Faith vs Fear

June 24, 2018

Series: June 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Mark 4:35-41

35On 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 windstorm 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?” THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

 Fear vs. Faith

          Why are you afraid?  This is Jesus’ question.  I have probably said in here before that the most common commandment in the Bible is not, “Love God,” or “Love your neighbor;” it is “Do not be afraid.” My experience is that it is a commandment easier given than received.  Why are you afraid?  Shall we count the reasons?  Sit with someone from the community, as I have recently, who has just found out they will soon lose their spouse to disease, their spouse who is the wage-earner in their family, leaving her behind to take care of two children, and you will have the answer to that question.  I spent a summer working in a university financial aid office and I’ll never forget the quivering voice of a woman said to me over the phone, “My husband used to handle all of this,” her husband who had died tragically.  She had missed the deadline for the application for student aid, and once you miss that deadline there is nothing anyone can do.  My wife and I saw the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers and I was reminded just how big the world is when you are a little person, how scary it is to navigate the everyday maneuvers we take for granted when we’re older.  Put yourself back in middle school for a moment (if you dare!).  Do you remember what it was like to walk across the room in front of your peers and expose yourself to 1,000 different judgments about what you’re wearing, about the body beneath your clothes and so many other things?  We all have watched in horror as families fleeing terror come in search of asylum only to be detained, separated, drugged.  My guess is you don’t need me to supply you with reasons to be afraid.

          For the disciples, the answer is obvious, a storm is not only brewing, it has begun swamping the boat.  Why would Jesus ask such a question?  Is this a spiritual test?  You can accept that interpretation.  Many do, but I prefer a savior that doesn’t play mind games.  What if there’s more going on here?  What if Jesus isn’t testing their loyalty or faith as much as he is simply showing them honestly the storms they will face in the course of following him.  It’s long stayed with me something our youth director, Jeff Shankle, once said, and I may have quoted it here before:  whenever more and more people want to join in Jesus’ movement, when the crowds come, Jesus makes it harder not easier to follow.  Is he an elitist, exclusionary, or does he simply want to open their eyes early to the storms they will face in the course of being faithful?

I’ve just begun Dan Rather’s What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, and in it he tells a story of covering the Civil Rights movement early in his career.  In covering activist Medgar Evers, Rather struck up a friendship with his subject.  Rather’s pain then was personal when he received the call that Evers was murdered upon arriving home one day with his wife and children watching, watching on a day mind you when the usual law enforcement protection was mysteriously absent.  His eyes were opened early. 

Rather learned even younger that doing what was right sometimes meant doing what was scary. He spoke of his father taking him to a precinct meeting in his Texas town as a teenager in 1946.  Usually an uncontroversial affair—everyone was from the same political party—something happened that night that hadn’t happened before.  Four African Americans showed up, which was, of course, their right as citizens.  At the precinct meeting, the process was that you voiced your support for something by standing at the appropriate time.  Rather’s father leaned over to him, and alluding to the African Americans said, “When they get up, we get up.”  They did and were the only white people to do so…”[1]

Sometimes the best way to move through our fears is to confront them face to face, for often the anticipation is worse than the actual experience or encounter. The first family funeral I remember attending was during my freshman year in high school.  It was for my Uncle Bill, the man for whom in part our son Liam is named, Liam’s full name being William.  After the graveside service, we were sitting in the car, tears still streaming down my cheek, and out of somewhere I just blurted out, “I’m not so afraid to die anymore.”  Have you ever had such an experience?  Where did that come from?  Similarly, I remember sitting with Cena Bessolo, who was a regular at our Wednesday class.  When she was dying, she spoke to me with a deep calm about what had been described to her and she was now experiencing as “the clear light of death,” when you’re face to face with dying and a certain serenity and fearlessness sets in.  That clear light of death grants you great clarity, focus, and courage.  You’ve let go and thus nothing can be taken away.

In his book, Resurrecting Jesus, spiritual teacher Adyshanti tells a story about the sacking of a town and a samurai warrior coming upon a Zen master sitting in the garden.  The samurai raises his sword and says, “Do you not know that I could kill you right now?  I could lop off your head.”  The Zen master responds, “Do you not know that I could allow you to lop off my head right now? The samurai had never met anyone who didn't fear their own death raises his sword and says, “Look at how weak you are” to which the Zen master responds, “That is hell.” The samurai, astonished, confused even, puts the sword down and the Zen master responds, “and that is heaven.”

Jesus needs to know his followers can remain calm in the midst of the storm. A word about storms, about water—in the Bible they often are used to represent chaos.  How does creation begin?  God in the form of wind or divine breath sweeps down over the watery chaos, drawing forth order and life.  Jesus, in his attempt to breathe a new creation, knows his followers will need to be able to stay above the chaos.  This is from where we get this beautiful story in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus invites Peter to walk on the water with him.  Peter’s eager attempt starts to sink, showing us just how difficult this is, yet Jesus does not let him drown, reaching out. 

Jesus’ own hand is not the only help he gives his followers. He quite literally supplies them with a boatload of help, each other.  One of the greatest shortcomings of Western Christianity is that almost everything has been reduced to a personal endeavor, an individual journey.  Neither the biblical witness nor lived experience bears out the notion you can do it alone.  I blame this on the clumsiness of the English language, which does not distinguish between the second person singular “you” and the plural, which is why it is helpful to go to seminary in the south, where in translating you can say “you” and “y’all.”  In the Bible, it is almost always “you” a plural. 

Forget individuals, try raising children with just a nuclear family, without hiring aspects of it out. You can’t do it, and yet we try and do virtually everything as individuals in our society.  How much have we hindered our lives by relegating so much to the private realm, and how much richer might life be if we did more of it together?  The famous hymn-writer John Bell talks about how when you join the Scottish Iona Community, you covenant to do things more in faithful community.  In fact, each year, you share your finances with a small group where everybody considers together where and how you should spend your money, holding one another accountable to the gospel.  Groups are mixed, with people making barely enough to survive the month matched with those who are by any standards wealthy.  Wouldn’t you know the people who do this report it to be a blessing, not a curse. 

Aside from money, we can support each other in our discipleship in all sorts of ways. Last week I went to spend a day with our middle school youth on their mission trip to Santa Cruz.  By the way, our youth program is in very good hands.  If you have not found a way in which you can be involved in our your ministry, I urge you to be in prayer about it.  There’s a role for everyone to play, maybe not the same role, but a role.  That was actually a recurring theme at the site where I worked on the mission trip.  I was assigned to The Homeless Garden project, a 3/12 acre organic farm that provides job training and paid work to people who have experienced homelessness, as well as fresh healthy produce to those who need it most.  They even supply gorgeous home-grown flowers to area hospices.  Nothing is wasted. 

Our day started with circle time. We walked in half-way through, when they were finishing up a teaching a teaching on being open-hearted—imagine how difficult it must be to be open-hearted when life has kicked you around so much.  After we introduced ourselves, someone said it was time to do our stretches.  I thought that sounded natural enough as we were about to do about 5 hours of farm work, yet there was no leader.  We were to go around the circle and have everyone offer a stretch for the group.  It was uncomfortable as a newcomer and I was glad to be at the end order, but then it struck me about half-way around the circle, as so many of The Homeless Garden Project’s practices did, this was meant to underscore that everybody was necessary to the health of the entire body.  Everybody had something to contribute, some way of helping everyone else endure.  Talk about a group of people who had survived storms, who knew something about taking on water.  Jesus may have brought his disciples out on a boat into a storm, but he brought them together. 

I could stop there, but I don’t believe this story is only about facing one’s fears, or recognizing the importance of community, as good as those lessons are. This story is also, perhaps first and foremost, about the power of Christ.  Remember in the story, Jesus offers a powerful rebuke.  It’s not of the disciples, though we often remember it that way.  It is of the chaos itself.  This is what prompts the disciples to ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” a question to which they know the answer before they finish asking it. 

The breath of peace that Christ speaks is stronger than any storm, no matter how perilous a condition the ship seems to be in at the moment. In the middle of a storm, it is hard to believe in the calm that will follow, hard to trust.  Yet, that is precisely what Christians are called to do, to hold onto the faith that we know what and who wins at the end of all of this. 

I am in the middle of a documentary called, Beyond Our Differences, which features religious and human rights leaders from all over the world.  There’s a poignant scene with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, great leader in the anti-Apartheid movement, great lover and follower of Jesus, reminding us adamantly that faith is about trusting that despite all appearances to the contrary there is a moral arc to the universe.  We know where this goes.  The Christian faith is a life lived leaning in conformity with that arc.  Trusting in it is what gives us the strength to go on when it seems impossible to do so. 

How likely did it seem to black South Africans in the middle of Apartheid that that storm would ever end? Apartheid, like slavery in this country, by the way, was also erroneously justified with Romans 13, this notion of obeying the authorities, of course totally taken out of context and perverted.  This is, by the way, is part of the reason why progressive Christians need to remember to focus on their Christianity as much as their progressivism and part up their Bibles less someone pervert their Holy Scripture for misguided even evil purposes without an articulate and biblical counter. 

The end of Apartheid seemed fated now, the partial victory of Civil Rights seems inevitable to us now, the fall of the Berlin Wall, but what about in the face of armed guards, man-made storms of firehoses?  The calm after the storm always feels certain after the storm.  What about in the midst of it?  Faith is not the lie that there is nothing to fear.  Faith is the assurance that there is more to trust. 


 [1] Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, (Chapel Hill:  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017), 23.