WHY ARE YOU AFRAID?
A sermon given at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Loveland, Colorado on June 24, 2018 (Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But 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?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
- Mark 4:35-41
About 35 years ago, I was not a pastor. I was a normal person – a graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. While we lived there, we joined a church – First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ. Being a part of a church was still new for me, as was trying to understand what it meant to be a Christian. The Bible was very much a mystery to me. So I took an adult education class at the church on the Bible. It was taught by a retired Professor of Philosophy and Religion, who had once been a pastor himself for a while. Nora and Jan Smith knew him well. He was brilliant – it was sometimes hard for me to follow what he was talking about. But I do remember us reading and trying to understand this story of Jesus calming the storm. And I remember a comment he made, in reflecting on Jesus’ words to his disciples after he calmed the storm: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Emerson Shideler observed, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is fear.”
The opposite of faith is not doubt. Christian faith has often been equated with believing certain things – like the creation of the world is six days, or the virgin birth of Jesus, or the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. A person of faith was supposed to believe those things, and not doubt.
And, I must confess, I have some doubts about those things.
But my teacher got me thinking that faith is about something different, and much more profound. The opposite of faith is fear.
I know a lot of people – even church members – who live in fear. Like me. Some are afraid of not being loved, or failing, or rejection. Some are afraid of change, and what the future might bring. Some fear people who are different and who might be a threat to safety or life, or just an inconvenience. Some fear suffering, or death. I’m sure we all fear something.
What do you fear that influences your decisions about life?
One of the reasons I am a Christian is that I believe faith in God and Christ can help us face and overcome our fears. Faith is more like trust. If Jesus can calm the storms of life, what have I to fear? If God promises to provide for me and lead me through the unknown; if they have experienced suffering; if they have overcome even death – what have I to fear? I can live God’s ways, and follow Jesus, and not be afraid of the consequences.
This has become the cornerstone of my theology – my understanding of the good news of Jesus. It is why I believe the gospel is a great hope for helping people live better lives and making our world a better place. It is why I am a pastor.
I also have come to believe that what is true about individuals can also be true of groups – like churches. Remember I said a few weeks ago that in the gospels, the boat is a symbol of the church. This story from Mark is the story of the early Christian church, facing the storms of life as followers of Jesus. Churches can become afraid – of change, the future, of not having enough, of suffering, even of dying. Do you know any churches like that?
Fear can be paralyzing for a church – so that all folks think about is survival, rather than following Jesus. They may be united in their beliefs – able to recite everything they learned in Confirmation. But if they are gripped with fear, they may not be strong in faith.
I think faith must be developed over time – through spiritual exercise: learning to trust God in small things, so we can come to have trust in God with the big things. I have said this before, but one of the best ways to grow in faith is through the act of offering – of giving a part of our financial resources, or energy and time, to God. If we can extend ourselves beyond our comfort levels – having to trust that God will provide for us – I believe we will, indeed, be provided for and blessed. And we will grow in faith.
One of the interesting details of this story of Jesus calming the storm, which can be easily missed if we have no familiarity with first-century Judea, is that the journey in the boat was taking them from Capernaum in Galilee (their home country), across the Sea of Galilee to an area known as the Decapolis. That was Gentile country. The disciples and Jesus were leaving what was familiar to them – where they had a great deal of success according to the gospel of Mark – and going to a strange place outside their comfort zone. They were going out into the wider world, to minister to people with strange beliefs, strange customs, and different values. It was a risky venture. Maybe that is why the disciples were terrified – as much as by the storm.
Why would they do that – especially since there was plenty of need right where they were? After all, what is the expression – “charity begins at home?” The story doesn’t really say – except that there was need there as well. And Jesus told them to go.
And -- it turns out -- we learn more about ourselves and about God when we enter into relationship with people who are different from us. Maybe it was as much for the disciples’ good as the people they would encounter on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
This story could be the story of this church, as well. As I see it (and you may disagree with me), this church has had a great history for more than a hundred years of ministering to a particular group of people – those Volga Deutsch who came to Loveland more than a century ago, and who needed a piece of home in this strange country, where they weren’t always welcome. We have done a great job of helping people like us in need – just as Jesus and the disciples helped their own in Galilee.
But now, that need is not as urgent as it once was. Not many Russian-Germans immigrating here. Instead, Jesus may be asking us to take our boat – our church – to new places, to minister to other people in need. That can be scary. We may encounter storms along the way. We may encounter strange people – people we don’t even like, at first. It may be hard; it may cause some struggle and even suffering for us. But it may offer us life, as well. And life is struggle. Death is easy and comfortable; life is struggle.
How can we survive the storm-tossed journey? How can we overcome our fears?
Make sure we take Jesus along in the boat with us
Robert J. von Trebra