What Are You Afraid Of?

Mark 4:35-41

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

What are you afraid of? Most of us could probably create a long list of the things we’re afraid of.

On my list are spiders and snakes and scorpions and any insect or animal that could potentially bite me or sting me or eat me. I’m a little bit afraid of insects that don’t bite or sting, like cockroaches – especially those big ones when they take you by surprise. Thank God that I usually encounter them as they lie helpless on their backs, because I’m also afraid of killing them, and if they’re on their backs I just have to scoop them up in a plastic container, take them outside, and release them back into the wilderness of Brooklyn…and I feel good about myself for not just squashing the things – they’ve got a mother too, you know…and having seen the movie “Aliens” I’m reluctant to upset any creature’s mother.  

If we identify our two greatest fears – upon which most all other fears are grounded –they would be pain and death. We’ve all suffered pain at one time or another, physically or emotionally. And death? Death is a mystery that scares a lot of us, even Christians who profess faith in Resurrection and Eternal Life. And as much as we try to solve the mystery of death, our approach to death is a matter of faith, and our faith is not always that strong. And so our fears linger.

The story that we just read, about Jesus calming the storm on the sea, makes the point that, when we abide in Christ, we do not have to live in fear. When the storms of life threaten to overwhelm us, when Jesus is with us, we’re safe come what may.

There is a theology, that is asserted by various leaders of various religions, which in essence says, “When you die, things will either be very good for you, or very bad. And if you want things to be very good for you, you better believe what I tell you.”

That’s not what I believe or what I proclaim. My message, and the message of many of my colleagues of various religions, is that God forsakes no one. God is unconditionally loving; that’s what Jesus is trying to show us through the Parable of the Prodigal Son; the Father doesn’t care about confessions and contrition and penance. The Father simply celebrates the fact that a lost soul had found its way back home. God welcomes all who desire to dwell with God, and you’d have to be completely crazy or arrogant or egotistical not to want to dwell with God. Admission to the Kingdom is free and the door is always open, and that’s the message Jesus proclaims!

But the profiteers and power brokers of organized religions have installed a toll gate on the road to heaven. “You must believe this and only this; your beliefs cannot stray too far this way or that, because if they do God is going to give you a failing grade and that will be the end of you.

It’s a very effective strategy with a high success rate. And we could probably grow this congregation faster if that’s what we preached and that’s what we believed.

But it isn’t, and we don’t.

It’s certainly true that the path on which Jesus leads us in this life is a narrow path, and it’s easy to go astray. But however far you stray you are never outside of God’s reach, and God is always longing for you to come back to him.

And it’s usually our fears that lead us off of the narrow path, fears that Christ’s power will not be enough to overcome the thing that we fear, and so we run away from it. But it will only be a matter of time before some other fear will overtake you, and you’ll end up running away from THAT. And soon you’ll discover that your entire life has been spent running away from all those fears.

Once you get your head around the unconditionality of God’s love, and you find yourself enthralled in that unconditional love, you begin to lose your fears and start walking with the true God; you respond to God’s love by loving God in return, a nothing can distract you…

Until it does. Until something new instills fear in you.

One message that we should take home from today’s scripture is that following Jesus is a challenge for us, it’s no cake walk. The disciples endure a serious storm with Jesus, but who’s to say that the next storm they encounter won’t be even greater than this storm?

And that is truly the challenge of our faith; God keeps pushing the limits of our faith by taking us into deeper and deeper waters, and we’re tempted to turn the boat around and make a bee line for the shore, back to our comfort zone, back to our safe place.

We’re tempted to disparage the disciples for their lack of faith: Thomas always gets tagged with the participle “doubting;” Peter is disparaged for playing dumb when asked about his ; relationship with Jesus; all of the disciples had some doubts about feeding large crowds with severely limited provisions.

But they get into the boat with Jesus time and time again.

I bet they liked to sail. Yeah, they had to catch fish to make a living, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t enjoy it, gliding along the surface of a lake, jumping into the lake when you got hot. Who knows? Maybe they rigged up some rope that allowed them to swing out over the water and jump in; maybe they devised water skis, or a water sled that they could ride when the wind was good (have to check the archeological record on that). But just as they knew how to have fun while they worked, they also knew how dangerous the lake could be. You had to keep your eye on the sky as well as on the lake. Just like as a kid you learn that when the dark clouds and lightning appear you need to get out of the pool and find some shelter.

Storms can occur anytime.

And storms occur a lot in life…from the personal storms of illness and injury and employment and family relationships to the global storms of climate change and gun violence and war and famine and bigotry and  injustice.

And rather than having us sit on the beach and just watch the storms from the dry ground, Jesus takes us out on the lake. Because those are storms that we need to silence. And Jesus can help us.

 He’s always there for us…

except in this case he was asleep in the stern of the boat – yeah sometimes in life we feel that Jesus has fallen asleep on us, right?

But it must make you wonder, in this story, how Jesus can sleep through a pretty intense storm.

Isn’t that a picture to appreciate? A boat being rocked around as it’s battered by waves, rain and sea water splashing everywhere, a few guys trying to keep the boat upright while everyone else is probably bailing water out of the boat with their hands…and Jesus, eyes closed, curled up with a cushion, maybe snoring (that would add some dramatic effect!), maybe he’s dreaming…what would he be dreaming?) Jesus is completely unaware that there is a storm battering their little boat.

Then one of the disciples gives his shoulders a shake: “LORD, ARE YOU AWAKE?”

(“Well now I am”)

 “Lord, just thought you should know we are in great peril. Does that matter to you?”

What a question! Of course it matters to Jesus. But the storm is nothing to fear.

In fact, the storm IS fear, and once we can re-establish our faith in Jesus, the storm will disappear.

I can imagine Jesus, rubbing his eyes, sighing (audibly or not), looking up at the sky (raindrops respectfully steering themselves away from his eyes), and saying,

Peace

Be still!

Kind like how I remember speaking to Archie, the schnauzer we grew up with in Staten Island and a short while in Brooklyn.

“Archie, PEACE! Be still.”

“Hey you, WIND and you WAVES, peace…be still.”

“Hey, you – all those fears that I have. Peace. Be still. Jesus is on board.”

Don’t let your fears overwhelm you. Hear Jesus tell them to be still. And after the storm is calmed, Jesus fluffs his pillow and gets ready to go back to sleep, then he glances at these guys he had hand-picked for this rather important mission. He sees 11 dropped jaws and 22 staring eyes, he says rather offhandedly as he yawns,

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

(And off to sleep again)

It’s a rather funny story, actually.

As it should be. We ought to be able to laugh a little at our own lack of faith, in whatever form it manifests itself.

But I pray that we would all have the faith to at least get on the boat with Jesus.

Yes, there will be times when you feel a long way from solid ground.

There are times when you’ll wonder where the boat is heading.

You’ve got to learn to love the company you’re with.

You’ll learn to trust the one you’re with.

Jesus is good company. The best in my book.

Because whatever messes I discover in myself, it doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus.

Whatever storms rage in my world, Jesus is willing to wake up, calm me down, then ask me, “Where is your faith?” before going back to sleep.

And when we learn to trust in God to handle those personal storms in our life, Jesus steers us out further from shore to confront the storms that shake the entire world:

The war in Darfur.

Border disputes in the East

Authoritarian tough guys making a political comeback in the West.

Massive destruction and nearly indiscriminate killing in Middle East.

Drug  epidemics.

Human slavery.

All forms of injustice.

And while we confront these storms, we may still have to deal with our fear of bugs and snakes.

But our love for God and our love for people and all creation lead us into that boat where we go out to confront all of those storms.

And if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we’ll take that boat ride as choppy as it might get.

The only precaution you need to take is to have Jesus onboard. And when your heart and your mind are aligned with his, it won’t guarantee your safety, but you never lose hope, or your faith in humanity, or your faith in God. And the longer you’re on that boat ride with Jesus the stronger your faith will be and the fewer your fears will be.

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