Why are you afraid?

February 25, 2018 ()

Bible Text: Mark 4:35-41 |

Eons ago, or so it seems to me, I worked for a summer as a chaplain in Methodist Hospital in downtown Des Moines.  I think I was 23 at the time.  I was trying so hard to seem older and wiser than I was, especially because I covered the cancer unit, where I made daily rounds.  The other part of summer chaplaincy involved reflection.  The point there wasn’t simply to do ministry; it was to reflect on it, and to become a better provider of pastoral care.  At one point my supervisor, a gentle man from India named Inbarasu, challenged me on a fear I expressed to him.  I must have been worrying to him about my sister, and at that point in our lives, I had good reason to worry.  That’s her story to tell, not mine.  Nonetheless, I told Inba that I didn’t know what I would do if something happened to her.  And Inba, so kind, gentle, and compassionate, looked me straight in the eye and said: “You’ll be fine.”  You’ll be fine.

 

Well, to say that I was taken aback is an understatement.  I think my jaw literally dropped open.  “You’ll be fine?”  That’s the most compassionate thing you can come up with?  You’ll be fine?  I was gobsmacked.  But.  But I have remembered it all these years.  I have remembered it because Inba—Inba wasn’t wrong.

 

The disciples have a similar reaction to Jesus in this story from Mark.  To begin with, it is his idea to get on a boat in the middle of the night.  That doesn’t seem wise.  And then a storm picks up out of nowhere, and the situation goes from risky to dangerous.  There’s water flooding the sides, so I imagine the disciples are in crisis mode, some of them trying to bail out the water and some of them running around, not knowing what to do.  Meanwhile, where is Jesus?  Oh yeah, he’s in the stern of the boat, fast asleep.  His head on a cushion.  Aww.  The disciples are gobsmacked.  Here they are, in mortal danger, and Jesus is asleep?  They go to wake him up.  (Notice: they have to wake him up!).  And they say, in what I hope is a sarcastic tone, “Teacher, do you not care [emphasis mine] that we are perishing?”  Do you not care that we’re all about to die?  Rising from his cushion, Jesus stills the storm and suddenly, everything is calm as can be.  And he says to the disciples, who are probably standing there, still soaking wet: “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  Wow, Jesus.  I know we woke you up from your nap, but that’s the most compassionate thing you could say?  “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  We thought we were all going to die.  Ouch.

 

When I was growing up, to have faith meant that you believed certain things about who Jesus was and what Jesus did.  Specifically, that he was the son of God, the Lord and Savior of us all, and that he died for our sins.  But I think that’s a pretty narrow definition of faith.  Not only because I just wouldn’t put it that way, but because it makes faith sound like a head job.  An intellectual thing.  Believe these ideas, and you’ll get your ticket to heaven.  Ick.  Now, of course faith involves our minds, it involves ideas and beliefs.  But when we make it a possessive noun—you either have faith or you don’t, we miss the point entirely.  And when we also make doubt a case of intellectual disbelief, we do a disservice to doubt.  William Sloane Coffin puts it like this: “Faith isn’t believing without proof—it’s trusting without reservation.”[1]  Faith isn’t believing without proof—it’s trusting without reservation.

 

Think of the difference like this.  Say you’re at the circus.  “A skilled high-wire artist has accomplished so many marvelous feats that the audience has come to believe that he can do almost anything.  The ringmaster addresses the crowd: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, how many of you believe that this daring man can ride safely over the high wire on his bicycle while carrying someone on his shoulders?  If you believe he can do it, please raised your hand!’ If you were in the audience you might raise your hand along with all the others, a great silent chorus of belief.  ‘Very well, then,’ says the ringmaster, seeing an almost unanimous vote of confidence, ‘now who will be the first to sit on his shoulders?’”[2]  There’s faith, and then there’s faith, right?  There’s faith in a general sense.  I believe in God as an intellectual concept or as an occasional force in the world or in my life.  But the faith of the person who sits on the shoulders of the high-wire artist?  That’s the kind of faith Jesus is interested in—the kind of faith really willing to trust God. 

 

In reality, we go back and forth between trust and doubt all the time.  And I don’t think there’s any other way to do it.  None of us is perfect.  None of us can trust God perfectly, all the time.  And it seems to me that for many of us (and I include myself here) our capacity to trust God is revealed to us the moment something goes terribly, terribly wrong.  Someone we love dies way too young.  Or we get a life-threatening illness.  Or kids are murdered in their school.  At moments like these, when the waves are battering the sides of the boat and it’s all hands on deck—sometimes we see how fragile our trust is, and how dependent it is on external circumstances, on calm waters and clear skies.  What I love about this story is it suggests that Jesus might know what that feels like.  Why was he so harsh with the disciples?  Maybe Jesus wasn’t mad that the disciples were scared, but he was frightened himself, by their lack of trust.  After all, they were headed into deeper waters than the Sea of Galilee, with more frightening consequences than a sinking ship.  Maybe Jesus was scared that they would flee his boat when the time came, that his disciples would abandon him when he needed them the most?

 

Why are you afraid? is kind of a silly question.  Everyone is afraid for the same reason.  Whatever the cause, we are afraid because we believe, at some level, that God will or has already abandoned our ship.  That God will nap while we struggle, or blow us off at the moment we need God the most.  But this is fear we’re talking about here, and fear is the biggest liar of all.  Fear always lies because it tells us that we are separate from God, when in fact God is closer to us than the water we’re desperately scooping out of our boats.  In his gentle wisdom, Inba told me the truth.  Faith isn’t believing that everything will go all right all of the time.  Faith is trusting that no matter what, whether the sea is calm or choppy, God hasn’t gone anywhere.  God is still on the boat.  Amen.

 

 

[1] William Sloane Coffin, as quoted by Martin Copenhaver in Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2014), p. 39.

[2] Martin Copenhaver, Ibid.

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