Suzanne Verdal is a homeless woman
who sleeps in a truck with four cats
in Venice Beach, California.
But in 1965, she was a young bohemian dancer in Montreal,
the wife of a famous sculptor, Armand Villancourt.
Through her husband, she became friends with a poet.
Despite rumors, they were not lovers but soul mates.
They would meet at her home by the St. Laurence River,
near the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Help.
She would light a candle, serve tea, and talk with him
about her prayers to Jesus and St. Joan.
The poet was Leonard Cohen.
And his poem about her became a song.
Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river . . ..
And the sun pours down like honey
On Our Lady of the Harbor
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers . . ..”
It was the most mystical of love poems
about a relationship that was never a romance.
In Leonard Cohen’s characteristic fashion,
a certain religious element is set
in the midst of the relationship.
So we find the lyrics,
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said, ‘All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them . . ..’
Today’s Gospel lesson captures our attention
if for no other reason than because
in 1965, by the St. Lawrence River in Montreal,
this story was on the minds and perhaps the lips
of Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Verdal.
Those of us who remember 1965
remember it as a year of war and riots.
But here was this song about
The sun pours down like honey
On our Lady of the Harbor
a song of serenity in the fearful time.
The gospel lesson is such a fearful time.
Jesus had just learned that his teacher,
John the Baptist, had been executed,
so he withdrew to a lonely place.
He even sent away his 12 disciples in a boat.
He wanted to be alone.
Jesus climbed the mountain
and spent the whole night there praying.
Then when the disciples found themselves tossed about
by a violent storm on the lake,
Jesus came through the storm to them with his most common message,
“Take heart. I am here. Do not be afraid.”
When they completely trusted him,
Peter was even able to walk on the waters of chaos himself.
But when he doubted, he sank.
Jesus didn’t abandon him because his faith was weak.
He lifted him up to safely anyway.
We all know life gets stormy.
We are sometimes tossed about by the chaos
and the uproar of the people and events
who make up the sea on which we sail.
In truth, life is manageable.
Even death is manageable.
Millions of people have been doing life and death
for thousands of years and the world keeps right on turning.
The storm that threatens to swamp our boat is the fear.
When fear takes over we don’t do so well.
We freeze or lash out or fumble.
We lose our balance and sink into the chaos.
That’s how we drown.
The philosophers all tell us this.
The Stoic Seneca said in 50 A D,
“There is nothing fearful except fear itself.”
Montaigne said in 1580,
“The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear.”
“Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.”
What makes fear such a problem?
300 years ago, economist Edmund Burke answered,
“No passion so effectively robs the mind of its power
of acting and reasoning than fear.”
In 1938, the whole nation was pushed into a stark panic
by Orson Welles reading The War of the Worlds
on the radio.
Our wiring for fear makes us putty in the hands
of fearmongering demagogues.
As long as people want power, as long as they want to dominate us,
there will be fear mongering demagogues.
Their job is easy because fear is so contagious.
We catch it like a cold.
Poet laureate Charles Simic wrote,
Fear passes from man to man.
As one leaf passes its shudder
All at once, the whole tree is trembling.
And there is no sign of the wind.
We feel fear that isn’t even our own.
We feel the fear of our neighbors.
What are we afraid of?
The shadow on our CT scan,
our child’s drug use, immigrants, ISIS,
There are an infinite number of hooks
where fear can attach itself.
If we ever run out, we will invent more.
Fear comes in waves like the waves on a stormy sea.
The Bible tells us those are precisely the moments
when Jesus comes to us.
That’s when he’s present, saying,
“Take heart. I am here. Do not be afraid.”
Leonard Cohen says that Jesus appears
only to those who are drowning.
That fits my experience.
My connection to Christ is pretty casual
until I am in trouble.
That’s when my prayer gets serious.
So when we are drowning, that’s precisely when Jesus is present.
When we trust him,
the fear subsides and we can walk on the waters.
We can negotiate the chaos around us.
The hard part is that our very fear keeps us
from seeing him.
We are blinded by all the scary things – both real and imagined.
The objective truth that Jesus will show up
– we can take that to the bank.
The fact that he will save us whether we have faith or not,
just like he saved Peter,
we can count on that too.
But whether we notice him, whether we take heart
and overcome our fear,
well, that part’s up to us.
Remembering to keep an eye out for Jesus
Isn’t easy when we’re in a dead panic.
It takes some discipline.
We have to make a habit of looking for him.
Everyday without fail,
I pray the 1st Song of Isaiah,
Surely it is God who saves me.
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For he is my stronghold and my sure defense
And he will be my savior.
One old bishop used to look in the mirror each morning,
Whatever happens to me this day,
I am baptized.
Some make habit of praying constantly with their breath,
Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God
Have mercy on me a sinner.
It doesn’t matter how we do it.
We can get a Fit Bit to vibrate each hour to remind us
that God loves us so it’s going to be ok.
We can pick whatever reminder works for us.
The key is to somehow remember Jesus saying,
Take heart, I am here. Do not be afraid.
The Bible tells us not to be afraid.
It says “Do not be afraid” 365 times, once of each day of the year.
So, we can check in on that assurance habitually.
1st John says,
There is no room for fear in love
for perfect love casts out fear.
So when you hear the voices of fear,
you can know right off those are not the voices of love.
2nd Timothy says,
God has not given us a spirit of fear
but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
So when you sense the spirit of fear,
you know right off that isn’t from God.
God fills us with spiritual power and love and sanity,
And whenever someone tries to scare us,
whether it’s a fire and brimstone preacher
or a fire and fury politician,
we can remember Jesus saying,
Take heart. I am here. Do not be afraid.