Note: this sermon was preached at an outdoor service, so there is no video or podcast. Text is below.
“Cause for Courage”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
August 13, 2023
Part of being human is encountering things that frighten us or keep us awake at night or make us worry about survival. It’s the stuff of the amygdala, the “reptilian brain” that instructs our hearts to beat and our lungs to breathe, and it also is where we get the fight, flight, or freeze response. Has there been a time for you when you’ve had that deer-in-the-headlights reaction where you feel as though you can’t think straight as a rush of adrenaline courses through your body? Most of us have had that sensation, even if we were not out on stormy seas in an open boat as the disciples were.
One of those times for me was when my stepson, Jane Anne’s son Colin, took his own life five years ago. I was out having a beer with one of our members, Mike Byrne, and I got the call. Jane Anne was so shaken she couldn’t speak, so my son, Chris, had to tell me that tragic news. I remember freezing and then telling Mike, “I have to go home. Now.” I drove home through the February snow, and I have no memory of the rest of the evening. At about 2:00 a.m., our doorbell rang, and there was a policeman at the door. I invited him in, and he said that he needed to inform us of some bad news, and I called to Jane Anne to come downstairs. It’s weird and a bit traumatizing to have the police knock on your door in the middle of the night and to hear them make an official notification that Colin had died. We were in shock, and we thanked the officer for coming by. (I’m sure it was very difficult for him to inform us as next-of-kin.)
Last week, I read this quote from James Finley in Richard Rohr’s daily email: “God is the presence that spares us from nothing, even as God unexplainably sustains us in all things.” God didn’t spare the disciples in the storm, but Jesus sustained them.
Viktor Frankl, a brilliant psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, identified three discreet phases in such circumstances: stimulus, time, and response. Our reptilian brain leaps in after a triggering event (the stimulus) and rushes us to a response. This is great if you are about to walk into the road, see an oncoming vehicle at the last second, and leap back out of the way. In such circumstances, the amygdala keeps us alive. But what makes us human is the ability to expand the time between stimulus and response, so that can use our prefrontal cortex to allow a more considered response. That very brief span of time between stimulus and response is where we can find a sense of liberty in how we respond, using our prefrontal cortex.
What Frankl encourages us to do is practice being conscious of and lengthening the pause between stimulus and response. The disciples were so terrified of the storm and seeing a figure walking toward them across the water (that’s the stimulus) they panicked and thought Jesus was a “ghost.” (To be fair, that is a pretty frightening situation.) And when Jesus reassures them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid,” it allows them to pause, and Peter responds by asking Jesus to summon him out to walk on the water. Peter is now using his prefrontal cortex! Yay!
When Peter steps out onto the water, the wind comes up and he becomes frightened. His amygdala kicks in, and in immediate response, Peter begins to get very wet ankles and knees. As he is sinking, Jesus grabs his hand and hoists him to the surface of the water, saying “You of little faith (trust), why did you doubt?”
All of this makes me wonder if part of living into a life of faith involves disrupting that stimulus and response pattern slightly and inviting time in between to allow not just our logic but our faith to create a more considered response. I’ve never thought this before, but I wonder if faith (trust) resides in our prefrontal cortex, as well as metaphorically in our hearts. Trust isn’t something that just happens; we have to learn it. We develop trust in God through our own devotional lives and spiritual practice, whether that’s praying or meditating or journaling or reading scripture. It takes time to build faith that will last a lifetime.
Fear may be the opposite of faith. And when you think of what fear creates in our world — hatred, greed, racism, self-centeredness, sexism, Christian nationalism, and war — it is antithetical to faith, which I think of as developing a relationship of deep trust with God.
Part of what helped Jane Anne and me to regain our equilibrium after Colin’s death was to trust that we were being held…held by God and held by this community of faith. All we had to do is look in our backyard, where the prayer flags you all made for us were flying near our back fence, and we knew you were there with us. I am grateful. Thank you for surrounding us with God’s love and yours. James Finley writes, “God depends on us to protect ourselves and each other, to be nurturing, loving, protective people. When suffering is there, God depends on us to reach out and touch the suffering with love, that it might dissolve in love.”
We don’t have to go it alone. There is a force infinitely more loving and powerful that anything we can imagine. And relationship helps tether us to that force and become part of that force.
In those moments of life’s greatest intensity, we can invite our faith to come to the fore. Jan Richardson, a wonderful artist and minister, who suddenly and unexpectedly lost her husband Gary several years ago writes this, using images from Matthew’s story of Jesus on the waves:
“Eight months have passed since Gary’s death: a moment, an aching eternity. I can tell you that I know what it means to be borne up when the waters overwhelm. I know the grace of hands that reach out to carry and console and give courage. I am learning—again, anew—what faith is, how this word that we sometimes toss around so casually holds depths within depths that will draw us beyond nearly everything we once believed.
This is some of what I know right now about faith:
That faith is not something I can summon by a sheer act of will.
That it lives and breathes in the community that encompasses us.
That I cannot force faith but can ask for it, can pray that it will make its way to me and bear me up over the next wave, and the next. That it comes. That I can lean into it.
That it will propel me not only toward the Christ who calls me, but also back toward the boat that holds my life, incomprehensible in both its pain and its grace.
What are you knowing about faith right now? Where is it bearing you?”
And Jan Richardson offers this “Blessing that Bears the Wind, the Wave”
That we will risk
by which we
toward the voice
that calls us,
that catches us,
that carries us
beyond the wind,
Dear friends, we are here to be the hands of Jesus to one another, to support and uplift one another. “Don’t be afraid; my love is stronger. My love is stronger than your fear. Don’t be afraid my love is stronger, and I have promised, promised to be always near.”
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Jan Richardson, at janrichardson.com, used by permission.