Sunday, June 21, 2009

Don't Be Afraid

Mark 4:35-41

It’s Father’s Day, a day to remember and to honor fathers. As an added bonus, we get to eat pie after church. While our text this morning doesn’t speak of fathers, it does speak of a quality that fathers at their best instill into their children – that quality is trust. Unfortunately trust is easily broken and difficult to regain. But, without it, living, working, and worshiping as a community is impossible.

Our text begins with Jesus’s decision to cross the Sea of Galilee and minister in the largely Gentile region called the Decapolis. Jesus had spent the day teaching, and now, quite tired, he fell asleep as the boats headed across the lake. He’s so tired that he doesn’t even wake up when a big storm hits, threatening to swamp the boats. While he sleeps, the disciples become terrified, believing that they’re going to die. And then, when they discover that Jesus is asleep, they wake him up with perturbed and frightened voices, asking him: “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?” They couldn’t understand why he wasn’t as frightened as they were.

When we read this text we tend to focus on Jesus’ first response to their questions the stilling of the storm – but there’s more going on here than simply a nature miracle. It’s true that his actions leave them speechless – indeed, the King James Version translates their response as they “feared exceedingly” and wondered who he was – but his two questions are even more revealing than the stilling of the storm. He asks them, and he asks us: Why are you afraid? And where’s your faith?

How we answer these two questions says something about how we view God and how we view the church. We may not be out on a stormy lake, but we’re all facing storms that rage all around us. Some of us are facing illness and even death. Others are struggling financially. We all know that Michigan is being hit hard economically – with jobs being lost, homes foreclosed, services being cut. And then, on top of that, we’ve got unsettling news coming out of Iran, and American soldiers bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, the waves are lapping at the boat, and the winds are ripping at the sails, but the question posed to us as disciples of Jesus Christ is this: how are you going to respond to these storms? Is the response one of fear or of faith?

1. Why are you afraid?

Jesus’s first question is a loaded one: Why are you afraid? I can hear the disciples responding: Why indeed? Don’t you see those waves? Don’t you feel the wind? Can’t you see that it’s dangerous out here?

What’s interesting about this exchange is that Jesus’ tone seems to be a bit edgy, even off-putting. We like Jesus to be meek and mild, always gentle, but his question has a bit of a bite to it. It’s not merely – why are you afraid? But, as Eugene Peterson’s translation puts it: “Why are you such cowards?” My first response is to wonder if Peterson has misunderstood Jesus’ intention, because surely Jesus wouldn’t talk that way – even if he was half asleep! But New Testament scholar Walter Wink also translates the question in these terms. So why would Jesus accuse his disciples of cowardice? I mean, I don’t fancy myself as a coward – someone who runs away from things with my tail between my legs, and the word “yellow” hanging over me. Surely that’s not who I am. Or am I?

2. Where is your faith?

The second question is just as stinging as the first: “Where’s your faith?” The second question builds on the first, because in Mark’s mind the opposite of faith isn’t unbelief, it’s fear. In fact, we would be better off using the trust to translate the Greek. That’s because it’s too easy to equate faith with a belief system. Do I believe in God? Of course! Is Jesus my Lord and savior? Of course! But that’s not what Mark has in mind when he records these words of Jesus. It’s not a question of whether we believe the right things. No, it’s a question of whether we’re ready to give our complete trust to God. It’s as William Countryman puts it – “our fear demonstrates that we do not really trust God’s existence, God’s power, or God’s good intentions toward us.”1 So the question remains: As we experience the storms of life – whatever they might be – Who is God in the midst of the midst of these storms?

As we think about this question, our tendency is to hope that God will somehow deliver us from our predicament, kind of like Jesus did here by calming the seas. But that’s not how God normally works. As philosopher John Macmurray writes: “It is important, I believe, to recognize that for Jesus it is fear itself that must be cured, and not the occasions of fear.”2 If we live our lives hoping that God will intervene and still the storm, we will never learn the lesson of this text.

3. Our Response of Faith

As I was reading this passage, I began to think about Jesus’ response when the Disciples woke him up. I also began to think about who was in the boat with him. If tradition is correct, then at least four of them were experienced fishermen, who most likely had been through a storm or two, and had survived. Surely they knew what to do? So, maybe Jesus isn’t just talking about trusting God; maybe he’s also talking about trusting ourselves and each other. As the first question reminds us – the biggest threat to trust and faith is fear.

Although Jesus surely had faith in God in mind, I think he might also have had something else in mind – our trust in each other. Perhaps his tone shows that he’s frustrated with their inability to trust each other enough to work out a solution to their problem. After all, four of them were fishermen – surely they had enough experience to deal with the storm without waking Jesus.

If we take away from this passage the message that when the storms of life hit, we should expect Jesus to rescue us, then this passage probably has little to say to us – except that we probably need to wake God up, when things get tough. But, if his message is one of trusting each other, then it has a lot to say to us!

Although I didn’t plan for this sermon to correspond with our congregational meeting after church, it does seem a bit providential. You will be asked to offer your affirmation to the organ task force’s proposal of a new organ. It’s an expensive project, but it has already received the support of the Trustees and the Council. This Task Force, of which I was a member, spent several months discerning what we should do with the organ. The Council appointed this task force because the organ is not working as it should. This group prayerfully and thoughtfully explored the options, which included repairing it, always keeping in mind our mission and our values. The Trustees accepted the proposal and decided to fund the project with existing capital funds, along with a capital campaign that would replenish these funds. The council decided that before they made a final decision they wanted a letter be sent to the congregation, explaining the proposal and then inviting the congregation to ask their questions at the June 7 congregational meeting. All of this has been done, and the Council has decided to move ahead with the project. While the constitution doesn’t require a congregational vote to proceed, the Council would like the congregation to give its affirmation to the project.

I know that questions remain, but what we’re being asked to do is extend our trust to the leadership of this congregation. Indeed, we’re being asked to trust each other to do the right thing, even when if we as individuals might not understand everything going in. As Fred Craddock put it, as he was describing his own call to preach. At some point he had to decide –even though he didn’t have answers to all his questions!3 What was true for Fred, is true for us. Therefore, if we’re going to be agents of reconciliation, and witnesses to God’s grace, then we need to pray for and trust those who lead us, believing that they will, with God’s guidance, make good decisions.

As I said, I didn’t choose this text because of the congregational meeting. I chose it because it was the lectionary text for today. But, I do think that this text has something important to say to us – not just about this particular decision. No, the message I hear in this text is this: if we live in fear, our witness to the grace and love God will fall short. But, If we live by faith, trusting in God’s leading, then God will use us – even if we’re fallible human beings!


1. William Countryman -- New Proclamation Commentary, Year B, 2003: Easter through Pentecost, (Fortress, 2003), p. 91
2. John Macmurray, "The Philosophy of Jesus," in Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year B, by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, (WJK Press, 2002), p. 173.
3. Fred Craddock, Reflections on My Call to Preach, (Chalice Press, 2009), pp. 116-117.


Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 21, 2009

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