
 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Spiders. Public Speaking. Change. Death.
What are you afraid of?

We don’t much like to think about fear except to talk about how we should really get over it. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Or that old saying, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”, implying that all we have to do to live life to the fullest is just ignore all our fear. Even our scriptures might have us believing that fear is a problem to be eliminated –every angel ever starts out with “Fear Not”.

And our stories this morning are dramatic illustrations of fear, and our reactions to it. Saul, the King the Israelites asked for, is facing the Philistine army, and he and all of Israel are “greatly afraid”. The disciples, weathering a great storm in a small boat, are afraid. Someone once said “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear”, and this morning our story of David facing down Goliath and the Gospel where Jesus contrasts fear and faith seem to be saying that, too. These stories seem to be saying that if we just have enough faith, we won’t be afraid anymore.

The problem with this neat little juxtaposition is that when it comes down to it, there’s plenty of room in us broken and flawed human beings to be both very afraid and very faithful. And when life gets messy and our boat is swamped and we are facing challenges that loom like Giants over us, saying “just have faith!” makes weathering the storm all about us. It says to those in the deepest of crisis that if only their faith were stronger, they wouldn’t be so afraid.

Shortly after my son Davis was born, I was a certifiable wreck. Davis was premature, he wouldn’t eat, he wouldn’t sleep, he cried all the time and I think I cried about as much as he did during those first weeks. And at some point I said to my mother, “I’m worried about him all the time. I’m afraid I’m showing an appalling lack of faith.” And my mom said, “Oh honey— (Now if you’re familiar with Southern expressions, you know that “oh honey” is less a term of endearment than a commentary on exactly how off-your-rocker you are)—“Oh honey”, she said, “God doesn’t need you to have faith. God doesn’t need anything from you. God just loves you.”

The danger of thinking that our faith in God banishes our fear is that is makes everything dependent upon us, upon our measure of faith—as if there’s some sort of faith yardstick and some people measure up and some people don’t. And God doesn’t operate that way.

God doesn’t need for us to be or stable, or serene, or sober in order to calm the storms or slay our giants. God sends David to save the Israelites in spite of their fear, in spite of king Saul’s lack of faith, because God is faithful, not because they are.

In our Gospel story this morning Jesus acts to calm the storm first – because God’s calming of our stormy seas has never been dependent on us earning God’s grace, or having “enough” faith to deserve a little help.

But wait, you say—what about what Jesus says after calming the storm? “Have you no faith? Why are you afraid?”

Why are you afraid?

The disciples got in the boat with Jesus expecting that, with him, they’d be safe. But the storm comes anyway and the boat is swamped and it looks for all the world like God is literally asleep at the wheel. So they cry out, “Do you not care that we’re afraid and this is awful!”

And this is the heart of their fear—and ours. We put our faith in God, we get in the boat with Jesus, and then sometimes it feels like God doesn’t care, or at least isn’t listening. When first graders are gunned down in school and church goers are murdered in bible study, when over and over we pray and wonder why God doesn’t step in and save the innocent, stop the evil.

Faithful as we are, we’re human, too. We exist in a physical world in which there are real dangers, and we sometimes desperately need some tangible evidence – some “Grace with skin on” – to remind us that we are not alone, that God does care. The disciples don’t lack faith in God’s ability to save them — they lack faith that God cares.

In a nursing home in Virginia Beach was a woman who was 102 years old. She was convinced God didn’t care about her anymore. There was nothing in life left for her, she said, confined to the bed, in pain but alert. Her 97 year old sister had checked in after she did, and died within weeks, yet here she was, and she was sure God had forgotten her. One day, talking with the nursing home chaplain, she mentioned she really wanted her very own box of graham crackers – not the little packets of individual crackers from the cafeteria, but an entire box of her very own. She was asleep later that afternoon when the chaplain brought in a box of graham crackers and left it on her bed. And when she woke up, she told the chaplain, “Because you did this for me, I know now that God has not forgotten me.”

I know someone who once reached the lowest place you can reach, who was convinced no one cared, and the world would be a better place without them in it. And while being checked into suicide watch at the hospital, a very old college friend showed up to say how important they were, how loved. And that one message from that one person saved a life.

When we look around at our own messed up lives or at a world gone insane, we fear God isn’t listening. But it is when we are in the worst of raging storms or facing down enormous obstacles that we find out how much God really does care – because God sends people, “grace with skin on”, to show us. A note from someone long ago or far away. Flowers, delivered unexpectedly. That phone call you really needed, exactly when you needed it. Mr. Rogers said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers.” Because in the midst of fear and pain, they are there. They are us.

Being someone else’s grace doesn’t take any special skills – it just requires us to be who we are and listen to God’s calling. It is no coincidence that God sends a shepherd to defend the Israelites against the giant Goliath. Israel, after all, is God’s flock, and David already knows how to defend a flock of sheep. And when Saul tries to convince David to wear the King’s armor, David says “I cannot walk in these for I am not used to them”. Because it’s impossible for us to put on someone else’s armor. David has spent a lifetime developing his own skills and talents, and his existing gifts are more than enough for God to use – he doesn’t need to change who he is to be an agent of God’s saving grace.

This morning we will have a baptism. We don’t do full immersion here, but if you’ve ever seen an orthodox or baptist baptism, you realize the power of the symbol – baptism is all about being swamped, about going under the water and the waves where there is chaos and darkness, and coming up out of that with the surity that we are beloved, and God’s grace has marked us, forever. And this new child will be part of a community in not only this church, but throughout the world, of people who look at each other and see Jesus, and then turn around and be Jesus for each other – Grace with skin on.

And after the storms are calmed and the Giants are slain and we realize once again that God does care, that we are not alone, we can be in awe, as the disciples and the Israelites were. In awe that what we thought was impossible is possible. In awe that Grace is a gift given because God loves us, and not because we deserve it because we’ve met all the right expectations for being good, faithful people. In awe that the faith God wants us to have is the faith that we are cared for, deeply, eternally, and nothing we have done or will do can change that.

God is continually both sending us Grace, and chosing us to be Grace in a broken world.

Grace—with skin on.