sermon queens

SUNDAY SERMON: Faith & Fear

By Rev. Stephen Baldwin

OT: 1 Kings 19.9-15

NT: Matthew 14.22-33

Faith & Fear 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This sermon was delivered at my college reunion at Queens University of Charlotte this weekend.

Grace and peace to you all, who were shaped by this place and the motto that guided us, “Not be served, but to serve.” 

I want to thank President Lugo, Chaplain Adrian Bird, Carrie Wunner in the Advancement Office, and all of you, my fellow Queens & Kings, for the opportunity to be here today. 

This chapel was a sacred space for me in college. Whether it was the Men’s Bible Study we did as freshmen here in the back or the Guatemala Mission Trip meetings or weekly chapel with our beloved Dr. Diane Mowrey or the place I said goodbye to my parents on that first day of college, this place is sacred to me and to many of you. 

This is the place I came to pray when I wanted to ask a beautiful girl who lived in Wallace out on a date, and it took me a few weeks to work up the nerve. We’ve now been together for 23 years. I’d like to thank my wife, Kerry (Class of 04), for being here today, and we also have our son Harrison with us. 

Over the years, I’ve heard some remarkable sermons here, and I’ve delivered a few terrible ones. But they were in front of a much smaller crowd than we have today, so pray for me. You can only help yourselves. 

One day in the grocery store, I saw a young man in dirty jeans and a camouflage baseball cap who had a buggy full of wine.  At least a dozen bottles stacked together in there like hay bails.  An elderly woman in line behind him stared and made faces as he placed bottle after bottle at the checkout.  

The cashier asked, “You got a big night planned?” 

He smiled and said, “I’m gettin’ married, in two hours. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure if I’m more scared or excited, so I thought this would help either way.”  And he ran out of the store with his bottles clangin’. 

The elderly woman who had been behind him started placing her items near the register, shook her head, and said to the cashier, “Can you believe that? It would take that much hard liquor for me to ever get married again.” 

I tell you that story, which like any good Appalachian story is mostly true, because we’re all in that place at one time or another. Not Kroger buying a cart full of wine, but in the place between faith and fear. Where we’re not sure if we’re doing the most important thing in our entire life or making the biggest mistake we’ll ever regret. That’s what both of today’s Scriptures are about–faith and fear. 

I was in that place on my first day of college here. It was a glorious, Charlotte day. Blue skies and warm sun. It was a also scary day, because everything and everyone was brand new. I was a simple country boy from West Virginia living in the big city with people I’d never met before in the middle of the fanciest neighborhood I’d ever seen. 

At our first CORE class, Dr. Reed walked us through a thought experiment. He said, “Imagine you’re driving the backroads on a mountain somewhere. Your car breaks down. A truck arrives. Two men in overalls and camouflage hop out and walk over to you. What do you do?” 

One girl said, “I’d scream and run away!” 

A big tough guy said, “I’d show ‘em who’s boss!” 

I said, “I’d say hello cousins! Because they sound like my family.” 

Living in the big city was a scary proposition for a country boy. But it was also where I felt called to be. I visited a whole bunch of schools, and none felt like Queens. Because Queens felt like home. We were a family. 

We read 1 Kings earlier. As the passage opens, God asks a simple question with a complicated answer.  Elijah, God’s celebrity prophet from Israel, is sitting in a cave a long way from home, like a kid off to college, and God asks him, “What are you doing here?” 

An honest answer would have been, “Hiding from Jezebel”.  Yall know the backstory. Jezebel and Ahab wanted Elijah dead for his deeds, so Elijah ran away. FAR away.  

For forty days and forty nights, he ran like the wind, until he eventually found a cave on Mount Horeb and decided it was a good hiding place.  On cue, God shows up just when Elijah is trying to get some rest, asking a simple question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  

They go back and forth a few times, with Elijah beating around the bush about why he’s hiding in the cave–as if God doesn’t already know–and God trying to trick Elijah into thinking he will speak to him in a mighty wind, a fire, and an earthquake, before finally speaking most clearly in sheer silence.  

Some of the miraculous stories of the Bible can be hard to relate to, but this one is not. Don’t you find it true that God speaks most clearly in silence?  We look for God in dramatic appearances like a burning bush, but the truth is that God’s always here. We just need to quiet our hearts and minds to realize it.  

Eventually God cuts to the chase and orders Elijah to go back the same way he came, towards Jezebel and her army searching for him. God is telling Elijah to go get in trouble. While that may sound like a welcome invitation to some of you troublemakers, it’s a strange thing for God to do. It puts Elijah squarely between faith and fear.  Faith in God and fear of what will happen to him if he listens to God. 

When is a time you’ve been caught between faith and fear? I remember the first time I visited Queens, during spring of my senior year in high school. I came to spend a weekend and interview for a scholarship. Courtney Waddell, who worked in admissions and was the reason I learned about Queens (thank you, Courtney), arranged for me to spend the night in the Hayes Dorm with a junior political science student whose name shall be withheld because of the story I’m about to tell you. 

My interview was at 8am Saturday morning, so I expected to get to bed early. My host, who was an active member of a fraternity–the only fraternity at that time, expected to spend his Friday night at a house party a few miles from campus. He insisted I go with him and get the full college experience, so I obliged. 

We went, we talked to other students, they drank (a lot), and finally about 2am he was ready to head back to campus. There was a problem. None of them could drive. I was the only one who was sober. So they handed me the keys and told me to drive back to Queens. 

Talk about being caught between faith and fear. This was before the days of iphones, even before GPS. Do you know how confusing these roads are, especially at 2am when you’re a high school student driving a car full of inebriated college students around as they have the windows down singing along with Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit at the top of their lungs? 

We eventually made it back, without incident, and a few hours later I had the biggest interview of my life, where I met our beloved Dr. Mark Kelso and was hooked on Queens. The place between faith and fear often brings out the best in us. 

Peter and the disciples are in a similar spot between faith and fear in Matthew 14.22-33. 

Again, yall know the backstory. John the Baptist was brutally murdered, the crowds were as relentless as the sun on a hot summer day with no shade, and the disciples went out on the water. It was in the wee hours, which is the time back home in West Virginia when the deer start to stir just before daylight, that they heard a sound. The fog still dense, the wind howling, there was a figure moving towards them on the water. 

Before you go casting stones at them for thinking they saw a ghost, remember that lesser things have caused your mind to stray when you wake from sleep. 

Always calm, even as a storm rages around him, Jesus reassures them, “Don’t be afraid; it is I.”

There is so much to fear, especially in the dead of night. Does she still love me? Do I have enough money to make it?  Is he still on pills?  Will I have my job next month?  Does what I do everyday matter? 

The disciples were stuck between faith and fear. Eventually, they chose to have faith. Just like Elijah chose to have faith. But not without a heavy helping of fear about the path forward. You know something about that, don’t you? 

The space in which you live everyday is a place somewhere between faith and fear. As your kids go off to college. Faith and fear. As you start a new job. Faith and fear. As you come to a college reunion. Faith and fear. 

Some people say faith is the absence of fear, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple.  To have faith is to be courageous enough to walk through fear.  To go back where you came from, even if that means getting in some trouble along the way.  To listen for God’s still, small voice, even if that means abandoning the noise in the culture around you. To go to the reunion even though you are going to forget people’s names and have to live through embarrassing stories from days gone by. To have faith is to walk through fear.  To reach for an outstretched arm.  To trust. To hope. And these are the hardest things for us southerners to do. 

So how do we encourage it? One time I saw a church sign that said, “Don’t be uppity.” And that’s the answer. Be authentic. Be yourself. Be honest. And you will cultivate trust like grandma cultivated her tomatoes. It will take time but it will grow. And the more it grows the better it will be. 

Anybody familiar with the work of Brene Brown? She says the way you cultivate the strength to get through the space between faith and fear is…connection. You reach out to people stuck in between them, and you connect. 

What did God do when Elijah ran off and hid in a cave? God went and found him. 

What did Jesus do when the disciples were scared on the water? He extended a hand, and said, “It is I, do not be afraid.” 

What brought you back here today? A roommate who guided you through a breakup. A professor who brought out the best in you. A community who cared about you when you were a twentysomething. 

Life in today’s world is a constant tug of war between faith and fear. The lessons we learned at Queens in the classroom, on the field, and here in the chapel help us navigate that tug of war each and every day. But perhaps the greatest lesson of all is the one handed down to us by the likes of Billy Wireman and Miss Betty: We live not to be served, but to serve. Servants need not fear, for servants live in faith. 

There’s a way through. And the way through is together. Whether it’s getting through the line at Kroger right before your wedding, getting through college, or getting through life, the way through is together. It’s a blessing to be here together with you today, for we are part of a blessed community that is connected in ways we can only begin to conceive, but is certainly connected in ways we can feel in our souls. Amen? Amen. 

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