1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
On October 17, 1735 John Wesley and his brother Charles set sail from England to Savannah, Georgia. Sometime into the four-month-long trip, a storm came up suddenly and broke the main mast. While the Englishmen were crying, a group of Moravians calmly sang hymns and prayed. John Wesley was impressed by their faith in the face of a dangerous, life-threatening storm. He became convinced that the Moravians seemed to possess an inner strength he did not. He later wrote in his journal, “It was then that I realized that mine was a dry land, fair weather faith.”[i]
Today’s gospel lesson is one that prompts us to measure our faith. As the disciples face a sudden storm on the Sea of Galilee and, through the actions of Jesus, find their faith brought into question, so do we feel our faith tested when we face the storms of life. We may ask, “Is my faith strong enough?” Not a bad question – but I think that is the wrong question to ask.
This reading finds Jesus looking for a little quiet after a long and eventful day of teaching. According to Mark, he has been talking to large crowds all day about the Kingdom of God. He says to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.”
Looking at the arc of the gospel story, we know that this is not merely about crossing from one shore to another; this is about going from the safety of the Galilee region to the Gentile region beyond. He is going from the relative safety of being among his own people, to beginning to spread the word beyond his expected audience.
And just as this is not merely a crossing of the lake, so is the storm not just a storm. The arrival of a storm at this moment in the narrative is indicative of the uncertainty of this course, and the danger that lies ahead. The disciples are following Jesus into perilous, unchartered territory. As the storm increases in intensity, and the disciples begin to panic, they turn to their leader for help. And what do they discover? He is asleep. They can’t believe it.
Interestingly, the language used here reflects the opening passages of the book of Jonah in the Old Testament, where Jonah is also aboard a boat, fleeing from God. In that story, a great storm also arises, and Jonah is found sleeping. The sailors learn that he is avoiding God’s command, and implore him to pray to God for the end of the storm. Ultimately Jonah has to be thrown overboard for the seas to be calmed; but here in the gospel story, Jesus needs only to rebuke the wind and tell the sea to be still.
This narrative parallel is meant to help us understand that, while Jonah could not stop the storm, Jesus indeed has that power. The writer gives us another piece of evidence to help us understand that Jesus is God incarnate.
And I think this also points up that this is really a story about Jesus and who he is, and not about the disciples. The actions of the disciples are really only vehicles for the writer. Certainly in their fear and uncertainty, the apostles reflect us, but the story is really about the power of God.
And look at the question they ask when they find Jesus asleep: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” This question seems at best rhetorical, and at worst, downright silly. How could they question whether Jesus cares about their plight? But we need only think of the places in our lives where we have felt, or now feel that the storm is raging and no one is helping, to remember that this has been a very real question in our lives.
In the midst of illness, family conflict, unemployment and economic uncertainty, unwanted transitions in our lives, it is easy to be afraid, and to feel that God is unconcerned with us—that we are alone. What can we cling to, in the midst of these storms?
One theologian says, “Perhaps, knowing what we know as post-resurrection followers, we can recognize that even in the midst of the fiercest storms of life, the one who is Lord of all nature and binder of Satan is present, brooding over us and the world, with peace and power and healing in his wings.”[ii]
I felt the call to ordained ministry first when I was 12 years old. But for many reasons I did not seriously begin to pursue that call until 2003. As I began the discernment process, everything was rosy; throughout the process I was constantly affirmed and truly felt that God was calling me to priesthood.
But in March of 2005, all of that came to what felt like a screeching halt. I was asked by my bishop and others in authority over me to extend my time in discernment. What became a year-long delay in that process was painful and difficult. I couldn’t understand why I was having that experience; why was this happening to me? I felt very alone. I was filled with fear: Fear that I would not be able to fulfill the call I thought was so clear; fear that I was completely lost and without purpose; fear that I was not the person I thought I was. And I began to feel that I had what Wesley called “a dry land, fair weather faith” – that when it got tough, my faith was evaporating.
Then a wise priest I know asked me if I could get mad at God for allowing this delay to happen. I was stunned. How could I be mad at God? As I thought more about it, I realized that’s exactly where I was. I was mad that God had brought me so far down the path to priesthood, only to put up what seemed such an insurmountable roadblock. And so, on the advice of that priest, I dared to express that anger to God in prayer. And I discovered that God could handle it! Not only that, I found that God was with me, and was able to help me understand how I could use the pain I was experiencing to grow, and to be able to get around that block. Once I truly experienced my anger, and told God about it, it all seemed to get a little easier. I found meaning in my emotions, and I was confident that God—and I—knew all about what was happening inside me. I found a new depth of relationship with God. And I was less afraid.
In that encounter with God I came to see that this heart-breaking delay was the action of humans, and not of God. I just couldn’t see that God would create that kind of storm. But God was able to help me find my way through the storm, and God was able, ultimately, to calm it. I think it was the power of God that got me through it. You see, just like the disciples, my deliverance from the storm had nothing to do with my faith. I was rescued not because of who I am, but because of who God is.
I know that some of you are experiencing storms in your lives. Or to borrow another illustration from today’s readings, you may be facing a battle with a giant. These events are scary; they make us fearful. And while I don’t want to minimize in anyway the difficulty of a painful situation, I would like to suggest that, like the disciples, it is the fear induced by these events that is the most crippling. And if we are really honest, we know the significant role that fear plays in many of our decisions, actions, and conversations.
David Lose suggests that fear is what really underlies the disciples’ question to Jesus. He says, “Maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying?’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[iii]
And yet, even though they act out of fear, Jesus saves them anyway. What we learn here is that we don’t have to have perfect faith to receive God’s mercy. You can be paralyzed by fear, assume the worst about God, and still receive God’s mercy and grace. And through that mercy and grace you might even receive an invitation to greater faith.[iv]
It is our job as a Christian community to remind one another that God’s mercy and grace is always present. God will not abandon us. And as we remind each other and are reminded, we should rejoice that we are part of a long scriptural tradition. At critical moments throughout the Biblical narrative, angels, prophets, preachers, and apostles, and ordinary people say and hear four small but important words: Do Not Be Afraid.
Each time we say and hear these words we, like all those saints before us, get caught up in the Spirit of God and find the courage not just to survive, but to flourish; not just to live, but to live with abundance; and not just to get by, but to dare great things, expect great things, ask for great things, and share great things. [v]
We can do all this because we know the favor we enjoy in and through Christ, as Christ’s beloved. Our faith does not make the storms go away; but we can rest assured that God can calm the storm, and our fear.
There will be times when you feel like your boat is being swamped. And, when that happens, do not be afraid. Jesus does care. Jesus is there. Jesus will calm the storm.[vi] Amen.
[i] McKenzie, Alyce M. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Choppy-Seas-Alyce-McKenzie-06-15-2012.html, accessed 6/21/2012.
[ii] Stamper, Meda. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/24/2012&tab=4, accessed 6/21/2012.
[iii] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=598, accessed 6/21/2012.