Faith, Not Fear | A Sermon on Mark 4:35-41
A Sermon Preached at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, on June 24, 2018
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
This is a question that stands at the intersection of fear and love. A question that reveals that love is what is desperately sought after, desperately wanted, and yet a question that is fueled by fear.
It has been said that “there are two basic motivating forces: fear and love.” When we are afraid, we pull back. We see smaller. When we love, we open to all that life has to offer. We see expansively.
Our Gospel reading this morning is one that many of us are familiar with. In it, we see the disciples struggling at this intersection. Jesus has just finished his parables about the Kingdom of God and now he suggests that he and his disciples go by boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.
This is more than just a change of location. Jesus has preached the Kingdom of God thus far to the home crowd, if you will, on the safer side of the Sea. Now, Jesus will make his first crossing into what would reasonably be considered a dangerous, perhaps even an inappropriate, destination. Yes, Jesus has spoken of the Kingdom of God and now Jesus will demonstrate that Kingdom through a vulnerable proximity to the stranger, to that which is other. Those across a border, marked by the Sea of Galilee. But, Jesus does not go alone. He requests that his disciples board the boat and make this Kingdom crossing with him.
Let’s stay here for just a moment. The disciples get on board the boat. That, in and of itself, is remarkable. Faithful. The Gospel does not say, “Jesus then told the disciples his plans and they agreed that these were good and worthy and right.” No. Jesus simply says, “Let us Go,” and they go. They did not know the whole plan, just the next step that Jesus was asking them to take. Get on the boat and cross the border that lies between what you know, where your comfort is, and that which is wholly other to you. Theirs was a response of faith, not fear.
But, it is not long after the journey begins that the boat is threatened, and with it the lives of those on board, by a raging storm and ferocious winds. There on the water the disciples confront a chaos that leaves them frightened and without much hope for what will come. I imagine that it is only after doing everything that they know to do as fishermen, as people familiar with the sea, that they, fearing that all is lost, look to Jesus, who is asleep.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
Yes, this is a story that many of us have heard. But, more than that, it is a story that many of us have lived. Who among us has not feared the wind and the waves that threaten our own fragile vessels? As human beings, we cross seas of uncertainty all the time, whether we like it or not, navigating waters that raise questions about who we believe we are, what we believe about the world, and, finally, who we believe God to be. This is what it means to be alive. And, as Christians who follow a Risen Lord, we profess a faith that calls us to get in the boat - to act in faith even where chaos looms, even where fear would have us do differently.
The disciples fear the storm, they fear their own destruction, and that, in and of itself, seems reasonable. The water is churning. The waves are growing larger. The wind has picked up to such a degree that they can barely stay on their own feet or hear one another’s shouts over the violence of its roar. They are doing all they know to do, and the boat is taking on water. It is first at their heels, and then at their ankles, and it appears that, at any moment, the vessel will be lost to the hunger of the sea. They are, quite literally, sinking and what are they to do and, by the way, why in the world is Jesus sleeping?
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you not care? Do you not hear our prayers? Do you not truly love us after all?
But, here’s the thing, for the disciples then and for us now. While fear might lead us to believe that we are alone, faith knows differently. The disciples not only have each other in that boat, they also have Jesus, literally, in the boat with them. And, their boat wasn’t even the only boat crossing the Sea. Scripture tells us that other boats were with them. Now, we don’t know what was happening with those other boats that would have been experiencing the same storm. Maybe because, when chaos strikes and the winds pick up, we tend to forget that the world is bigger than just us. Our fear can lead to a distortion of perception. Things can grow smaller. The world. Our capabilities. Our resources. Even our perception of God.
Jesus sleeps. Yes. Perhaps because Jesus is confident that all will be well. Perhaps the disciples didn’t actually need Jesus to be awake. Only to be present. Which he was and is still. Look at what happened when Jesus woke up. He stretches his arms out over the tumultuous waters and says to the sea, “Peace! Be Still.” And there was dead calm.
And, this was not what the disciples were expecting. That much is obvious from their reaction - they were filled with awe. How then, did they suppose he would respond had he been awake? Did they expect him to roll up his sleeves and help to manage the boat? To offer words of comfort? They certainly had some idea about how Jesus would act. But, in their fear, they underestimated the fullness of God. They questioned the presence and care of Jesus because things were not going as they expected. And, so, in their fear, they became suspicious and demanding. And, they made Jesus smaller.
Debie Thomas writes —
“When Jesus asks the disciples why they’re afraid, what he’s really asking is: why are you afraid of me? Why do you still not trust that I love you, that I am with you, for you, in you, and around you? After all this time, why do you suspect my heart, my intentions, my good will?
Thankfully, the disciples do “cross over” in this story. Not just from one shore to another, but from deep distrust to trembling awe. The question that ends the reading is a question grounded in wonder, in life-giving curiosity: “Who is this man?”
Before the storm breaks, the disciples think they have Jesus pegged. They think they know what to expect of him. But they're wrong. He is powerful, yes. But he is also far more restrained, mysterious, unpredictable, and hidden than they have imagined.” (FN)
Fear is not the enemy. Where our fear can lead us, that is cause for concern. Jesus never says that there is nothing to be afraid of. Instead he asks, “Why are you afraid?” To answer this question requires deep vulnerability and profound trust. It is to place within the light that which sickens us when kept in the dark. It is to offer to God our deepest desire - to be loved - beside our greatest fear - that we are not enough. To offer our fear to Jesus is to transform it. To allow for a different perspective. One that sees our power as the Body of Christ in the world and imagines a new way with infinite possibilities as we undertake our Kingdom crossings.
As Thomas writes, “Our work is always to cross over from fear to awe, from suspicion to trust, from certainty to wonder. No matter how high the storm waves in our lives, may we always rest in God’s presence as we cross to the other side.”
(FN) Debie Thomas, “Crossing to the Other Side,” Journey With Jesus, 17 June 2018, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1813-crossing-to-the-other-side
The image is: Gustave Doré; Jesus Stilling the Tempest; Black and White Engraving.