I remember the first sermon I ever preached. I was filling in for the pastor at the Apple River United Methodist Church in Illinois. And to say I was nervous would be the understatement of the century. I was terrified! Now, I don’t completely recall the point of the sermon I preached that morning, but I do remember some of the content. It was about the faith of Moses and how he needed an Aaron to fulfill his covenant with God. But the amusing part was the delivery. My text was about a page long, maybe part of a second, single spaced, in a small font, and I held it in front of my face and read it as fast as I could. I just wanted it all to end. But I did get some complements afterward. I remember on man commenting that since the entire service was only thirty-five minutes long, they would beat the Presbyterians to lunch.
Now, as I stand here eighteen years later, I have to ask myself, “what was I afraid of?” It seems silly now to be so afraid of speaking in front of a small congregation, but was it? I mean, there’s the fear of being in front of everyone, of public speaking, that was a daunting task for me at the time. But there was also a deeper, unnamed fear as well. You see, delivering a sermon on Sunday morning takes on an additional opportunity for hesitation: the question of authority. In other words, what gives me the right to interpret the Scriptures and share the application of the text with a congregation? Believe me, the question of authority can produce a lot of anxiety.
And the question of authority is a part of what’s going on in the background of our gospel lesson for today and within the wider context of Mark’s witness. In the sinking boat, Jesus asked the disciples the same question I asked myself, “Why are you afraid?” But his question goes deeper than just a mere “question of authority,” and addresses the disciples immediate reaction to the situation.
Remember now, some of Jesus’ disciples were seasoned fishermen, who knew the Sea of Galilee well and the dangers of a storm. But, despite their best efforts at keeping the boat afloat, it was beginning to sink! We don’t know how far they were from land, but in Mark’s version of the story, swimming for shore apparently wasn’t an option. These experienced fishermen knew that their chances of surviving in open water under those conditions were not good.[i] So, it’s understandable that they would be afraid for their lives, right?
But instead of confirming their fear Jesus questions their faith. In essence, he’s saying that it’s easy to have faith when the waters are flat and the sailing is smooth, but where’s your faith when the winds kick up, when the waves begin to roll, when there’s a real and present danger? One of the main themes we see throughout the Gospels is that, despite all that they witnessed Jesus do and say, despite all that they discovered him to be, over and over again, Jesus’ closest followers lacked faith.[ii]
Which leads to the obvious question for us to consider. Is it really a deficiency of faith to be afraid when our life is on the line?
I don’t know the answer to that. But I do think there’s a distinction to be made here. I don’t believe this passage is necessarily speaking to the obvious fearful situations of our lives. Let me explain what I mean here. There are some things that are simply frightening, right, and it’s only human for us to respond to them with fear; fear of heights, or of a spider, or a fear of public speaking. It’s one thing for us to feel fear, but it’s another thing for us to live in fear. Too often, we don’t just feel fear, we turn it into something that occupies our whole lives. [iii] We don’t just experience fear, we let it move in and take up residence. We don’t just encounter fear, we turn it into a giant, category-five storm that sends us running for cover and cowering in bunkers.
So, bearing this in mind, we must ask ourselves another question today. How this “environment of fear,” how has letting fear “take up residence” in our collective lives separated the Church from her true mission?
I mean, just look at the news this week. There’s no way people of faith can justify ripping children away from their parents and subjecting them to internment camps, right? Yet, some try. There’s no rationale from a Biblical perspective, there’s no Scriptural law, not even a misinterpretation of Paul’s understanding about the place of the law in our lives, that demands we simply accept these horrific acts being perpetrated on our Southern border, and keep our mouths shut. None. As a matter of fact, it’s these kinds of injustices, injustices against the most vulnerable of God’s children, that the prophets railed against. They risked life and limb to call-out the powers-that-be, the leadership of their nation, to have compassion for the weak and the powerless. This is the kind of fearlessness that Jesus was demanding in this passage. He wasn’t challenging their immediate feeling of fear as they faced dying, but he was calling them out for the deeper lack of faith that lead them to panic.
And that, my friends, is what lies at the core of this issue. A deeper fear. A panic that drives people to irrational actions. A panic caused by a fear of the other, a fear of losing dominance, a fear… of the unknown. But Jesus was very clear in this passage and in the wider context of all the gospels when it came to the subject of fear. He said time and again, “don’t be afraid.” He wasn’t saying, don’t jump when you see a snake. But rather, don’t let that initial fear of the snake lead you to campaign to irradiate all snakes from the face of the earth. Do you see what I’m getting at here? Fear causes humanity to exclude, to push-away, to insulate ourselves from the unknown; the other. But faith, faith can overcome fear and help us to realize that we are all in the same boat. Faith challenges us, the followers of Christ, to be a voice for the voiceless, advocates for the most vulnerable, and it’s our faith that calls us to be champions for justice and equality for all people. This is the authority that we have been given. As people of faith we have the authority to speak on the side of justice because we have been appointed by God, nay commanded by God, to be a prophetic voice for justice.
One final thought. There’s an African Proverb that says, “Smooth seas do not make for a skillful sailor.”[iv] We as individuals, as a community, and as a nation have not and will not always find smooth sailing. Sometimes the seas will be rough. But it’s in the rough patches, in the times when we need to take a step back and evaluate the current situation; it’s in these times that we must choose faith over fear. And it’s in these moments when Jesus says to each of us, “why are you afraid?”
May we overcome our fear and may our better-selves, our faithful selves, shine through. That’s my prayer for today, tomorrow, and beyond. Amen.
[ii] See Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 267-68. Cf. William F. McInerny, “An Unresolved Question in The Gospel Called Mark: ‘Who Is This Whom Even Wind and Sea Obey?’ (4:41),” Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (Fall, 1996): 259.
[iii] Cf. Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap, 17. She says, “self-absorption, this trying to find zones of safety, creates terrible suffering. It weakens us, the world becomes terrifying, and our thoughts and emotions become more threatening as well.”